The 2019 edition of the Green River Festival took place last weekend (July 12-14, 2019) at Greenfield Community College (MA) and with 15,000 in attendance, a stellar lineup and ease of access it was a raging success on all fronts. So, what else makes this festival so great? There are several answers:
- It is held in a beautiful setting – The fields of Greenfield Community College covered with thick, soft grass; surrounded by healthy trees; and monitored by even lusher, greener mountains provide for a wonderful festival experience. It is practically impossible to resist the urge to slip off one’s shoes and place one’s feet in the cool grass; in fact, it is one of the few festivals that one can experience completely barefoot.
- It is a very manageable festival – There are only three stages (four if you count the pop-up Green House stage), and one can get from any stage to any other with a short two-minute walk. With so few stages it is possible to see every performer if one is so inclined. The food is varied and good with plenty of healthy and “unhealthy” options. In addition, the festival feels well-attended without ever feeling crowded. The staff does a great job of restricting the number of tickets sold, so even on sold-out days, there are rarely long lines, crowded spaces or short tempers. In fact, people never seem to be in a hurry, not even to get a good spot upfront, because there is so much room. Lastly, Green River is extremely family-friendly. There are kids stages and activities; places to set up shade tents in the back; a big field to run around, play frisbee, learn to hula hoop or swing in hammocks; and a big grassy hill to roll down. Small packs of kids of all ages roam around the festival, and because there is essentially only one entrance/exit, it feels extremely safe.
- It is chocked full of talented performers – The festival staff does a great job of booking acts that may not be household names, but are world-class talents. This year’s bands seemed to feature amazing vocalists, beautiful harmonies, or superbly energetic performers.
- There is a real sense of community – I did not hear one snark word spoken over the three days, but saw countless examples of people helping each other out (picking up a dropped hat, retrieving an errant frisbee, moving to another seat so friends could sit together, or offering helpful advice regarding which bands or foods one should try. Most remarkably, nearly every piece of garbage was picked up by festival-goers. It was heartwarming to see that at the end of each night that the festival grounds looked almost as clean as they had at the beginning of the day.
Now for the music. Friday’s schedule ran from 5 to 11pm and although the forecast called for rain, not a drop fell. Upstate (formerly known as Upstate Rubdown) started off the evening with their tight harmonies and light spirit illustrated by the whimsically non-matching jumpsuits worn by their three lead female performers. However, there were three acts on Friday that stood out to this reviewer.
Born IV Blues amazed the crowd in their 40-minute set on the Parlor Room stage. They played inspired blues originals and a few well-executed covers. The crowd was amazed that a quartet of 15 and 16-year-olds could perform so solidly. And although Austin Peck, their lead guitarist, did a great job, the show was stolen by the vocals of Julia Ostellino-Moran, who was outstanding – give her a listen and see if you believe she is only 16 years of age.
Parsonsfield played their energetic and complex songs to a very appreciative audience. They showed off their talents by switching instruments, blending harmonies and drawing the crowd in with their “hard-to-put-a-finger-on” style of music. They look like a bluegrass band, harmonize like folk musicians, and put out the energy of a rock and roll outfit. They seemed to have shrunken from five musicians to four (the regular bassist left the band in 2018), but they passed the bass around and seemed just as sharp.
But, Lucinda Williams and her backing band, Buick 6 ruled the night. People seem to either love or hate Lucinda’s voice and singing style, but there was no denying that she made each audience member feel the intense pain of the tortured characters she sang about. Her songs of rejection, loss and anger were resoundingly effective. Moreover, her backing band was amazing. They constructed a musical platform for Lucinda’s stories to rest on that was so expertly constructed and powerful, one couldn’t help but be moved. They particularly shined when Lucinda moved to the recesses of the stage and the band to rock out for protracted solos. She closed the night with several powerful political statement songs including a great version of Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World which sent every audience member marching into the night mumbling about how good that band sounded.
