In the “somewhat well-kept secret” category of events on the music calendar, a certain weekend gathering in neighboring Franklin County is among the longest running festivals. Two events from summer 1986 — one featuring hot air balloons and one celebrating a local radio station’s fifth birthday — were eventually combined into something like the current format; an official name change followed in 2001. Call it what you will and count them how you wish to, the Green River Festival is celebrating its 36th year in Greenfield, MA.
Getting to the most recent iteration, however, has been “quite a roller coaster,” according to Jim Olsen. He and his team at Signature Sounds cancelled the 2020 festival in April when the scope of the pandemic became apparent. In January 2021, they began planning for their usual weekend in early July 2021, then decided to push it back to late August to make sure that the vaccination effort would be further along. “All along there have been moments of doubt about pulling it off,” confides Olsen. Once the stars aligned and the vaccines took effect, all systems were go for Friday, August 27.
High winds and heavy rain from a Friday afternoon micro-burst damaged many vendors’ shades and merchandise during set-up. Numerous artists mentioned this precipitous precursor and encouraged festival-goes to support those vendors, reinforcing the village vibe. Saturday’s weather was less severe, to be sure, with gray skies and temperatures in the low 70s. One member of Appalachian Still called it “the coolest non-raining day in the history of Green River Fest.” (The Glass has not been able to confirm the veracity of this claim.)
Besides the rust that had set in during the two-year hiatus, festival staffers & 475 volunteers faced another considerable challenge: a new venue. A variety of factors led Olsen and company to shift the event to Franklin County Fairgrounds; the consensus among faithful is that the move is a good one.
The new venue is not without its own idiosyncratic charm, of course. Signage banning smoking or vaping anywhere on the grounds was greeted with surprise by some attendees and irony by others. “Yeah, right,” laughed a crew of twenty-somethings fresh off the shuttle from downtown Greenfield. (Apparently they were aware of some unscrupulous individuals who had flaunted this rule on Friday night.)
Then there are the trappings of the ag fair: pens and barns and “five tons of sawdust,” as Jeffrey Foucault pointed out before he vowed to throw hands with a certain honky tonk band. (Sounds from J.D. McPherson’s and performance on the Greenfield Savings Bank Stage performance could be heard filtering into Foucault’s own set in the Artifact Cider Stage.)
Needless to say, it was challenging to finalize the line-up given the changing dates and the crazy schedules that many artists were considering as the summer loomed. “All of the artists that are coming are excited to get back to work,” noted Olsen, and a great many of them shared their excitement with the audiences.
Many acts fit squarely into the rootsy Americana vibe that has been central to programming at both the Festival and The River (a.k.a. WRSI, located at 93.9 FM on your Western Mass dial ). Olsen was particularly excited about a cadre of emerging female performers including Rachel Baiman (part of Signature’s roster of artists), Sierra Ferrell, (we interviewed her) and Bella White. With two sets on Saturday (12:30 on the Greenfield Stage and 6:40 on the Artifact Stage), White and her old-school acoustic trio were looking forward to their long day in Greenfield.
But the award for the longest day (other than administrators and technicians, volunteers and vendors), was claimed by Kris Delmhorst (we reviewed Long Day in the Milky Way) and Jeffrey Foucault (we interviewed him). Delmhorst had a set at 1:40 and Foucault at 5:35, with each accompanying the other. (Both were joined by Jeremy Moses Curtis on bass.)
They capped this off with a campers-only session at 10:40 pm. (A nice wrinkle to the new site is that the campground and the performance venues are one and the same, with the Dean’s Beans Stage literally right outside their tent flaps.) The good news for these road-ready troubadours facing the longest day: they also had the shortest commute, given their home base a couple of towns away from Greenfield.
PHOTO – Campers Only
Taylor Ashton, a veteran of the Canadien festival circuit, was excited to enter the Americana scene on this side of the border. This Signature artist mused at the perilous paradoxes of time and jokingly referred to “personal reasons” behind his 18-month sabbatical, which unfortunately came on the heels of following his album release in February 2020. In the meantime, however, Ashton has released an EP of remixes and written and recorded a whole new album worth of material. Many of those infectious cuts were tracked during a cross-country drive this past spring. This artist’s eagerness to bring together the past (he never got to tour the latest record) and the future (his album is tentatively scheduled for a winter release) in the present moment resonated with those of us celebrating a respite from our pandemic woes and wondering what may follow this fall.
Jim Olsen admits to a certain degree of pandemic-related anxiety heading into the weekend. Clear guidelines from city and state health officials gave him and his team faith, and they also had the benefit of learning from regional institutions such as Mass MOCA and Tanglewood. Olsen also pointed to a well established venue in the eastern part of the state. “Fenway Park is hosting 30,000 fans for baseball games and concerts almost every day this summer,” he notes, “and no one is accusing them of hosting super-spreader events.” The relatively small scope of this event made those protocols a bit easier to implement.
That small-town feel was echoed in a conversation with a pair of local hipsters: “I’m just here to see Jeff [Foucault],” said one. “After his set, I don’t care what we do,” added the other.
To be sure, the festival is accessible enough and tickets affordable enough (with the usual pricing tiers for day versus weekend, normal grounds versus full access, with add-ons for parking and camping) to be worth a single show. The headliners alone — Shakey Graves on Friday, Jon Batiste on Saturday, and Drive-By Truckers on Sunday — are worth the price of admission if you consider ticket prices at other venues.
Another strength was the diversity of performers and genres across the stages. In a single day , I saw everything from Appalachian twang to jazz, including the venerable New Orleans sounds of The Rebirth Brass Band from New Orleans and the classic retro-swing of Zara Bode’s Little Big Band.
Likewise, you could catch regional folk (Delmhorst) and international funk courtesy of Havana’s Cimafunk and Brooklyn’s Underground System, with their exuberant flute-wielding front-woman, Domenica Fossati. (The highlight of their set: an Italo-feminist labor anthem called “Sebben (La Lega)”.)
The most discordant moment for this correspondent came as Ghost of Paul Revere closed their energetic set. After inviting all of us to come see them next weekend in Maine, they offered up a cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” The crowd seemed unsure how to take that sentiment, but the strangeness of that moment was offset by many other sweet moments. Tory Hanna of Bay State super-group Whiskey Treaty Roadshow (we interviewed them way back in 2016!) urged festival goers to support the vendors and recognized his wife’s contribution as a long standing floral weaver. He also gave her credit for bringing his band together in the first place and reminded everybody to turn up for their local bands and venues long after the festival dust settles.
In a serendipitous turn, Valerie June thanked those same floral artists for their gifts in 2015, her first visit to the festival, and 2021, her latest. In a silver-sequined jumpsuit, surrounded by the many instruments she plays, June offered shamanic sermons in between songs, which have been referred to as cosmic country and afro-punk and folk soul. Suffice it to say that June is sui generis as a songwriter and performer. But she was one among many in appreciating the opportunity to come together around music and in encouraging all present to savor this evanescent scene and to commit to looking out for each other in the months to come.
As the long day drew toward a close at the Franklin County Fairgrounds, June offered her audience a simple choice: “Are you a good person or an a-hole?” In the midst of this little festival, among thousands of grateful citizens, at the end of a weird and wonderful summer, it was hard to imagine anybody making the wrong choice.