Big Ticket: Green River Festival returns next weekend

  • The Mavericks Courtesy David McClister

  • The Suitcase Junket Courtesy Joanna Chattman

  • Lake Street Dive Courtesy Danny Clinch

  • Tank and The Bangas COURTESY Gus Bennett Jr.

  • Joe Russo’s Almost Dead

For the Bulletin
Thursday, July 06, 2017

You should have purchased your tickets and stocked up on sun block by now, because The Green River Festival is one week away. One of the highlights of summer here in the Pioneer Valley is the three-day music festival, which will be held on July 14 through 16 on the grounds of Greenfield Community College. Now in its 31st year, the festival, which started out as a birthday celebration for radio station WRSI, has blossomed into one of the finest small music festivals in the country. In 2015, The New York Times, USA Today and Rolling Stone magazine all cited it as one of the best festivals in the country.

The festival’s stellar reputation is a deserving one as year after year they present a diverse lineup of music that features established artists alongside exciting newcomers. The music begins on Friday evening and continues all day Saturday and Sunday. And, as in past years, you’ll hear dozens of acts on three stages playing Americana, folk, pop, Latin, bluegrass, reggae, rock and more. In addition to all the music, you can enjoy local crafts, brews, food and fun activities for the kids. And let’s not forget — the hot-air balloons!

“We try and make it a little bit different each year,” said festival director and talent buyer Jim Olsen of Signature Sounds, who works year-round putting the lineup together. “We keep what’s working while trying new things.” Signature Sounds assumed the full operation of the festival from the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce in 2014. The Chamber still presents the hot-air balloons.

Last year, for the first time, camping was made available at the nearby Franklin County Fairgrounds and will be offered again this year.

Next Wave Stage

One new addition for 2017 is the Next Wave Stage, on which some of the best young bands from our area will perform on Friday night. In the spring, Signature Sounds held a competition where they invited bands with members age 18 and under to submit their music for consideration. Rockers Kalliope Jones from Shelburne Falls and the indie-pop band Court Etiquette from Northampton are among the five bands chosen.

“It was an idea from one of our staff members, Liz Gardner, who is our food vendor coordinator, who thought it would be great to have a way to bring in the next generation,” said Olsen. “We have three stages, and we don’t use one on Friday night, so it seemed like a logical thing to do. There is so much great young talent around here that it wasn’t hard to find good bands to play.”

Olsen also said as a way to allow more young people to experience the festival, they decided to make admission free to everyone 18 and under on Friday night only. Admission is always free for kids 10 and under.

For the kids

Festival organizers work hard to make sure that the kids have as much fun as the adults do.

“We really pride ourselves on trying to be as kid friendly as possible and try to find ways to keep kids engaged,” said Olsen.

In an effort to do that, they have added KB Whirly’s Magical Musical House on Saturday and Sunday. The Magical Musical House is described as house, home stage and an instrument all in one.

“It’s a tiny house on a back of a flatbed trailer and he (KB Whirly) is kind of a kid version of The Suitcase Junket,” Olsen explained. “Inside the musical house, there is a whole interactive display of musical instruments, So between sets of the music, kids can go in and fool around with that stuff. We thought it was a really cool addition to what we do.”

The Magical Musical House Stage will host a full lineup of musical performances for kids including shows by The Sweetback Sisters and singer-songwriter Dan Bern.

Main Stage

Olsen has been the talent buyer for the festival since it began in 1986. There are some acts he has chased after for years before finally landing them. This year, The Mavericks, who will play Green River’s Main Stage on Friday night, are that band.

“We have wanted to have The Mavericks forever. I feel that they are one of the great live bands. Raul Malo, the singer, is incredible,” said Olsen of the band that blends elements of rockabilly, Latino, folk and blues to create a one-of-a-kind sound. “So we’ll start with a bang on Friday night.”

In 2004, The Mavericks went on a 12-year hiatus. But since returning to the scene, their robust live shows and new album, “Brand New Day” has led National Public Radio to accurately dub the band “party starters.”

While The Mavericks are newcomers to the festival, the jazzy pop group Lake Street Dive will perform for the fourth time at the festival when they take The Main Stage on Saturday night. The group, which features powerhouse vocalist Rachael Price, has seen their career take off in recent years. They’ve played sold-out shows throughout the country and won over crowds at huge festivals like Bonnaroo, The Telluride Bluegrass Festival and The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The first festival they ever played was right here at The Green River Festival in 2010. It will be a treat to welcome them back.

