“Everybody, look at the moon,” implored singer Toots Hibbert of Toots & the Maytals during the legendary reggae band’s headlining set at the Green River Festival in Greenfield, Massachusetts, last Saturday.
Night had fallen on the first day of the weekend-long music and arts fest, and the full moon – waning for a day, but still spectacular – loomed behind the crowd, next to a massive tree and over a field where rainbow-hued hot-air balloons launched hours earlier.
After a day of inspired and downright fiery performances by a wide range of musical acts – from Terry Adams and the New NRBQ to the up-and-coming Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears – the thick-voiced Hibbert was a salve, preaching a gospel of one-love and reggae-soul to an eager crowd stretched an arms-length away from him behind a security barrier.
If he had a church, even the atheists and agnostics among us would have joined it.
A powerhouse in a black vest and pants trimmed with Rasta red, green and gold, Toots led the Maytals – backed by a pair of shimmying singers that included his daughter Leba – through their stable of reggae and ska classics: the slow-burning “Bam Bam,” the steady-shuffling “Funky Kingston,” the pogo-ska hit “Monkey Man” and the influential, Clash-covered “Pressure Drop.”
Earlier in the day, when the burning sun was still out in force, Jim Olsen – the festival’s music director and head of western Mass. record label Signature Sounds – got onstage to introduce the early afternoon performance by NRBQ, who headlined the very first Green River Festival back in 1986.
Now opening the main stage 25 years later, the group led by pianist Terry Adams has a reconfigured line-up under its recently resurrected NRBQ banner, one that grooves thanks to drummer Conrad Choucroun, guitarist Scott Ligon and Saratoga Springs born-and-bred bassist Pete Donnelly of the Figgs. (Original NRBQ drummer Tom Ardolino also joined in on drums for a spell.)
But the spirit of the set was vintage feel-good NRBQ, and they thrilled the crowd (here, and then again during a second sweatier set in the festival’s “dance tent”) with NRBQ classics like “Me and the Boys” and “Howard Johnson’s Got His Ho-Jo Workin.’” Newer songs from the band’s recent “Keep This Love Goin’” album were just as well received, including the Donnelly-penned piece of musical beauty, “I’m Satisfied.”
Adams, his wild blonde mane tied back samurai style, took manic stabs at his keyboards throughout, grinning ear-to-ear and looking like a man reborn.
Maybe it was the gravitational pull of the moon, or perhaps it was the positive vibe generated by the Green River Festival’s skillful musical booking, lack of commerciality and overall community spirit. But the day was full of special moments.
Calling out “All aboard,” Tremé trumpeter Kermit Ruffins stirred up a swinging party, New Orleans style, on everything from the Louis Armstrong standard “What a Wonderful World” to Spiral Staircase’s widely covered 1969 single “More Today than Yesterday.” A closing medley found him cleverly inter-splicing Police’s “Roxanne” with Gnarls Barkley’s more recent smash, “Crazy.”
Over in the dance tent, Miss Tess & the Bon Ton Parade (featuring Sweet & Lowdown) got things moving with their “modern vintage” melting pot of classic swing (“Hit That Jive, Jack”), old Southern jazz (“Up the Lazy River”) and traditional country (Patsy Cline’s “Turn the Cards Slowly”).
“Would you like to hear something slow?” Miss Tess asked at the end of her set. “No!” shouted the dance tent crowd in unison. The normally well-mannered denizens of western Mass. then laughed, as if they had surprised even themselves, and Miss Tess complied by firing up the Elvis Presley hit “That’s All Right” instead.
Carolina Chocolate Drops garnered one of the best receptions of the day. The crowd loved the offbeat four-piece, who had a beatboxer (Adam Matta) on percussion and a banjoist (Dom Flemons) who simultaneously played quills, a traditional African-American pan flute.
The quartet, which also featured multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins and vocalist Rhiannon Giddens, dug way deep in their record crates to showcase lesser known early American songs like Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Polly Put the Kettle On” and Ethel Waters’ “No Man’s Mamma,” an ahead-of-her-day battle cry for the newly liberated woman.
Before Toots & the Maytals closed the night on the main stage, two Texas bands rocked it: Dallas’ Old 97’s and Austin’s Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears.
“Old 97’s have a knack for taking a show and turning it into a train wreck. Not right now. We’ve got it on the rails,” announced Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller during a holy-shit-that-was-amazing kind of show that found the band revisiting some of their best songs from the nineties (“Barrier Reef,” “Big Brown Eyes,” “Doreen”), along with a few from their latest, “The Grand Theatre Volume Two.”
The band kicked it into overdrive on “Timebomb,” Miller and bassist Murry Hammond (in over-sized Harry Potter glasses) standing at the lip of the stage, Miller singing the romantically jaundiced lyrics that he’s known for – in his cadence that just rolls, rolls, rolls. Meanwhile, hot-air balloons (you could pay for rides) soared overhead, and their passengers waved to those of us on the ground. Perfect.
Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears had the flair and retro-soul style of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, but with less polish and coordination. Black Joe Lewis himself isn’t much of a frontman either, standing glued to the mic and not moving much, focusing his attention on his guitar. But blues-garage-soul numbers like “Big Booty Woman” and “Master Sold My Baby” are so good, they don’t need much else.
Called back for an encore, the band ripped through a jaw-dropping cover of “Surfin’ Bird,” the garage classic that television’s “Family Guy” turned into an infectious brain virus. Have you heard?
Review by Kirsten Ferguson
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk