Review by Fred Rudofsky
The two-hour drive to Massachusetts for Day Two of the 27th annual Green River Festival, held at Greenfield Community College, goes by in a blur. Sunday’s crowd appears to be as large as the one the day before, and the temperature feels just as hot, too.
I missed Milton, the duo I had seen open for Chris Smither earlier in the month at Club Helsinki, so I head down to the Yonder Stage to catch a a few songs by the Sun Parade. A five-piece band, they mix acoustic and electric sounds, and it’s safe to assume they probably count Big Star as an influence. “I’m Still Here Till We Can Work It Out” and “Molly” sound decent, but I’m not feeling compelled to stick around – indifference, hunger and thirst are kicking in.
At the Main Stage is Heather Maloney, a singer-songwriter who appears to have some fans in the audience given the reception she and her band get. I try to give her a listen, but her voice has more ticks than a deer in summer. Unimpressed, I take a walk over to a hamburger stand to sate the growling in my gut and rejuvenate in the shade of some trees near the festival entrance.
The music of Louisiana, fortunately, is well represented in the Yonder Stage, so I slug down some water and head on over. Cedric Watson & Bijou Creole have a couple of hundred music lovers two-stepping and waltzing despite the mid-afternoon heat. Watson, age 29 but a seasoned musician, alternates between fiddle and accordion, and his sound draws inspiration from pioneers such as Dennis McGhee, Clifton Chenier, Boozoo Chavis. The band can boogie, too, and the crowd’s energy feeds right back to stage. Lyrics sung in English and Creole French blur together, and the thought of announcing the song titles seems secondary to Watson’s goal of keeping that hypnotic groove going…
I catch Todd Snider in the middle of a solo set at the Main Stage – he is one of those musicians I have read about but never really sought out. Snider’s “Train Time” blends into Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” and the crowd loves it. Vocally and instrumentally, Snider at times makes me think of Arlo Guthrie or Jerry Jeff Walker; lyrics are spoken as much as they are sung, over a bare bones acoustic guitar foundation, especially on a bluesy “I Ain’t Got No Time.” His repertoire even draws upon old novelty songs like the ghoulishly funny Guy Lombardo hit “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later than You Think).” He closes with his own “I Just Want to Live Till I Die,” a fine expression of Beatnik ideals.
Although the Green River Festival rarely has bands play consecutive years, there are exceptions to the rule. Lake Street Dive, a virtuoso quartet from Boston that mixes rock with jazz and soul, play one of the best sets of the weekend. Rachael Price greets the audience, counts off the opener with drummer Mike Calabrese, and off they go for the beguiling “Go Down Smooth.” Upright bassist Bridget Kearney and guitarist-trumpeter Mike “McDuck” Olson are impressive in their own right on “Henrietta,” “Easy on You, Baby” and a second-line take on George Michael’s “Faith.” New tune “Tanqueray” has nods to Bo Diddley and Keely Smith, while “Best Self-Portrait” brims with witty metaphors about finding one’s place in a relationship. A genuine beauty, Price sells “If You’re Married, Wear a Wedding Band” with a nod and wink – literally – and soaring alto. After 14 songs in the intense heat, Lake Street Dive come back to for a trumpet driven rendition of Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Let Me Roll It.” Expect a new album from the band in early 2014.
Just from walking around the grounds during the break, I ascertain from various conversations that the next act is one of the most anticipated of the festival, and I concur. Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, premiere country-roots rock singer-songwriters, are on a brief tour to promote Buddy and Jim, their superb first full-length collaboration. The harmonies bring to mind the Everly Brothers, and Miller’s guitar work is so astounding in tone and attack that it makes one wonder why Eric Clapton has not invited him to play the Crossroads Festival. The band is also first-rate. Marco Giovino (drums) and Jay Weaver (upright bass) can play it subtle and rock out out in the same song. The airlines may have misplaced Fats Kaplan’s steel guitar, but he rolls with the punches and plays masterful fiddle throughout the late afternoon. Picking favorites is nearly impossible from a set list of originals, chestnut covers and obscurities dusted off to
I Lost My Job of Loving You
Looking for a Heartache like You
South in New Orleans
It Hurts Me
The Train That Carried My Gal from Town
All My Tears
Wide River to Cross
Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go
Always on the Outside
The King of Broken Hearts
You’re Going to Take Me Back
That’s Not Even Why I Love You
I Want to Do Everything for You
Hole in My Head
The line at the merchandise tent is long, but getting to meet Buddy and Jim is worth the wait. The good-natured banter they displayed on stage continues as they sign autographs and pose for pictures with fans. I chat with the two modest geniuses about the new album, and also projects with musicians like Dr. Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Band of Joy and others. Lauderdale tells me that he has a new solo album out in early 2014; it will feature a little help from Nick Lowe and his band. Miller and I talk about the last time he played in Albany, on a double bill with Ollabelle at The Egg several years ago. Lauderdale says, “Albany? I played a nice club there years ago called Valentine’s.” The three of us also talk about the late, great Levon Helm, who had covered Miller’s “Wide River to Cross” a few years ago. “What an honor that was to learn that he recorded that song!” Miller remarks.
Bombino, a band from Niger that Buddy Miller extolled from the stage during his set with Lauderdale, are closing out their stint at the Yonder Stage. Two guitars, bass, drums and what looks to be an odd-shaped steel guitar are being played full throttle. The guitarists and bass player are draped in robes; the latter wears a scarf over his face. The drummer and steel player, wearing robes as well, are Americans. Clad in purple, lead guitarist and singer Omara “Bombino” Moctar is hammering out bursts of Saharan-inflected notes from his Stratocaster over an insistent rhythm that recalls the Mississippi blues of Big Jack Johnson or R.L. Burnside. The crowd dances fervently, and who can blame them? As John Lee Hooker would say, “Boogie, children!” The energy level of the band is extraordinary in the late afternoon heat – the final two songs stretch out to over ten minutes each. Impressed, I purchase Bombino’s recent Nomad CD, and get an autograph from Moctar, who tells me with a mixture of modesty and excitement that his band will be playing some shows later in the summer with Robert Plant, who is a big fan of theirs.
Though I have seen some clips of her on “Austin City Limits,” I have to admit Brandi Carlile is rather new to me. In the distance, she and her Seattle-based band are already rocking out “Dreams” on the Main Stage, so I sprint up the hill. The crowd is massive in front of the stage, and even casual festival-goers are standing up and moving closer as the sun sets. To introduce “Someone Loves You,” Carlile talks about a preacher of Doomsday rants she encountered in Arizona. The song is striking in calling out hatemongers and hypocrites: “Some people get religion/ Some people get the truth….I never get the truth.” Imagine a cross between Joan Baez and Joan Jett, physically and vocally, and you have an idea of Carlile’s charismatic presence and talent. Her band plays country, rock and everything in between, switching instruments in mid-song and whipping a crowd into a frenzy during a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” or mesmerizing everybody on the field with tasteful backing on Carlile’s cathartic “The Story,” arguably the signature tune of the set. “Folsom Prison Blues” hits all the requisite encore’s cylinders; she bounds around the stage, and the performance is over the top, but fun. For the second encore, Carlile brings out her younger sister, Tiffany, for sweet harmonies on “Calling All Angels.”
The merchandise tent is swarming with folks hoping to meet Carlile, so I decide it is time to hit the road. Driving through the campus, all I can wonder is who will be on the bill for the next year’s 28th Green River Festival. And when can I buy my ticket?