(NORTH ADAMS, Mass.) – Rosanne Cash, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Old Crow Medicine Show, Glen Hansard, the Devil Makes Three, the Infamous Stringdusters, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, and Aoife O’Donovan headline this weekend’s FreshGrass Festival of bluegrass and progressive roots music at MASS MoCA, on Friday-Sunday, September 16-18.
The festival features three days of concerts, pop-up performances, instrument and industry workshops, and a bounty of Berkshire harvest-season food and spirits. The event takes over the entire MASS MoCA campus, including courtyards, galleries, grassy fields, bridges, and every place in between. Berklee College of Music’s American Roots Music Program returns to lead workshops in which festival-pickers fine-tune picking skills and learn from bluegrass veterans about the inner workings of songwriting, producing, and marketing music — events that often erupt in wild, rollicking jam sessions with festivalgoers strumming alongside mainstage talent. FreshGrass-owned No Depression sets up an eponymous stage in the festival’s inner courtyard; Compass Records brings its pop-up record store back to the center of the festival; and local luthiers demonstrate their craft.
Also on the bill at the annual festival – a 2014 International Bluegrass Music Association Awards nominee for “Event of the Year” – are festival favorite Alison Brown, Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, Stephane Wrembel, John Reischman and the Jaybirds, Mr. Sun, UK experimental folk group Lau, mandolin virtuoso Sierra Hull, Texas blues and roots sensation Ruthie Foster, Northampton-based alt-folk group Parsonsfield, and Mexican bluegrasser Rana Santacruz, as well as 2015 FreshGrass Award winners Old Salt Union, Zoe & Cloyd, and Mile Twelve.
This year’s festival marks an integrated partnership with No Depression, the quarterly journal for roots music and online roots music authority.
In addition to more than 50 band performances, the festival features FreshScores, live music played while classic silent films are screened; the FreshGrass Award — 20 emerging artists competing in the band, duo, fiddle, and banjo categories for up to $25,000 in cash prizes and recording time at Compass Records; workshops; the festival’s legendary jam sessions — during which professional musicians pick and play among the crowd, many of whom bring their own instruments; camping (located a short distance from MASS MoCA’s campus); and family programming.
World-class art, some massive in scale, is on view all weekend, as admission to MASS MoCA’s galleries is included with every festival pass. Festivalgoers enjoy dozens of pop-up concerts across the museum’s 16-acre, post-industrial campus nestled in the bucolic Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts.
FreshGrass is held rain or shine.
“Old Crow, Cash, Hansard, Skaggs, The ‘Dusters and Frank Solivan — one of the hardest working guys in bluegrass — and that’s just for starters. FreshGrass presents one of the liveliest and all-encompassing lineups of any music festival in the nation. Musical chops, songwriting innovation, community participation, great food and drink in a really beautiful arts complex… all that makes for a special weekend, and we are so proud to host this flagship event in North Adams,” says MASS MoCA director Joseph Thompson.
The festival continues to nurture fresh takes on the tradition of bluegrass music with the growth of its FreshGrass Award, a music contest judged by industry professionals, featuring up to $25,000 in cash prizes and recording time at Compass Records’ studio in Nashville for the winners. The annual categories include band, duo, banjo, and fiddle, adding over twenty performances to the festival lineup throughout the weekend. This year’s FreshGrass Award winners will earn a mainstage slot at the 2017 FreshGrass festival. The FreshGrass Award prizes are funded by the FreshGrass Foundation, whose mission is to promote, produce, and create innovative grass roots music and support emerging artists.
FreshScores is a film and live music event commissioned by the FreshGrass Foundation to pair original live music, composed to enliven silent films, with a screening and performance during the festival. In its 2015 debut, FreshScores featured festival veteran Alison Brown, who scored A Child of The Ghetto, the bluesy guitar stylings of Mamie Minch, who played to 1921 classic, The Flying House, and the Lost Bayou Ramblers who delighted crowds with the band’s inspired Cajun roots soundtrack to The Great Train Robbery. In 2016, Alison Brown returns alongside Aoife O’Donovan and gypsy guitar picker Stephane Wrembel to light up the screen.
