Last weekend’s FreshGrass festival at MASS MoCA provided everything that one might expect from a bluegrass festival. There was lots of flannel, straw hats, local fare and strange percussion instruments. Stereotypes aside, the second annual FreshGrass festival was a huge success. Audience members flocked to North Adams from all over the country, though many locals also took advantage of the cultural opportunity. While on the surface the festival projected a predictable image, the content of the weekend proved to be diverse and unexpected. Audience members were treated to a wide range of music, from traditional twangy country to soul-rooted rock, and not a single performance resembled the last. While I did not hear every act, I will give a summary of some of the highlights I caught.
Friday afternoon and night were a bit slower than the rest of the weekend, but talent was not hard to come by. The first act I saw was Dr. Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys in Courtyard D. I mention the specific location because the settings of the performances were so varied, changing the aesthetics of each performance dramatically. The courtyard, situated just outside of the back entrance of MASS MoCA, is a very industrial space. The stage was nestled between the looming brick walls of the surrounding buildings, and the audience filled the space comfortably. The museum also opened up a large garage door at times, revealing Xu Bing’s “Pheonix” exhibit and a few audience members above the stage.
The Clinch Mountain Boys are most famous for their twangy, country sound. A talented banjo player, well-executed harmonies and a high tenor singing melody were the highlights of this act. For reference, they were featured in the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou?. This performance was not as attention-grabbing as I had hoped it would be, so I soon found myself wandering away following the tune of another performance back toward the main building. Cricket Tell the Weather is a band that was not featured on the formal festival schedule, but they managed to make a big impression. They played on a smaller stage as a part of the FreshGrass competition for up-and-coming bands. Cricket ended up winning the competition in addition to $5000, time in a Nashville recording studio and a slot in next year’s FreshGrass festival. The award was certainly justified. While the lead singer and fiddler Andrea Asprelli was not soon forgotten, it was the band’s songwriting abilities that really shined through. Their song “Remington,” co-written by Asprelli and guitarist Jason Borisoff, was an incredible tune written with heartfelt lyrics about early industrial cities in America.
Friday night was the first of two “Late Night Barn Dance Hoe-downs” at which moonshine slushies were promised. The Deadly Gentlemen played the Friday night slot. While the performance was energetic and fun, the audience did not reciprocate the energy that would have been necessary for a true hoe-down. Needless to say, I was disappointed.
Saturday afternoon, I made it to MASS MoCA just in time to catch The Lone Bellow in the courtyard. This group managed to illicit a full range of emotion from the audience. Their song “Watch Over Us” had people leaving the crowd in tears. At the same time “Teach Me To Know” was a great clap and sing along song with a lot of positive energy. Across the board their harmonies and lyrics were powerful. Unfortunately, I did not make it back for the second hoe-down that night, featuring the Wood Brothers, but rumor has it they brought the house down.
For the final day of the festival I saw three rather different performances. The first was Lake Street Dive, a group with a powerful lead vocalist and its roots in jazz and soul. Rachael Price’s voice can only be described as smooth and sultry. Price’s voice flowed through the courtyard accompanied by the occasional trumpet, bringing the audience back to an earlier time in music history. The catchy and playful lyrics of “Bad Self Portraits” were a good indicator of the group’s vibe overall: playful and soulful.
Moving locations to Joe’s Field to see Greensky Bluegrass marked a shift in many ways. The setting was now more traditionally festival-esque: hundreds of people spread out on a field with blankets and beer. The music was also quite different from its jazzy predecessor and was more similar to traditional bluegrass as it utilized several different stringed instruments, including a mandolin. Their performance was big, rowdy and perfect for the large, open setting.
Back in the courtyard, Elephant Revival provided yet another interpretation of bluegrass. As their name implies, Elephant Revival’s sound was very spiritual. The dominating instrument was the fiddle and instead of a low, dense voice like Price’s, the vocalists in Elephant Revival had a light, airy sound. Their songs were wispy and also reminded me of an early musical period: the medieval one. With a Celtic feel the group bounced between songs, often using very light percussion like a washboard or bongos in addition to the strings. Their sing-a-long song “Grace of a Woman” had the whole crowd engaged, and I could not help but feel the spirituality in those moments of communal singing.
The FreshGrass festival far exceeded expectations and will only grow in success in years to come.