3 years ago was my first time experiencing Freshgrass at Mass MoCa in North Adams, Massachusetts. Heck, it was probably my first time actually spending some time in North Adams without it being a quick pass through. The museum isn’t just a staple in the community around it, its quite possibly one of the most unique and wonderful backdrops for a festival. My only regret is that I hardly have enough time to enjoy the visual arts contained within its brick facade in an effort to soak up as much music as I possibly can. But alas, we can’t be in 18 places at once and the music is why we are there for this kick off of Autumn every year. And with that, I give you my 7 favorite moments (well, ok, 7 of my favorite moments) from the past few years of covering Freshgrass…in no particular order.
Punch Brothers battles a train. You can’t mention contemporary bluegrass music without starting with The Punch Brothers. The band, comprised of 5 of the most talented musicians in modern day music period, stretches boundaries and basic human abilities (mentally and physically!) with their playing. In the midst of their set the fellas were jolted with a long…long freight train that rolled by. In true PB fashion they embraced the quintessential representation of roots music and played on with the clacking of the rails and surprising loud toot of the whistle. It was a moment that brought band and audience together in a special moment that Freshgrass exemplifies in pretty much every aspect of the festival.
The Lulas steal the hearts of the crowd. So perhaps I am a bit biased because it seems so many friends seem to play this festival. Thats just another reason why FG is a special place. You get to see the talent that is about to explode onto the mainstream before it all happens. Two years back our friends Mali, Isa and Ellie took to Joe’s Field early in the day and within 30 seconds into their first song they had the crowd on the line and hooked right through the heart. Harmonies delicately woven over the top of some really killer instrumentation…there was no turning back. The gals of Lula Wiles are just one example of the countless acts from Berklee or the bluegrass and roots music community around New England that the fest has given a big stage, audience and chance to get heard to. Its that reason that so many artists keep coming back after they get their break to celebrate the community and the support that Freshgrass gives.
Juggernauts of genre join forces. There had been rumblings of some super group for a little while and earlier in 2015 we got the proof when Aoife O’ Donovan, Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins started touring as “I’m With Her”. O’ Donovan and Jarosz had become regulars on the Freshgrass stage, performing even in its inaugural line up, but we hadn’t yet gotten Watkins…or this line up. Just further adding the fact that those artists who are paving the way for up and comers appreciate and return to the fest as they climb the charts and into our hearts more and more. Their set was a breathtaking, shiver inducing one that capped Saturday evening outdoors and left us all feeling a bit warmer in the nipping chill of Fall hanging upon us.
Music in the museum. Something that could very easily be overlooked is the fact that there is music…EVERYWHERE. Not just on the main stages, or small pop up tents. There are people pickin’ in the courtyard, on the lawn between sets and yes, even inside of the museum amongst the sculptures and painting and photographs. Wander the halls for a bit and the faint pluck of a banjo echoing in the cavernous halls are bound to capture your ear. Last year I was lucky enough to capture some of that for The Old Spruce Sessions with friends Ethan Robbins, Mile Twelve and (pictured below) Damn Tall Buildings. Filming DTB against this giant installation was tough because I kept marveling at the art on the wall behind the band! There is something exciting and really special about witnessing these intimate performances and if you keep your eyes open and your ears even more so, you are bound to stumble across something not necessarily on the line up, but just as exhilarating to take in.
Rock n’ Roll…n’ bluegrass music? By the nature of the name of the festival you might expect something closer to over-alls, mandolins and straw hanging from the lips of the band playing “Pig in a Pen” and having some deeper connection the title of the tune than just enjoying the melody. But the key to Freshgrass is that “fresh” part. Despite having some fairly strong leanings toward the bluegrass genre, the line up is curated to be an experience in music, not just one kind. Case in point, two years back the late night rock show that nearly blew the roof off the indoor stage. Houndmouth was explosive and gave the people that extra boost needed at the end of a long, long day sitting in the sun and the folks behind the scenes know that all too well. That end of the evening pick me up is something they do wonderfully and leaves you excited for the next morning (or year if its Sunday night). So be sure to stick around for those late night rambles. They will get you shaking and smiling!
Cold Chocolate on the small stage. Repeat offender and lightning fast picker Ethan Robbins seems to set the small courtyard stage on fire every year. We even stowed away last year to a nice spot in the back and filmed this great video, echoing ghostly through the caverns of Mass MoCa. Something (again) that can’t be overstated enough is wandering by that courtyard stage as much as you can. Ethan and the band have become a staple of the fest and one that always impresses. Killer grooves over a bluegrass bone structure, its just so damn good but you might also stumble upon your new favorite band that isn’t necessarily on the big stage in the field or your radar yet as well. So head on over and say hey to our pals Cold Chocolate and take in some off the cuff collaborations or up and comers while you are at Freshgrass!
In general, just the sense of togetherness. OK, that may not be a specific moment, or perhaps a cop out, but I could probably list every act and set I caught at Freshgrass as a favorite and special moment, but thats just because the atmosphere during it all allows for that. Its that connection to the fans and artists and all the folks behind the scenes that makes this a special, intimate and beautiful weekend to attend.
Don’t set expectations, wander, catch unannounced pop ups, be openminded and most importantly be good to your fellow Freshgrassers. High five someone during a set, strike up a conversation (after the playing ends of course) and just be good to each other. Make some memories and hold onto them for a long while…or at least until September 2018.
Freshgrass is September 15-17 and you can still grab your tickets RIGHT OVER HERE!