Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Freshgrass 2014

You'd think that people who like to see music as much as we do would go to a lot of festivals.  But we don't.  But last year's Freshgrass had an awesome lineup and we almost went.  And when we saw the lineup for this year we were pushovers to go when MattW revealed that he had a timeshare condo 30 minutes South of North Adams.

They took their sweet time revealing what band would be playing what stage when.  And when they finally finished revealing, Rodney Crowell was missing, who was one of the top names IMO (he begged out to work on a movie or something).  They also had a lot stricter rules than other festivals, since they're on the grounds of an art museum.

But whatever, we were really psyched!  We took Friday Sept. 19 off from work and left home around 10.  We stopped at Shelburne Falls for a delicious lunch next to the sunny Bridge of Flowers, then continued to trundle out to North Adams, through Williamstown, and down South to Hancock.  There we met M&J just as they were coming out of the clubhouse with the keys, and trucked back down the hill to our pair of suites.  He had scored an "A" unit and a "B" unit and we had lots of room, balconies, TVs all over the place, fireplaces (they had a jacuzzi in in their bedroom), fully equipped kitchens, large bathrooms, and stuff.

We had a beer or two, drove back up to the clubhouse for a soak in the outdoor spa in the slightly chilly but beautiful Berkshire air, and then drove on back and prepped for the concert.  We were off!

And what an exhausting weekend it was!  Here's what I saw, not including the minor-league bands at the Courtyard C stage and the popup stages:


Michael Daves & Tony Trischka
  • They featured special guests Brittany Haas and Aoife O'Donovan.
  • They had us riveted at the first song, and then tore into "a murder ballad," Cold Rain and Snow; I didn't know this was a murder ballad (though I'd been hearing it for years) until they sang a verse I'd never heard ... that explained a lot.
  • It was the first act and already the surprise of the festival: Michael Daves is a phenom; you could count the fillings in his back teeth when he opened his mouth to sing, he took no prisoners.
Aoife O'Donovan
  • The soundboard guys had some problems all weekend, and they started with Aoife.
  • She wanted to open with a ballad from her album and feedback had to make her change plans on the fly; so she went into a Crooked Still rocker, and this worked out great!
  • She did her soft songs later and had the packed Courtyard D crowd in the palm of her hand, a great performance.
  • The sun was way set by the end of it and the temperature was dropping fast.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops
  • They're just not the same without Dom Flemons, not to mention original Drop, Justin Robinson.
  • And I also liked Layla McAlla and Adam Matta, who had brief stints with the band.
  • But Rhiannon Giddens and Hubby Jenkins are still great, and they had added a new cello player and a bass and drums.
  • But ... this meant they weren't the ace band I expected them to be, especially when the cello and bass stepped on each other.
  • Oh well, the crowd in the courtyard (*beyond* packed now, it was almost frightening, and very cold by this point!) loved them and we left a bit early so we could grab places inside for...
The Duhks
  • The "late night" set is inside in a weird auditorium they have, and the Duhks were eagerly anticipated by everybody.
  • Again, I was disappointed that they were missing a key original member: Tanya Elizabeth.
  • They had filled her spot with a fine fiddler but Tanya had added so much to their vocal style and their funk.
  • But it was a fun show anyway, and they're a great addition to the eclectic lineup we realized they were going for; there are so many different kinds of bluegrass/roots and the festival ended up covering many of them.
  • We headed out before they quite finished, dodged some emergency vehicles convening on a crash on route 43 on the way back, and finally got to bed sometime between 12 and 1AM.

Woke up Saturday around 8 and were just about ready when D&T showed up and we all had an incredible breakfast of "everything" omelets prepared by Matt.  Then we scrambled to get all the stuff in the cars.  S&D and I left first, a little after 10, and grabbed a fine parking space and only had to wait in line for a minute before entering the venue.  It was another fine day and Andrew was at the Courtyard stage when I showed up!


The Deedle Deedle Dees

  • They were the first band up, at Courtyard D at 12:15.
  • They definitely played a distinctive style: children's bluegrass.
  • This meant they were kind of boring, unless you were into songs about Amelia Earhart, etc.
  • The highlight was when they did a song about the molasses flood in Boston and their lead singer jumped out into the crowd to lead the kids in a fun molasses simulation.
  • You had to see it to see it you know, but the most fun thing about their act was watching the kids respond ... really a great start to the day.

The Novel Ideas

  • They were up next at the field stage, where we'd set up a camp next to the soundboard.
  • They're a young, soft, country-folk, band with some nice sounds.
  • Talented people but not great songs ... I was beginning to think that the festival was starting slowly.
  • And then we gathered at the car for "gnoshes;" but I was dying to get back and soon did because next up was ...

