There have been plenty of times in my life when a variety of obstacles, issues of space or time or income versus expenses or psychology, would have kept me from doing something like driving a couple hours out to Massachusetts, staying in a motel, and going to a music festival. I’m sure some of those obstacles may crop up again soon, but for now, I am free. Now deep into my thirties, I am learning to savor the times in my life when things align just right and I can provide myself with these types of experiences. When I was trying to decide, several months ago, which festival I’d make my big commitment to this summer, there were a lot of contenders. But when I saw the lineup at The Green River Festival, with a preponderance of really quality bluegrass-influenced acts, quirky and interesting indie rock bands, and some stuff I knew I would be able to get lost dancing to, then imagined all this going down amidst a backdrop of New England bucolia, I knew it would be the experience I wanted. It didn’t disappoint. Here are some of the ultra-talented performers and big-name headliners that impressed me the most…
THE STRAY BIRDS
A trio of multi-instrumentalist songwriters, The Stray Birds have a really nice chemistry that flows from the members’ differing styles melding together. Fiddler Maya de Vitry writes thoughtful, observational lyrics that tell stories about the people and places she meets on the road touring, with a strong social consciousness. Imagine if an anthropologist were required to report on her case studies by soulfully belting out Americana songs, and you get some idea of her style. Oliver Craven provides a nice complement, penning tunes that tell first-person stories from the perspective of characters Cash or Guthrie would appreciate – inmates and dirt farmers and regretful lovers among them. Bassist Charlie Meunsch provides a steadying vibe onstage and ties the group’s spine-tingling vocal harmonies together. The band’s self-titled debut album earned rave reviews back in 2012 for songs like “25 to Life”:
The Stray Birds are currently on tour in support of their second album, Best Medicine,[i] which finds them more fully integrated as a unit, their voices meshing together more powerfully while their instruments weave in and out of one another more naturally. While their sound is strongly rooted in traditions of Appalachian string music, their songs’ subject matter breaks through cultural boundaries and stereotypes. At the festival, Meunsch described a confrontation he had with a confederate flag-waving audience member at a recent gig before de Vitry dedicated their song “The Bells” to historical leaders of the civil rights movement:
THE MILK CARTON KIDS
I had known about The Milk Carton Kids for a few years before seeing them live for the first time last weekend at the festival. Every time I heard their music, I listened intently, thought, “Wow, that’s really nice,” and then never felt compelled to download one of their albums or listen to more.[ii] Sometimes I save bands for later; it’s nice to know there are acts out there building quality catalogs I can immerse myself in when the mood strikes. Seeing their name on the Green River lineup kind of forced The Kids to the forefront of my consciousness, and I have started to come under the swoon of tunes like “Michigan,” off their 2011 album Prologue:
Their set in Greenfield was equal parts polished and professional and fragile and moving. So much of Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale’s music is defined by an annihilation of their separateness; their voices blend together, neither one ever pushes to the front, and while they both write lyrics individually, their literary styles are indistinct. On stage, they wear matching black suits with white shirts and black ties, sing face-to-face, guitars pushed up close to a single microphone. But each brings a single, calculated element to their performance that is completely theirs. Ryan takes all the leads, and while his licks rarely stand out or drift too far from his partner’s rhythms, the sharp, deliberate, penetratingly precise notes that make up his fills and carry the duo’s instrumentals are entirely his own. In between songs, while Ryan either stands back silently tuning his guitar, or plays the reluctant straight man, Pattengale steps forward and delivers some of the best and most original stage banter I’ve ever experienced. The guy is a legitimate comedian who’s deadpan style is a little like a less depressed version of Stephen Wright with a really nice head of hair. Here are the Milk Carton Kids performing their song “Secrets of the Stars,” off their new album Monterey, live on the second stage:
THE LONESOME BROTHERS
Opening up on the main stage on Sunday afternoon were The Lonesome Brothers, local legends in Western Massachusetts, where they have been based over the length of a 30-year career playing what they self-deprecatingly call “Hick Rock.” The core of the band is the dynamic between the musical soulmate pairing of guitarist Jim Armenti and bassist Ray Mason,[iii] who trade off writing songs. Armenti stands tall and sleeveless on stage, long gray hair tied back in a pony-tail, belting out songs that have earned him repeated comparisons to Neil Young over the years (the band’s overall sound is really reminiscent of the grizzly jams Young has authored with Crazyhorse). Here are The Lonesome Brothers performing Armenti’s “All Around You,” perhaps their most well-known song, live in Northampton, MA back in 2009:
