Review by Fred Rudofsky
What follows is a narrative as much as a review….
I arrive at the verdant grounds of Greenfield Community College after two hours on the road listening to CCR, Jimi Hendrix and B.B. King. Cordial cops direct the traffic and volunteers with smiles as big and warm as the noon day sun greet the ticket-holders at the gate and pass out event schedules. There is audible anticipation – after all, many of us music fanatics bought our tickets months ago.
The Green River Festival, an annual event, began over 25 years ago, and it is safe to say that if you have gone to it once, you will go again. This is my fifth time. Several thousand attend each day, and for good reasons. For the price of a typical concert ticket at SPAC, one can see over 30 bands in a weekend. The sound at all three stages is impeccable, and the bands play at a high level, whether they are new to the scene or established acts. It is a progressive event, too. Local food vendors and artisan and craft merchants are spread out all over the grounds, and environmental and community causes get the spotlight, too. In 2013, the festival organizers have made recycling a priority, so bins are conspicuous and easy to use. In short, this festival is a paragon of how to host live music without the mindless pollution that summer gatherings can bring.
Each evening, an array of multi-colored hot air balloons, weather permitting, take flight over the fields, which is quite a sight to behold from the stage, as I learned a couple of years ago while chatting with Emmylou Harris. That brings up another point: at Green River, the opportunities to meet the musicians abound, whether they have just played the Main Stage, or the intimate Yonder Stage and Local Hero Stage.
Slaid Cleaves, formerly of Maine and based in Austin for the past 20 years, strolls out onto the Main Stage with Chojo Jacques on fiddle and mandolin. He straps on his weathered acoustic guitar and greets the audience with a smile before launching into one of his best-loved songs, the autobiographical “My Drinking Days Are Over.” (The song’s ironic given the setting: while some may find the festival’s alcohol-free policy off-putting or even draconian, it is a stroke of genius. Families can bring their children to enjoy music from all over the world without the lager-lout behavior and language. The heat index soars during the set, so even a cold beer would be unwise to imbibe anyway). “Still Fighting the War,” the title cut of his recent album, offers a cogent take on the war on terror and the long-term effects of battle for our brave men and women, who “go off to war for a hundred reasons/ But they all come home with the same demons.” Shielded a bit from the sunshine, Cleaves nonetheless cracks, “Thanks for braving the heat and imminent death by thunderstorm!” The storm never arrives, but songs of heartbreak and hope do follow: “Broke Down”, a song about a small town in decay, is one that Springsteen or Dylan would covet; “Welding Burns” examines the glory days of the Portsmouth, NH shipyard; “Texas Love Song” features clever rhymes, swinging fiddle and yodeling declarations of love. Yodeling has become a Cleaves hallmark, no doubt inspired by his reverence for the “Pavarotti of the Plains,” the late Don Walser, the subject of the next song, “God’s Own Yodeler.” Cleaves even plays a Walser tune, “A Rollin’ Stone from Texas,” and the joy expressed in each lyric elicits whoops from the crowd. The thirteenth and final song, “Give Me One Good Year,” offers a heartfelt pledge of commitment to a spouse, rooted in acknowledging the hard knocks that life doles out.
Afterwards, Cleaves greets a long line of fans at the adjacent merchant tent. When I say that I first saw him play in Albany at Valentine’s over a decade ago, Cleaves exclaims, “I loved playing that place!”
Slice of white garlic/yellow squash pizza in hand, I walk rapidly down to Yonder Stage. A small but dynamic acoustic combo, Caravan of Thieves, is in mid-set under the tent. A couple of hundred, all ages, sing and clap and dance along to a thumping klezmer-like take on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Likewise, the original “Raise the Dead,” a perfect drinking song, gets a healthy response. A seamless medley of “I Will Survive”/”Staying Alive”/Beethoven’s “5th Symphony” straddles the line between cheesiness and genius. Look for this talented band at Caffe Lena in Saratoga on August 23.
