We couldn’t have asked for a lovelier evening in Western Massachusetts than the one we got last night for the kickoff of this year’s Green River Festival. Now in its 29th year, this annual event is getting heralded near and far, with accolades coming from all over, including The New York Times, USA Today and Rolling Stone.
GRF has been called a miniature version of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and for good reasons. For starters, the music is predictably first-class, and during the past few years, lineups have included Emmylou Harris, Fountains of Wayne, Gogol Bordello, Dave and Phil Alvin. Brandi Carlile, Todd Snider, Kermit Ruffins, Wanda Jackson, NRBQ, Lake Street Dive, and the Guthrie Family’s musical celebration on the day of Woody’s 100th birthday. And the music lovers are well-mannered and respectful and the food is pretty darn good, too. (I can’t wait to get more of that chilled cucumber-dill soup from Hearty Eats.)
On Friday, music was flowing from two stages (there will be three on Saturday and Sunday). I didn’t get to spend much time at the Four Rivers Stage (Second Stage) but heard folks raving about the intoxicating rhythms of M.A.K.U. Sound System, an eight-piece band of mostly Columbian players who drove the audience into a rhythmic frenzy with what they call their “immigrant-beat.” Earlier, guitarist Jose Gonzalez, from nearby Amherst, MA, played an enticing set honoring the music of the Caribbean and Puerto Rico with his band Banda Criolla.
This is the second year that Signature Sounds—the Northampton, MA-based record label started in the mid-1990s in the basement of co-founder Jim Olsen’s house—is producing GRF. On Friday to mark the label’s 20th anniversary, the Green River Stage, the venue’s main stage, was home to several of the label’s foremost artists, most notably the Pine Hill Project and the Eilen Jewell Band. The PHP was formed by singers Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky who’d each been making critically acclaimed albums since the 1990s, but except for 1998’s Cry, Cry, Cry with Dar Williams, never together. Until this year’s Tomorrow You’re Going, an Americana masterpiece in the league of Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball. It’s that good. Outstanding covers lovingly performed, and produced by longtime Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell.
Joined by ace guitarist Duke Levine and a percussionist, Richard and Lucy performed many of the songs from Tomorrow You’re Going, including “I Live on a Battlefield” (Nick Lowe and Paul Carrack), “Wichita” (Gillian Welch), and “Sweetest Thing” (U2). In each case Shindell and Kaplansky basically reinvent the songs (as Harris did on Wrecking Ball), and the result is breathtaking, live and on record. Along with Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free, Tomorrow You’re Going is a shoo-in as one of the year’s best albums. But their set also included other material including Shindell’s “The Next Best Western,” from his Reunion Hill album.
Eilen Jewell closed the evening with a generous career-spanning 75-minute set focusing on her masterful new album, Sundown Over Ghost Town. Words like alt-country, roots-rock, country-noir, and Americana get used a lot to describe Jewell’s music, and to quote myself, “that gorgeous voice makes you feel like she’s singing just for you, out on the breezy back porch or by a crackling campfire. She does so much, so well.” Quite a storyteller, too. And in concert, the Boise native’s band rocks, propelled by Jerry Miller’s dazzling electric guitar wizardry. Jewell has had a slow climb to the recognition she so deserves, and even with her growing acclaim (anyone see her recently on the NBC Nightly News?) she maintains a refreshing sense of warmth and humility on stage. She closed the set with Ghost Town’s “Songbird,” which I’ve called “one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs ever written about the miraculous joy and impact of a new family member.”
With that, the show and the evening were over, but here’s one thing that separates the Green River Festival from New Orleans JazzFest: the grounds in Greenfield, MA are spotless after a day of music. People here know how to dispense and recycle.
Plenty of wonderful music ahead at GRF this weekend. Looking forward to J Mascis, Polaris, Arc Iris, Langhorn Slim, Marco Benevento, and Booker T. Jones on Saturday (which is already sold out). And the Lonesome Brothers, Johnny Memphis Band, Valerie June, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the Punch Brothers, and Steve Earle and the Dukes on Sunday. And some more cucumber-dill soup. And there will be some surprises, there always are. Watch this space.
Photo of Pine Hill Project (with guitarist Duke Levine) by Janis G. Sokol