Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Live Shows: Freshgrass Festival 2018, MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA 9/15/18 & 9/16/18

Photo by Ken Sears
Freshgrass definitely has changed since the last time I made it back in 2012. The courtyard where the main stage was is now the smallest stage and the main stage is now in a large field. Well, large compared to a courtyard. As far as an outdoor festival is concerned, it's still relatively small giving the entire fest an intimate feel. The food choices have definitely improved, too. In 2012 we only had the museum cafeteria which quickly ran out of a lot of choices. Now we could choose from a variety of food trucks and caterers spread through the grounds of MASS MoCA. 

I was unable to attend Friday evening, so this will be a Trampled By Turtles free review. I'm going to focus on my favorite aspects of Saturday and Sunday, with plenty of pleasant surprises and new discoveries.

Rhiannon Giddens
Having seen Caroline Chocolate Drops a few times in the past, I fully expected Rhiannon Giddens to be good, even great. Somehow I didn't expect her performance to be one of the best things I've seen in years. Without having to share the spotlight with other singers/songwriters, she was able to fully showcase herself and her immense talents. Her voice is just mesmerizing, and she had the crowd enraptured as she moved from genres (soul, bluegrass, folk, and even some hints of mainstream pop) with ease. Absolute highlights were "Waterboy" and "Up Above My Head" from 2015's Tomorrow is My Turn and an amazing cover of Patsy Cline's "She's Got You," which she just owned. Do yourself a favor and make no excuses next time she's in your area.

Flogging Molly
As the sun started setting on North Adams, the attendees' t-shirts started switching from freshly purchased Trampled By Turtles and other bluegrass/folk festivals to Dropkick Murphys and The Misfits. There were a lot of fans just there for Saturday night's headliners, Flogging Molly. They did have to wait a lot longer than expected. The bluegrass Grateful Dead tribute started twenty minutes late and then proceeded to play long and twenty more minutes into Flogging Molly's set time. Then they had their own sound issues to work out, leading them to start over an hour late. The crowd was tense and restless as the evening wore on, but those feelings were gone as soon as their heroes took the stage. Opening with "The Hand of John L. Sullivan" from 2017's Life is Good they played loudly and furiously for their set. They made no adjustments to their sound to try to fit into the festival like the Pixies's acoustic performance at Newport Folk in 2005. This was a full on electric punk show. Dave King asked if they were bluegrass after a particularly vicious Dennis Casey guitar solo. They inspired what I assume was the first ever Freshgrass mosh pit with favorites like "Black Friday Rule" and "The Likes of You Again." Friday night they played Riot Fest in Chicago, Sunday night they rejoined Dropkick Murphys to restart their co-headlining tour together, but Saturday night they played a little bluegrass festival in the northwest corner of Massachusetts.

I'm With Her
I have no idea how I can describe a folk supergroup featuring Sara WatkinsSarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan as "surprisingly good," but somehow I'm With Her were surprisingly good. All three of these women are accomplished solo artists, but as a trio they reached otherworldly levels. It might have been how much they truly enjoy playing together. Their joy and enthusiasm was contagious, and each member truly had a chance to shine all on their own. It was one of the rare times when each song was even better than the one before it. The audience just kept getting sucked deeper and deeper into the musical world they created, whether it was one member being able to showcase her own voice and talents or when they were harmonizing together. Their set was truly something special.

Courtyard C
What was once the main stage is now the smallest stage used to showcase the Freshgrass awards finalists. It was a tiny area that seemed to be used more for some of the food vendors and picnic tables. Attendees just stopping to enjoy a meal ended up discovering some of the best performances of the weekend, and I spent far more time here than I expected. 
I checked out Heather Aubrey Lloyd at the recommendation of my wife's friend, and was fully sucked into her performance. She has an immensely powerful, soulful voice that refuses to just be background music. She started her set off playing a cajon and singing, and after that she went to her guitar. She definitely falls on the mainstream side of the singer/songwriter spectrum, but she is one not to be missed.
I accidentally found Lauren Pratt while roaming the galleries of MASS MoCA. She was in a dimly lit gallery exhibiting The Lure of the Dark which was perfect for her. Playing quietly in front of a painting in a darkened room is perfect for her. Her voice is stunning and powerful in her quiet use of it. She played a set of intimate and personal songs that entranced me enough to skip the Indigo Girls's set to see her main performance at Courtyard C, although she advised against it.
North Adams's own Izzy Heltai was an artist I discovered while stopping for lunch. His entire delivery was completely original. I hate to use the word quirky since that usually means some level of tongue in cheek and he was completely earnest. His style of pure folk is definitely accessible, but just slightly unique enough to even satisfy jaded music fans.
Ghost of Paul Revere are an absolute blast live. They play pure roots/Americana rock based music with just the slightest hints of a punk rock attitude. They prefer emotion and fun over playing fancy just to show off and were a small party for the group of fans hanging out to watch them. In a weekend of virtuoso performances, just music for the sake of a good time was much needed.

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