LIVE: Fresh Grass – Saturday @ Mass Moca North Adams, MA 9/21/2019

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At Saturday’s Fresh Grass show, the woman MCing on the main stage at Joe’s Field explained to the crowd that the festival’s organizers believed in musically “porous borders.” While that was, obviously, an oblique reference to the current immigration debate, it was also a perfect articulation of what Fresh Grass has always done so well and did again on a warm, sunny day: break down divisions between genres to give you not only what you’re used to, but the new and unexpected as well.

I got to Joe’s Field at noon and caught the duo of banjo whiz Tony Trischka and multi-instrumentalist and singer Bruce Molsky. Musical boundaries sprang a leak from the get-go, with delightful results. Trischka is a bluegrass master who plays 3-finger Scruggs style, and Molsky is a performer mostly of old-time string band music, in which the banjo is usually picked with clawhammer technique. Typically, the twain never meet, but with the purist cats away the mice came out to play. After a quick fiddle tune, they launched into “Jawbone,” a whimsical modal paean to the mandible: “Jawbone walk, jawbone talk, jawbone eat with a knife and fork.” That was followed by the old-time fiddle chestnut “Little Rabbit,” which bounded along with leporine grace. In homage to Pete Seeger, who was born 100 years ago, Molsky switched to guitar and adroitly fingerpicked Seeger’s famous Bahamian-style instrumental, “Living in the Country.”  As Seeger got started playing Tin Pan Alley tunes on the ukulele, they did a wonderful theme and variations on Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” Molsky then returned to fiddle while Trischka remained on banjo to close their performance with an exuberant “Down the Road,” whose chorus runs, “Down the road, down the road, I got a sugar babe down the road.”

Photo by Glenn Weiser (2019)

At 1:15 in Courtyard D, an enclosure formed by the converted 19 th century brick factory buildings of Mass MOCA, fiddler Darol Anger and mandolinist/guitarist Mike Marshall played a set of instrumental acoustic “metagrass,” and Anger termed it. They rarely announced any tune titles, preferring to let the music introduce itself. To begin, Marshall accompanied on an old D-28 Martin while Anger fiddled a mix of jazz, blues and bluegrass. He then dropped into the background, while the equally adept Marshall soloed. And on it went. For the next piece, Marshall switched to mandolin, the tempo sped up, and off they went off on a swirling romp through a bluesy composition. This was followed with a Brazilian choro, or lament, a type of instrumental having at least three sections that originated in 19th century Rio De Janeiro. Marshall has made a study of this music (a famous example of a choro is “Tico-Tico,” a staple of gypsy jazz guitarists) and the music, despite its lachrymose name, was warm and catchy. Resorting to a recognizable tune, they played a jazzy, virtuosic version of “Down by the Willow Garden,” an American variant of the Irish love song “Down by the Sally Garden.” They closed with the old time favorite, “Angeline the Baker, a delightful corruption of the chorus of a Stephen Foster song which they further altered with their metagrass treatment.

Again at Courtyard D, the Swedish traditional folk trio Vasen took the stage. They are Mikael Marin on 5-string viola, Roger Tallroth on 12-string guitar, and Olov Johansson on the nyckelharpa, a traditional Swedish type of bowed chordophone. Despite my decades of attending folk festivals, this instrument was something I’d never seen before. Vasen, who have been performing for 30 years now, were innovators for taking traditional Swedish folk melodies and setting them to guitar accompaniment much as Irish groups like the Bothy Band did in the 1970s. With the phlegmatic Marin introducing the tunes with all the panache of a well-heeled butler (I hear it’s a Swedish thing), they played a selection of waltzes, polkas, marches, and other national airs, showing themselves to be instrumental masters in the process.

