LIVE: FreshGrass @ MASS MoCA, 9/15/18 (Day Two)

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Review by Glenn Weiser
Photograph by Douglas Mason

FreshGrass, the annual mid-September three-day musicale at MASS MOCA in North Adams, is an updated mix of where the acoustic music scene is headed as well as where it’s been. This year for the Saturday line-up the grass was not so much blue as green, being graced with the Irish supergroup Altan and the Celtic rock whirlwind Flogging Molly. With my Irish ancestry, that was just fine with me.

At 12:30pm in Club B10, a classroom in one of the former brick factory buildings that now houses the museum’s art exhibitions, Altan hosted a Q&A on Irish music. When I walked in, fiddler and lead vocalist Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, was singing in Gaelic as Daithi Ciarán, Curran Sproul and Martin Tourish accompanied on guitar, bouzouki and button accordion respectively. Sproul, the moderator of the discussion, explained the song was about the love between a man and a previously married woman, which was a
bit scandalous in the old days. From there he quickly got to the essence of Irish music, explaining that with the exception of harp tunes, chords were historically not a part of the tradition, which had evolved overtime in the form of complex and intricate melodies. Harmonizing these tunes with the guitar began in the 1960s, he
went on to say, and is often challenging. Sproul was then asked about how he learned the music. By ear, was the gist of his response. He would attend tune sessions, listen carefully, and play quietly until he had the tune down. Sproul said he worked out a style of back-up guitar playing which avoided regular patterns as in folk
guitar, instead strumming in a way that followed the phrasing of the melody. Later, Ní Mhaonaigh compared the typically florid Irish tunes to the decorative knotworkpatterns in Celtic art. Offering a nugget of wisdom, she said, “Traditional music is the music of now. If it stayed stagnant, it would die.”

On the main stage at Joe’s Field at 2pm, fiddler Bruce Molsky led his trio, Molksy’s Mountain Drifters, through a set of old-time string band music. They kicked off with a Skillet Lickers tune, “Hog Trough Reel.” Lead guitar playing was not part of this music in the 1920s when it was first recorded (that had to wait for Doc Watson), so it was delightful to hear guitarist Stash Wyslouch flaptpick his way through the rustic melody in the fiddle and Allison de Groot’s clawhammer banjo in hot pursuit. They followed that with the Holy Modal Rounders’ “Spring of 65,” a slow, modal song about a farmer’s nocturnal drinking party. The boozy trend continued with the fiddle chestnut “Fortune,” whose chorus goes, “Fortune, I had it, fortune, I lost it, one night when I got drunk.” Another highlight of the set was Molsky’s rendition of the old cowboy song (itself a reworking of an older sea chanty), “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” about the death of a young man out on the Great Plains. Molsky’s mournful singing and droning fiddle back-up got it just right.

In Courtyard D at 3pm, Darol Anger & Friends, being some of the Berklee College of Music’s staff and students, offered “Music of Our People,” a guilty pleasure for us folk of a certain age. I thought it was going to be klezmer, but no, the group, led by singer Emmy Phelps, served up a selection of 1960s pop hits arranged for an acoustic ensemble as only the Boston music school can field. They opened with The Supremes’ “You Just Keep Me Hanging On.” However, the band was too loud at first for Phelps to hear herself properly, and a painful number of flat notes in the first half of the song were the result. As soon as the stage mix was tweaked, though, she was in fine form. The Celtic harp, cello and banjo players all took solos, lending an air of unreality to the Motown classic. Next was The Drifters’ 1962 feelgood hit “Up on the Roof,” written by Brill Building tunesmiths Gerry Goffin and Carole King. With mandolin professor Joe K. Walsh providing percussive scrubbing, Phelps’ alto was plaintive and sure. Darol Anger offered a jazzy fiddle solo, followed by, again, the cello and Celtic harp. Glen Campbell’s 1968 gold record “Wichita Lineman,” which has been called the first existential country song, was another slow, dreamy arrangement. Walsh, this time on guitar, grinned with delight as he played the sparse solo on the bass strings. Acknowledging that the ’60s couldn’t have been what they were without the Grateful Dead, the group closed with “Uncle John’s Band.” After the line, “How does the song go,” the group launched into a fiddle tune type of interlude, and then finished the song with the audience singing along.

