The 33rd annual version of the Green River Festival took place last weekend in Greenfield, MA. This is like the big-time music festival that gets lost in the shuffle, always bringing along an eclectic mixture of music in every genre. Headliners this year included Lucinda Williams, the Wood Brothers, the Record Company, Angélique Kidjo, and the Devil Makes Three. Held under the brilliant sunshine on the leafy campus of Greenfield Community College, this year’s event was a success, as over 15,000 people attended.
The Green River Fest might be the most laid back and chill music fest I’ve ever been to, no doubt a reflection of the general chillification of Western Massachusetts in general. It’s kid-friendly, and all the merchants at the festival believe in sustainability, giving back, and just generally trying to make the world a better place. This tends to get reflected in the artists, who are usually of a political bent, to a degree.
The festival unfolds on three stages, and this year, a fourth was added, a mini-stage where some of the artists turned up for laid-back, acoustic sets. This year, I spent almost all of my time at the second stage, as it seemed that the more hard-hitting, eclectic music was to be found down there. The vibe is also different at this stage, the crowd even more laid back. The second stage is traditionally where the more experimental, more interesting music is.
What follows is a few highlights from my weekend.
Pamela Means on the Main Stage
My festival began with local singer/songwriter/jazz musician and general baddass, Pamela Means on the Main Stage. Means has been around for, it seems, forever. On this fine, very hot day, she’s full of anger and vitriol towards the president and the political situation of the United States, though her slot doesn’t do her any favours. It’s around 90F and she’s only got 25 minutes, the first artist on the Main Stage on Saturday. But that doesn’t stop her. She’s impossible to ignore, her presence on the stage is electric. She ends her all-too-brief set with a resounding version of her new track, ‘Impeachment Now.’ In leftist (as opposed to liberal) Western Mass, she hits a note with the audience, who cheer her wildly.
The Suitcase Junket on the Main Stage
Next up on the Main Stage is another local, The Suitcase Junket. The Junket is a one-man band, in the person of Matt Lorenz, though on this fine day, he is joined by his sister, Kate, on vocals. His brand of music is a scuzzed-out blues hybrid, centred around distorted acoustic guitar, drums, and percussion, which he somehow manages to play and never miss a beat. As a live artist, Lorenz has arrived. His high-pitched yelp adds depth to his music. He gets twice as much time as Means on the stage, but it feels woefully short, and he’s gone almost as soon as he arrives. But he also headlined the third stage Saturday night, and in between, he made an appearance on the mini-stage. Keep on an eye on this kid, he’s gonna go places.
The Lowdown Brass Band on the Second Stage
The Lowdown Brass Band are a force of nature out of Chicago. Based in the New Orleans brass band tradition, blended with Chicago style and soul, as well as elements of hip hop, ska, funk, and rock, these dudes bring the noise. An eleven-piece juggernaut, they tend to tour in smaller versions of themselves. This is probably a good thing, as even stripped down to an 8-man band, they nearly blew everything within a 20-mile radius away.
Their most recent album, Lowdown Breaks, saw the Lowdowns add a silky-smooth MC to the set, MC Billa Camp, also from Chicago. Billa Camp and Shane Jonas, one of the trumpeters, shared and traded vocals throughout their set. Whereas Billa Camp’s ridiculous flow saw him drop some wicked rhymes, Jonas has a silky smooth voice and his vocals added a nice bit of smooth R&B to the set. He can also hit a pretty sweet falsetto.
For 55 minutes, the Lowdown Brassband kicked it, rocking the stage, as the crowd became larger and larger, and all around me down front, people were busting a move. This was what music festivals were made for, frankly. Driven by Eric ‘LL” Loiselle’s sousapohne (he plays the more proper tuba in studio), the Lowdowns were pure energy and positivity. Back home in Chitown, they’re big proponents of music education, to the point of getting involved in the community and all. And as cheesy at it sounds, they are believers in the positive force of music. That is very clear on this fine day. They play everything, from all across their extensive repertoire, interpolating some Lou Reed, A Tribe Called Quest, and the Specials.
The Lowdown Brass Band were a hard act to follow, but that’s what made this day so great.
Home Body on the Second Stage
Local heroes, Home Body were up next. To call this a sudden shift in sound would be an understatement. Home Body are an electro pop duo, consisting of Eric Hnatow and Haley Morgan, a real-life couple. Hnatow brings the beats, which are bone-crunching, the bass occasionally making my head vibrate; Morgan is the vocalist. She is a dervish on stage. She swirls, stomps, kicks, swaggers, and twirls, her vocals ethereal, gritty, and sweet. Hnatow, meanwhile, spends most of his time behind his decks, occasionally dancing, occasionally stealing a glimpse at Morgan, who is impossible to ignore. The crowd falls in love with her.