I head up the hill for another slice and some H2O, and head back over to the Main Stage. Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside, a quartet, are in the middle of their first song, which features a surf-rock beat and lots of twangy reverb. The songs that follow have more of a Velvet Underground approach, or so I think given that Ford’s voice, while booming, is flatter than Lou Reed with a cold. Four songs in, I’m not impressed; I hate to say it, I’m bored.
Opting for the Hero Stage, I catch a brief part of the set by Bright Lines, a five-piece who are in the middle of a scorching take on Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man.” Their roots range from Vee-Jay and Chess Records to Sun Records (“Cash Crop” draws equally from the Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins wellspring).
Walking across the field, pausing to allow the trolley train of kids and parents pass by, I hear the Yonder Tent applaud Poor Old Shine. Rooted in acoustic sounds that call to mind the Band and the Grateful Dead, the five-piece band has the crowd in a spell with songs like “It’s Hard to Sing a Love Song,” “The Ghost Who Lives Next Door” and the natural sing-along of “Anita.” It’s an entertaining portion of the set, but I note the time and realize it’s time to head back to the Main Stage for J.D. McPherson, who was a highlight of the festival in 2012. (PS: You can catch Poor Old Shine at Club Helsinki in Hudson on Friday, August 30.)
A large contingent of roots music fans is crowded up to the fence in front of the stage. I see my old friend, Jason Smay (formerly of Los Straitjackets and the Hi-Risers) setting up his drum kit and yell hello. In a few minutes, the stage crew has the sound levels and mics all ready to go for the band that has many in the crowd excitedly talking before a note has been played. What a set it turns out to be, 14 songs in total, many from the excellent Signs and Signifiers. “Dimes for Nickels” opens with a burst of energy that never lets up. McPherson plays gritty rhythm and lead guitar; Jimmy Sutton thumps the upright; Doug Corcoran wails on the tenor sax; Ray Jacildo channels Johnnie Johnson and Lafayette Leake on the piano; and Smay swings and rocks the drums masterfully. Ike Turner’s “You’ve Got to Lose” is fantastic in its dynamics, alternatingly soft and loud. “Fire Bug” gets anybody left who’s been reclining on the lawn up on their feet. Sutton takes the lead vocal on Charlie Feathers’s gem “Stutterin’ Cindy”; he mixes the drawl of Slim Harpo with the full-throttle approach of Lux Interior. The closer, “Wolf Teeth,” a three-minute song on record, gets stretched out under the afternoon sun, with each musician playing a kick-ass solo. At least 500 dancers are jammed in front of the stage at this point. Blessed with acute peripheral vision, I spot to my right, 50 feet away, a beautiful red-headed gal in a long, diaphanous, white dress pirouetting and cartwheeling in time to the music. Where she gets the energy to dance like that has me intrigued and in awe.
Founded in 1964, the Skatalites, Jamaica’s houseband nonpareil are greeted on the Main Stage by a hearty roar. Their resume reads like a Caribbean version of Booker T & the MGs or the Meters; that’s how influential they have been, even with all the line-up changes over the years. Eight pieces lock into ska, rock steady and reggae grooves for several instrumentals (“The Russians Are Comin'” and “Guns of Navarone”) and even vocal opportunities (Delroy Wilson’s “Can’t You See” and the Wailers’ “Simmer Down”) for special guest Doreen Shaffer.
After that set, I seek out the shade and good music emanating from the Yonder Stage. Near the end of their set, the Duhks are playing a wild Acadian reel; folks are dancing like maniacs. “Black Mountain Lullaby” follows, and what a contrast in mood and tempo it offers. The song is inspired by the horrific story of a three-year-old boy who was killed by a massive boulder unleashed down a hill by a negligent mining company in Wise County, Pennsylvania eight years ago. Woody Guthrie would love the song, I think to myself. They next play a Scottish reel to lighten the mood; it sounds like one I’ve heard Natalie MacMaster play, but I cannot place the title. I see my friend, Danni, off to the side by the stage. She’s smiling like we all are. When the band closes with a funky, banjo-driven “Got On My Traveling Shoes,” nobody wants the music to end. Expressing their gratitude, The Duhks return for a rousing bi-lingual “Went Down to the River,” hitting the three-part harmonies with ease.