Next at 4pm, also in Courtyard D, was acoustic diva Rhiannon Giddens, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who was by far the most accomplished singer on the day’s bill. Although I had seen her sing a few times before, I was unprepared for the quantum leap the operatically trained alto has taken. Backed by electric guitar, drums, keyboards and electric bass, she offered an eclectic set of songs ranging from folk to gospel to country, all showcasing her stunning vocal prowess. Playing old-time banjo, she opened with “Spanish Mary,” one of a group of unrecorded songs from 1967 that Bob Dylan wrote lyrics to but not music. That was done by Giddens, who gave it a traditional sounding modal tune. The song started out like an English ballad, but quickly morphed into the surrealism that marks Dylan’s late ’60s work. On the old Appalachian hymn, “Wayfaring Stranger,” pianist Francesco Turrisi switched to accordion, backing Giddens with an ostinato riff that eventually progressed to a sidewalk style solo. For Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You,” Giddens pulled out her blues chops. The song bemoans objects kept but love lost: “I’ve got the records, that we used to share, And they still sound the same, as when you were here, The only thing different, the only thing new, I’ve got the records … she’s got you.” At the end Giddens belted out the last line with knockout verve. She closed her set with “The Lonesome Road,” a 1927 Tin Pan Alley hit composed in the style of an African-American folk song and covered by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whom Giddens termed “the progenitrix of rock guitar.” Again, she belted out the final line, bringing the audience to their feet.

Every year, banjo player and Compass Records co-owner Alison Brown assembles the festival’s performers to take turns honoring a famous rock artist or band. This year she chose the Grateful Dead and staged “Pluckin’,” a set of the band’s greatest hits. Brown and her husband, bassist Gary West, opened with “Casey Jones.” West did well approximating Jerry Garcia’s vocal timbre, and Brown added a doubletime Scruggs-style solo. Next Trey Hensley sang “Alabama Getaway.” His vocals were clear and resonant, but he was, on this song and the others he played on later, a hotdogger of a guitarist with a penchant for blazing riffs that were devoid of any lyricism whatever. Emmy Phelps then took her turn with “Ripple,” the closest thing to a hymn The Dead ever wrote. Her singing was gorgeous, and the guitar, fiddle and banjo players all chimed in with solos. When Altan’s turn came, I couldn’t even guess what they would play, but “Jack-a-Roe” proved to be within their bailiwick. After “Friend of the Devil,” with Hensley again on guitar, the ensemble played “Space,” the extended single-chord jam The Dead learned from John Coltrane that was part of their usual second set. For the finale, the performers all joined in on “I Know You Rider.” The only thing the set lacked was an effort by any of the soloists to approximate Jerry Garcia’s nebulous guitar style, but perhaps that was asking too much from players rooted in fiddle and banjo music.

The last act I stayed for was the Celtic rock band Flogging Molly, who fuse Celtic melodies with pounding punk beats and slower ballad feels. Dave King, the Dublin-born front man and singer, soon won me over with his warmth and nonstop blarney. They opened with “The Hand of John L. Sullivan,” a song about the 1880s American boxer who is considered the first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing. The fiddle and the tin whistle blared out an Irish tune over the raucous drums, and King launched into the song about a fan’s wish to shake his hero’s hand. Next was “Life in a Tenement Square,” a recollection about King’s impoverished childhood in the hardscrabble Beggar’s Bush section of Dublin, which had grim poetry such as this: “I remember the song where the rats sang along, And danced for their daily bread, While the damp washed the walls, That were twenty feet tall, Not a child in the house was fed.” “The Spoken Wheel” was a lament for King’s father in which King bitterly asks, “And you, did you ever listen to anything I said? Did you ever listen to me?” In the outro, the fiddle played “O’Keefe’s Slide” and the electric guitar blasted out a gritty solo, after which King joked, “Was that bluegrass?” No, but it all was lunatic fun amid the banter and the sorrow.

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