Back at Joe’s Field at 4 pm, the Mongolian rock group Hanggai took those porous borders referred to earlier and obliterated them in a mind-bending set blending 1970s hard rock grooves with native sounds from their nomadic reindeer-herding ancestors. The language barrier proved problematic, though. Beyond “hello,” and “thank you,” nobody onstage spoke much English, and the lead vocalist even introduced the songs in Mongolian, leaving the crowd baffled. So as to the song titles and subject matter of the lyrics, I’m clueless. The band itself included a Telecaster and a Les Paul for electric guitars, an electric bass, drums, a wooden flute, and two indigenous bowed string instruments. And they could play, too. The Les Paul shrieked out lead riffs through a Marshall amp, the rhythm section dispensed recognizable rock chord progressions with strong drumming, the lead vocals stayed on key, the backup singers sounded like a chorus of heartbroken, damned souls, and the group could mount mighty crescendos to build their songs to an intense climax. A translator would have been helpful, but I guess you have to take your Mongolian rock bands as you find them.

Photo by Douglas Mason (2015)

At 6 pm, again at Joe’s Field, banjo picker Alison Brown assembled the festival performers for the annual bluegrass tribute to a classic rock band. This time, Creedence Clearwater Revival got the nod in a set entitled “Down on the Porch.” The pickers, fronted by guitarist John Reishman, led off with “Bad Moon Rising, to which Darol Anger and Reishman, contributed tasty solos. Next, electric bassist Gary West handled the vocal chores on “Lookin’ Out My Door,” whose country backbeat made for a seamless transition to bluegrass. Although Alison Brown threw in a spellbinding banjo break, West sang flat on some high notes-the only technique error of any kind I heard all day. “Lodi,” the lament of a stranded hitchhiker, was next, with Chris Wadsworth singing and Brown and Anger taking flawless solos as ever.

Following that was Berklee mandolin professor Joe K. Walsh, a virtuoso picker but an indifferent vocalist, on “Fortunate Son.” The performers covered all of CCRs hits: “Suzie Q,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” “Up Around the Bend,” and others. The only one I didn’t hear was “Down on the Corner,” which was ironic given the set’s title was a reference to it.

Next up at Joe’s Field was gospel and R&B great Mavis Staples of the Staples Singers, the singing group formed in 1948 by her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples, his wife Oceola, and their children Cleotha, Pervis, Mavis, and Yvonne. After the band broke up in 1994, Mavis, now 80, continued on her own. Although she can’t growl like she used to, she was still fine on songs using a soft vocal tone. Her group, led by guitarist Rick Holmstrom, consisted of three backup singers providing ethereal harmonies, an electric bass, and drums-much the same as the spare instrumentation used by her father, including the heavy tremolo on the electric guitar. Staples opened with “If You’re Ready (Come and Go with Me).” The message was uplifting- “No hatred, Will be tolerated, Peace love all between the races, love is the only transportation, to where there’s communications, if you’re ready come go with me.” Next was “anytime,” a song with an ostinato funk rhythm about a lover who won’t be and can’t be stopped. She’s rock, paper, and scissors all, and she’s gonna get you. Also notable was her cover of “Slippery People” by the Talking Heads. Holmstom’s Telecaster soloed in octaves in a Wes Montgomery-meets-James-Brown moment, and then Mavis sang “These slippery people gonna see you through.”

The last act I stayed for was Greensky Bluegrass, a quintet formed in 2000 in Kalamazoo, MI. What they brought with them was a powerful light show that frequently backlighted them into silhouettes against ever-changing colors, an effect augmented by the fog rolling off of Mount Greylock. The group were also musical shape-shifters who could begin a song with a straight-up bluegrass sound and seamlessly morph midway into a rock feel. I had never seen anything quite like it, and here Fresh Grass’s credo of porous borders took a new twist. But what Greensky Bluegrass didn’t have was a vocalist who could enunciate lyrics. Maybe I had a Hanggai hangover, but all I could catch was maybe a word or two per song if that. Even if you don’t know what a band is playing you can always write down a few lines and Google the tune later. But I couldn’t even get that much. So what was their set list like? Beats me. It was a shame that their remarkable versatility and fine instrumental work were undermined by the singer’s poor diction. I stuck around for most of their set enjoying the picking, but eventually the cold, foggy air got to me and I bailed for the warmth of my car.
Leftover Salmon closed the show.

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