Review of 2012 Green River Festival in Greenfield, Massachusetts
I’ve been attending theGreen River Festival, held every July in Greenfield, Massachusetts, since 2002. I was searching for someplace in western Massachusetts to take my mother on a hot air balloon ride for her birthday. It was something she said she always wanted to do and finding out there was music involved made it all the more attractive to me.
The festival grounds are at Greenfield Community College, but there’s barely a sense you are near any kind of buildings, with trees and wide open fields surrounding the festival.
The festival has been running since 1986 and celebrated its 26th festival on July 14th and 15th, 2012. It was started by Jim Olsen, co-founder of Signature Sounds Recordings, which has released albums by Josh Ritter, Erin McKeown, Winterpills, Lori McKenna, Chris Smither, and several dozen other acts. Olsen was the program director at WRSI before that and has served as the music director and talent buyer for the festival since its inception. Olsen was on the original planning committee along with Ann Hamilton and Bob Diamond, who merged a music festival with the balloon festival back in 1987. A 2011 interviewwith Olsen can be found at All Things New England.
The festival features a mix of folk, country, rock, blues, bluegrass, Cajon, zydeco, reggae—roots music, if you will. This year featured more than 40 acts over the two days of the festival, and, while the ticket prices have increased a little through the years, it still remains a great value for the price of $75 for two days (or $60, if you get the early-bird price).
There’s something idyllic about this festival, like it’s happening in an earlier and simpler period of time. The festival is family-friendly, with activities for kids of all ages, balloon rides, and a wide variety of food options. Because the event takes place over many hours, you can settle in more comfortably than at many other festivals. You can watch the balloons being inflated, play sports, and generally feel like you’ve stepped back in time to a more relaxed era.
The Green River Festival has three stages, so music is playing live nearly non-stop. The Main Stage offers acts with a bit more mainstream appeal, along with the Yonder Stage (previously the Dance Tent) and the Meltdown Stage (the smallest of the tents, used often for kid-friendly acts, where children can melt down if the heat is getting to them).
Over the past 26 years, the Green River Festival has featured a veritable who’s who of American music, including Dave Alvin, Beausoleil, Calexico, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Little Feat, Wanda Jackson, Kermit Ruffins, Loudon Wainwright, and Lucinda Williams as well as rising stars like Neko Case, Kathleen Edwards, Low Anthem, Anais Mitchell, Josh Ritter, Trombone Shorty, and Eilen Jewell, plus hundreds more.
This year’s festival coincided with Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday. With Arlo Gurthrie and various members of his family living in western Massachusetts, the occasion led to a Guthrie Family Reunion, which featured three generations of Guthries on stage performing songs from Woody, Arlo, Arlo’s children (Annie, Cathy, and Sarah Lee, all of whom are also musicians ), and even some singing by Woody Guthrie’s great grandchildren. Both funny and touching, the real impact of the gathering came from the lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s songs, many written during The Great Depression and through the 1940s, which are as relevant today as they were during earlier economic hardships.
Some of my favorite performances this year that I did not know much about beforehand included the following:
JD McPherson, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who released his debut album, Signs & Signifiers this past spring on Rounder Records. McPherson mixes traditional rock and roll with a bit of soul and a ton of energy. Personable and funny on stage, McPherson performed the best set of the festival for me.
Lee Fields & The Expressions has been making music for 43 years and released records on 12 different labels. From North Carolina, Fields works in the southern soul and funk vein of James Brown and found his career revived in the 1990s as hip hop acts sampled his earlier work. Live, the passion and energy from Fields is undeniable, and he brought a level of devotion to the festival that was unmatched. Fans of Sharon Jones and Dap-kings would be wise to seek out Lee Fields. His latest album, Faithful Man, was released earlier this year by Truth & Soul Records.
Lake Street Dive played two sets and both were phenomenal. It’s not easy to weave together jazz, R&B, pop, and soul, but the band makes it look easy, and vocalist Rachael Price has once of those distinctive voices that makes you stop and pay attention the minute she starts singing. Their video for “I Want You Back,” a cover of The Jackson 5’s 1969 hit, was taped on a Boston sidewalk and is a terrific introduction to why they are so good live.
I’ve seen Pokey LaFarge & South City Three several times at recent festivals, including the Newport Folk Festival, and the band has a sound, look, and attitude that is charming and infectious. From St. Louis, Missouri, LaFarge takes us back to the era of early jazz, string ragtime, country blues, and western swing through their music, instruments, attire, and haircuts. LaFarge is an entertaining frontman, and seeing the band’s live set leaves you feeling like they have lifted you out of your troubles and problems and set your head right again. NPR Music captured the band’s spirit in 2011 for one of their Tiny Desk Concerts.
The Sweetback Sisters feature Emily Miller and Zara Bode and, though not actual sisters, they bring a sweet, classic country sound that makes me remember how much I love pre-1980’s country music. Based in Brooklyn, New York, the Sweetback Sisters are backed by a full band, complete with harmonies of 1950’s Patsy Cline as well as songs that rock a bit harder than Patsy ever did with her country swing.
The Green River Festival has done a great job over the years of bringing up acts from New Orleans that don’t often make their way to the northeast, so it was great to see the Rebirth Brass Band live this year. The band has been around since 1982, with 15 albums to their credit. Rebirth fuses traditional New Orleans brass band music with soul, jazz, and funk and, as you can imagine, it’s a blissful sound that is hard to resist on a sultry, summer day.
As great as the music is, festivals have to evolve over the years in order to keep improving. Green River has done this well, moving around merchant booths this year to offer the audience more room in front of the stage (and much needed shade), having free water available (needed more than usual this year), and making sure there is room in front of the main stage for people to come up and see a favorite act up close. All of these changes made for a better layout and flexibility for attendees.
Through the years, the festival has grown, and I found this year it was harder to get into some of the smaller stages. It might be time to bump up the size of some of the smaller tents, so that people outside the tent can see what’s happening on the stage inside the tent, too. Plus, in mid-July, it’s always a bit warm in these tents, and many people would be happy to stay outside in the sun or shade and enjoy the music.
Throughout the festival the hot air balloons are getting set-up and some give tethered rides. Early each morning, the balloons set off with customers and then again at sunset (balloon rides cost $255 per person). On Saturday night, about 10 balloons perform a light show for the audience as the bands play on. It’s the perfect way to end the day.