Mason provides juxtaposition as an affable, zany humorist who can take on even the darkest topics with a tone of goofy playfulness. Here he is singing his song “Frozen George” at the festival:
As I’ve written extensively on this site, I love me some Sean Rowe.[iv] His warm, engaging baritone and signature guitar style of knocking out beats on the body of his guitar provide an awesomely unique medium of transmission for his stellar songwriting. His non-musical life, which consists of spending weeks in the wilderness foraging for food and sleeping on the ground, combined with a deep commitment to his wife and child, who accompany him on tour, makes him a character rife for folk mythology. His last two albums, 2012’s The Salesman and the Shark and last year’s Madman, are two of my favorites, full of subtle and spacious, Leonard Cohen-esque ballads and upbeat and soulful foot shufflers. Listen to his track “The Drive” to get a sense of just how sweet and romantic this big bearded woodsman can get:
His set at Green River, like all of his live performances I have seen over the years, are absent the additional instrumentation and backing on his albums — it’s just he and a guitar. His song “Desiree” off Madman is a disco-flavored celebration on record,[v] and I’ve danced to its diverse percussion and glockenspiel fills in my living room a dozen evenings. Singing it solo in concert, he still manages to get that festive, danceable feel through a combination of reverb guitar and rhythmic vocals. Take a look:
Like Rowe, Valerie June is a supremely talented and unique musician and songwriter who wandered a long road that eventually led to stardom. Born in Jackson, TN, June moved to Memphis as a teenager and spent the next ten years cutting her teeth at bars and café’s, self-producing two albums. In 2011, she broke through, collaborating with Old Crow Medicine Show and Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, who would go on to produce her album Pushin’ Against a Stone.[vi] The record is almost overwhelmingly good, and it ignited a critical firestorm that has catapulted Ms. June into the kind of spotlight her abilities deserve. On the album, her songs are presented as a varied collection of styles that stretch over the popular traditions of African American music, sort of a fusion of old time blues and country and 1960s soul arrangements. Listen to her infectious single “Workin’ Woman Blues”:
On stage, she was accompanied by only a drummer and a bass player as she cycled through a variety of string instruments she wields capably, including her “baby banjo ukulele.” Her songs were by turns sweetly beautiful, powerfully moving, and hair-raisingly intense. For me, the highlights of her set came at the end, when she gave me goosebumps with her chilling murder ballad “Shotgun,” and soothed our ears with the haunting and mystical “Twined and Twisted,” which she claimed came to her one night in a dream:
There may be little I can say to add to what has already been written about Punch Brothers (though I did try). They are simply the pinnacle of bluegrass-influenced musicianship and pioneers leading the way for all the performers that would hope to innovate and grow beyond traditional string-band structures. I was thrilled to see their set Sunday afternoon at Green River. It was so cool for me to see the young members of Twisted Pine standing just in front of the stage during their performance, drinking in the music with huge smiles beaming from their faces. Punch Brothers are showing the way for a generation of young acts who grew up immersed in the Americana and Roots music craze, and want to keep the folk traditions alive, but also create something new in that context.
Cheered back onstage for an encore, Thile and company blew us away with “a little morsel of traditional bluegrass,” fast-picking their way through Charlie Poole’s “The Girl I Left in Sunny Tennessee”:
Want to hear more from this incredible weekend of music? Check out Part One of our coverage of the Green River Festival, and listen to our podcasts featuring The Stray Birds and Twisted Pine, and Arc Iris and The Suitcase Junket.
[ii] It might have something to do with my long-term allegiance to the music of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. How much room is there in one man’s life for pairs of brilliant songwriters who capture the richest folk traditions stylistically, while also attaching lyrically to an introspective mentality that is devastatingly timeless? How much space can I devote to coupled musicians whose contrasting acoustic guitar styles meld together into a singular melodic line that combines broad, sketchy strumming with precise, clear, flat-picked notes? Oh boy, I think I’m really talking myself into becoming a big The Milk Carton Kids fan here.
[iv] Check out my review of his performance earlier this year at Club Helsinki in Hudson, NY, this article about his cover of Cat Power’s “The Colors and the Kids,” and our podcast featuring a full length interview and some of his songs.
[vi] I think Auerbach has a golden touch as a producer, I love both this record and the Locked Down LP he engineered for Dr. John, and some of the lesser known projects he’s facilitated are really nice too.