So the Green River Festival is all grown up, but don’t worry, it still has enough small festival feel to retain its charm. After its 31st year, the three-stage, three-day festival now put on by Signature Sounds has come of age as one of its acts, Lake Street Dive, has gotten big enough to headline the festival. Other Signature Sounds Acts that performed at this year’s edition July 14-16 were: The Suitcase Junket, Twisted Pine, The Sweetback Sisters, and The Dustbowl Revival. Although a majority of the acts are from the area, the festival still draws roots rock from other regions. This year there was a strong contingent from New Orleans as The Deslondes, Tank and the Bangas, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, The Funky Meters and Sweet Crude all represented. The festival takes place on a beautiful open green tract of land at Greenfield Community College. There is one big stage situated at the top of a hill called the Green River Stage. It has a standing area up front followed by a chair and blanket zone followed by an umbrella/shade tent section in the back. Down the grassy hill are the Four Rivers Stage, the Parlor Room (a tent sometime open and sometimes pre-lined with chairs) and a new stage for kids called KB Whirly’s Magical Musical House.
There are a number of things about this festival that make it a crowd favorite. Most importantly is the local feel. Most of the people who attend seem to come from the local New England area. The festival’s lead sponsor is a very local business – The Tea Guys, from Watley MA and beer is provided by Berkshire Brewing. But nowhere is the commitment to locals more apparent than the large number of local, up-and-coming musicians who are invited to play. In fact, the festival dedicated one of its three stages on Friday night to five local bands (Paper City Exile, Kalliope Jones, Court Etiquette, Nomad vs Settler and Parlicium) who are 18 and under – and they were all really good. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “you mean good for a kids’ band, right?” but, they were all good enough that I’d pay to see them if they came to NYC. They all played complex original music and commanded the stage. One standout in this reviewer’s opinion was the Brattleboro band Nomad vs Settler featuring a deep-voiced 13 year-old female lead singer. Give them a listen and tell me that she doesn’t have the goods.
Another component that makes this festival so enjoyable is the commitment to the environment. The lush green grass makes it the only festival where one can go barefoot the entire time. One of the sponsors, Klean Kanteen, provides free filtered water stations to re-fill water bottles and containers of any kind – it is a really nice touch. Nearly all of the food containers, including the “plastic” utensils and even the beer cups are compostable. They even sell re-usable souvenir cups for beer; unfortunately due to health code regulations, the beer vendors can’t re-fill them. Much of the food vendors feature local sustainable products ranging from the Beet Box which features organic vegan burgers and sliders, tempeh reubens and Tempeh BLTs, to Papa Dogs which serves burgers and dogs with no added nitrates or artificial coloring – if memory serves, they even show photos of their free-range livestock. Lastly, the festival is car-pool, bike and shuttle bus crazy. There are limited parking spaces on campus and the festival implores many to park in a free parking area about ¾ of a mile away and ride to and from the festival on a free shuttle bus. There is also a bike valet to encourage folks to bike in.
The third component that makes this festival so compelling is the commitment to kids and families. Aside from the kid’s music stage, there is a kid’s art tent in which kids can paint and draw to their heart’s desire; a kids gaming room featuring games made out of wood (ring toss, shape sorting, etc); a daily parade; hot air balloons to run inside of; a large grassy field to play soccer, football, Frisbee, tag or baseball; a swimming pond; and most importantly, a giant hill to roll down repeatedly. Throw in free admission for kids, the family camping area and you have a great weekend for the whole family.
And speaking of balloons, the hot air balloons are integral to the festival. Both tethered and full launch rides are available. And they are on-site smack in the middle of the festival the whole time. Whether it’s allowing kids to run around inside them while they’re being assembled or watching them get filled courtesy of giant blow torches that make one understand the science of “hot air” balloons or watching the light show the seven giant balloons perform as the day turns to night, you can’t ignore them. For gosh sakes, they even have names and a page in the program! And even as one forgets about them, they just appear – on the horizon, in the sky, floating over the crowd. Even the crowd was inspired releasing wish lanterns, the DIY version of hot air balloons, into the night during the JRAD set.