Saturday brought clear skies, high temperatures and more great music. There were four bands that seemed to stand out from the rest:
Suitcase Junket is Matt Lorenz’s one-man-band project with a twist – all the “instruments” he plays are found objects including a beat-up guitar that he found in a dumpster. Other instruments include a baby shoe hitting a cook pot, a circular saw blade, a box of bones and old silverware, a toy Casio keyboard that cannot play more than one note at a time, a broken-down high hat, and, of course a suitcase that serves as a bass drum. Presiding over this craziness is Matt, who keeps the audience mesmerized with his stellar voice, his charming wit and his occasional two-note throat singing which sounds more like an eerie whistle. His music has more teeth than one would expect, and he entertained the festival crowd through three very different sets. His first set was very up-tempo. He was joined on vocals by his sister Kate Lorenz and even got the crowd to sing along a few times. His second set was a bit mellower, which allowed the crowd to hear each of the found objects. His third set might have been the most interesting of the day. It was played on the Green House stage with only Matt and his guitar. It was a sweet and intimate performance that really allowed his songs and vocals to shine on their own. The Suitcase Junket is still a great vehicle for his material and the “band” really does add something special to the music. Having Matt Lorenz act as a warm up band for the Suitcase Junket would be something this reviewer would be strongly in favor of.
Samantha Fish brought her full New Orleans band to the Tea Guys Main Stage in the full heat of the day. And although the horns, bass and keyboards added an element of cool, they were engulfed in the flames that Samantha’s guitar and Scott Graves’s drumsticks produced. This reviewer was especially impressed with three songs from the new album,“Kill or be Kind” – Bulletproof, a fiery ballad delivered on a cigar box slide guitar; Watch It Die, an angry song fueled by searing vocals and even hotter guitar licks; and Love Letters, a longing, horn-laden song that contains all the emotion and angst of an Alanis Morissette tune. With the combination of her singing ability and guitar chops, she is someone you should make an effort to see.
Sessions Americana with Ali McGuirk is a throwback folk rock band that is comprised of talented musicians who can all sing and play multiple instruments, but what sets them apart are their incredible harmonies and their playful stage presence. For most of their songs they were joined by Ali McGuirk on electric guitar and vocals, and Cilla Bonnie on electric bass. Their stage setup has them seated around a small circular bar table adorned with two expensive looking microphones. The band features guitars, a mandolin, some harmonicas, a clarinet, a stripped-down drum set, and an old field organ. There is an easy casualness about their performance that makes you feel like you are hanging out with them in their living room, until you realize how mesmerizing their voices and playing are. That is even more apparent when Ali sings; her voice both blends in expertly and soars above the group in the smoothest way possible. There was plenty of laughter during Doreen or Vitamin T, and plenty of jaw dropping at the beautiful vocals of Pick Up The Circus and Love Changes Everything.
Red Baraat rocked the Dean’s Beans stage and had the crowd moving more than at any other set at the festival with their infectious mix of Bhangra based funk. Their music feels like the love child of a Bollywood music soundtrack and New Orleans funk brass band. Throw in a touch of positive hip hop, and you might get the sense of what their vibe is like. The band is fronted by Sunny Jain on the dhol – a big drum worn about waist high. The bass side of the dhol is played with a bent stick called the dagga, while the higher-pitched side of the drum is played with a flat, flexible stick called the tihil (thank you Wikipedia). Regardless of the details, Sunny’s dhol playing adds a funky dimension that seems to have a direct pathway to the dancing receptors in each audience members’ brain. The rest of the bassline is held down by a traditional drum kit and sousaphonist John Alteri who gets a special mention for playing his lungs out and slinging the sousaphone around on a hot day in the mid 90’s. The high-end responsibility falls to newcomer Lynn Ligammari on soprano sax and by longtime bandmember, trumpeter and vocalist, Sonny Singh. After their set, the crowd sprinted over to the record table to scoop up the remaining copies of their new record, “Sound the People”
Other good performances were turned in by Pamela Means, who played a set of solid singer/songwriter output peppered with self-deprecating remarks; Low Cut Connie, who’s high energy show gained a few more fans; Sean McConnell, who’s musical honesty and basic writing did a nice job of connecting with the audience, especially on songs like, Beautiful Rose, a tale about his mother, his father, and Sean’s quest to be a stand-up guy; the Wood Brothers who filled the stage with only 3 people; and Anjelique Kidjo, who shared her joy and inspiring vocals with the crowd in a way that energized us all.
