Amourasaurus! (Lake Street Dive, JD McPherson, Winterpills, And the Kids, Parsonsfield)
It’s unusual for an event, especially at this time of year with lots of people enjoying last-gasp vacation breaks, to draw so many music lovers and area cognoscenti in Western Massachusetts, but that’s just what happened with Sunday’s Amourasaurus! festival. Curated by Lake Street Dive, the best-known act from the Signature Sounds record label based in Northampton, the five-act sold-out event at lovely Pines Theater inside Look Park in nearby Florence went off seamlessly. As with July’s nearby Green River Festival, also spearheaded by Signature Sounds and its co-founder and president Jim Olsen, the weather was pretty-much perfect. And like GRF, this is an event where you can claim your spot on the lawn, plant your chair or blanket, get up and schmooze or dance, and return an hour or two later to find everything just where you left it.
The Amourasaurus motto is “love is not extinct,” and this idyllic day and evening of music, against a lush backdrop of green, bore that out beautifully. And the breadth of the music was far-ranging indeed, with four of the five bands—all but JD McPherson—out of the Signature Sounds stable.
Winterpills, one of the region’s premier bands, and deservedly so, opened the show at 3:00, introduced by Lake Street lead singer Rachael Price and bassist Bridget Kearney. Led by the dazzling harmonies of frontman Philip Price and Flora Reed, the abundantly melodic indie-rockers greeted the still-entering crowd with their artful ensemble rock… with a dash of power pop thrown in. The band is marking the 10th anniversary of their self-titled debut album with a vinyl re-release in the fall, and spanning their career (a seventh album for Signature Sounds is in the works), they dusted off the bittersweet and gorgeously haunting “Laughing” from that first album. And they closed out their 45-minute set with the gloriously catchy “Rogue Highway,” from 2012’s All My Lovely Goners. If you need an introduction to Winterpills, this is the place to start. (Full disclosure: “Rogue Highway” is my favorite song of 2012, on any label, anywhere.)
And the Kids are unconventional Signature Sounds artists, more Patti Smith than Elliott Smith, and barely out of their teens. But this trio of young women dynamos is both charming and musically sophisticated. And for Amourasaurus, guitarist and songwriter Hannah Mohan brought along a comfy green lounge chair, to which she retreated for a few seconds between songs. At one point she told the crowd, “I’m gonna try to sit on this lounge chair as much as possible so it’ll feel like we’re even closer together.” The set, which contained a number of songs from their Signature Sounds debut, Turn To Each Other, was tight and at times downright thrilling with odd and changing time signatures. In “Devastation Celebration,” Mohan sings, “Why do we only remember the bad? Instead, remember the applause.’’ And then there’s the screechy yet melodic “Wiser,” with its punchline, “Making money but you make no sense.” There’s a true joyous energy and vigor to ATK that makes you want to jump and smile (check out their Tiny Desk Concert on NPR music), and that came through in full force at the Pines.
After another short break, Parsonsfield, who literally changed their name from Poor Old Shine during their set at 2014’s Green River Festival (it was in Parsonsfield, Maine, where they recorded two albums), took the stage just after 5:00. They do so many things well, it’s hard to pinpoint their style, and for a point of reference, they’ve been compared to the Avett Brothers, another band that appeared early-on in their career at GRF. On stage, Parsonsfield will give you rich five-part harmonies one minute, sound like bluegrass on steroids the next, and then rock you over the head with unbearably cool and raucous Celtic rhythms. All with taste and class.
After their set, which lasted just under an hour, Jim Olsen, who’d already announced that the show had sold out, suggested that this Amourasaurus fest might become an annual thing. Wouldn’t that be nice!
Critically acclaimed thirtysomething Oklahoma native JD McPherson emerged with a bang on his excellent 2010 release Signs & Signifiers (which featured current NRBQ guitarist Scott Ligon playing piano on half its tracks; you have to be damn good, and flexible, to play with both McPherson and Terry Adams!), and this year’s Let the Good Times Roll is just as good. He’s a wailing electric guitarist, sometimes reminiscent of Stevie Ray Vaughan, but he also has a wonderfully rootsy and evocative voice. His hour-long set, which seemed to fly by in like 20 minutes, was filled with neo-modern rockabilly and blues, kicking off with “I Wish You Would,” penned by blues great Billy Boy Arnold. His set was filled with gems from his two albums including “Fire Bug” early on and building to “Let the Good Times Roll” and radio staple “North Side Gal.” After “Bossy,” one of his new album’s highlights, he joked about calling the festival Amouraborealis, and beamed about how this festival “introduced me to so many new bands.” He later dedicated one of his songs to Lake Street Dive, saying, “What a beautiful day. What a lovely day,” and thanking them “for inviting us here. They’re one of the best bands out there, but you know that. I’m just reiterating.”
McPherson finished his set a little after 7 o’clock, just as the sun was starting to fade in the west, the temperature slowly dropping from about 80 to a balmy 75. Look Park, now full to capacity, with people chatting with friends or waiting in line for some of the (really good!) Thai or Mexican or American food and ice cream being sold just outside the concert area by local restaurants. From the stage, Jim Olsen said, “We’re sorry about the line for food… we didn’t expect there’d be so many people. Thank you for supporting live music in Northampton.” And that’s the key. So many people do support live music in Western Mass., and thanks to the devoted efforts of Olsen and a small handful of others, there is lots of it.
As the stage was being readied, the PA played (but not too loudly) “This Will Be,” “The Loco-motion” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” and, finally, “Eye of the Tiger.” In introducing Lake Street, Olsen told of how after seeing a YouTube video of the band, he went up to the Rendezvous, a small Turners Falls club, and saw them in person. And how the rest is history, and how it’s been “my good fortune to put out three wonderful records by them.” Of course their most recent, Bad Self Portraits, catapulted onto Billboard magazine’s top-selling albums chart at Number 18 in 2014.
And Lake Street Dive didn’t disappoint. Together for 10 years after meeting at the New England Conservatory, the band has evolved into a well-oiled machine, boasting remarkable vocals and harmonies and virtuoso musicianship. And it’s no wonder the band has been a commercial success. Songs such as “Bad Self Portraits,” “Rabid Animal” and the fabulous “Stop Your Crying” are contemporary gems, showcasing Rachael Price’s soulful vocals. There is a refreshing unconventional element, beginning with their stage design, which finds drummer Mike Calabrese far stage left and stand-up bassist Bridget Kearney standing behind Price. And then there’s guitarist Mike Olson who also plays trumpet and trombone. It’s an unusual musical concoction. At the Pines, they threw in a couple of interesting covers, Annie Lennox’s “Walking on Broken Glass” and Van Halen’s “Jump,” which had a lot of people scratching their heads and then grinning with recognition. The band also unveiled some brand-new material. Needless to say, the fans and music lovers, 2,200 in all, left happy and sated.
In summing up the day, Jim Olsen tells us, “It’s been such a pleasure to watch Lake Street Dive grow from a small club band into an international sensation. When they approached us about having their own curated festival, we wanted to make sure that we produced something that they would be proud of and also something that would be a winning blueprint for an annual event. The first Amourasaurus exceeded all of our expectations. We can’t wait to get to work on the next one.”
Love is not extinct, indeed. Amen!
Lake Street Dive under the stars at Amourasaurus. Photo by Jessica B. Sokol. From left: Mike “McDuck” Olson, Rachael Price, Bridget Kearney, Mike Calabrese.