The Best Songs Win at the Green River Festival 2014

My all-time favorite summer music event is the Green River Festival in, appropriately enough, Greenfield, Massachusetts.

Not only is it chock-full of great artists, many of them from the peerless Signature Sounds collection, but it’s also extremely well run, with affordable and wide-ranging food (Aurora’s Gypsy Café food truck from Connecticut was a favorite), plentiful porta-potties and beautiful music with clear sound on three stages.

dave alvin

Dave Alvin tears it up on rootsy electric guitar. (Jim Motavalli photo)

It’s hard to pick favorites, but I’m a critic, right? In rough order, Dave and Phil Alvin with the Dirty Ones, Puss ‘N Boots, Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Parsonfield (formerly Poor Old Shine), Shinola Revue with Freedy Johnston and Syd Straw, James Hunter Six, Josh Ritter.

Duds: Trombone Shorty (going for the commercial gold), Lady Lamb the Beekeeper (getting her big break on the main stage, but ruining it with useless bombast), Heather Maloney (tunefully challenged), The Lone Bellow (Nashville country noise).

First, the good stuff. Dave and Phil were together in the Blasters in the 1980s, but haven’t played together much since. They’ve reunited on their shared passion for the Big Bill Broonzy catalog. That could result in something respectful and archival, but instead it was insanely exciting. I had no idea Dave Alvin was such an exciting live electric guitarist. And that drummer!

lisa pankratz

Lisa Pankratz of Dripping Springs, Texas works up a rootsy groove. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Lisa Pankratz, where have you been the rest of my life? Aside from looking cool, she was mammothly funky, and even rocked a drum solo. Pankratz was also part of Dave’s excellent “Guilty Women” project. Here’s the Green River group on video:

I’ve never seen Norah Jones or my fave Sasha Dobson live, so Puss ‘N Boots was a great place to start. As on their brand-new record, they take turns on the lead, and harmonize beautifully. They transform old warhorse material like Tom Paxton’s “Leaving London.” And who knew that Norah Jones (who never cracked a smile, as far as I could tell) could be such a fiery electric guitarist?

hurray for the riff raff

Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff is a magnetic leader. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Hurrah for the Riff Raff got moved off the main stage because of scheduling problems, which turned out to be fine because they’re great in a smaller setting. Alyndra Lee Segarra is a magnetic performer, using the Americana tradition to tell new stories. “The Body Electric,” for instance, takes the hoary murder ballad and asks why all these gals get taken out by all these guys. No more! It stops here! Here they are on video:

The Shinola Revue brought back Syd Straw of the Golden Palaminos after a long absence, at least from my life. Boy, can she belt. A combination of Janis Joplin and Patti Smith, I’m thinking.

James Hunter is the consummate showman, and Josh Ritter is surprisingly jovial and cheery in concert—even when he’s introducing a pretty downbeat song. Parsonfield cross Band-like songcraft with huge amounts of youthful energy. The Dirty Dozen practically levitated the field, with some young members of Dirty Bourbon River Show respectfully sitting in. Trombone Shorty, listen and learn. It doesn’t have to be ear-piercing to rock the house.

And that brings us to the duds. A few too many groups at Green River can play and sing, but lack any memorable songs. These include the Deadly Gentlemen, the aforementioned Heather Maloney, that beekeeper woman and, alas, Girls, Guns and Glory, who were otherwise quite fine.

Let’s have a rule of thumb here: If you don’t got the tunes, perform covers. Or woodshed, study the greats, and come back when you’re really ready to go on stage. One of the problems is that audiences, particularly for jam bands, aren’t all that discriminating. But just because there’s wild applause, doesn’t mean the songs are connecting. They didn’t with me.