Freshgrass Festival Is More Than Bluegrass
This was my second year attending the five-year-old Freshgrass Festival, held annually on the grounds of Mass MoCA in the Berkshires. Everything about this Festival is terrific, from the music to the crowd to the food vendors to the setting. This year, the weather was perfect as well – and included a rainbow that appeared auspiciously during Vieux Farka Touré’s ethereal set.
I was able to see every set because the set times are staggered. I love that I do not have to make choices about which act to see when. Please make sure to look at the gallery of photos at the end of this review.
Day two (although my first day) of the festival started with Boston-based Cat and the Moon. What a great way to start the day! I knew of this band and have seen two of its members, Ricky Mier (banjo) and Kathleen Parks (fiddle), in other projects, so I was excited to see Cat and the Moon.
Playing Celtic bluegrass, they had the early morning crowd dancing – no small feat at 11:30 in the morning!
In addition to Ricky (winner of last year’s banjo contest) and Kathleen (second place at this year’s fiddle contest), Eamon Sefton on guitar, Charles Berthoud on bass, and Elias Alexander on percussion and border pipes complete the band.
Next up on the Courtyard Stage was Quiles & Cloud, a folk-y band based in the San Francisco Bay area. Composed of Maria Quiles (pronounced key-lace) and Rory Cloud, both on guitar and vocals, and Oscar Westesson on upright bass, they perform original tunes that have brilliant harmonies.
This trio clearly has much chemistry among them; they move easily around the old-timey mic without any apparent effort.
Winners of the 2014 duo contest, they appeared throughout the weekend with many other acts performing at the Festival. I enjoyed hearing them and speaking with them briefly after their set.
First up on the Joe’s Field stage were three bands from Berklee College of Music. Each was given about 15 minutes to perform and each took great advantage of that. I enjoy hearing the voices of the future.
The third band, Lula Wiles, has gone through a few name changes over the past year but this one is here to stay. Students at Berklee, Isa Burke, Ellie Buckland and Mali Obomsawin are engaging and talented musicians who have a great career ahead of them.
Back to the Courtyard I meandered to hear Birds of Chicago, a band I saw for the first time over the summer and loved. This set was made even better than that one by the addition of slide guitarist Joel Schwartz. They call their style ‘rock and roll poetry’.
Husband and wife JT Nero on guitar and vocals, and Allison Russell on lead vocals, banjo, clarinet, and ukelele formed the band several years ago, and were joined by Schwartz on slide guitar and Chris Merrill on bass.
There is a wonderful ethereal quality to their music.
I returned to Joe’s Field to see Mr. Sun, a fairly traditional bluegrass band. This is a quartet of extraordinary musicians.
Darol Anger on fiddle, Joe K. Walsh on mandolin, Grant Gordy on guitar and Ethan Jodziewicz on bass comprise Mr. Sun. I have no idea why they chose this name but their music certainly brings warmth to their audiences.
Next on the Courtyard Stage was The Ballroom Thieves, a band I have gotten to know personally as well as musically, and I was excited for their début at this Festival. This has been an exciting year so far for them and their star continues to rise.
Composed of Martin Earley on guitar, Devin Mauch on percussion, and Calin Peters on cello, with all contributing both lead and backing vocals, this trio performs original music in a style they call alternative rock and folkin’ roll.
Toward the end of their set (which the crowd absolutely adored) they were joined by Charlie Rose, a multi-instrumentalist who played banjo for them at this show and who also played on their recent release, A Wolf in the Doorway. Do yourselves a favor and buy this album.
Alison Brown and her quartet were next on the main stage. Alison is another traditional bluegrass musician who is involved with the Freshgrass organization.
She is backed by her husband (founder of Compass Records) Garry West on bass, Joe Davidian on keys, Bryon Larrance on drums, and a fiddle player whose name I cannot recall.
Late in the set, I’m With Her (more about them later in this review) joined this band to add some gorgeous vocal harmonies to the music.
Lost Bayou Ramblers, a Cajun band from Louisiana (as you would expect), is a band I was excited to see (not that I was not excited to see everyone else); I adore Cajun and Zydeco music but I had never seen the Ramblers before this Festival.
Louis Michot on fiddle and vocals; Andre Michot on accordion; Jonny Campos on guitar and vocals; Korey Richey on bass; and Eric Heigle on drums comprise the Ramblers in a traditional Cajun configuration.
This band was a great addition to the Freshgrass Family and makes sense at a Festival that is based in bluegrass traditions.
The rest of the day was spent at Joe’s Field. Next up was Vieux Farka Touré with Julia Easterlin. Vieux is a guitarist from Mali who primarily plays desert blues. His current project with Julia is more interesting than I expected, and I expected to love it.
The set consisted mostly of music from their current release, touristes, which I had not heard before this day. It is somewhat trance-like (and I mean that in the most positive way) and is a bit of a departure from Vieux’s general style, but I think it is fabulous.
I apologize for not knowing the names of the band members; they added a lovely dimension to the music.
I’m With Her, a collaboration of Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan was next to the stage. I have seen each of them separately on a number of occasions, but this was my first opportunity to see this act and was eagerly anticipating it.
I have one word for you – WOW! Each woman has a fabulous voice, but together they are possibly greater than the sum of the their parts!
In addition to having stellar voices, each is accomplished on her instrument of choice: Sara on fiddle, Sarah on mandolin, and Aoife on guitar. The style is mostly bluegrass, but has Celtic and folk influences. I could have listened to them for the rest of the night and intend to see them on any upcoming date in Boston!
Last up on the main stage (not the last act of the evening – Leftover Salmon – which I missed) was rockabilly star Dwight Yoakam. I saw Dwight for the first time at the beginning of the summer, and loved him then. I think this set was at least as good and maybe better.
He started the set with one of his biggest hits, ‘Little Sister’, and from there played both old favorites and songs from his terrific latest album, Second Hand Heart. Dwight has a voice that is rich and pure, and I doubt I could ever tire of hearing him.
His band is fabulous; I believe they are Mitch Marine on drums, Jonathan Clark on bass, Eugene Edwards on lead guitar, and Brian Whelan on accordion.
The next day, some who were in the audience told me that Dwight was too loud. I think he was perfect!
As is usual at this Festival, this was a day of fantastic music of many different styles. Well organized, well run, and generally a blast, I am proud to be a part of the Freshgrass family!
Ticket courtesy of Freshgrass Festival; all opinions are my own.
Posted on September 26, 2015, in concert photos, concert reviews, music, Uncategorized and tagged Aiofe O'Donovan, Alison Brown, Birds of Chicago, Cat and the Moon, concert photos, concert review, Dwight Yoakam, Freshgrass Festival, I'm With Her, Julia Easterlin, Lost Bayou Ramblers, Lula Wiles, Mr. Sun, music, Quiles & Cloud, Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, The Ballroom Thieves, Vieux Farka Toure. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.