(NORTH ADAMS, Mass.) – Trad-country-rocker Dwight Yoakam, bluegrass legends the Del McCoury Band, Indiana alt-country rockers Houndmouth, Malian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Vieux Farka Touré, jam-band avatars Leftover Salmon, Boston-based trio the Ballroom Thieves, and acoustic roots band Cat and The Moon, and The Man in Grass, an all-star tribute to Johnny Cash, headline Freshgrass, the annual three-day bluegrass and roots music festival at MASS MoCA that takes place this year Friday-Sunday, September 18-20, 2015.
FreshGrass kicks off on Friday, September 18, with Punch Brothers, Houndmouth, Flatt Lonesome, and 2014 FreshGrass Band Award winner Twisted Pine.
Saturday, September 19, features Dwight Yoakam, Leftover Salmon, Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz & Aoife O’Donovan, Alison Brown, Vieux Farka Touré & Julia Easterlin, Lost Bayou Ramblers, Ballroom Thieves, Birds of Chicago, FreshGrass Award winners Quiles & Cloud and Cat and the Moon, and bands from Berklee College of Music’s American Roots Music Program.
Sunday, September 20, keeps rolling with The Del McCoury Band, Jerry Douglas presents Earls of Leicester, Greensky Bluegrass; Willie Watson, formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show; Peter Rowan, Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem, and The Man in Grass – A Tribute to Johnny Cash.
The robust lineup also features a late-night hoedown by Leftover Salmon, Jerry Douglas presents Earls of Leicester, Peter Rowan, Flatt Lonesome, and Darol Anger’s Mr. Sun. FreshGrass features bluegrass traditionalists and trailblazers on four stages and throughout every nook and cranny of MASS MoCA’s 28-building, 16-acre campus.
Dwight Yoakam’s brilliant new album, “Second Hand Heart,” released in April 2015, takes the pioneering honky-tonker back to Warner Bros./Reprise, where he began his major-label recording career thirty years ago. His distinctive, supple vocals, accented with his Kentucky croon, sound as strong today as they did on his debut, 1985’s “Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc.” That release immediately yielded hit singles, and over the course of some 21 albums — totaling more than 25 million records sold worldwide — Yoakam has continued to passionately sing, write, and play music brimming with hard country and rock ‘n’ roll.
On the brink of stardom, Greensky Bluegrass slayed the crowd at FreshGrass in 2013, winning the instant devotion of thousands of new fans, including bluegrass stalwart Sam Bush — their spontaneous shared set rocked the FreshGrass crowd. The band’s star has been rising ever since. Rolling Stone says of Greensky, “They’re representing the genre for a whole new generation.” It’s a tall order, especially considering some of their company here at the festival — but this quintet, which formed in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 2000, inhabits the role with charm and confidence. Combining dazzling musicianship with a rowdy sense of fun and a work ethic that has them on tour for nearly 200 days a year, they have become a mainstay at festivals (and late-night jam sessions) across the country. As Jambase claims, “Greensky Bluegrass hits timeless targets with deadly accuracy while simultaneously veering off the tired and true highway.” And the band’s talent reaches beyond the stage: an apres-festival kickball showdown against Mandolin Orange in 2013 was some of the most we’ve ever witnessed on the MASS MoCA concert field.
Looking like a man from leaner and meaner times, Willie Watson steps on stage with a quiet gravitas, though when he opens his mouth and lets out that high lonesome vocal, you can hear him loud and clear. A founding member of Old Crow Medicine Show and now one of the most dynamic solo artists in the world of Americana, Willie’s debut album, Folk Singer Vol. 1, was produced by Dave Rawlings at Woodland Sound Studios, the studio he co-owns with associate producer Gillian Welch in Nashville, over the course of four days, for the producer-pair’s Acony Records label. This is Willie’s first FreshGrass — but certainly not his last. Festival founder Chris Wadsworth says, “Willie Watson is one of the most exciting artists in Americana. He collaborates with everyone — you never know where he’s going to pop up — we’re just glad that this year, it’s at FreshGrass.” Wadsworth continues, “Willie is exactly our kind of musician. He embodies everything that this festival is about.”
Husband and wife duo JT Nero and Allison Russell are the heart of Birds of Chicago, a sprawling collective of soul-inflected, groove-based Americana from that great Midwestern city. The Los Angeles Times calls the band “this year’s biggest roots surprise” – and, indeed, their self-titled debut record has propelled them into the imagination of bluegrass audiences and rock critics alike. MASS MoCA’s Courtyard D is perfect for soaring vocals bouncing around the bricks – as bands like Hurray for the Riff Raff, Lake Street Dive and The Lone Bellow all found out at recent festivals. Birds of Chicago keeps the tradition alive with a rope of vocal harmonies and one of this season’s most danceable catalogs.
With The Man in Grass, FreshGrass favorite Alison Brown leads a celebration of the music of the Man in Black — featuring a stellar band of festival All-Stars convened for the occasion, including the exceptional guitarist and singer Trey Hensley — who once shared the stage with Johnny and June Carter Cash — and special guests from all over the festival lineup who dive into grassy reworks of the Cash songbook.
