LIVE: FreshGrass Festival (Day Three) @ MASS MoCA, 09/25/2022
MASS MoCA‘s FreshGrass Festival rounded out day three of festivities with a full afternoon of musicians spanning bluegrass, Motown, soul, and finally classic country genres. The cloudy skies above let out gentle rains during each set, yet didn’t discourage fans who lilted between stages to catch alternating sets.
We arrived as Sierra Hull was taking the stage with her mandolin, picking along melodies that raced against the increasing winds and rains. The crowds dug into the courtyard with umbrellas and raincoats, swinging each other in arms and clapping along as Hull’s technique flashed like lightning to brighten the day. Original song “How Long” raised spirits as Hull’s haunting soprano voice reminded me of a bluegrass Suzanne Vegas, singing lyrics that pulled at heartstrings while plucking away at melodies that demanded feet dance. She covered Del McCoury‘s “I Feel The Blues Movin’ In” with tourmate Taylor Rae on vocals. Hull immediately and consistently established who the queen of bluegrass would be that day. Her playing, gorgeous vocals, and joyful musicianship seemed to be a promise for an exceptional day of bluegrass.
The music that followed, however, strayed from bluegrass to other forms, with Motown sounds coming from San Diego band Thee Sacred Souls. With a male singer whose voice echoed the upbeat, clean sounds of The Temptations, Thee Sacred Soul’s song “Love Has No Limits” shared the empowering message that love has no creed or gender. The vibe was lovely, but not grass.
We were delighted to find Taj Mahal up next, who also settled into a clearly blues vibe with songs that ironically were sunnier given the overcast skies. “Fishin’ Blues” opened the set, and the crowd was transported to Louisiana via traditional southern blues.
I wandered briefly to Courtyard C, lured by a singer-songwriter sound that achingly told stories much in the tradition of Americana music. Jake Klar’s guitar strumming away, he sang under the bridge about love and heartache and cast a spell that held me there far longer than I planned to stay. He is an up-and-coming musician and one I hope to hear again soon.
Yola was on the main stage shortly after, and the British singer-songwriter made her politics immediately available, sharing her allyship with LGBT-Q and testifying to how corrupt politicians allowed children to go hungry all with her smooth, sexy voice heating up the stage. She shook her ample hips, covered in leather, with fans screaming approval. She was an inspiration, and empowerment of black feminine energy. But again, still not bluegrass.
We waited for Tanya Tucker in the pause that followed Yola, and many vacated the courtyard seeking shelter from increasing rain. Jim reminded me that FreshGrass isn’t simply for bluegrass, and while I understood that, I felt a bit crestfallen at the lack of bluegrass since the opening set. We both knew Tanya Tucker would provide great country entertainment, but she wouldn’t be playing bluegrass.
When Tucker took the stage, however, I wasn’t prepared for her sly smile, hip sway, and deep squat as she danced to “Some Kind of Trouble.” She was absolutely adorable as she carefully strutted her stuff, sharing tequila shots with a photographer, throwing cough drops out to the crowd, and even welcoming her dog Stella who popped onto the stage surprising her – and stayed for the rest of the set.
Tucker’s voice is unchanged at age 63, and dare I say it, she seems to improve with age. Her humor at enjoying clam chowder before the show, which seemed like a great idea until she had to squeeze into her performance jeans and dance for us, reflected a lovely pro-aging message of self-acceptance that warmed my heart.
Tucker was joined by her daughter Presley, who sang harmonies with her mother on many songs with matched timbre and beauty.
But when her dog Stella joined her on stage, Tucker began singing to Stella and swaying in a full love affair with her pup. Her willingness to be open, and share her true self with fans, was refreshing. Tucker moved from music spanning her entire 50-year career. From the song “Two Sparrows in a Hurricane” she moved to the older love song “Would You Lay With Me,” breaking hearts with raw truthfulness about the hardships of love.
But my favorite song of the set was “Bring Your Flowers Now,” a song she worked on with Brandi Carlile. Tucker credited Carlile for the collaboration, noting Carlile empowered her to record the song she had been writing “my whole life.” The song reminds listeners to tell people they love now before they are gone.
With the powerful fan sing-a-long “Delta Dawn,” Tucker closed the festival. She first wrote and sang that song at 13, and was able to sing it today with the same energy and love for it. There were no encores needed, as she sated the crowd as only a legend could: through authentic stardom.
FreshGrass wasn’t all bluegrass as I had hoped, but perhaps it is better to get something else than what you wish for. Hull and Tucker’s performances were powerful bookends on the day of great talent, musicianship, and honesty, with lots of blues and love sprinkled in for good measure. Hull and Tucker each would’ve provided me with enough to write about and enjoy on their own, but combined with the other musicians of FreshGrass they gave synergistic energy to the day that promised hope and community.