Rising stars and rolling stones: The Green River Festival returns

  • Michael Franti, whose music melds reggae, folk, soul and hip hop, will headline Green River on Saturday, July 14. Image courtesy Green of River Festival

  • Old Crow Medicine Show, which headlines at Green River on Sunday, July 15, won a Grammy award for best folk album in 2015. Photo courtesy of Green River Festival

  • I’m With Her — no relation to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign slogan — is made up of folk-country singers Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins. Image courtesy of Green River Festival

  • Veteran Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen last played the Green River Festival in 1993. Photo by Darren Carroll

  • Molly Tuttle, who Green River director Jim Olsen calls “a rising star” on the bluegrass scene, is a graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Image courtesy of Green River Festival

  • The Green River Festival has long included regional artists in its lineup, and this year Valley rockers Old Flame will be part of that group. Image courtesy of Green River Festival

  • Acclaimed singer-songwriter Josh Ritter made his debut with Northampton’s Signature Sounds in the early 2000s; he headlines Green River Friday, July 13. Photo by Laura S. Wilson/courtesy of Green River Festival

  • Music fans at the 2017 Green River Festival, which this year turns 32. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Balloons illuminate last year’s Green River Festival. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • People take advantage of the shade at The Parlor Room Stage Saturday at the Green River Festival. July 15, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Paul Franz

By Steve Pfarrer
Published: 6/29/2018 9:21:01 AM

As much as sweet corn, humid days and backyard barbecues, summer in the Valley is marked by outdoor concerts — and no outdoor music event packs as much punch as the Green River Festival, with 40-plus acts over three days on the grassy Greenfield Community College campus.

The festival, which this year takes place July 13-15, has been a mainstay in western Massachusetts since its modest beginning in 1986 as a concert featuring just two bands — NRBQ and 10,000 Maniacs — that was staged to celebrate the then five-year anniversary of WRSI-FM, as well as a balloon fair, both at GCC.

But the festival grew steadily over the years, with the concert and the balloon fair merging into one event in 2001, and in 2015, a sudden profusion of national publicity gave Green River some bigger headlines: Rolling Stone magazine, The New York Times and USA Today all put the festival on their “must-see” lists of summer concerts.

That’s meant no shortage of business, says Jim Olsen, Green River’s longtime talent buyer and for the last five years the director (under the rubric of his Northampton record label and production company, Signature Sounds Presents, whose dedicated crew has been handling much of the festival’s production for years). 

But Olsen says the summer concert scene has also gotten pretty competitive in the five years or so, making it something of a seller’s market. “So many festivals have popped up, and there are only so many bands to go around,” he says, adding that he tries to compensate them well.

It also means that just a few months after Green River finishes, he needs to start thinking about next year’s edition. “By September, we’re already having conversations [with bands] about the following summer.”

Judging from the lineup for Green River 2018, those conversations last year were fruitful. The festival, with three separate stages, has long been known as a showcase for Americana — folk, bluegrass, swing, country — but it’s also featured indie pop, funk and soul, New Orleans jazz, and straight-up rock, all of these varied sounds offered by a mix of newer artists as well as music industry veterans. In just the last few years, Los Lobos, Steve Earle and J Mascis have been among the latter. 

This year, the Americana lineup is particularly strong: Sunday night headliners Old Crow Medicine Show; young bluegrass star Molly Tuttle; the folk-country “supergroup” I’m With Her; seasoned blues/folk singer-songwriter Chris Smither; and the high-energy Boston string band Twisted Pine.

Alongside that are indie rock musicians and bands like Lucy Dacus, Doctor Dog and Deer Tick, as well as reggae/folk/hip-hop singer Michael Franti, who will headline the festival’s main stage Saturday night with his band, Spearhead. Local bands, as always, are part of the mix: This year’s lineup includes Bella’s Bartok, Old Flame and Khalif Neville (son of the late Charles Neville). 

Green River is also about return engagements — sometimes spaced far apart. Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen, who has been something of a cult figure in Americana music (but a star in Texas) since the late 1980s — Joe Ely, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, George Strait and numerous other artists have recorded his songs — returns to the festival this summer after a long absence. Keen last played Green River in 1993.

“I’m sure he doesn’t remember it,” Olsen quipped. “But it’s great to have him back.”

