LIVE: FreshGrass @ MASS MoCA, 9/17/16

Review by Glenn Weiser

FreshGrass, the annual bluegrass festival at MASS MoCA in North Adams, aims to present a bill of performers who depart from the traditional three-chord bluegrass of yore and move roots music into new terrain. This years’ Saturday line-up offered a scintillating array of talent topped by a tribute to The Band and a snappy set by the Old Crow Medicine Show.

I arrived at Courtyard C of the revamped old factory complex which houses the museum just in time to catch the end of Ramblin Jug Stompers’ set. Wild Bill’s no-frills, hard-hitting harmonica wailed on Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again.” For the closer, Bowtie frailed his old banjo with gusto on Uncle Dave Macon’s “Down the Old Plank Road.” But as ever, Mister Eck stole the show, this time with his virtuosic work on the jawharp.

The American roots music program at Boston’s Berklee College of Music has in recent years become the Julliard of bluegrass. After the Stompers, I walked over to Courtyard D, where the Berklee grads Mile Twelve were holding forth with Doc Watson’s “Deep River Blues, sung by native New Zealander and banjo player Catherine Bowness, an unusually good vocalist, to which fiddle player Bronwyn Keith-Hynes contributed a fine solo. Next was “Soldiers and Sailors,” an original about life in New York City. Evan Murphy showed off his flatpicking prowess on guitar and Keith-Hayes added a fiddle solo peppered with bluesy slides. Next, Murphy took lead vocals on “The Settle Down Blues,” and Bowness threw in some nice Scruggs-style banjo work.

At 2:15pm at Joe’s Field, a grassy expanse beside the MOCA buildings, Darol Anger & Mr. Sun – a high-octane quartet featuring Berklee picking professors Joe K. Walsh on mandolin and Anger on fiddle, along with Grant Gordy on guitar and Ethan Jodziewicz on acoustic bass – opened with an uptempo version of the jazz standard “Just a Little Lovin.’” Anger channeled Stéphane Grappelli’s swingy licks, and Walsh soloed with aplomb over the familiar VI-II-V-I chord changes.

Next, after one of Anger’s characteristically rambling introductions, they slowed down an old-time fiddle tune from James Bryan, “Farewell to Trion,” making the gentle spirit of the melody even more wistful. Shifting to English folk music, they were joined by banjoist Alison Brown for a pepped-up bluegrass arrangement of the Child ballad, “The False Knight Upon the Road,” a narrative about a conversation between an evil knight and a pure-hearted child which Brown augmented with a fine solo.

Mandolin prodigy Sierra Hull, backed by Ethan Jodziewicz on upright bass, and also fiddler-dobroist Justin Moses on some selections, took the stage at 3:30pm in Courtyard D. The petite 24-year-old virtuoso began playing mandolin at age eight, and now ranks among the world’s top players of the instrument. She can improvise endless musical ideas with finesse and has developed a smooth, legato playing style. Hull also performed on the octave mandolin, a lower pitched cousin of the mandolin.

Lyrically, her songs are soul-searching and often touch on the uncertainty of love. “If I ask you, will you even know? These walls must come down,” began one moody verse. But Hull also branched out with Joan Baez’s “Queen of Hearts,” providing a dazzling solo break. Also noteworthy was their slow, stately version of “The Tennessee Waltz,” performed with Moses on fiddle.

At 6:15pm in Joe’s Field, Alison Brown led an ever-shifting ensemble of festival performers in “The Grass’d Waltz,” a tribute to The Band’s landmark 1976 concert. They were playing “Ophelia” as I settled into my lawn chair and pulled out my notebook from my book bag. Sierra Hull took a star turn on mandolin for “Angeline,” and Happy Traum, doing his best Bob Dylan vocal imitation, sang “Long Black Veil.” Gary West helmed an uptempo bluegrass version of the “The Shape I’m In,” and Frank Solivan shined vocally on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” With all hands on deck, Brown and company backed Aoife O’Donovan on the closer, “The Weight.” As good as the rest of the day’s music was, not one of the other artists in the day’s lineup could approach the songwriting majesty of The Band.

The last act I stayed for was the Old Crow Medicine Show’s thoroughly enjoyable set at 9:10pm, again in Joe’s Field. They opened with “Tell It to Me,” a bouncy ditty which dispenses the marginally good advice of recommending moonshine over cocaine. It was good to hear Ketch Secor’s harmonica on the big stage, even if he is not terribly adept on the instrument.

On “Take ‘Em Away,” the gentle sound of old-time banjo picking graced the lament of a prisoner working on a chain gang. And yes, they played “Wagon Wheel,” and even though the song has become a standing joke among musicians as the acoustic equivalent of “Stairway to Heaven,” I liked their rendition with its snappy backbeat. I respected them for serving up Woody Guthrie’s anthem “This Land Is Your Land,” but when the Crows got really goofy with Freddie “Boom Boom” Cannon’s 1962 oldie “Palisades Park,” this Jersey boy became a fan.

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