I first discovered James Joel six years ago when he was playing with Ryan Fuller in the duo group Fuller n’ the Hole at Center Street Saloon in Rutland, during my Monday night bar shift, which we referred to as “Mayhem Mondays.” Joel has really progressed over the years and has built a nice solo business for himself. You can catch him every Saturday night at the Highline Lodge, and this Friday he will be playing at Slopeside Bar & Grille—both in Killington.
Joel grew up in New Haven, Conn. and first started playing guitar when he was in the seventh grade. One of his friends starting playing so he wanted to be able to play with them. “I started getting into music at that point and I’m a child of the 90’s. I like Bush, Oasis, Counting Crows and Dave Matthews. I was getting into the music thing and Nirvana was big back then, too.”
He started with music like that and got kind of good because the music was simple. His aunt Cathy gave him his grandfather’s guitar—a 1962 Les Paul—for his 14th birthday. Once she found out that someone in the family had an interest in guitar she passed that guitar on to Joel. Joel never had the opportunity to meet his grandfather, but his guitar was the family heirloom and Joel felt honored to have been given it. His aunt saw something of her father in Joel and that was the reason she passed it on. That was the first decent guitar he ever had. “Trying to learn the songs that I liked was my main motivation. I was playing along to CD’s. Early on I got an Eric Clapton CD and that sparked my interest in learning how to play the classics.”
His aunt Cathy was a big influence for him. She played classical guitar every once in a while. She had a huge record collection, about 30 or 40 milk crates full. Right before Joel started high school, he spent the summer with her. She was big into concerts and took Joel to the Meadows Music Theatre in Hartford, Conn. quite a bit. He saw Steve Miller, the Who’s “Quadrophenia” tour, Fleetwood Mac… all the classics. “We went a lot, it was kind of our thing. She got me into the classic rock scene. She introduced me to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Led Zeppelin. The first time I heard “Houses of the Holy” was at her place. She really got me into that genre of music. That really pushed me into playing.”
Joel’s mom was a singer and loved music and his dad was a drummer. His cousin Sam is a drummer and Joel has been able to play professionally with him in Boston. Of all of these musicians, Joel is really the only one in his family to make a career out of it. When his aunt saw them both playing together it really came full circle for her.
Joel came to Vermont in 2008. He met Ryan Fuller at an open mic and started a duo with him. They had always toyed with the idea of playing together, and one day Joel showed up with a guitar and it just clicked. They played together for three or four years doing bars and base lodges. Joel was still getting into his acoustic act and had not yet done a solo act. He only had a small handful of songs.
He started playing at the Santa Fe and the Outback [in Killington] and that’s when he started doing his own stuff and expanded his repertoire. He also had the opportunity to play with Myk Sno, who was a big influence on Joel. Sno taught him how to cultivate a show and how to present himself. “Myk had this style about him and this aura and he was always so encouraging. I never thought I had a good voice but Myk said I did and encouraged me to work on it. He told me to practice my voice and practice guitar and the more I work on it, the better it will get. He really helped me get going.”
As Joel got more solo gigs, so did Ryan Fuller and they stopped the duo to focus on their solo careers. Joel recalls his first solo gig at the Outback to be quite disastrous. Laughing, he says, “Looking back at it now, it was rough. I only had 20 songs to play with; most of them were not pulled off very well. Fortunately they kept hiring me back and I was able to get every Saturday at the Ludlow Outback.” I was pleased with how Joel progressed and was able to get him gigs in Burlington and Boston and he always played to rave reviews.
Joel puts out a song list for the crowd to pick from and he says that list is always changing. He’ll take an old one and try it again or have one that he’s played too much and off it goes. The list is there to give people an idea of what he plays. He’ll play whatever the people want to hear. Sometimes he’ll get a request for something not on the list and he’ll give it a try, although he’s not always psyched to play it. “I’ll play it once and maybe not feel like I can pull it off the way I want to. I get a little discouraged but it’s those songs that I bring back to get better.” The list is most of the songs that Joel likes to listen to, not necessarily what the people like. “It’s hard, sometimes I’ll play a song that nobody knows and they love it but sometimes I play a song that I think will be great and the response is not.”
Joel loves music but says he couldn’t just play in his bedroom. It’s playing out and seeing people’s reactions that he really loves. “Maybe they like the way I do a song. It’s really about the audience. If there’s nobody in there it can be really tough and the night can drag but when people are there and into it, there’s a feeling about it that’s pretty indescribable. It’s just a nice feeling knowing people are enjoying the things that you enjoy. It’s really the patrons that are there that keep me afloat and keep my spirits up. When there’s a room full of people just loving what you’re doing it’s really inspirational. It keeps me coming back for more.”
Joel encourages you to like local music. “We do this for not just a paycheck. It’s something that we love to share and that’s why we do it on a stage and not in our bedrooms, basements or garages. It’s nice to see everyone out there. It’s something that we love and we love to share with everyone.”