The 2018 edition of Green River has a number of other highlights. For just the second year, the Friday night concerts will include a “Next Wave” stage featuring four up-and-coming regional rock bands whose members are mostly (or entirely) 19 and under. In addition, anyone 19 and under can attend Green River for free that night.

And Olsen says he’s excited about a selection of world music bands that will play on a separate stage Friday night, including Orquesta Akokán, a 14-piece ensemble from Cuba that released a mambo-flavored album earlier this year that’s received rave reviews. Other world music artists include Ana Tijoux, a Chilean-French hip-hop singer.

“It’s a really good bunch of groups, just really good musicians,” he said.

Green River 2018 will be green in another way: Among a number of moves to reduce its environmental footprint, including running one of its stages by solar power, the festival will not have any plastic water bottles for sale this year. Beer will be sold in reusable steel cups, and concert-goers are encouraged to bring their own water bottles or buy a Klean Kanteen “steelie” that they can fill up at any of the festival’s water stations (details are at greenriverfestival.com/go-greener).


The music

Here’s a look at some key performers at Green River 2018.

Michael Franti and Spearhead — When last seen at Green River in 2009, Michael Franti drew a huge crowd on stage, while before the set he could be seen kicking a soccer ball around with a bunch of kids, which is kind of emblematic of the loose, block-party dynamic of Green River. The Oakland native, the product of a mixed-race couple who was later raised by white adoptive parents with another adopted African-American son, has long blended different sounds — folk, pop, soul, hip hop (and, early in his career, punk) — while singing about larger political issues such as peace, racial injustice and environmental problems.

A filmmaker and poet as well as a singer, Franti’s been celebrated for his soulful voice and lyrics that look at the challenge of finding one’s way in a troubled times, as in “It’s Good to be Alive Today” in which he sings “This world’s in crisis, we try to fight it, this changing climate / With scientists and politicians divided by it / So many ways we could solve it but they would never sign it … What if everyone could say / That it’s good to be alive today.”

Old Crow Medicine Show — About five years ago, the song “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show began getting heavy rotation on 93.9/The River and many other radio stations around the country. The tune was a huge hit for the longtime Nashville string band, whose music has been variously labeled old-time, alternative country, and folk, and which won a Grammy for best folk album, “Remedy,” in 2015.

“I just see them as a kind of freewheeling, fun kind of band,” says Olsen, who notes Old Crow has played twice before at Green River but before they became a big name. “It’s like ‘Let’s break out the fiddles and have a good time.’ ”

Molly Tuttle — Molly Tuttle, who Olsen calls “a rising star” on the bluegrass scene, is making her first appearance at Green River, though she played in Northampton earlier this year as part of Signature Sounds’ Back Porch Festival. A singer, songwriter, guitarist and banjo player, and a graduate of Boston’s Berklee School of Music, Tuttle last year became the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association's Guitar Player of the Year award — when she was just 24.

I’m With Her — This acclaimed trio consists of roots musicians and songwriters Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins, acoustic multi-instrumentalists who all had solid solo careers but got together a few years ago to record and play as an ensemble. The New York Times says their harmonies and instrumental interplay can be “sweetly ethereal, or as tightly in tandem as country sibling teams like the Everly Brothers, or as hearty as mountain gospel.” Oh, and they came up with their name before Hillary Clinton made it her campaign slogan in 2016.

Orquesta El Macabeo — An 11-member ensemble from Puerto Rico, this salsa band, by some accounts, has not been playing by the rules. A 2017 article by the online magazine Bandcamp Daily describes the group weathering various critics on the island, predominantly more traditional salsa bands, who say its music is “an affront to good taste” and its attitude “too brazen.” But they’ve also toured overseas to great success and infused their sound with punk, ska and other styles, says Bandcamp: “Members have acknowledged that they are, in every sense, punk rockers who play salsa.”

Josh Ritter — The acclaimed singer-songwriter and Idaho native got his start with Signature Sounds in the early 2000s and has been building on that initial success ever since, winning recognition in 2006 in Paste magazine as one the 100 “Greatest Living Songwriters” alongside names like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. With a sound that’s embraced folk, Americana and a bit of rock ’n’ roll, his music “sets out to carry a world of ideas on a few basic chords,” The New York Times once wrote. “There is no limit to the depth and ambition of his songs."

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

For more information on The Green River Festival, including ticket prices, nearby camping, children’s activities and more (ballon rides!), visit greenriverfestival.com.






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