The Green River Festival held at Greenville Community College in Greenfield, MA on July 13-15 is my favorite “small” festival. With three stages of music over three days, it is packed with established and up and coming acts that can compete with any festival in the country. I call it the “little festival that could” as it more than pulls its weight. But, all little things grow up, and the same can be said for Green River. It has been getting bigger and bigger, but this was the first year that it felt like it moved into the ranks of a major festival.
The festival now sports sponsors at every stage (even at the new 4th pop up stage), 4 days of camping with special camping performers, a festival app (which was awful), an additional row of crafts vendors and even a misting tent. But the two components that put Green River in the big time are their decision to stop festival goers from bringing in their own alcohol, and most importantly, a “can’t miss” musical lineup. In fact, the quality of the acts caused this reviewer to experience FOMO for the first time at Green River because some of the acts were so good, they required committed to the full set and missing something equally intriguing at another stage. Clearly, this is a nice problem to have, but for the first time in recent memory, it was a constant internal battle despite the fact that you can get from any stage to any other in less than one song.
Friday at Green River is a little different than the rest of the weekend. The music runs from about 5 – 11pm, and although the Tea Guys main stage has a straightforward festival lineup, the Dean’s Beans stage dedicates Friday to all Latin acts and the Parlor Room stage features local teen bands exclusively.
Friday’s lineup at the Tea Guys stage was outstanding with the quartet Twisted Pine leading off the day with an hour of their beautifully harmonized and folk and bluegrass inspired originals like “I Miss Talking”, “Easton” and “Bound to Do It Right” and three inspired covers – The Cranberries’ “Dreams”, Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and The Beatles’ “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds”. Although this band seems unassuming with its smooth harmonies and laidback presentation, beware, they will have their hooks into you quickly making it impossible to leave the stage. They are a talented group of musicians who step up at different times to drive the music with a pull of the bow (Kathleen Parks on violin), a pick moving expertly across a tiny distance (Dan Bui on mandolin), a strum of the guitar (Rachel Sumner on acoustic guitar), the sneaky insertion of a jazz or funk riff (Chris Sartori on upright bass), or an explosion of harmony (all four of them).
Amy Helm was up next and also delivered an impressive set. She has been trying out lots of different sounds over the years since her band Ollabelle split up, but this was the set that she seemed to feel most comfortable in her own musical skin. Her set was full numbers that allowed her voice to drive the rocking blues songs, touch the audience with her spirituals (“Gloryland”), and convey the importance of the musical message of Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can”. Her set put this reviewer back on the Amy Helm bandwagon.
Birds of Chicago played the next hour set to the amazement and awe of the crowd. For those who have not seen them, they are a band fronted by the husband and wife duo of Allison Russell and JT Nero. They were dialed in from the start and played one amazing song after the other. The first thing you notice about the band is Allison’s vocals (it isn’t overstating it to put her in the top 10 vocalists on the road), and JT’s songwriting and stage banter (he does shine in those areas). But, don’t sleep on Steve Dawson’s expert lead guitar, Allison’s clarinet or JT’s vocals either. They all combine with the bass and keys to create a group of songs and a shared experience that is truly unforgettable. Go see them when the next play near you.
The evening was closed out by Josh Ritter who played a strong 90-minute set that rocked the audience and was only partially diluted by the impact of the first three bands.
The Parlor Room stage featured four solid teen bands: Glass House, Moxie, Not Yet and Raspberry Jam. All four bands featured young, talented musicians playing good original songs. With all the talent being presented on the main stage, this reviewer didn’t get enough of a look to go into too much detail, but saw enough to look out for a live show to see in the near future. The tent was packed most of the night by happy teens and proud adults the only words of advice have are: for the performers – look up from your instruments more; and for the young teen crowd – it is time to start using deodorant.
Saturday brought a sold-out crowd and a relentlessly hot day with the temperature in the high 80s and not much breeze or shade to be found. Standouts of the day were Old Flame, Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express, Birds of Chicago, Lucy Dacus, Jack Broadbent, Yes Darling, the Mammals, Bella’s Bartok, the Revelers, Deer Tick, and Michael Franti and Spearhead.
The first band up was Old Flame, the alt rock band fronted by Emma Ayres in her rust colored corduroy jumpsuit. Her songs were mostly social skewering of neo-conservatism in this country, but as scathing as the lyrics were, they were delivered with a sense of hope and unity. Her performance was as close to edgy rock as this festival gets, and her attitude was as honest and genuine as a performer can be. At one point one of the straps of her jumpsuit snapped, threatening some sort of wardrobe malfunction, but without missing a beat, or stepping out of the intensity of the performance she wrapped the broken strap around her neck and exclaimed one of the best lines of the weekend, “this jumpsuit was not made for rock and roll!”
Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express played a great 90-minute set that was packed with charming stage banter and polished rock and roll songs. He (on guitar and vocals and sporting an electric blue suit) and his partner Stephanie Finch (keys and back-up vocals) did a nice job of mixing his old favorites with his new material. They live in San Francisco and their songs are so rooted in Bay area characters and images, that after a set, you feel like you might have grown up there yourself. If you are looking for an “all-in” rock and roll show, go see them.
Birds of Chicago played their third set of the weekend (including a surprise set on the pop-up stage) in the Parlor Room tent. This show was just as mesmerizing as their Friday set, but felt a little more special and the audience felt a little more fortunate given the intimate setting of the Parlor Room tent.
Lucy Dacus played textured, edgy folk rock (if that is even a thing) on the main stage. Her voice is full of expression which makes her vocals stick with you. Jack Broadbent played good traditional slide guitar blues using his flask as a slide for most of the set. Both were nice surprises to this reviewer’s ears. The Mammals (nee the Mike and Ruth Band, nee the Mammals) and The Revelers both played good sets that kept the crowd moving through the hot, sticky air. Yes Darling featured Ryan Montbleau and Hayley Jane played a set that was equal parts performance art and classic songwriting. The performance is much like a play in which the couple goes through clever banter and eventually couples therapy through introducing and singing their songs, the cleverest of which is about the joys and perils of an open relationship. It sounds forced, but it is done really well and will keep you laughing and musically entertained at the same time. Bella’s Bartok is another band that features a good amount of performance art. The raucous gypsy band features high spirited sing-alongs, giant papier-mache heads and a pair of dancers in monster costumes. Those patrons who committed and dove into the partying crowd were rewarded with a wonderful, albeit exhausting, experience.
All of these bands were great, but there could have been no better finale that the one turned in by Michael Franti and Spearhead. It is impossible to leave a Michael Franti show without feeling more connected to humanity and without vowing to be a better person. Michael spends more time immersed in the crowd than he does on stage. He has a palpable need to connect with his audiences physically and spiritually. He opened up the show by sharing the stage with a young fan who couldn’t have been more than 6 years old and singing “the Sound of Sunshine” together. Kids get brought on stage a lot by other acts, but Michael actually shared the stage and vocals with the child in an extremely honest way.
The opening number turned out to be a foreshadowing as he brought out 19-year-old Victoria Canal, a young singer whose music popped into his Instagram feed one day. He and Victoria shared the stage for most of the night and he featured her in a genuine and significant way. Her strong torchy vocals and enthusiastic spirit helped carry the night’s performance. They even performed a song they wrote together called “Flower in the Gun” which features Victoria singing the piercing lyrics, “what could I say to any woman who was ever told by a man don’t try to reach too high, what could I say to any girl that was betrayed and told to keep the pain locked inside.” The chorus feels like an antidote to all the violence going on in the world today. Normally half the crowd sneaks off towards the end of the closer’s set to beat the traffic and get an early start home. That was not the case as most of the crowd stayed through the last note and exited into the night inspired to actually make the world a better place.
Sunday brought another hot and sticky day with temperatures in the 90s and standout performances by the Ballroom Thieves, Chuck Prophet and Strings, The Brother Brothers, Chris Smither, and Old Crow Medicine Show.
Ballroom Thieves played a set overflowing with harmonies and layers that featured songs that reminded this reviewer of the band Brown Bird, and others that delivered on the style of music that Mumford and Sons walked up to, but never quite nailed. Chuck Prophet played a quieter gig in the Parlor Room tent backed by Stephanie Finch’s reserved, but essential back-up vocals and a local string quartet that he picked up for the show. He charmed the crowd with his impish grin, clever comments, great songs and guitar chops.
The Brother Brothers also filled the Parlor Room tent with original folk songs which featured outstanding harmonies and drifted a little toward the country side of things. They alternated among cello, fiddle and guitar and seemed to earn a number of new fans in the audience. They were followed by Chris Smither who was accompanied by David Goodrich on guitars (some of which had only one string) and Billy Conway on drums. Chris was his usual charismatic self, weaving through songs and stories that kept the audience so attentive that you could hear the gnat wings flapping in the tent.
The festival was brought to a close by the all-out country/folk/bluegrass party that is Old Crow Medicine Show. They got the crowd dancing on their opening song and kept the frenzy going into the relatively cool hours of the evening.
All in all, it was another great weekend at Green River – make your plans and reservations soon because this festival is definitely moving up in the ranks.