As the snow falls every winter amidst the rolling hills of Franklin County, Jim Olsen has an eye on the warmer climes of summer while he’s hard at work booking bands as the producer for the annual Green River Festival.
“You end up putting together this jigsaw puzzle and make the pieces fit well,” Olsen says. “It’s really challenging, it’s really fun. I feel like the 29 years of doing this has served me well.” He adds: “One of my favorite things about this is that we’re planning this in the dead of winter and you have this vision — you picture this perfect summer day and night, and what would sound good where, on which stage, to mix these things. It’s really fun.”
Once upon a time, the festival was actually two events, a hot air balloon festival and a concert commemorating the anniversary of legendary local radio station, WRSI, happening on adjacent weekends. Then, the two consolidated in 1986, leading to the festival as it’s known and beloved today. And this year’s is right on the horizon: a three-day festival starting Friday at Greenfield Community College with a lineup that features Steve Earle And The Dukes, Punch Brothers, tUnE-yArDs, J Mascis, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and roughly three-dozen others.
But despite the weight of its lineup, Green River’s concept is a really simple one: find the best mix of all types of quintessentially American music and showcase these eclectic sounds over the course of a (hopefully) sunny summer weekend.
“Obviously, we’re big music fans,” offers Olsen. “We like a lot of different stuff and the general idea is a pretty wide definition of American roots music. That’s sort of where we start. We’re not the kind of festival that spends all the money on one or two big names and then fill in below with acts that are up and coming, local bands kind of thing. We’re interested in booking a diverse group of artists that come from different camps of music and that’s how it all comes together. “
At the intersection of these types of music is one of Sunday’s performers, Sean Rowe (Main Stage, 12:55 – 1:40 p.m.). A native of nearby Troy, New York, Rowe is blessed with a baritone voice that sounds like Barry White, while crooning over a perfectly mixed permutation of rock, soul, and blues.
“It’s coming from a lot of different places,” Rowe says of his work’s influences. “A lot of the guitar stuff I drew a lot from Mississippi Delta Blues, like John Lee Hooker. He was a big early influence on me. American black music in its totality really drew me in as a kid. Soul music, funk music—all that stuff.”
In 2014, Rowe released his latest full-length effort, Madman, on Anti Records. Rowe’s early Sunday afternoon set should prove to be one of the must-see blocks of the weekend’s festivities.
This mix of music has brought the festival to a new three-day format, a departure from its customary Saturday and Sunday schedule of years past. Olsen believes the 2015 iteration of Green River has acts for each musical persuasion. The festival truly casts a wide net — from Friday night’s folk-powered showcases; to Saturday afternoon’s double-dip of 1990’s power-pop provided by Polaris (Four Rivers Second Stage, 2:35 – 3:20 p.m.) and Western Massachusetts grunge icon J Mascis (Main Stage, 4:05 – 5:05 p.m.); and the Americana sounds of Sunday Main Stage headliners the Punch Brothers (4:55 – 6:10 p.m.) and Steve Earle and the Dukes (6:40 pm – 7:55 p.m.)
For the festival’s producer, Sunday afternoon’s set from legendary New Orleans jazz troupe Preservation Hall Jazz Band (Main Stage, 3:15 – 4:30 p.m.) will be a long-time labor of love in trying to book the band over the years finally coming to fruition. Hailing from a legendary room that has housed the true American art form of jazz since the turn of the 20th century, Preservation Hall’s wall of sound is not your normal run-of-the-mill group.
“Preservation Hall Jazz Band take that original jazz and turn it into funk and all these other kinds of music,” Olsen says. “They love to collaborate with musicians both of their kind and the world, like Foo Fighters, and the Del McCoury Band. They’ve collaborated with all kinds of people, but they’re still true to their original vision of the band, which I think is really cool.”
Preservation Hall’s jazz sounds won’t be the only act this weekend bringing with them a legendary pedigree to the campus of Greenfield Community College. Saturday evening will see Booker T. Jones (Main Stage, 5:30-6:45 p.m.), a legend singularly and with his MG’s, take his generation-spanning soul catalog to the fest’s largest forum.
Jones is one of those artists that Olsen had on his growing wish list of artists for many years and this year the pairing of artist and festival finally fit.
“Booker T is the most famous musician you’ve never heard of. He’s on more great soul records than probably anyone,” Olsen said. “[Booker T & the MG’s] ended up being the house band at Stax Records, so he was all kinds of records from Otis Redding to Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett and a lot of the great soul music from the ’60s that we love still. Bands even now imitate that music; also Booker T over the years has done a lot of other things with all kinds of people like Willie Nelson, Sharon Jones, and all kinds of people. I think his set is going to be really fascinating and really interesting.”
And like anyone attending a festival, let alone organizing it, Olsen has his own can’t-miss sets. He mentions Antibalas (Saturday on the Four Rivers Second Stage, 9:40 – 11 p.m.), Parker Millsap (Sunday on the Second Stage, 2:30 – 3:30 p.m.), and Lydia Loveless (Saturday on the Four Rivers Second Stage, 4:50 – 5:50 p.m.) as some of the more under-the-radar artists to be checked out along with the bigger names.
GREEN RIVER FESTIVAL :: Friday July 10 to Sunday, July 12 at Greenfield Community College, 1 College Dr., Greenfield, MA :: $19.99 (Friday) to $59.99 (Saturday or Sunday) to $99.99 (three day pass); all-ages :: Advance tickets