Summer with no music? Green River Festival postponed until July 2021

  • Las Cafeteras plays the Green River Festival in 2018. FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The jazz-pop quartet Lake Street Dive closes out a Saturday night show at the Green River Fesival in 2017. FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Rockers Low Cut Connie get into the groove at the Green River Festival last summer. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The crowd at Green River in 2017 is feeling it for Tank and the Bangas. FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • An iconic moment at Green River in 2017 as the hot air ballons begin to inflate behind the crowd at the festival’s main stage. FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Saturday, May 02, 2020

It has been a staple in the Valley for over three decades, a landmark musical and cultural event that’s as much a part of summer here as sweet corn and backyard barbecues.

But this year, the Green River Festival is getting swept up in the wave of disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jim Olsen, the festival’s producer and longtime talent buyer, said today that Green River 2020, scheduled for July 10-12, has been postponed until July 2021, with the hope that many of the bands and artists slated to play this year will be on the bill next summer. Ticket holders for this year’s event are being encouraged to hold onto them for next year, with some “exclusive perks” (to be announced) for those who do so.

In a phone interview, Olsen, also the president of the Signature Sounds record label in Northampton, said it became increasingly clear in recent weeks that with the safety concerns surrounding the novel coronavirus, and the uncertainty about when the state will lift restrictions on large pubic gatherings, Green River 2020 could not take place.

“The planning for this is year-round, just really long-term, and we were at the stage where we had to start putting a lot of things in place to make [the festival] happen,” he said. “But we couldn’t go forward with that not knowing if it could actually take place.

“We’re just in uncharted territory,” added Olsen, who noted it was not clear whether Greenfield Community College, the longtime host of the three-day music festival, would even be open to the public in July (there is currently only limited public access to the campus).

Having to postpone this year’s festival “is really sad. It just feels like a big hole in my heart,” he continued. “The last time I wasn’t involved with putting this on was in 1985.”

Indeed, it was in the summer of 1986 that Olsen, then working with WRSI-FM, helped organize a concert with two bands — NRBQ and 10,000 Maniacs — to celebrate the radio station’s then-five-year anniversary. Over the years, the summer music festival steadily broadened, and it eventually merged with another event, a balloon fair produced by the Franklin County Chamber Of Commerce, to become the Green River Festival.

With as many as 40 acts and three days of music, Green River has carved out a niche for itself over the years as a showcase for Americana — bluegrass, swing, folk, country — and has also featured indie pop, funk and soul, New Orleans jazz, world music, rock and more. The festival has hosted plenty of veteran and well-established acts, such as Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Los Lobos and Punch Brothers, while also offering a platform for up-and-coming and regional artists.

Green River also flashed onto the national radar in 2015 when The New York Times, Rolling Stone and USA Today all listed the festival as a “must-see” summer show.

That has translated into about 6,000 people on average attending each of the three days of the festival, says Olsen — meaning lots of people generating money for the local economy through hotel and motel rentals, eating at restaurants and buying food and drink from vendors at the festival, and using other local services.

“We usually bring in about 800 people who camp at the Franklin County Fairgrounds,” he said.

Putting the festival together is an all-hands-on-deck effort, he noted, with about 40 employees (including all of Signature’s staff) and another 400 volunteers doing the job alongside numerous contractors, from a company that handles the sound system to another that provides port-a-potties.

Olsen said he and his staff kept a close eye in the past weeks on what other summer festivals were doing; as other venues announced cancellations, it became harder and harder to imagine Green River would not be affected, he noted. Just yesterday, the long-running Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals were canceled.

“If the artists we’ve booked are also scheduled to play these other events that then get canceled, it becomes more likely [the artists] are going to cancel their tours,” he said. “They’re unlikely to come for just one event.”

Signature Sounds, already hurt by the cancellation of its shows this spring at The Parlor Room, the Shea Theater and other venues where it presents music, is facing another punch from losing Green River, which Olsen says typically costs over $500,000 to produce. “It’s a pretty big hit,” he said. (The label has earned some money for artists and itself in the past six weeks from donations generated through a livestreaming series of concerts called The Parlor Room Home Sessions.)

Given the overall loss of revenue, though, Olsen hopes many of the 3,000 or so people who have already bought tickets for the 2020 festival will be willing to hold onto them for next year, though he said he understands that someone who is struggling financially may well want a refund. Ticket holders will receive emailed instructions no later than May 7 for applying for a refund. All refund requests must be submitted by May 31, according to Signature Sounds; refunds will be processed no later than June 7.

Olsen said he already has spoken to all the artists who were slated to play this year, and at least half have committed to playing in 2021; others would like to but can’t make a decision yet because so much in their own lives is up in the air.

“We’re looking at a summer with no music, where people can’t come together like they usually do, no baseball season,” he said. “We just don’t have a road map for this.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com. For more information, visit greenriverfestival.com.