After 29 years you figure a thing or two about putting on a festival. The producers of the Green River Festival in Greenfield, Massachusetts are proof of that. Everything ran like a well-oiled machine for the 2015 edition. Not in a way that seemed played out, but in a fresh, exciting and invigorating way. The festival has quietly been chugging along, nestled in the foothills of the Berkshires, far enough away from the big cities, though close enough to a hungry crowd of music lovers to reach a sell out.
There were so many ways to enjoy the Green River Festival. The multitude of local eateries selling a ridiculously wide variety of foods, the large and inventive kids’ craft tent, the makers fair, the acrobats show, the frisbee dogs, the karate demonstrations, the shuttle carting people to the Green River to swim, the Mardi Gras parade featuring some fantastic creatures and led through the crowd by Bela’s Bartok and Hannah from And the Kids, and the hot air balloons! Wait, I forgot to mention the 3 stages jam-packed with music. All that, and many still found the best way to spend their time was tossing around a frisbee in the large open field by the second stage, spurring the Milk Carton Kids’ Joey Ryan to dryly quip, “We have a no frisbees rule… there are a lot of violators here.” A hula hoop vendor made hoops available by that stage as well, creating a mass of hula hoopers present throughout the days. Everyone had the opportunity to enjoy at their own pace, in their own space. The producers have found the perfect formula of addition by addition. Nothing felt tacked on, everything felt right.
Musically, the festival served up a heaping slab of New England comfort food. The rest aforementioned activity, as they say, was just the gravy. Not only were the band selections great, they were clearly hand-picked and not just pulled off the nearest passing festival train. The music flowed wonderfully from set to set, and built to a nice peak at the perfect times. There was an evenness to the passion and approach of the musicians that made for a smooth transition no matter where you went.
The whole weekend got set up on Friday night with two simultaneous events. On the main stage, or Green River Stage, it was local music label and festival presenter Signature Sounds celebrating their 20th year and featuring a slate of label mates. It all came to a head with the self-dubbed “Queen of the Minor Key” Eilen Jewell blasting through tracks off her latest like “Warning Signs,” and “Worried Mind,” all featuring the amazing work of her stand out guitarist Jerry Miller. Over on the second stage, or Four Rivers Stage, local coffee company Dean’s Beans was hosting a Latin night, headlined by M.A.K.U. Sound System. This 8-piece out of NYC left enough heat on the stage to keep it warm the entire weekend with their unique brand of high energy Columbian dance grooves.
The pre-heating wouldn’t be necessary however. The sun was shining bright Saturday and Sunday on what will likely prove to be two of the hottest days of the summer. Not to mention, the bands playing kept it plenty warm all day and night. The day started off with The Suitcase Junket, a one-man band consisting of Matt Lorenz. Between the name and his set up, it had schtick written all over it. But Lorenz’s songs were fantastic and his whole bag of tricks, including but not limited to a saw blade, a baby shoe hitting a gas can, bones, silverware and a throat singing method that was simply mystifying, was anything but schtick. Next up, The Stray Birds, a 3-piece folk band that was another very pleasant surprise. The incredible 3-part harmonies sung into a single mic was their strength, but the resonator guitar was damn good too. Their set was highlighted by a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta” and an original, “Best Medicine,” about a music store owner in Schenectady, NY. The stage was folked up and ready to go for Langhorne Slim and the Law, who previewed some tunes off their new album. Slim built the mid-day energy into late-day form with multiple singalongs and a saunter out deep into the crowd. The transition from folkin’ to rockin’ was complete and the stage was prepped for some loud and raging solo guitar songs from Dinosaur Jr.’s and Amherst local J. Mascis. Down the hill at the small third stage, dubbed The Parlour Room Stage, Arc Iris was also getting going. Led by Low Anthem’s Jocie Adams, Arc Iris is a trip into a cosmic wonderworld that blends elements of folk, blues and jazz but filtered through the glasses of Sun Ra, outfits and all.
Music legend Booker T. Jones blasted through a marathon festival set, playing plenty on the B3 but also taking lead guitar duties much more than expected. His set, which included “Green Onions,” “Hang ’em High,” and “Hey Joe” ended a full 25 minutes over his allotted time with a masterful interpretation of the Beatles’ “Don’t Bring Me Down.” From classic sound to sound of the future, tUnE-yArDs, formerly a student at nearby Smith College, took the stage next. Previously Merril Garbus had played her shows solo relying heavily on loops, but she’s added backup singers, a bass player and drummer to add to the already multi-layered effects she produces on her own. The band was energetic and active and the crowd matched it with their excited fervor, eating up the band’s every move. Down on the third stage Marco Benevento was cooking up a dance party of his own. Closing his set with the anthemic “At the Show” the band was joined by Arc Iris’ Jocie Adams and And the Kids’ Hannah Mohan bringing the action on the stage and off to a boil. tUnE-yArD’s strongly African-influenced music was the perfect lead in for Saturday’s main stage headliners Rubblebucket. The stage was amply and continually filled with smoke as Kalmia Traver and band showed why the festival keeps bringing them back as they get bigger and bigger, with their amped up dance rock Afrobeat.
Sunday brought more of the same, a blazing hot sun shining down on a full day of superb music. Valerie June, wearing a floral crown and an acoustic guitar, graced the crowd with her unique and beautiful voice on songs like “Working Woman Blues” and telling fun tales of her Martin Stranger guitar and her little “baby” banjo. On the second stage Parker Millsap was also showcasing a unique voice, and showing off incredible range on originals like “Old Time Religion” and “Palisades” as well as his take on “Hesitation Blues.” Preservation Hall Jazz Band brought the spirit of New Orleans, as they’re wont to do. Starting with a perfect Sunday rendition of “I’ll Fly Away,” they rolled through a set with “Go To Mardi Gras” and “Corrina Corrina” and an appropriate sing-along on “You Are My Sunshine.” From there the grass at the festival turned a deep shade of blue. Starting with Colorado’s Elephant Revival, another addition to the post-Avett string band revolution. A worthy addition, and one worth keeping tabs on, they kept things interesting with Celtic and Gypsy influences, instrumentation including a washboard, pedal steel and the usual mix of fiddles, mandolins and banjoes, and some great songwriting. California’s The Brothers Comatose were kicking up some dust at the third stage with a more traditional take. A quintet featuring mandolin, bass, guitar, fiddle and banjo, they won hearts with their incredible cover of the Ryan Adams/Dave Rawlings tune “To Be Young” before kicking into full hoedown mode with “The Van Song.” Appetites were thoroughly whetted for the Punch Brothers to take over the main stage. Chris Thile, Chris Eldridge, Paul Kowert, Noam Pikelny and Gabe Wilcher, are all prodigious on their own, but when they combine together their blend of bluegrass, pop and classical music is out of this world. They opened with “This Girl” (which ended with a Sunday-appropriate Amen), finished with “Magnet,” and worked in some DeBussy, acapella, Roger Federer jokes, bluegrass breakdowns and more in between, for a rousing set that had the masses entranced. The Green River Festival served is up right in 2015, wonder what they’ve got cooking for their 30th edition!