The exception to this arrangement one track, when Hnatow grabs a tambourine and heads to the front of the stage, stands like a stone, and Morgan sings to him, declaring her love, and how she can’t sleep without him, eat without him
Home Body have a unique sound, to say the least, and their stage presence is commanding. Playing in front of their hometown crowd, bursts of shouts and screams and ‘We love you, Haley!” can be heard above the noise. And whilst many of those who watched Lowdown wandered off after their set, within about 10 minutes, the crowd watching Home Body is as big, everyone hanging on Morgan’s every move and every sound.
Musically, they draw on everything from Björk to The Knife/Karin Dreijir. They’re also a fine-tuned machine, having played well over 400 shows in the past few years, and currently touring behind their excellent new album, Spiritus.
Red Baraat on the Second Stage
Red Baraat might be my new favourite band. Fronted by legendary jazz drummer and dhol player Sunny Jain, Red Baraat have been around for seemingly forever, and yet, my introduction to them came only two days before the Green River Fest when I watched their Tiny Desk Concert on NPR. One of the really cool things about this second stage is watching the bands go through their sound checks right before their sets. All through Red Baraat’s soundcheck, Jain is jumping around, pounding away on his dhol, but checking in on everyone else’s sound.
And then they bring it. It’s hard for me to say any of the artists I saw on Saturday was better than the other, but Red Baraat were insane. Playing a mixture of bhangra, punk, funk, rock, and hip hop, with Jain centre-stage, I feel like I’m watching the real America in front of me. And, Red Baraat have the chops to prove this, having played Obama’s White House, the London Olympics, the Kennedy Center. They’re a stunning multi-ethnic/multi-cultural mixture.
It’s hotter than Hades down in front of the stage by the time they get going, and apparently it’s just as hot up on the stage, as Jain and company are dripping with sweat from the getgo. Jain and trumpeter Sonny Singh share vocals. Whilst Jain has a deep baritone, Singh’s vocals are lighter. And whilst he’s not centre-stage, standing just to Jain’s right, Singh is one of the stars of the show, dancing, but also just through his joy on stage, eyes glittering. And then there’s the ending song, where sousaphone player John Altieri, who’s been dancing around with a 50lb instrument on him the whole set, takes centre-stage and drops a rhyme. I’ve never seen a dude wearing a sousaphone drop a rhyme before. I’ve seen it all.
Gaslight Tinkers on the Second Stage
I only caught the tail end of the Gaslight Tinkers‘ set, their second of the day. They’re another local band, from up the road in Brattleboro, Vermont. A devlish mixture of punk, folk, and Celtic, the Tinkers have the crowd rocking. I wish I had seen more of this, I have to admit.
The Suffers on the Second Stage
Holy shitballs, Batman! Once they get their sound set, The Suffers take control. Introduced essentially as frontwoman Kam Franklin and a great backing band, from the first note, that’s made patently untrue. Franklin brings it, an insanely powerful, gospel-based blues voices that conjures up Aretha Franklin, Mavis Staples, Whitney Houston, and Queen Latifah. But the Suffers aren’t her and a backing band. They’re a band. Franklin paces her stage like a tiger, interacting with the crowd. Within about 3 minutes of the first song, the horn section of Jon Durbin and Michael Razo have us with our hands in the air, dancing along.
At the end of the first song, Franklin stopped to ask us to remember the band’s name and that they’re from Houston, TX. She said we’d find something else if we just searched The Suffers, though when I Googled just their name, they turned up. Whatever. She looked delighted that almost everyone there was seeing them for the first time, promising us a real good time. And they delivered. For seventy-five minutes, they played a wicked mixture of soul, funk, gospel, R&B, and rock.
Oozing stage presence and charisma, Franklin stopped to tell us stories, to get us to sing along, and to tell the tragic tale of the band having $40,000 worth of gear stolen in Dallas, in introduction to a song they wrote in response to that fuckery. Everyone was singing along, ‘Oops, we comin’, oops, oops, we comin’ yeah.’ I haven’t had that much fun at a gig in years.
The Record Company on the Main Stage
The Record Company are a rock’n’roll band. Pure, unadulterated guitar rock. In other words, not the usual fare of the Green River Festival. I was surprised to see them included in the lineup. But I was happy. I missed most of their set because I was down at the Second Stage marvelling at the Suffers. But I got back to the Main Stage for their last three songs. The trio of Chris Vox (guitar and vocals), Alex Stiff (bass) and Marc Cazorla (drums) were joined by a dude who looked like a dead ringer of my friend Max on guitars/organ/percussion. And, man, did they bring it.
I got to the front of the stage during ‘This Crooked Fix,’ off their first album, Give It Back To You, a ballad based in the best of the delta blues. It’s hard not to love this track. From there, they went out on a loud, rocked out note. They played ‘Life to Fix,’ the first track off their last album, All of This Life. This track has a wicked Peter Hookey bass line from Stiff. Live, though, his bass was vicious, brain rattling, and when he broke out into a solo in the midst of this track, all hell broke loose in front of the stage.
And that was it. Sun-baked, toasted, and sweating, we bade adieu to the Green River Fest for this year, wandering off in search of a cold, cold, cold beer to process all we took in.