Sunday was just as hot, and although the schedule ended three hours earlier than Saturday, it was packed with musical protein, especially of the high energy variety. Sunday’s standouts were:
Fantastic Negrito who describes his show as real-time therapy, put on a, well… fantastic performance. His subject matter takes you deep into themes of the have nots and the oppressed which could have put off the almost entirely white New England crowd, but if it made them uncomfortable, they didn’t show it as they hung on his every word as if he was preacher holding the keys to salvation. His music has a heavy quality to it that you can feel in your chest. He is a strong guitar player and is joined by three other solid bandmates – Darian Gray, a great drummer who seems to help drive the band and sings background vocals, a keyboard player who plays bass and sings backup and a lead guitarist who does a fair amount of shredding. However, what makes his band special is his charisma, his willingness to share raw emotion and his amazing singing voice. Go see him next time you have the slightest chance.
Cedric Burnside opened the Dean’s Beans stage with a solid dose of Mississippi Blues. He played a few songs on his acoustic guitar, and was soon joined by Brian J (Pimps of Joytime) on drums. They both did a good job of involving the crowd and showing off the more improvisational and rocking side of the Memphis blues spectrum, but the real fire started when they switched positions with Cedric moving to the drums where he is best.
The Record Company put on a great blues-based rock and roll show on the main stage. It is amazing that this trio can put out so much interesting sound as a simple trio (guitar/harmonica, bass and drums). There have probably been thousands of trios in this configuration that have formed bands, but few sound this original, thoughtful and good. Although all three musicians (Chris Vos, Alex Stiff, and Mark Cazorla) are excellent, it is the bass playing of Alex Stiff that makes this band stand out. The bass lines are innovative, and intricate (sometimes using a slide) but catchy. They have put out two great albums, and if their performance at Green River is any indication, will follow those with more quality releases.
Rhiannon Giddens spent an hour and fifteen minutes captivating the audience with a different trio – fretless banjo, upright bass (Jason Sypher) and frame drums (Francesco Turrisi). Although the music was fulfilling, how could it not be with her amazing voice, the true sustenance lay in the messages she and Francesco delivered through their choice of songs and in the spaces between numbers. The theme of the set was to explore the commonalities of different people by delving into their cultural differences. They also shared a lot of mostly forgotten historical knowledge concerning the United States’ treatment of slaves and their African American offspring. For example, most of the audience knew that the banjo was an instrument popularized by white people, but few, including this reviewer, were aware that it was brought to this country by African and Caribbean people, and that the white minstrels who played it wearing blackface dominated the popular music scene for eighty years! It is hard to imagine any genre lasting for more than a decade now. She even pointed out that this racism is so ingrained in American culture that we don’t notice, “after all”, she stated, “there is a reason Mickey Mouse wears white gloves.”
There were other solid performances by the acoustic group, Mipso, perennial folk rock favorites, The Devil Makes Three, singer Songwriter Eilen Jewell, Prince Edward Island ambassadors, The East Pointers, and the spritely Gaslight Tinkers.
Any way you measure it, the Green River Music Festival was a wonderful way to spend a weekend. Whether you camped out, grabbed a hotel, or commuted from home, you made the right decision. I’m not sure how they will make next year’s festival better, but I can’t wait to find out. See you there!