By Montague Gammon III

A Grammy winning singer-songwriter from New England, a finger pickin’ multi-instrument virtuoso from Northern Virginia, and a sibling-led bluegrass band from the tiny musical hotbed of Floyd, in Appalachian Virginia, walk into the  Virginia Arts Festival Perry Pavilion June 1 and…

And this is not a joke. It describes the early evening culmination of the Arts Festival’s day-long series of musical events called Light in the Eastern Sky, curated by Aoife O’Donovan, the Grammy winner. (One win, followed by four more nominations. Her Irish first name, which reflects both her ancestry and her musical heritage, is pronounced EE fuh.)

Her voice, found online, soaring, plaintive, compelling, O’Donovan accompanying herself on guitar or teamed with other musicians, sings of old romances and of proud parenthood and family, of injustices newly recognized or old and unresolved, and of struggles for the rights of the marginalized and the disenfranchised.

O’Donovan earned her 2020 Grammy along with Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz, who make up the ten year old. three woman group I’m With Her. Their co-written “Call My Name” was cited as Best American Roots Song.

The Northern Virginia virtuoso of various guitars and other strings is Yasmin Williams. She’s a composer as well as an instrumentalist, as befits someone with a degree in composition and music theory from NYU.

O’Donovan, herself an alumna of the New England Conservatory of Music, said of Williams: “She’s really been making waves in the acoustic and folk scenes for her incredible virtuosity on all different types of acoustical guitars. She plays solos, she plays instrumental music, it’s just unique. She’s an absolutely virtuosic guitar player and we have collaborated many times over the years.”

Vocalists and instrumentalists Elisha Wildman and his sister Aila are the core of the award winning band The Wildmans. He graduated from Boston’s Berklee School of Music; she’s attending the same school while touring. Their band has won First Place awards at a couple of bluegrass festivals, and Eli has a good seven or eight best fiddler/mandolin player awards himself. Aila won the Best All Around Performer award at the Galax Old Fiddler’s Convention when she was just 15 (!).

“I’ve done a couple of shows with them in ‘20 and ‘22,” said O’Donovan, “and really love their energy and their vibe. It’s really fun to work with younger musicians and showcase them.”

The Wildman’s hometown of Floyd, population 432, is about 28 miles down Virginia State Route 615 from Blacksburg. It’s the county seat of Floyd County, pop. 15,476, which is a little less than half the undergraduate enrollment of Virginia Tech, those 7 leagues plus 1 mile up the road.

Wikipedia says of Floyd County, “In the 1960s and 1970s, Floyd proved popular with people in the era’s counterculture,” which according to a documentary on YouTube, is the genesis of its extraordinarily rich musical culture. Music venues and festivals flourish there. To quote Wiki again, “The Town of Floyd is becoming known as a regional destination for music, especially bluegrass music, and old-time music.”

 It seems that a fair number of hippies who wanted to get closer to nature headed to Floyd during and after the folk revival of the 1960’. They, along with their aesthetic and figurative and even literal descendants, have given the tiny town and small county a place on the national and even international music scene.

O’Donovan “grew up in a very musical household,” in Cambridge, Mass. Her Irish-born father “had a folk music show on WGBH.” He and Aoife’s American-born mother were both musicians, so she “grew playing music. It was always around me, it was a very natural thing.”

She continued, “I grew up spending all my summers in Ireland and singing music of my parents’ generation and just getting into folk music and bluegrass. I really got into bluegrass when I got into college and I was sort of fascinated by the folk revival of the 60’s…the music of the people just fascinated me.”

The Wildmans, comprised of the namesake Floyd-born siblings plus other musicians, will kick off the Light in the Eastern Sky evening performances, O’Donovan said. Those performances, beginning at 5:30, come at the close of a busy day of workshops and jams, which will also involve musicians from Hampton Roads. Details are still being finalized as of our telephone interview – she mentioned “an old time jam” at an unnamed pub – or are being held for now.

O’Donovan does not release set lists before a concert, nor did she detail who exactly would join whom. “We’re going to keep those things a surprise.”

“It’s sort of my day to bring and  showcase musicians that have deep Virginia roots and that are sort of connected to  my musical world.”

Expect her sets to include Williams and The Wildmans. She also says that she is doing a “rare” duo set with her cellist husband, Eric Jacobs. Jacobs is also co-founder with his brother Colin of The Knights, a “flexible in size and repertory,” according to their website, forward thinking orchestra based in their the Jacobsen’s native  NYC. (Two Grammy nominations so far.)

Jacobsen is included in Light in the Eastern Sky not only because he’s O’Donovan’s husband,  but also because of his professional Virginia connection: Music Director of the Virginia Symphony.

When O’Donovan speaks of “the music of the people,” she inadvertently links her musical heritage, and her 21st Century Light in the Eastern Sky event, with another Arts Festival Event: Apollo’s Fire performance of early Baroque music called Coffee Houses of 1610. The connection is not just that the venue of the coffee house was at the heart of both the American folk revival and of the European Early Baroque. Early Baroque and Appalachian folk music share a clear similarity of sound worlds, and Early Baroque and folk music of any era share an intent: reaching people on an intimate level, physically and emotionally.



Aoife O’Donovan

Light in the Eastern Sky

Presented by Virginia Arts Festival

A day of music and workshops curated by Aoife O’Donovan

Featuring Aoife O’Donovan & Eric Jacobsen, Yasmin Williams, & The Wildmans.

June 1

Perry Pavilion