Review by Fred Rudofsky
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
This year marked the 28th anniversary of the Green River Festival. Held in mid-July at the picturesque grounds of the Greenfield Community College – a two-hour drive from Albany – it featured more than 30 bands drawn from an array of genres worldwide.
Whereas other outdoor music events generate false hype, book predictable bands and/or cater to the lowest common denominator – the semi-coherent twentysomething who views the world through a selfie lens – the Green River Festival remains an eclectic, cordial, downright fun and affordable two-day gathering ($70 for the weekend!) that you could take your kids or grandparents to without hesitation. It is also a place of progressive ideas – throughout the site there are vendors promoting the arts, education, grass-roots causes concerning the environment (easy to use recycling bins did abound), etc. Add an eclectic choice of foods, hot air balloon rides, rock climbing walls, second-line parades, and new this year a fine selection of craft beers, and it is obvious why the festival sold out quickly.
Three stages featured music throughout Saturday and Sunday. The schedules overlapped a bit, so it took some pre-planning and hustle for me to catch whole sets. Consequently, there were many bands I didn’t get to see. Meanwhile, some bands I just didn’t like within their first song (e.g. Puss ‘n’ Boots; Lucius; Trampled by Turtles; Heather Maloney and Darlingside). Yet there were several stellar performances and a few surprises…
SATURDAY (JULY 12):
PAUL BURCH & FATS KAPLIN: Leading off the festival on the Main Stage, Birch played some fine roots music, drawing upon country blues and western swing as well as the tremolo guitar sounds of Pop Staples. He was accompanied by mandolin-fiddle maestro Kaplan, who has played the festival in previous years. Birch sounded right at home on the traditional “Deep Ellum Blues” and offered up some fine originals (“Straight Fears, No Chaser,” “Gunter Hotel Blues,” “Trixie”).
DIRTY BOURBON RIVER CLUB: At the Four Rivers Stage, several boisterous virtuosos from New Orleans had a non-stop dancing crowd enthralled with songs like “I’m the Wolfman,” “Grandmother” and “Esmeralda.” Mixing traditional brass with barrelhouse piano, dashes of klezmer and Gypsy melodies, and vocals that encompassed the soul of the blues to flow of hip-hop, this combo should be headlining festivals soon.
THE SHINOLAS REVUE: Follow the abandon of the Dirty Bourbon River Club? The Shinolas Revue all-star trio was up to the task. Freedy Johnston had the crowd singing along to “Don’t Fall in Love with a Lonely Girl”; Syd Straw, clad in a floppy Carol Burnett hat, won the crowd’s heart with her voice (a heart-aching take on Little Feat’s “I’ve Been the One”) and humor (she joked about getting engaged at an NRBQ gig, then rocked out on their “I Want You So Bad”); and Chris Collingwood of Fountains of Wayne had folks grinning to the skinny-dipping images of a full-tilt “Dip in the Ocean.”
THE JAMES HUNTER SIX: Back up the Main Stage, the soulful sounds of Hunter and his great combo had the crowd in a mid-afternoon frenzy. Hunter’s vocals called to mind James Brown and Sam Cooke, and his guitar playing was a master lesson in sting and grit. He is a superb songwriter as well – “Smoke Without a Fire,” “My Heart Is Broke in Two,” “If You Don’t Believe Me Baby” were just a few of the standouts. A showman extraordinaire, Hunter even did a frenetic Russian Cossack dance to close out “Talkin’ ’bout My Love.” “He must be from the Deep South!” exclaimed a mesmerized woman next me. Almost on cue, Hunter addressed the crowd in his rapid-fire British accent, which put to rest his origins. His band was in terrific form, too. The line to get his autograph or a photo at the merchandise was long after Hunter’s set, and he obliged everyone.
THE DIRTY DOZEN BRASS BAND: Thirty-five years in, these ambassadors of New Orleans must have have found in Seventh Ward (Treme) what Ponce de Leon searched for vainly in the future retirement home enclave known as Florida. Five horns, drums and keyboards provided the recipe for a spicy funk de jour. Gregory Davis played two trumpets simultaneously with ease on “Talkin’ ’bout Doin’ It,” and that was just the start. Spines were realigned, and souls were extolled. The band absolutely brought the party, calling members of the Dirty Bourbon River Club up to jam in mid-set, and couldn’t help but invite a few foxy ladies to dance on stage during “Little Liza Jane” and the raunchy “Dirty Old Man.” The call-and-response moments with the crowd generated frenzied good fun.
TROMBONE SHORTY & ORLEANS AVENUE: On the Main Stage to close out the evening was a band that pretty much needs no introduction given the rapid word of mouth from their electrifying shows, including one at The Egg earlier this year. As a scarlet full moon ascended the sky during the hot air balloon launch, the music began with a blast. Troy Andrews (a.k.a. Trombone Shorty) is a world-class talent, a charismatic, multi-instrumentalist, entertainer and leader of several musicians who have formed a telepathic bond with him to cook up a sonic gumbo of jazz, rock, funk and hip-hop. To the delight of several thousand dancing fans, it felt like being at the heart of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The original “Fire and Brimstone” was a manifesto for why music is one of the ultimate callings, a way of transcending one’s environment and living in the moment. Shorty switched to trumpet for a fine take of Allen Toussaint’s “On Your Way Down,” led his group through a manic throwdown of “Hurricane Season” – which featured ample spotlight for the skills of Dan Ostreicher on baritone sax and Pete Morano on guitar – and sang a tour de force “One Night Only” from the breakthrough 2010 album Backatown. He called on the spirit of Cab Calloway during the call-and-response asides in “St. James Infirmary,” and Professor Longhair got a shout-out during a popping “Go to the Mardi Gras” – Mike Ballard’s five-string bass was grooving like a funky train and Tim McFatter’s tenor sax fills were boiling over. The jam closed out the night with all the musicians picking up sticks and banging out syncopated, evolving beats on Joey Peebles’ drum kit. The whole band took a bow, the crowd roared their approval, and Shorty exclaimed, “We will see you again soon!”