Various Artists at Green River Festival (Greenfield MA – July 12, 2015)
It will be tough to top the first two days of Western Massachusetts’ premier annual music festival. It has already featured stellar performances by Booker T. Jones and band, Eilen Jewell, J Mascis, Pine Hill Project, Mark Mulcahy and Polaris, tUnE-yArDs, Rubblebucket, Marco Benevento, and M.A.K.U. Sound System, to name a few. But it happened Sunday at the Green River Festival. And it wasn’t just the jaw-dropping performances by Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Parker Millsap, and Steve Earle & the Dukes.
Sunday, like the previous two days is gorgeous, with mostly clear skies, a slight breeze, and temperatures in the mid-80s. And the setting here on the grounds of Greenfield Community College is idyllic. There’s plenty of wonderful food (still loving that chilled cucumber-dill soup from Hearty Eats, and my friends are too!), three stages, plenty of space to roam around, and plenty of people who respect this space and don’t think twice about recycling and throwing away their trash. It’s hard to imagine a more well-mannered crowd, and spending a day at GRF is kind of like hanging out with a couple thousand of your closest friends.
As in the past, this year’s festival spotlights several of the region’s first-class artists and bands, and today starts out with three of the best. Beginning promptly at 12:15, as much of the crowd is still ambling in and planting their blankets and umbrellas, the Green River Stage (the main stage) lights up with the country-rock twang of the Lonesome Brothers, now celebrating their 30th anniversary. With Ray Mason (bass) and Jim Armenti (guitar) trading off songs (with Keith Levreault on drums), the Brothers play a nice sampling of material from their rich catalogue, including a fine rendition of Armenti’s “Down By the Water,” a song that’s been recorded by the likes of Pam Tillis, Cheri Knight, and Cry Cry Cry featuring Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell (of the aforementioned Pine Hill Project), and drummer Doug Plavin.
Plavin’s the drummer for Surly Temple, another of the day’s early highlights, playing the cozy Parlor Room Stage where you can dance and get up close to the band or sit a bit further back on a perfectly situated hill with plenty of shade. ST is something of a regional supergroup, also featuring recording artist Jim Henry (guitar) and Guy DeVito (bass), well known around these parts for being a longstanding member of Fat, one of the very first Western MA-based groups to record for a major label (RCA).
Then there’s the Johnny Memphis Band, and you may recall Johnny’s name from Dar Williams’s brilliant “Are You Out There,” a song celebrating the power and beauty of radio, with shout outs to both Johnny and Green River Festival director Jim Olsen. The six-piece JMB’s charming and personable set, usually featuring Johnny on mandolin, features a bunch of songs from the band’s self-titled album, including “Truck Eating Bridge,” about the notorious bridge in nearby Northampton known for scraping off the tops of unsuspecting and too-tall trucks.
My biggest regret of Sunday is not getting to see Oklahoman Parker Millsap, who grew up a regular in his local Pentecostal church and wowed the Four Rivers Stage (the Festival’s second stage) crowd with his charismatic country gospel. I heard many folks rave about how blown away they were by this young twentysomething who NPR called “a star in the making.” I’ve been strongly advised not to miss him again.
I did catch the end of Valerie June’s set and am glad I did. I became a fan of this Humboldt, Tennessee, native after hearing her on NPR a couple years ago, and her engaging blues-twang voice sounded perfect coming from the Green River Stage. At one point she speaks confidentially, as she would to a good friend, about the genesis of one of her songs. She tells about how it came to her “when I was living in Memphis. I was asleep. It was dark, and there was an angelic voice… and it wasn’t mine.” In interviews, she invokes such names as Ma Rainey and Elizabeth Cotton and Alan Lomax. This woman knows of what she speaks, and I can’t wait to see a full set by her sometime soon. After her set, radio station WRSI-The River personality Monte Belmonte marvels, “Maybe that’s the voice that Robert Johnson heard at the crossroads that made him sell his soul.” She was that good! And he goes on to further marvel about the people at the Festival: “Where else can you leave your bags on the ground and not think about them until you return?”
Next up on the main stage is a glorious set by New Orleans’ Perservation Hall Jazz Band. Festival director Olsen begins his introduction by saying, “It’s getting harder and harder to get to the roots of anything these days… but this next band goes all the way back to the beginning of the last century.” As you watch these master Crescent City musicians, you can’t help but feel that they are defying time, bringing so much joy and exuberance in the process. Even as they begin their set with “I’ll Fly Away,” a hymn dating back to the Depression era, people in the crowd pack the area just below the stage, to soak it all in. Then it’s on to “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” and we are thoroughly transported to the French Quarter, 1,500 miles to the south.
Seeing PHJB creative director Ben Jaffe playing that monstrous sousaphone with the band’s name inscribed on it is thrilling. As is seeing members Clint Maedgen (sax and vocals), Ronell Johnson (tuba, piano, vocals), Joe Lastie, Jr. (drums, vocals), Rickie Monie (piano), and Mark Braud (trumpet, vocals). I just want to mention these musicians by name as they are all living legends. During the show, Jaffe announced that the band will make its first trip to Cuba in December, headlining the Havana Jazz Fest. That drew much cheering from the crowd, and from one Steve Earle, a big fan of New Orleans music, who is sitting and smiling just off to the side of the stage.
The PHJB is an almost impossible act to follow, but the Punch Brothers did a noble job on the Green River Stage, even playing a marvelous bluegrass version of a piece by Claude Debussy, “who couldn’t be with us because his piano didn’t make it.” Most of the Punch Brothers set is fun and lively, and it is lovely seeing this metamodern bluegrass outfit by daylight in this beautiful Greenfield setting. Punch Brothers star Chris Thile, mandolinist and master of a host of other instruments, has been making records since he was 13, and is an on-stage dynamo. He’s also getting set to become host of A Prairie Home Companion next year.
Closing out the Festival is Steve Earle and the latest incarnation of the Dukes, which beside his longstanding rhythm section of Will Rigby (drums) and Kelley Looney (bass) is augmented by two members of the Mastersons, guitarist Chris Masterson looking particularly slick in his dark shades, and violinist and multi-instrumentalist Eleanor Whitmore. The band is full of fire on such Earle classics as “Guitar Town,” “Copperhead Road,” “My Old Friend the Blues,” and the much-recorded “The Galway Girl” (from Transcendental Blues, this writer’s favorite album of the first decade of this millennium). But the set also revolves around the blusier material from Earle and band’s latest album, Terraplane. It’s a dark record, indeed, though it’s lovely seeing these newer songs played up close, including his penultimate song, “King of the Blues,” which he dedicates to B.B. King. As Earle finishes his set, he waves and puts in a plug for Bernie Sanders. Few contemporary musicians are as politically strident and astute as Steve Earle, or as musically committed. He is a national treasure and a worthy and wonderful artist to close out this year’s proceedings.
If anything, the Green River Festival just keeps getting better, more comfortable, and more professionally run each year. It’s one of those rare events that has you vowing to come back next year even as you’re just leaving the parking lot on the last night. Our friend Dave, a local hero in Western MA, known as a member of the band Colorway and for his meteorological insight and savvy as Dave Hayes The Weather Nut, spoke for a lot of people when he posted on Facebook: “I can’t wait for next year! 30th anniversary!” Me too, Dave. Perfectly said. I can’t wait either!
Steve Earle and the Dukes photo by Janis G. Sokol. From left: Eleanor Whitman and Chris Masterson (of the Mastersons), drummer Will Rigby, and Steve Earle. Not pictured: bassist Kelley Looney.