Live Review: Western Mass provides the perfect backdrop for Green River Festival’s eclectic sounds

Think for a moment of some of the best summer weekends you’ve had in year’s past. Surely, there’s a lot of fun, sun, and a great soundtrack. This past weekend, Signature Sounds looked to capture some of that vibe with the 29th annual Green River Festival, where music of all varieties under the umbrella of Americana reverberated throughout the rolling hills of Franklin County.

The up-and-coming roots music scene in Western Mass veritably got its own showcase on Friday night as artists from the region’s folk ranks took to the festival’s two primary stages. Among the Friday night artists basking in the twilight glow of the festival’s first night was nearby Northampton’s own Heather Maloney.

Maloney’s latest record, Making Me Break, a disc produced by Band of Horses’ Bill Reynolds, made its presence felt throughout her set. Standouts included album leadoff track, “Linger Longer,” and a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” from Maloney’s EP co-starring Darlingside.

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The local love between artists and audience carried over into Saturday as Polaris took to the second stage. Fronted by Springfield native Mark Mulcahy, the band best known for being an integral part of 1990’s Nickelodeon show, The Adventures of Pete and Pete, ripped through an hour’s worth their jangly power-pop including “Hey Sandy,” best known by the predominantly 20-something crowd as the previously mentioned program’s theme. Throughout their set, bass player Scott Boutier (a.k.a. Jersey Polaris) looked like the happiest guy in Greenfield, smiling and rocking with his Fender P-Bass on his hip.


Up the hill from the second stage, Langhorne Slim and the Law treated the Main Stage audience to songs new and old. The band’s Eagles-esque pop-folk-rock cocktail got the band hyped to the point where Slim dove straight into the crowd and borderline crowd-surfed (crowd-walked, really) during a raucous performance of the band’s latest single “Strangers.”

Saturday afternoon also featured another 1990’s Western Massachusetts legend in J. Mascis. The Dinosaur Jr. frontman’s set was maybe the loudest of the festival’s solo sets as Mascis plugged in his pair of sunburst cutaway acoustic guitars into an effects pedal launching an unplugged performance into another stratosphere of sound. Ever the strong, silent type, Mascis bantered with the crowd on just two occasions—first after breaking a string on his delightfully dour cover of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You,” and second to poll the crowd on which other cover he should play.

Faced with the ultimatum of Lynryd Skynrd or The Cure, the sun-soaked crowd clamored for Robert Smith and company, leading Mascis to rip into an awesome solo take on “Just Like Heaven.”

Saturday’s second and third stage options provided a pair of diamonds in the rough amongst what was surely billed as crown jewels. After a history-traversing main stage performance by Booker T. Jones — a walking, talking full-on Sonic Highways-type docu-series housed in the body of man, listeners standing in front of the Four Rivers Second Stage were treating to the Banghra-by-way-of Brooklyn sounds of Red Baraat. This energetic eight-piece fused their Middle Eastern roots with big beats to keep their crowd hyped and engaged. Even as local performers Big Nazo (a Western Mass institution featuring actors in elaborate costumes including Saturday’s alien get-ups) and a funky extra-terrestrial vibe to the affair.

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On the adjacent third stage, Saugerties, New York, native Marco Benevento stole a good chunk of the crowd from main stage headliner tUnE-yArDs during a bouncy, atmospheric Saturday twilight set. Benevento and band ripped through much of his latest effort, Swift just as the sun set on an eventful afternoon. Benevento was joined by And The Kids’ Hannah Mohan, frontwoman for a local band on the rise, for the set’s final tune, “At The Show.”

Saturday was capped off by a performance by the ever dance-y, funky, and just-flat-out-fun ruckus known as Rubblebucket. The Brooklyn band’s headlining set is a triumph for the band that played the very same fest a couple of years earlier, and they their cues from frontwoman and baritone sax-tress Kalmia Traver during the band’s nearly two-hour set. Highlights of Rubblebucket’s set was an extremely energetic rendition fo “Came Out of a Lady” that, according to various accounts was so loud, that its horn section parts could be heard down Colrain Road, a few hundred yards from the venue.

In many religions, Sunday is a day for worship and reflection. Sunday at Green River Festival 2015 morphed into a quasi-religious experience throughout much of the day’s proceedings.

Tennessee-bred singer-songwriter Valerie June provided the afternoon’s passionate homily with her country ditties including “Somebody to Love,” “You Can’t Be Told,” and “Tennessee Time.” June also treated the crowd to the origin story of her ukulele-sized banjo, aptly named The Baby.

June was seen walking around the festival grounds on Saturday afternoon taking in the aforementioned Booker T. Jones set. That sense of musical appreciation was evident in her set as she referenced her appreciation the bands before and after her on the Greenfield grounds. June then ceded the stage to New Orleans jazz legends the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. If Valerie June presently the stately southern sermon on the afternoon, Preservation Hall, led by bandleader Ben Jaffee, gave their best rollicking recessional.

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The octet’s sweet brass sounds turned the tide from reflection to an all-out party in a matter of seconds. In addition to master-class level of jazz instrumentation, the band’s Clint Maedgen and Ronell Johnson provided pitch-perfect vocals on such standards as “You Are My Sunshine,” which was aided by some serious crowd participation.

After the recessional, comes the nice, hard-earned post-mass drink on the porch, and musically speaking that very thing was provided by the Chris Thile-led Punch Brothers. The band’s live set makes their studio efforts considerably pale in comparison as their mandolin-banjo-fiddle-guitar jams are given more space to breathe and stretch out.

The band roared through material from their latest effort on the Nonesuch Records imprint, The Phosphorescent Blues, including “Julep,” a song with very strong connections to enjoying a cocktail on the porch of a beautiful summer’s day, “Magnet,” a jovial tale of post-date compatibility issues, and album starter “Familiarity.” Where the Punch Brothers swung for the fences and connected on Sunday was with their humorous songs and stage banter. “Rye Whiskey,” and “This Girl” were spot-on examples of this along with Thile’s early set lamenting of his favorited tennis player, Roger Federer’s loss that morning across the pond at Wimbledon.

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Smack dab in between the Punch Brothers set and Steve Earle and the Dukes’ time on stage, Arc Iris took to closing the third stage with their brand of glam rock collided with folk offerings. The band is a new outfit featuring Jocie Adams, formerly of The Low Anthem, and features an insane melting pot of sounds ranging from baroque pop to jazz and classical. Clad in a gold jumpsuit and face paint, Adams, ever the acerbic frontwoman, kept the small, but continually swelling crowd into it as their set went on into the evening.

Nearly the very moment Arc Iris’s set ended, Texas country/blues/rock legend Steve Earle and the Dukes took to the Main Stage to close things out. Earle’s set, a decade-crossing, rocking good time spanned old favorites like “Copperhead Road” and “The Galway Girl” to new songs off of his latest disc, Terraplane.

Earle’s raspy voice was aided by his side players Eleanor Whitmore (fiddle and pedal steel) and guitarist Chris Masterson throughout the festival closing set. Whitmore provided an awesome solo vocal on “Baby’s Just as Mean as Me,” as she channeled a dash of Dolly Parton and a pinch of Patsy Cline. Masterson’s licks provided just the right amount of twang for Earle’s Texas shuffle fare to keep the crowd’s feet moving to the band’s groove.

Upon ending with a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” a tune covered twice during the weekend (the other by Jones on Saturday), the Green River Festival came to a close with a fresh sense of positivity — and a weekend well spent.

Follow Greg Cameron on Twitter @Greg_Cameron.