The Green River Festival in Greenfield, Massachusetts was first held in 1986, back when the focus was on hot-air ballooning. When I started going, long ago, the balloons were still there but the music came from at least three stages. The festival kept growing at Greenfield Community College until last year, when COVID shut it down. But in 2021 Green River was back, now at the Franklin County Fairgrounds.
The three stages were scattered in and around the very nostalgic fair buildings, which made a nice change. There wasn’t as much shade as at the college, but quite a bit of atmosphere. Attendees were “strongly encouraged” to come vaccinated, but it wasn’t required.
I made it to Saturday and Sunday. Here’s what I saw, in order. Bella White is a fine Canadian singer-songwriter, signed to Rounder. White’s guitar was accompanied by fiddle and upright bass, a neat trio format. She’s very comfortable on stage, and has material that I wrote in my notes “is very good but looking for that spark of genius.” A standout was “Do You Think of Me at All?” She said the Stanley Brothers were her models for it, and that’s a recipe for classic country. George Jones was another influence, manifest in a real tear-jerker, and weren’t those Guy Clark and Louvin Brothers songs she did?
I loved Appalachian Still, who are local to the Northampton area. They had a guitar/banjo/fiddle front line and favored a breakneck form of bluegrass/old-time. They performed a lot of classics with gusto, including “The Race is On,” “Cumberland Gap,” “Salty Dog,” “Get Up, Jake” (an obscure Band song), and more. Maybe you saw them open for Del McCoury.
The overlap of the sets meant some acts I saw only briefly. I caught a bit of Kris Delmhorst, who was in fine form. A song she did called “I Fly Away” was absolutely killer—it should be a single. Delmhorst is a prolific album artist, check out her latest, Long Day in the Milky Way. A singer named Peter Moore, from Texas, well, I heard only the last few notes of his last song. Sorry, Pete!
Ghost of Paul Revere were very loud, not very melodic, and also swore a lot—which seemed inappropriate given all the children present. Other groups that didn’t ring my bell all that much included Whiskey Treaty Road Show, Ani DiFranco, Cimafunk and the Beau Sasser Trio.
Much, much better was New York-based Underground System, stars in the making. Frontwoman Dominica Fossatti is unbelievably dynamic, a powerful dancer, singer, flute player and songwriter. The music is afrobeat meets Talking Heads, in the best possible way. The horn section was killer.
Zara Bode of the Sweetback Sisters is a big-voiced, standard-loving jazz singer fronting a band that featured venerable sax and trumpet players, plus the great Anna Patton as musical arranger and clarinet artiste. And that was her husband, Sam Amidon’s brother Stefan, on drums. He was in the Sisters, too.
JD McPherson did a solid rockabilly set, backed by standup bass, saxophone and drums. If the form is a bit limiting, well, it’s got three chords and the truth. The Rebirth Brass Band, a group I first saw at least 20 years ago, remain in rude good health. I still love the tuba, and not one but two trombone players.
With just her banjo and guitars (electric and National steel) Valerie June was transcendent. This was one of the best performances I’ve seen by her. She’s intense, funny and cosmic at the same time. And deeply humanistic, wanting us to see the glory of sharing the planet at this unique moment in time. She celebrates “the sun going up and down and the beauty of it all.” As to that unique voice, it’s the product of 18 years in church. “The World’s Not My Home” is from page 356 of the hymnal.
The Little Roots are from Florence, Massachusetts and specialize in teaching folk music to kids. But they’re entertaining as a duo, too. If you’re in Florence, don’t miss the circa-1941 Miss Florence diner.
Fiddle player/guitarist/banjo picker/singer/songwriter Rachel Baiman is a national treasure, solo and with 10 String Symphony. I saw her on the main stage performing her own songs with Miss Tess (a transcendent front woman in other contexts) on bass. Her songs are pretty good, but she really excelled on Andy Irvine’s “Never Tire of the Road.” More on her later.
Bonny Light Horseman feature, of course, the playwright Anais Mitchell of Broadway phenomenon Hadestown fame, and her presence is perhaps why the people were packed in by the stage. But the music bore no relation to Broadway, Hamilton or anything like that—it was mostly excellent revivalist folk from the U.S. and Britain. “The Roving,” now that’s a fine song. “Greenland Whale Fisheries,” I think I first heard it by Peter, Paul and Mary. “Bonny Light Horseman” is itself a honey of a song that dates to the Peninsular War against Napoleon (1807–1814). The hymn “Children, Go Where I Send You” never gets old. “Blackwaterside” is via Anne Briggs, and influenced Bert Jansch (and Jimmy Page, too).
What was Mandolin Orange is now Watchhouse, still featuring Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz. They’re both strong singers and songwriters, and Marlin is a mandolin wizard. Their set went down easily, and long codas were typical. “Beautiful Flowers,” sung by Frantz, was a standout.
Also Marlin’s “The Wolves.” I’d like to see the two singers sing in unison or duet a bit more. We sat behind the cello player’s mother.
Watchhouse, in fine form, celebrating John Hartford. (Jim Motavalli photo)
As I noted after seeing her at the Red Wing Festival, Sierra Ferrell is headed for great things. At Green River her fine guitar work was combined with a fiddle and mandolin—the poor bass player got left behind. Ferrell has a powerful voice with its own country twists, and is a prolific songwriter and interpreter.
In all the moving around I caught just a bit of Ranky Tanky, from the Georgia Sea Islands. Quiana Parler is riveting as the lead vocalist, and Charlton Singleton is both a singer and spirited trumpet player. They looked very happy to be there. This is the kind of group that used to be featured at the Newport Folk Festival in the 50s and 60s.
And then the finale, a tribute to John Hartford, curated by Baiman. What a delight! Artifact Cider was my favorite stage at Green River, though they all had great music on them. Roots! John Hartford was overdue for a salute, and he got a great one here, featuring many of the acts from the show—Baiman’s band, Appalachian Still, Twisted Pine, Ali McGuirk, Watchhouse, Sierra Ferrell.
The versions were all loving, and pointed up the durability of Hartford’s compositions. “Gum Tree Canoe,” “Long Hot Summer Day,” “Tall Buildings,” “Steamboat Whistle Blues,” “Gentle on My Mind,” “Back in the Goodle Days,” great to hear them all. The next day I had to do a John Hartford marathon through my headphones. That Bonny Light Horseman set sent me back to the originals, too.
Thank you Rachel Baiman, and thank you Jim Olsen for doing this festival for 35 years.