Mass. MoCA’s latest music and arts festival is an entertainment triumph.
The sky above Courtyard C was that eerie yet beautiful shade of pink, and the zebra styling’s of Sol LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing Retrospective” shined down from the windows above the stage. Sarah Jarosz wooed the crowd with her rendition of Paul Simon’s “For Emily wherever I may find her;” and not a person could speak. Taking it all in was a daunting task; it was far too perfect to miss a second.
A strong start indeed and the start of an entire weekend of American musical perfection mixed with fresh contemporary art.
Upon arriving at Mass. MoCA, you could feel the beginnings of a special weekend. The entirety of FreshGrass was tightly contained, as Courtyard C provided outdoor music action and new outdoor galleries were a short walk across the flood canal. This kept the evening as intimate and tight-knit as bluegrass should be.
The multi-instrumental Sarah Jarosz was Saturday night’s opener, playing ranging styles, instruments, and tunes inspired by everything from Hurricane Katrina to Edgar Allan Poe. Her voice was flawless, angelic, and simple, setting itself apart from anyone who had come before her, floating out and captivating everyone.
Alternating between the banjo, guitar, and mandolin, Jarosz played haunting southern bluegrass, with its roots firmly planted in her home state of Texas. Covers of the Decembrists and Paul Simon featured reworked arrangements to fit her style, but it was her show ending, crowd engaging, clap/sing-along rendition of Tom Waits’s “Come on up to the House” that became the highlight of her set. Jarosz truly set the standard for the weekend.
As festivities moved inside to the Hunter Center, some gentlemen from Virginia came out and tore the roof off, with the greatest performance of the weekend. “It’s good to be back behind enemy lines,” declared Rob Bullington, the Hackensaw Boys mandolin picker. They sure looked right at home on that stage; from start to finish it was a take-no-prisoner Confederate Stomp, screamed from under Garth Hudson style beards featuring the finest fiddle playing seen this side of the Mason Dixon Line.
They were like an aggressive and energetic Old Crow Medicine Show, with the extraordinary originality that Bluegrass can always guarantee, often sounding like music that one might have heard in Robert E. Lee’s army camps.
Fiddle player Ferd Moyse’s fired up style of raw southern fiddling mixed with Bullington playing the fastest mandolin you’ve ever seen. Banjo picker Shawn Galbraith, guitarist Ward Harrison, and stand-up bassist Jesse Fisk kept pace with a foundation like a freight train, flying over every tune, while the simply insane coffee-can and washboard contraption drums of Justin Neuhardt, provided quick chicken scratch beats. This colorful cast of southern gentlemen had no mercy on their instruments, breaking and replacing strings whenever necessary, then changing tempo whenever the heck they felt like it. No doubt, these boys from Virginia stole the weekend with the most honestly Appalachian music in America.
The Infamous Stringdusters were the unlucky band that had to follow the Hackensaw Boys, but once again disappointment was not a possibility at FreshGrass. Those Stringdusters came out in full force, with such perfectly constructed songs they were nothing less than a new classification “lab grass.”
The Stringdusters inclusion of a constant slide guitar, and blazing speed fiddle work, was just another example of how at every turn, the bands of FreshGrass each had something to set themselves apart from each other, with individual formulas of Bluegrass. The Stringdusters are such a focused group that at times they crowd into a circle and get lost in their individual solos as the rest look on. These gentlemen ended Night 1 with a stellar sendoff.
The second day of FreshGrass provided ample time to check out the new art in expanding portions of Mass. MoCA’s campus. As Dave Mayfield played an energetic fever of a show, folks played on huge swings under the Route 2 overpass and climbed Jill Philbrick’s “The Expanded Field.” Michael Oatman’s “All Utopias Fall” was a climb to new heights as one hiked through the daunting boiler room of an old factory building to a landing where a 1970’s airstream trailer crashed with its parachutes tangled on the rusty mechanics of a past industrial era – a great parallel for anyone who knows their North Adams history.
The headliners of FreshGrass featured both a legend and the new generation.
Grand Ole Opry alumni and an original part of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, Del McCoury brought his band (featuring two of his sons) and ripped through the classic Bluegrass form, staying true to the historic value McCoury’s voice carries with it.
His high pitch crowing presents that homey grass sound, singing about murder, love, motorcycles, and Red-Headed women. He took requests, delighted the audience with his warm demeanor, and played “Orange Blossom” special in competition with a passing train. Watching Del McCoury play was like getting an American music history lesson, as he ripped through “Nashville Cats,” and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” then told a story about playing with Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, and all the legends of Bluegrass. Dressed in suits in the hot afternoon, Del and his band didn’t sweat it; instead they represented their style with an old school grace and brilliance that you scarcely find in American music anymore.
As the sun set, Yonder Mountain String Band rose up, playing a heart-stopping set to bring it home.
Abundant banjo, guitar, mandolin, and fiddle solos filled each song. Jeff Austin’s mandolin often seemed to break speed and sound barriers as he hit the highest notes he could at every turn.
Yonder Mountain has a fresh and youthful sound and style that shows there is a future to this classic and often ignored form. Led by Austin, this fantastic cast of pickers each provided consistently complex solos, breakdowns, and ballads.
Being a Bluegrass/jam band known for transcending musical boundaries and playing smart and very specific covers, Yonder Mountain broke down any barrier existing between Bluegrass and The Beatles. As bassist Ben Kaufmann snuck a creepy bass line in and Austin’s mandolin tip-toed along, Darol’s angry fiddle squeaked out a note or two. No one really knew where it was headed, but from “Here come old flattop” the crowd erupted in awe as “Come Together” was blown apart and re-assembled as a nasty bluegrass stomp. Yonder Mountain’s songs are unpredictable and complex, but with ease they fly along as Austin’s endless supply of energy and comedic expression seems to draw out the best in everyone on stage.
Mass. MoCA is becoming “the festival museum,” but the more the merrier. Between Solid Sound and FreshGrass, North Adams is becoming a premier spot to hear unique and amazing music.