NORTH ADAMS, Mass. -- For three days last weekend, Mass MoCA in North Adams welcomed roughly 4,000 music fans for a celebration of modern and traditional American acoustic music--an art form more commonly linked to Appalachian front porches and fiddle contests than modern art museums in New England.
The Freshgrass festival, which attracted a significantly larger crowd than in the festival's first two years, boasted an impressive lineup of bluegrass and bluegrass-inspired acts, ranging from pioneering legacy groups like the Del McCoury Band to acoustic-minded indie acts like Brooklyn's The Lone Bellow, who won over the crowd with their energetic performance on Saturday afternoon.
With two stages offering virtually uninterrupted music, a dedicated kids' area, workshops for musicians and impromptu bluegrass jam sessions popping up everywhere (including inside the museum's exhibit spaces), the whole Mass MoCA complex buzzed with an exciting, active energy throughout the festival.
Even through a late rainstorm on Saturday, Freshgrass kept the party going after sundown with special late night sets on Friday and Saturday from The Deadly Gentlemen and funky progressive trio The Wood Brothers. Unlike the daytime shows, these performances were held indoors as audience members sipped the festival's notorious moonshine slushies (a potent concoction of bourbon, maple whiskey, lemon juice, cherry syrup and cinnamon over shaved ice).
Adding another artistic dimension to the festival, the museum opened its exhibit spaces to all festival attendees throughout the weekend, offering the chance to experience the Mass MoCA's modern and avant-grade artistic styles alongside the the festival's traditional and revivalist sounds.
Banjo phenomenon Alison Brown, who incorporates jazz and other non-traditional influences into her own music, explained the unexpected compatibility of these seemingly opposite styles of art. "While there is traditional music being presented at the festival, there's also neo-traditional and contemporary music," she said. "It's fitting to have the festival on the campus of a modern art museum because a progressive band's music is built on the shoulders of people who came before, and its the same way with contemporary artists."
The festival also focused on developing the next generation of traditional bluegrass and folk musicians with its encouraging, interactive atmosphere, featured appearances by students in Berklee College of Music's roots music program, and a new competition called the Freshgrass Awards, which invited young groups to compete for a recording contract on Compass Records and a spot on the lineup for next year's Freshgrass.
"There used to be a lot of banjo and fiddle contests" explained Alison Brown, who founded Compass Records and served as a judge for the contest. "If you were just learning to play they gave you the chance to get on stage and hone your craft, and I feel that over the years there have been fewer and fewer of those contests. I think it's great that they're bringing the contest aspect back to the festival, because there are so many young bands that are really fantastic."
After several rounds of preliminary judging, four finalist groups performed two songs each for the Freshgrass audience on Sunday morning, each offering impressive performances. As a test of the bands' songwriting skills and traditional mastery, each was required to perform one original song and one from the vast American folk repertoire. New York City-based quintet Cricket Tell The Weather won the competition with their passionate performance of the traditional bluegrass tune "Who's That Knockin' At My Door."
Audiences were also impressed by especially strong performances from young singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz, soul-rock throwbacks Lake Street Dive, acoustic jambands Greensky Bluegrass and Leftover Salmon, dobro wizard Jerry Douglas, banjo wunderkind Noam Pikelney, fiddle pioneer Sam Bush and legendary bluegrass patriarch Del McCoury, whose band included his own sons Ronnie and Rob on mandolin and banjo.
Brooklyn-based buzzband The Lone Bellow also made an impression on the crowd with their lively stage presence and show-stopping vocals, which they used to lead the crowd in a huge sing-along of John Prine's "Angel of Montgomery," a song that most of the crowd seemed to know by heart. "That was the best" beamed guitarist Brian Elmquist before the next song, matching the crowd's enthusiasm.
Another memorable moment came during The Gibson Brothers' traditional performance, when one of Eric Gibson's banjo breakdowns was interrupted by the loud horn of a passing freight train. Like coal mining, moonshine whiskey and lost love, trains have been a prevalent theme in bluegrass lyrics throughout the history of the genre, and the significant coincidence was well-received by the performers and audience alike.
The train, which passed about two hundred yards from the main stage, continued to pass by the festival every few hours throughout the weekend--much to the delight of several performers who noted its appropriateness.
Despite a few rain showers on Saturday, Freshgrass' welcoming atmosphere, progressive artistic outlook and seemingly never-ending string of impressive performances made the event a great success that is sure to become a yearly fall tradition at Mass MoCA. With the festival growing exponentially over its first three years, next year's Freshgrass promises to be a can't miss event for all traditional and contemporary American music fans.
Jack McManus can be reached at email@example.com and on twitter at @Banner_Arts. Any clawhammer banjo tips would be much appriciated, he isn't very good.