The Green River Festival celebrated it’s 31st consecutive year this weekend, and what a resplendent weekend it was. The festival’s smaller physical size and family atmosphere, combined with a ton of locally supported crafts, arts and foods, makes it a standout in the country. The music helps a bit, of course. Green River roots itself with a love for and connection to all things Americana, and being presented by Signature Sounds, the esteemed record label that has championed a slew of incredible folk, indie, country and bluegrass acts across the years, this weekend was ripe with some of the most excitingly original acts making music today. Green River’s thirty-first weekend saw styles ranging from jam and garage rock, to neo-soul and hip hop, to latin, indie folk, and more.
The headliners for Friday night were Latin-rockers The Mavericks, who have been churning out music to the world for over 25 years. As the evening stayed misty with a light rain all night, The Mavericks kept bodies moving in the dirt with one danceable tune after the other. However, a top song for these guys was a slower number, a touching tune sung in Spanish and also recently recorded for a PBS special the band filmed on a musical concert excursion in Cuba. Friday night wrapped up in nice style with The Mavericks bringing out NRBQ’s former guitarist “Big” Al Anderson for a sit-in on Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell.”
Saturday brought both beautiful weather and standout musical acts. While solo folk artists like Dan Bern and The Suitcase Junket lit up the early morning main stage, The Four Rivers Stage provided something truly special: a set from Tank and The Bangas, whom are now known far and wide for their winning this year’s NPR Tiny Desk Contest. So there should be no surprise that the band garnered a massive audience for their midday set. While also having a formidable funk band behind her, Tank especially lives up to the hype as the enigmatic, yet enthralling, vocalist she comes across as in their NPR video. Dashing from free verse lyric work to chorus and back with non-stop enthusiasm and amazing dexterity, her and her sidekick “Jelly” are never less than incredible. A high point of this high set was the tune “Rollercoasters,” which combines stirring spoken poetry from Tank and repeating soulful climaxes from the band, making for a performance that held fest goers in awe.
The Main Stage was headed off Saturday night with a couple of the most anticipated acts of all, Houndmouth followed by Lake Street Dive. Houndmouth have developed over the last few years as a righteously bold new presence in modern folk rock, with music that has a grumbling indie heart powering behind some really amazing, sophisticated songwriting. In addition to brand new material, some of these prolific songs included favorites like “Penitentiary” and the beautiful set ending “Sedona.”
Then came the band that has actually been a mainstay at Green River, current musical superstars Lake Street Dive. The Saturday night headling spot was the fifth time the Americana-soul-pop quartet has played this festival, and they spent part of their night busting out some older songs in dedication to Signature Sounds founder Jim Olsen, whom had helped blast the band into the musical stratosphere after hearing their very first Green River set. The rest of the night hit newer songs, some not even recorded yet, and all of the material beaming out of these players was pristine, from Kearny’s sublime stand up bass work, to Mike Calabrese’s wild drumming style, to Rachel Price’s immaculate finesse as a band leader. This included more electrified takes on normally easeful numbers like “Don’t Make Me Hold Your Hand,” and high energy goes on the favorites like “Call Off Your Dogs.” After this big set, the foursome came back out to encore with another dedication to Olsen, this time a stirring take on Paul McCartney’s “Let Me Roll It.”
Green River Fest also provided an extra rare treat for its hardcore Lake Street Dive fans, in presenting sets from each of the band members’ various side projects, on The Parlour Room stage the next morning. To obviously hefty yet still intimate-feeling audiences, Rachel Price dueted jazz standards with musician friend Vilray, bassist Bridget Kearney demonstrated her flair for electric pop tunes from her debut solo album, and LSD’s guitarist and drummer got loud and punkish with their side project, Madame Uncle.
As for the rest of Sunday, Green River reached a real musical high in multiple places, with both new and staple bands throwing down one of a kind sets. Things started this day very soulful, with both blossoming Burlington star Kat Wright, and her Indomitable Soul Band and newcomers Chicano Batman. Kat Wright fully channels the spirit and sound of Amy Winehouse, but is also refreshing airwaves and concert venues with her own modern brand of upbeat, feel-good soul. She and her very tight band ran through a Stevie Wonder tune before a number of tracks from the singer’s newly released album.
Chicano Batman, meanwhile, truly vies against the rest of the lineup for most original musical creation. Fusing together the odd ends of a latin-jazz foundation with a punk-rock feel and tinges of both soul and psychedelica, the four piece from L.A. put on a terrifically played show, that was on one side raucous and unpredictable, and on the other side suave and intriguing. Being relatively new as well, they also hit a spread of their fresh originals, including an offering of their current radio smash-hit, “Friendship Is A Small Boat In A Storm.” Also worth mentioning is these crazy dudes’ keeping to their style of dressing to the nines in suits everytime they perform, even in Green River’s sweltering Saturday heat.
Meanwhile, the Main Stage started off the day with some of the most unique Americana music all weekend. Twisted Pine, opening up, matched their own indie rock-hearted bluegrass material with some very cool covers, including Vulfpeck’s “El Chepe” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” Dustbowl Revival, right after, also secured a very impressive crowd, and wowed the whole of it with their truly hip take on old time Americana. This eight-piece group has really updated their sound over the last few years, culminating now into an array of different styles and feels, from New Orleans funk to reggae to alt-country.
But Green River really did Sunday evening right, in having back-to-back-to-back sets from The Infamous Stringdusters, The Funky Meters, and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, and closing out festivities with jams upon jams. Starting with a textbook opener of “Rivers Run Cold,” the Stringdusters got straight down to business with a fast-picking, fast-grooving run through “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001),” and things only heated up from there. Their trademark air-tight playing had deft segues chain-linking an improvisationally rich set, which included both covers like the favorited “I Want To Take You Higher,” and some strong versions of tunes from their most recent album, Laws of Gravity.
The Funky Meters, the iteration of funk godfathers The Meters that features original members George Porter Jr. and Art Neville, have still got it. That is, if “it” is a fearless push of old school songs into bombastic, exciting throwdowns. Highlights like a “Cissy Strut” fake-out jam switching into a newer funk instrumental, amazing keyboard solos from Neville, and a big, slamming take on the classic “Fire on the Bayou” had Green River’s main field swirling with dancing excitement.
Finally, the other hugely anticipated set was that of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, who closed down the weekend in glorious fashion with replacement help from bassist Jon Shaw and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti. This JRAD set saw a lot of chill jamming, including “Feel Like a Stranger” that went way down low at first, a serenely slowed down “Mississippi Half-Step,” and in the end a “Good Lovin” that diverted into a uniquely mellow, relaxing groove. The other portions of this set smoked in true JRAD fashion, with a rare “Alligator” that delighted the crowd, an amped up “Franklin’s Tower” and a zany “The Other One” with teases of “Dark Star” and that segued very neatly into “Ramble on Rose.” The band encored and ended the 31st Green River Festival with “Not Fade Away,” which Tom Hamilton amusedly started off with “Terrapin Station” teases.
Fill in all the spaces between these dynamic performances with everything from early morning bluegrass jam sessions, to late night barn dance-a-thons, to hot-air balloon trips glowing bright in the sky for surreal aerial views each night, and you have a glance into the multifaceted magic flowing through Green River Festival. Thirty-one years in the books, and anyone from this fest’s history might attribute such lasting success to the vibrantly strong community making up Western Mass, an area that brings together hard-working, music loving people to host a weekend event the right way.
Written by Miles Hurley
Photographed by JD Cohen