FreshGrass veteran The Del McCoury Band will be returning to the festival for the third time this September. For fifty years, Del McCoury’s music has set the bluegrass standard of authenticity while maintaining its relevance: “Del epitomizes the bluegrass musician from a previous era, and also from this one,” says acclaimed guitarist and 2013 FreshGrass performer Jerry Douglas.
Oft-compared to swaggering folk-rock legend The Band for its group vocals, narrative songwriting, and larger-than life stage presence, Houndmouth, after forming in the summer of 2011, played small, local venues in Louisville and Indiana until its big break at SXSW in March 2012. According to legend, Geoff Travis, head of the tastemaking Rough Trade Records, heard the band at the music festival and offered Houndmouth a contract on the spot. Despite its UK representation, Houndmouth’s distinctly Americana sound shone through on its first album, “From the Hills Below the City.” The album was a critical success (NPR Music called it “near perfect”) and led to several performances on the late-night circuit and several major festivals (SPIN and Esquire magazines named Houndmouth a “must-see” at Lollapalooza 2013). The band recently followed up its debut album with Little Neon Limelight, released on March 17, 2015, showcasing the same signature blend of classic Americana sensibilities and raucous, rollicking, rock ‘n’ roll delivery that the band will be bringing to FreshGrass 2015.
Last year, Hothouse Flowers frontman Liam Ó Maonlaí brought his solo act to our FreshGrass stages. His raw, unapologetic traditional Irish influences and instrumentation made him an instant festival favorite (so much so that he returned to the museum for a special St. Patrick’s Day show this month). Like Ó Maonlaí before him, Malian singer-songwriter Vieux Farka Touré offers an unexpected and global perspective to the FreshGrass lineup, although Touré’s sound is an eclectic meld of blues, world, rock, reggae, soul, and Malian folk music. Touré has received critical acclaim from an equally eclectic array of sources, he’s no stranger to the top of the world-music charts, and his own father, Ali Ibrahim “Farka” Touré, is one of Africa’s most internationally renowned musicians to date. Vieux Farka Touré has collaborated with the likes of Derek Trucks, John Scofield, Dave Matthews, and, of course, his father, and in 2010 he performed alongside Shakira, Alicia Keys, and K’naan at the opening celebration of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Touré’s diverse array of musical influences and collaborators, his soulful, groove-ready tracks, and his firm roots in folk are sure to catapult him to FreshGrass 2015 fame.
The Ballroom Thieves bring their city heritage and country feel to this year’s FreshGrass lineup. The Boston-based threesome boasts a stripped-down, acoustic, organic setup — so that the show goes wherever they do — and amidst their rollicking guitar riffs, emotive cello, and pulsating drum beats is the crown jewel of the trio: their breathtaking three-part vocals. Their unique sound strips the conventions of pop and folk to their core and builds them back up again with renewed vitality, which explains why acts such as The Lone Bellow, Dispatch, the Wheeler Brothers, and fellow FreshGrass 2015 performer Houndmouth have all toured and collaborated with the band.
Cat and The Moon, a dynamic acoustic roots band, rounds out this wave of announcements with its strong Celtic and bluegrass influences. After forming at the Berklee College of Music, the band quickly rose to prominence in Boston’s world-class Irish music scene. The band features the musical stylings of San Francisco banjoist, Ricky Mier, who takes a multi-faceted approach to his instrument. Inspired by the musical traditions of bluegrass, jazz, traditional Irish, folk, and classical, and motivated by an academic interest in the banjo (Mier is still an active contributor of tablature and transcriptions to the Banjo Hangout), his diverse and compelling banjo skills made him winner of the 2014 FreshGrass “Best Banjo” contest. Now returning to FreshGrass 2015 with Cat and The Moon, Mier’s unbelievable banjo prowess finally gets the staging it deserves.
In addition to concerts, contests, workshops, and the festival’s legendary jam sessions — during which professional musicians pick and play among the crowd, many of whom bring their own instruments — festival events include camping, located a short distance from MASS MoCA’s campus, and children’s programming. Admission to MASS MoCA’s galleries is included with a festival pass, and festival-goers enjoy dozens of pop-up concerts set among dramatically scaled exhibitions of contemporary art.
Advance 3-day adult tickets are now available for $93, with student tickets priced at $83, $46 for kids 7-16, and free admission for kids six and under. MASS MoCA members receive a 10% discount on festival ticket prices. Single-day tickets may be offered closer to the event, as space allows. FreshGrass details will be updated on the festival website, Freshgrass, and on Facebook at FreshGrass Festival. FreshGrass is held rain or shine.
MASS MoCA is one of the world’s liveliest (and largest) centers for making and enjoying today’s most important art, music, dance, theater, film, and video. Hundreds of works of visual and performing art have been created on its 19th-century factory campus during fabrication and rehearsal residencies, making MASS MoCA among the most productive sites in the country for the creation and presentation of new art. More platform than box, MASS MoCA strives to bring to its audiences art experiences that are fresh, engaging, and transformative.
During the winter and spring, MASS MoCA’s galleries are open 11am to 5pm every day except Tuesdays. The Hall Art Foundation’s Anselm Kiefer exhibition reopens on April 18, 2015. Gallery admission is $18 for adults, $16 for veterans and seniors, $12 for students, $8 for children 6 to 16, and free for children 5 and under. Members are admitted free year-round. For additional information, call 413.662.2111 x1 or visit MASS MoCA.