“We realized that they had never headlined a day at the festival even though they had played three times before their career took off. So it’s fun to bring them back as a headliner,” said Olsen, who signed the band to his Signature Sounds record label after seeing them perform for a total of six people at The Rendezvous in Turners Falls.

“It feels very special and a little intimidating. I vividly remember the first time we played at Green River Festival, the evening’s headliner was CAKE and we were all huge CAKE fans,” said Bridget Kearney, Lake Street Dive’s bassist. “It was exciting just to be in their presence. We danced to all their hits and felt super cool to be playing on the same stage as them. To now be headlining that same stage seems crazy!”

Kearney added that the band will try hard to put on a “super, party-time, dance-till-you-drop set for everyone.”

Even with the demands of Lake Street Dive’s non-stop touring schedule, Kearney found time to release a solo album this year — the poppy “Won’t Let You Down.” She will perform a solo show on Sunday on the festival’s Parlor Room stage. Her bandmates will also bring their solo projects to that same stage on Sunday.

Parlor Room Stage

Another change this year is that The Parlor Room Stage will now be under a tent and offer seating.

“It will be a venue for quieter music and a place to get out of the sun,” Olsen explained. “There will be seats for about 200 and then some standing area in the back. We always try to provide as much shade as possible.”

With acts like New Orleans legends The Meters and alt-country band Houndmouth playing on The Main Stage, it might be tempting to set up your lawn chair and stay there, but be sure and check out the other two stages. The Green River Festival is all about discovering your next favorite band and you’re likely to find them playing on the smaller stages. Were you lucky enough to catch the now arena-headlining Avett Brothers set at the festival in 2006?

Worth the hype

Every year, there’s at least one act generating strong buzz. This year, Olsen feels that the jazzy soul/ rock band Tank and The Bangas from New Orleans is one you won’t want to miss. The group, which blends hip-hop and spoken word into their sound, will play the festival’s Four Rivers Stage on Saturday. They recently received a nice career boost when they beat more than 6,000 other acts to win NPR Music’s Tiny Desk concert contest.

“Tank and The Bangas were unknown four months ago until they won that contest. And now they have really exploded,” said Olsen. “They have never made a record, so it’s all based on live shows.”

Olsen also mentioned Chicano Batman as another band getting a lot of attention.

Local talent

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention all the great local talent that will be at the festival.

The Suitcase Junket, Matt Lorenz’s project, recently sold out the Shea Theater in Turners Falls when Lorenz held a CD release show for his new album, “Pile Driver.” He will return to The Green River Festival with his impressive one-man-band show.

Beige, a band fronted by longtime Pioneer Valley musician Steve Westfield, will make their debut at the festival, as will Workman Song and garage -pop band Hammydown. Also returning to the fest will be the harmony-heavy group Darlingside.

Closing out the weekend

The weekend will wrap with Joe Russo’s group Almost Dead, offering up creative interpretations of Grateful Dead tunes. In 2009, drummer Russo, one half of the Russo/Benevento duo, received a call from Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead asking him to join Further — a band Weir was forming with Dead bassist Phil Lesh. Russo quickly learned 160 tunes and joined the band.

“It is kind of different for us, I have to admit,” Olsen said. “We were looking for the right thing for Sunday and for what could be cool. We are at the 50th anniversary of a very pivotal time in American music. I feel what The Grateful Dead did was so revolutionary in their music... and with all that has happened this past year, it would be a cool time to revisit that.”

Almost Dead puts their own spin on Grateful Dead songs from all eras of that band’s illustrious career. They don’t duplicate the tunes; instead, they take an adventurous approach and even inject non-Dead music into the mix. But one thing the band does have in common with their musical inspiration — they play long shows.

“We are giving them a two-hour-and-15-minute set, which is long for our festival,” said Olsen, who also mentioned that the band has never recorded their music — a first for a headliner at the festival. “They are really true to the spirit of the music without being so reverent. And they are also just really, really good. I think people will enjoy it.”

There’s so much music to enjoy at this festival and we’ve only scratched the surface here.

If you still need tickets and want to view the full schedule, visit www.greenriverfestival.com.

And if you’re interested in hearing some of the bands that will be featured at the fest ahead of time, check out The Green River Festival playlist on Spotify.