Claire Lynch

  • Dave saw most of this too and was blown away.  Claire is a world class bluegrass musician and had a note-perfect band.
  • Her second song was her killer Dear Sister, which is one of the best folk-bluegrasss-oldtimey songs I've ever heard.
  • The estimable Mark Schatz was her bassist/multi-instrumentalist, and he delighted us all with a classic hambone.
  • For a climax of the set she did what everyone wanted: Jesse Winchester's That's What Makes You Strong, which had the field hanging on every note and got some handkerchiefs out for sure.

Haas Kowert Tice

  • Next up I ran back to the Courtyard and caught a bunch of the set from Brittany Haas (fiddle, Crooked Still alumna), Paul Kowert (bass, Punch Brothers alumnus), and Jordan Tice (guitar, Tony Trischka alumnus).
  • This was chamber bluegrass with a black belt ... perfect stuff.
  • As good as Haas is, the delight of the set was Kowert finger-picking and bowing the bass on what had suddenly become a brilliant summer day.
  • They did classics, new songs, and improvised jams ... one of those bands you could have watched all day; but...

Berklee All Stars

  • Ran back to the main stage (ok, there were beer and food breaks interspersed with all this) to see the Berklee bands.
  • They had three student bands do short sets, and I managed to catch all of them: Ellie Buckland and Isa Burke, High Rock Mountain, and then Twisted Pine.
  • They all showed incredible talent, but really playing bluegrass well as an ensemble can take a lot of practice.
  • Possibly the band of the festival (they won the talent competition, so will be back next year), was Twisted Pine, which is fronted by the majestic Adam Moore on bass and had some outstanding players, like an Asian mandolin player whom we wanted to hear more of.
  • But then it was *back* to the Courtyard for...

The Gibson Brothers

  • Yet another sub-genre of bluegrass: traditional bluegrass with brother harmonies.
  • These guys knew what they were doing and the crowd here was the older people who wanted to hear the trad stuff.
  • Their singing together is sublime and they were wearing matching suits ... just what you want.
  • Their set was fantastic, but just as they launched into their recent IBMA song of the year, Andrew and I scooped up our chairs and screwed for the main stage to see...

Alison Brown

  • Dave joined me up front for this one and he was still gushing about Claire, until he saw Alison that is.
  • She had a great band also, including her husband on bass and an excellent electric piano player; they played the finest jazz bluegrass and blew Dave's mind again ... this was possibly the band of the festival for him, he had never heard (let alone seen) a banjo played with such fluidity and perfection and producing such dynamic tones.
  • Alison brought out guests Darol Anger and Claire Lynch and later her road managers, who were kids about 11 and 7 and who brought the house down.
  • A train came by during her set, with classic Pullmans and people standing between cars to wave at us ... quite unexpected.
  • I ran into her husband/bass player on Sunday and thanked him profusely for that set, he was very gracious.
  • By then the sun was setting fast and it was time for ...

Sam Bush

  • Wait, how many different styles of bluegrass are there?  This was the best newgrass ... though "newgrass" is almost traditional by now.
  • Sam stuck to the mandolin and to his style, which meant he roamed around the stage and egged on the different players, then took the lead himself and out-did the fantastic run they'd just played.
  • The crowd loved this and was roaring with every new wave of frenetic sound to come up the hill from the stage in the suddenly dark evening.
  • They ended and we toweled off and realized we were exhausted already; but now it was time for ...

Railroad Earth

  • This is the finest jamgrass, another distinctive style.
  • They mellowed out perhaps a little too much at this point of the evening, but were all excellent players.
  • They were spread out over the stage, as far apart as possible, and each took a signal role in the sound, which was fascinating.
  • Would have loved to see their whole set, but we realized we had to pack up the chairs and bring them back to the cars (Andrew and D&T were long gone by this point) so we could grab places inside for the late show, which was...

The Infamous Stringdusters

  • OMG, yet another style: flashgrass!
  • They're great players but had a schtick, which was to play as fast and flashy as they could.
  • It was just a cascading series of instrumental breaks, each longer, louder, and more of a crescendo than the last, interrupted by a few tight vocal interludes.
  • One of the fun things was the curtain of lights they had, which focused around one player or the other when it was their turn to GO!
  • I was really exhausted by this point, almost asleep on my feet.  About halfway through the set I told the others I had to go and they agreed that they wouldn't mind getting out of there either.
  • It was a long, slow drive back to the condo, and we all staggered into bed again, some time between 12 and 1.

Couldn't believe it, but after a lousy sleep in a stifling room with a lumpy bed (ok, the condo wasn't perfect), I got up at 8AM again, ready for another day of music!  As is always the case, after settling into a place for two days it was a pain to get everything together and get out of there on short notice.  But we did and ended up hitting the road for the festival just a little after 10.

We had to park a bit farther away and were a bit later getting in the gates (there seemed to be a bigger crowd on Sunday), but we still had the chance to grab a great spot at the main stage.

And this meant I had a chance to tour the galleries!  I had seen their "boiler room" installation on Saturday, which is a literal boiler room, back from the days when coal and steam powered the mills that the Mass Museum of Contemporary Art currently occupies.  On Sunday I had time to see some of their other exhibits too, including massive installations by Teresita Fernández (and also some more intimate gold chrome paintings she'd done), and a panoply of spacey, runny oils by Darren Waterston.  Then the show started!