Now for the music:
Friday is an abbreviated day at the festival with music running from 5 to 10:40 pm. There was a rain so light that it seemed one only got wet if one walked into the tiny mist particles suspended in mid-air, but it was probably something less magical about it. The standout performers on Friday were Nomads vs Settlers, Court Etiquette, Pedrito Martinez and the Mavericks. I know it may be surprising to put two eighteen and under bands ahead of an established and popular Mavericks act, but they were just that good. Nomad vs Settler played a full 45-minute set that was packed with intricate jazzy rock originals fronted by lead singer, Rei Kimura who is only 14 and commands a deep and powerfully warm voice. The music is driven by 15 year-old Archer Parks who plays mostly lead guitar, but switched to the bass for one intricate number. The band has real chops and writes some great songs. Unfortunately, as one of the mothers explained, “this is a great experience for them, socially and musically, but there is practically no chance that a middle/high school band can stay together. They will all go to different colleges at different times and that is too hard to overcome, but it is really great for them as long as it lasts.” My bet is you’ll be hearing more from them (at least individually) in a number of years – so see them while you can. Court Etiquette’s five piece laid back brand of indie rock also played well to the crowd. They played mostly originals and showed poise, stage presence and musical cohesiveness. The only amusing moment was when the lead singer tried to finish his set with a stage dive – let’s just say that the crowd of teenagers didn’t have the experience or the muscle to make it a successful endeavor.
If Cuban congas are your thing, then the Pedrito Martinez Group is your band. Pedrito is becoming somewhat of a regular on the festival circuit and has an uncanny command of the congas. It is amazing to see and hear the complex rhythms he seems to put out so effortlessly. He closed the stage in strong fashion. Meanwhile, up the hill on the main stage, Raul Malo’s outfit, The Mavericks, was giving the crowd a dose of tex-mex Americana that they craved. The crowd had been primed by the old time rock and roll sounds of Big Al Anderson, the lead guitar man in NRBQ. Malo’s smooth voice lead this very professional band through an hour and forty minute set of mostly original tunes. The crowd seemed to be rocking out and singing along. It almost felt as though we were in a Texas border town sitting around a campfire. The one piece that kept reminding us that this was a show at a music festival in the Boston area was pianist Jerry Dale McFadden who wore a Kelly green suit and resembled a happy leprechaun who had been stretched out to normal human male height. Malo called Big Al up to the stage to join the band for the finale. The whole crowd was looking forward to hearing Big Al add a few sensational guitar solos to the Mavericks sound, but he was thwarted by being handed an acoustic guitar with a strap that was so long that he never seemed to get comfortable.
Friday night back at the campsite held some added treats in store for the campers. For one, Florence’s Pie Bar remained open well into the night. In addition, there was a very sweet jam session by an artificial camp fire featuring members of Twisted Pine, some of their friends and some random campers. The folk songs officially went until the 1am curfew, but there is a strong possibility that certain people hung out and played after the official last call.
Saturday morning, Twisted Pine, a young acoustic folk quartet who met at the Berklee College of Music, played a heartfelt early-morning set. They demonstrated a great deal of camaraderie and flexibility in trying out a series of old and new songs and even featured the two male members on solo vocals on a few numbers, something they said rarely happens during their shows. Dan Bui, the mandolinist prefaced his song saying he felt comfortable singing in front of a crowd, “because we all camped together so we are all in this together.” They finished the hour set promising that they had left some surprises up their sleeves for their Parlor Room Stage show.
Saturday at the festival started with a very long line to get in as fans had lined up early. If there is one logistical issue the festival needs to work out is getting in and out of the festival with more ease. In any case, the skies were clear and it was sunny and hot. The festival was sold out, but it rarely felt crowded. Saturday’s musical standouts were The Suitcase Junket, Twisted Pine, and The Deslondes. Matt Lorenz, the man behind The Suitcase Junket played two outstanding performances. For those that have never seen him, Matt plays all the instruments in this very unique one-man-band project featuring found and recycled instruments. His right heel keeps the beat on an old suitcase that he sits upon. His right toe alternates between a high hat and a medieval looking box of silverware and bones. His right toe controls a baby shoe hitting a gas can and his right heel controls a mallet alternates between a cookpot and a circular saw. Above the waist, he plays and sometimes sings into, an old guitar that he found in a dumpster. In addition his right hand plays an old Casio keyboard that has a restriction of only playing two keys at a time. Rounding out the ensemble is a great voice coupled with a two-toned singing/whistling noise he discovered while driving from gig to gig. His first set was on the main stage in which he played all originals. In the second set he was joined by his sister for the last two songs which was delightful. Matt isn’t just a good musician for a one man band, he is worth seeing and makes music that sticks with you.
Twisted Pine made their Green River Festival debut in the Parlor Room tent. They feature beautifully written songs delivered with perfectly layered harmonies on top of intricately layered acoustic stringed instruments – Rachel Sumner on guitar, Kathleen Parks on fiddle, Dan Bui on mandolin and Chris Sartori on upright bass. They all seem to be accomplished musicians, but Dan, plays mandolin solos as well as anyone this reviewer has seen. Their music centers on acoustic folk and bluegrass, but some of their numbers have a swing or even a rock feel that distinguishes them from other bands of the same genre. Kathleen and Rachel trade off lead vocals on most of their songs, but when one is singing lead, the other harmonizes in just the right places to add even more warmth and feeling to their vocals. Although all their songs were great, the three that stood out were, “Bound to Do it Right (the Jersey City Song)”, “Hold On Me” and “Easton”. Keep an eye for them, they really are special.