The Devil Makes Three, a band I’ve heard about but never heard, are up next at the Main Stage, so I amble in that direction. Featuring banjo player and guitarist Cooper McBean, acoustic guitarist/frontman Pete Bernhard and stand-up bassist Lucia Turino, they initially come across like Southern Culture on the Skids but with darker lyrics. The topics range from intoxication (“Having a Hard Time Walkin’ a Straight Line” and “That’s Me”) to gospel folk (Doc Watson’s “Ain’t No One Goin’ to Help You Carry That Load” and “Take My Bones to My House”) and back to shameless intoxication again (“Thank You, Jack Daniels” and “Spirits Rushing in My Veins”). “Help Yourselves” takes a sly swipe at the religious hypocrisy and conflicts in the land, while “Do Wrong Right” gets the crowd revved up in a libertarian sing-along, dance frenzy, a preview of what is to follow.
By now, the sun is setting. The balloon launch had been postponed earlier because of the threat of thunderstorms that ultimately never arrive. Thankfully, the temperature is finally dropping. Roadies and the festival volunteers scramble like a NASCAR pit crew during the setup for Gogol Bordello. The crowd chants the band’s name and tosses beach balls like graduates at a high school commencement. What ensues is 90 minutes of gyspy-rock mayhem, the loudest set of music I’ve heard in a decade (wisely, I wear earplugs but eventually must retreat to the back of the field given the decibels generated by Oliver Francis Charles’ kick drum and “Tommy T” Gobena’s bass guitar). Frontman Eugene Hutz, clutching his acoustic guitar like a friend and roaming every corner of the stage, leads the multi-national band through a set drawn heavily from Pura Viva Conspiracy (slated for release on July 23, but available in advance at the merch tent).
Fairly quickly, I cease jotting down notes, content with just experiencing this extraordinary band. Sergey Ryabtsev’s fiddle solos mingle with guitar bursts by Michael Bernard Ward; Pasha Newmer’s accordion, though mixed a bit low, soars to the top here and there when the band steps back. Elizabeth Chi-Wei Sun moves like a hummingbird, singing the rapid choruses with Hutz and pounding a portable kettle drum. Hearing Gogol Bordello is like imbibing a sonic vodka; the sound grabs the ears, electrifies the core and makes the brain buzz with possibility. These are songs of hope, declarations of imagination and medleys for common sense and inclusion in a world that has lost its way politically and socially.
To wrap up the night, almost after-hours style, I head back to Yonder Stage to see the final few songs by the Bernie Worrell Orchestra. Worrell, the unsung genius of Parliament-Funkadelic, wears a beret with a keyboard design, and oddly, a purple sweater on this humid night (perhaps he took to heart Gogol Bordello’s “Start Wearing Purple” philosophy?). Seven young musicians back up Worrell; upon his pointing out that they all have teaching credentials, they get major applause. Though he rants about present-day injustices (“Too much crap going on in the world, and it’s just beginning”), including governmental bullying and environmental degradation, Worrell’s funk, The Woo, sounds futuristic and enlightened. “Why Can’t We Groove Together (And Live as One)” gets folks dancing and thinking, as does an instrumental “Thug” that blends elements of “Secret Agent Man” with the James Bond theme. Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” draws more revelers into the tent; some may know of Worrell’s association with the Talking Heads when this song was essential to their live show circa 1982. Worrell raps the lyrics like Slim Harpo does on “Blues Hangover,” and the band just nails that sultry Hi Records groove all the way. He cajoles the crowd into a energetic men vs. women sing-off on the chorus. Impressed by their vigor, Worrell declares, “Get some skinny dipping in tonight, people!” Then, he offers this caveat: “But don’t make no babies! We’ve got to clean up the Earth first!”
After the notes from Worrell’s synthesizer and clavinet fade away, I head out to my car, drive home and look forward to the next day of music at Green River Festival.