Salvation Alley String Band

  • The Courtyard D stage was first up again at 12:15 with a pretty much straight-ahead country act.
  • I caught a few numbers of their's; might have enjoyed them more but had to get out of there quickly for...

Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper

  • This was yet another kind of bluegrass, where there's one virtuoso and everything is centered on getting to the point in the song where he plays the bejeezus out of his instrument.
  • The virtuoso here was Michael Cleveland, a blind fiddler whom we've seen play with the best bands around and outshine them all, and who's a perennial contender for fiddler of the year.
  • Dave was again up front with me for this, he had bought into the gospel of bluegrass and believed me when I told him he would be blown away again by this guy.  He was.

Darol Anger

  • Next up was some more academic bluegrass, from current Berklee faculty member, Darol Anger.
  • He had his family on stage with him for several numbers and proved to be an excellent band leader.
  • He's also a fantastic fiddler and his glue was essential ... in all, a great mid-afternoon, mellow set.

Hurray For the Riff Raff

  • Wandered around a bit and then found myself back in the Courtyard for a few tunes by Alynda Lee Segarra's band, which had been at the GRF this year.
  • Yet another style: folk/Americana bluegrass!
  • She's got a strong voice and was rocking the enthusiastic crowd in the courtyard, almost packed again at this point.
  • But I got out of there and back to the field for ...

Martha Redbone Roots Project

  • Martha's got a unique mix of blues, soul, and American Indian music.
  • You might call this "roots-grass" if looking for another name for the style.
  • The high point of her set was a long, throbbing cover of Johnny Cash's Drums, from his Bitter Tears record (recently re-recorded by Welch, Rawlings, etc.).
  • This had the crowd going wild; but back to the Courtyard now for...

Liam Ó Maonlaí

  • Hadn't heard this guy, who sang some excellent Irish folk.
  • The highlight of his set was a beautiful, ringing cover of the traditional Lakes of Pontchartrain, naturally done in a Paul Brady style.
  • The packed Courtyard became even more full as I stuck around for the next set.  What we were all waiting for was one of the real name acts of the festival...

Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn

  • Béla and Abigail were delayed by the sound gremlins that had been around all weekend, but soldiered on.
  • They both had banjos of course, his with a huge body that was as resonant as Ó Maonlaí's bodhrán had been and her's as highly tuned as a banjo can get.
  • They played Béla's take on jazz bluegrass and Abigail's take on Chinese bluegrass, and then mixed the two and twisted us all around, and ended up somewhere totally delightful.
  • This had the absolutely jammed-in crowd gaping and roaring, but we (Sarah and Matt were with me) had to grab our chairs and struggle out of there suddenly in the middle of the set because we didn't want to miss...

The David Grisman Sextet (sometimes 7)

  • They were rocking on the field stage by the time we got there, and I eventually got down front and joined Dave, who was enthralled.
  • This was dawg-grass of the highest style, with covers of traditional songs, totally random jams, and Grisman songs from all eras, including Grateful Dawg!
  • Grisman brought out guests Darol Anger, Alison Brown and a guitar player from an earlier act who's name we missed.
  • This was music of the highest degree, purveyed by a musician of the highest pedigree, and up next was...

Emmylou Harris

  • She was the last act of the weekend and we were anticipating an incredible finale, but Emmylou unfortunately had a cold.
  • I was really disappointed because Matt had never seen her and was very, very psyched (we were both up front for the start of the set).
  • Emmy the veteran could not be faulted however, and several reviews I've read gushed about how great she was.
  • The fact was that though she was lacking in energy she laid down some great stuff, including One Of These Days (I've been lucky enough to see her do that song many times throughout the years), Luxury Liner, and of course Jesse's My Songbird.
  • Her old stand-by Byron House was on bass, and young Australian Jedd Hughes, was on lead and he shone as ever, including a lead on Luxury Liner that almost had Emmylou smiling ... she was obviously not feeling well.
  • The crowd shouted her back on stage for an encore, and she did a quick cover of Wheels.
  • Oh well, I've seen her many times and will see her again, I hope!

WOW ... time to get our things together and leave.  That had been 25 bands in the course of 2.5 days, plus food stalls, intense art, amateur pickers running all over the place, incredibly friendly staff (in all a great job by Freshgrass making us all feel welcome and happy), beer (Goose Island was my customary selection), and lots of happy people.  We had a few raindrops on Sunday and had suffered the cold on Friday evening, but there were also lengthy periods of blue sky and fantastic sunshine.  The weather generally held and it was as great as you'd want for a end-of-summer Berkshire weekend.

We made it back to the car and left by 8:00 or so with a long drive in front of us to get back East.  But it had been a wonderful weekend and we're already looking forward to doing it again next year!

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