The Deslondes met in Louisiana and have been a working band for the last few years. They play a mix of folk and what I can only describe as country and western swing. The band features two acoustic guitars, an upright bass, a drummer who stands in front of a kick drum and hugs a snare in his left arm and a fifth musician who alternates among pedal steel, fiddle and electric guitar. The band members trade off on lead vocals and most support the choruses with harmonies. They are completely unassuming, but once they start playing you can’t help but start looking for a dance partner.
Locals, Hammydown and Sun Parade, put on solid indie rock performances with Hammydown leaning a bit more toward rock and Sun Parade leaning more toward pop. Industry and festival favorites Lake Street Dive put on a good performance, but it lacked the energy and oomph of their previous set at the Clearwater festival. Darlingside played beautifully blended harmonies that were reminiscent of Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Sweetback Sisters played a fun set of vocal led bluegrass in the Parlor Room Tent. Pokey Lafarge also did a nice job and thanked the audience for supporting his “strange” style of music over the years; ironically, if you could get past the Pee Wee Herman resemblance, his music was quite normal for this festival.
Dan Bern played a fun original called “Adderal Holiday” which featured a chorus that brought smiles and a few chuckles to the audience. “Gonna take an Adderal holiday, gonna just let down for a couple days, gonna take an Adderal holiday. Gonna have some old time sweet dreams, gonna just walk around eatin ice cream, gonna take an Adderal holiday.” Theresa Williams and Larry Campbell turned in their usual professional performance which focused on the good times they had playing with and around Levon Helm. Amadou and Mariam did a nice job of bringing their music from Mali to a crowd that was appreciative and unfamiliar with their sound. They started way late but immediately launched into a long instrumental intro and a trancey African vibe was set. In fact the whole day helped to demonstrate how many talented musicians there are at this festival.
Two other New Orleans Acts; Tank and the Bangas and Big Sam’s Funky Nation got warm receptions from the crowd. There has been a lot of hype regarding Tank and the Bangas ever since they won that NPR Tiny Desk Concert contest. Although many members of the audience loved them, this reviewer couldn’t get into them and retreated to Twisted Pine. Big Sam also drew an enthusiastic crowd, but although he can really play, he relied on too much schtick in his act.
The biggest disappointment came from Houndmouth. The Indiana-based band had put out two amazing records in 2013 and 2015 respectively. They were among the darlings of the indie music world with performances on Letterman, Conan, Bonnaroo, the Newport Folk Festival and others. They were playful, irreverent, wrote great songs and had really strong harmonies. Then in 2016, Katie Toupin, who played keyboards and sang, left the band. The band re-grouped and added Caleb Hickman on keys and subsequently added two saxophones to round out the sound. As a Houndmouth fan, I was really looking forward to hearing their new sound as they have been holed up in California writing and recording songs for their new album. All I can say is that they looked like a band whose confidence was shaken. And while they had changed the tempo and rhythm of many songs that was interesting, they seemed to play everything a fraction of a beat slow, lacked their usual exuberance and swagger, and the horns seemed to take the edge off the music. Mid-set they played “Say It” which had a different swing to it but finally during the screaming chorus one could feel the old energy of Houndmouth. They tried a new one, possibly called Sweet Distraction, and while it was fine, the keys just added a weird distraction to the song. To top it off, when they had some extra time to play an encore, they declined, informing the stage manager that they didn’t know any more songs. They hadn’t played live for months and had just flown in on a red-eye, so let’s hope it was just an off day.
Back at the campground, there were more pies, some more revelry and even a formal square dance that lasted well into the wee hours.
Sunday brought more hot temperatures and a new wave of Grateful Dead fans who had made the trip to see Joe Russo’s Almost Dead or JRAD. People wore their love for the Dead on their sleeves… and on their chests, ears, and heads. In fact the Dead paraphernalia was so extensive that the Turn It Up record booth had a fresh stock of Dead live shows for purchase (there must have been 30 separate recordings).
In any case, Sunday’s bands that distinguished themselves were: Parsonsfield, The Dustbowl Revival, Mandolin Orange, and River Whyless.
Parsonsfield has been playing the Green River Festival for years and in earlier days was called Poor Old Shine. They are a group of five musicians who met at the University of Connecticut and who play emotive and expressive folk and bluegrass songs using a variety of instruments. Chris Freeman and Max Shakun hold down most of the vocal duties and seem to supply most of the energy. Antonio Alcorn alternates among specialty mandolins -one more beautiful than the other – and sports the best stage beard since ZZ Top. Their music ebbs and flows between emotive ballads featuring a pump organ or musical saw and manically paced bluegrass numbers with Chris bounding around on stage with his banjo and Max’s long curly hair flying threatening collision with everything around him. Go catch them if they play near you. They may also win the award for most unique instruments. The minute the musical saw was deployed by Chris, it was as though a coded message had been sent to all parents and kids were instantly hoisted up on shoulders to see the spectacle. But earlier in the set, the drummer employed a old-school cassette deck to wire in “ambient sounds they had recorded”. And Antonio used a small hand fan to strum his mandolin during “Weeds or Wild Flowers”.
The Dustbowl Revival held down the second slot on the main stage, following a great set by the talented band Twisted Pine, which this reviewer has raved about previously. Dustbowl in an eclectic eight-piece band mostly from California. The band plays catchy songs that feel as they are straight out of the American songbook. Their songs range from sultry jazzy tunes like “Busted”, to old-timey numbers like “Debtor’s Prison”, to heartfelt ballads like “Honey I Love You” to party tunes that feel like the soundtrack to a Charlie Chaplin movie like “Lampshade On”. Like most good bands, different members stand out at different times, but Liz Beebe on lead vocals, trombonist Ulf Bjorlin and Conner Vance on fiddle really separate themselves.
Mandolin Orange took the Four Rivers stage as a duo and before this reviewer looked up from his notebook, they had turned into a five piece band as though by mitosis. Although there were five people on the stage, it was dominated by the duo of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz. Andrew writes the songs and sings a majority of the lead as he has a wonderfully warm and soothing voice. Emily provides spot-on sustaining harmonies and some violin or guitar backing.
River Whyless closed out the Parlor Room tent to much fanfare. This quartet that met at Appalachian State and now live in Asheville, played with a lot of sincerity and passion in their closing set. Halli Anderson plays fiddle, sings a lot of the lead vocals and provides most of the stage banter. Ryan O’Keefe plays guitar and sings, Daniel Sheanin plays bass, harmonium and sings, and Alex McWalters holds down the beat on the drum kit. For their final song, they donned pussy hats and launched into CCR’s “Fortunate Son”, and then encored with Woody Guthrie’s “Airline To Heaven”. You’ll find lots of earnest and skilled harmonies, but the songs are not straightforward and simple, they are pleasantly challenging.
The Infamous Stringdusters were billed as a straight ahead bluegrass band, but on hearing this five piece acoustic band, they had more of a country and singer/songwriter feel than expected, and delivered a strong, high-energy set. The Funky Meters took the Green River Stage and treated the largely Deadhead crowd to a solid dose of funk. They played their hits, “Africa”, “Cissy Strut”, “Fire on the Bayou” and others. The band is held together by George Porter Jr. who is one of the best and most well-respected bass players in the world. The band is suffering a little as Art Neville, the founder and keyboard player for the band is in poor health and can be challenged in keeping up, however, it is so heartwarming to see him playing that what they lose musically is more than made up for spiritually.
Chicano Batman played a fair set at the Four Rivers stage. They play a style of retro soul with a lead vocal mostly delivered in falsetto that didn’t connect with this reviewer, but did with many members of the crowd. Meanwhile, most of the afternoon at the Parlor Room tent was taken up by different side projects of the members of Lake Street Dive who played back-to-back sets: Madam Uncle featuring Lake Street Dive drummer Mike Calabrese and guitarist/trumpeter Mike Olson along with first up act Lyle Brewer; Bridget Kearney the bassist; and leader singer Rachel Price & Vilray. It was interesting to see the band members doing their own thing, but Lake Street Dive is clearly better than the sum of its parts.
So what about JRAD? The band had some great moments where they jammed and sounded more like a rock band, but also had some low points and got a bit noodley and sounded like a cover band that didn’t seem to be going anywhere especially late in the set “Ramble On Rose”, “Good Lovin”, and “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad”. Overall, it is obvious they are talented musicians and if there is one Dead offshoot band you are going to see, JRAD is the most dynamic and interesting. The vocals are quite secondary, it is all about the instrumental interplay. If one judged them by the enthusiasm of the crowd, they would be considered the best act of the festival as many devotees spent the entire two hour and fifteen minute set dancing their faces off to conclude a wonderful mid-July weekend at the Green River Music Festival.