“Great music, strong community, preservation, and advancement will always be the guiding lights of FreshGrass,” says festival producer Chris Wadsworth. “With the success of the FreshGrass awards and FreshScores, we offer our audience a singular festival experience and access to truly innovative ideas in grassroots music. The FreshGrass family has really grown over the last five years with No Depression and this festival at its heart; we have gathered one of the largest and most vibrant roots music communities out there. And we still have a few tricks up our sleeves.”
In addition to the Award, films, 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. Art is on view all weekend, as admission to MASS MoCA’s galleries is included with every festival pass, and festival-goers enjoy dozens of pop-up concerts set among dramatically scaled exhibitions of contemporary art.
FreshGrass is committed to preserving, supporting, and creating innovative grassroots music. The FreshGrass Foundation, which co-produces the festival with MASS MoCA, funds the FreshGrass Awards and FreshGrass Presents, creates new music through FreshScores and the FreshGrass Commission, and operates the No Depression Fellowship for writers. The foundation operates No Depression — the roots music authority both online and in print. freshgrass.com
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.
MASS MoCA’s galleries are open 11am to 5pm every day except Tuesdays. The Hall Art Foundation’s Anselm Kiefer exhibition reopens on April 30, 2016. Beginning June 25, MASS MoCA’s galleries are open 10am to 6pm every day, with extended evening hours to 7pm on Thursdays through Saturdays. 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.
Lau is at the center of the British folk scene. Featuring guitar, fiddle, squeezebox, and the hearty vocals of its three members (Kris Drever, Martin Green, and Aidan O’Rourke), the band’s name comes from an old Orcadian word for “natural light,” and its music follows suit. “Steeped in folk heritage but with a love for experimentation” (The Guardian), Lau’s shimmering folk melodies and countless instrumental layers shed new light on traditional music. With its debut album released in 2007, Lau won Best Group for three consecutive years at the BBC Folk Awards, has made appearances at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, Vancouver Folk Music Festival, Calgary Folk Music Festival, and wowed a U.S. audience at last year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival. With three masterful studio albums released, Folk Radio UK names Lau as “the mothership for an extraordinary artistic outpouring and some of the best music being made anywhere in any genre.”
Championed by Alison Krauss as having talent with no boundaries, mandolin extraordinaire and prodigy Sierra Hull hits the FreshGrass stage on her way to a tremendously bright future. Hull began playing mandolin at age 8, was signed to Rounder Records at age 13, and now at 24, after attending and graduating from Berklee College of Music on the prestigious Presidential Scholarship, has already recorded three studio albums, collaborating with mentor Alison Krauss. Her most recent, Weighted Mind, produced by banjo luminary Béla Fleck, is a “stunning coming-of-age album” with which Hull joins the likes of Nickel Creek alums Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins as “pedigreed virtuosos whose youthful, searching musical minds have taken them into postmodern singer-songwriter territory and beyond” (NPR Music).
As a musician who grew up in a family of gospel singers in small-town Texas, Ruthie Foster brings the blues to the FreshGrass lineup this year. Often compared to both Bonnie Raitt and Aretha Franklin, Ruthie has rocked stages around the country with her soulful, heartfelt voice. “Ruthie’s voice is such a singular, powerful instrument, and she has such mastery of it,” her producer Meshell Ndegeocello touts. “She can turn it on, belt it out, and bring you to your knees, all in an instant.” Foster’s three most recent albums have all been nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album, and from 2011 to 2013 she earned three consecutive Blues Music Awards. She’s also won three Koko Taylor Awards for Best Traditional Female Blues Artist, an Austin Music Award for Best Female Vocalist, and a Living Blues Critics’ Award for Female Blues Artist of the Year, among others. With appearances on stage with Susan Tedeschi, Bonnie Raitt, and The Allman Brothers Band, Ruthie Foster is an authentic blues singer who honors the artists before her and captures new musical moments in each and every one of her performances.
Adding some local flavor to the festival, five-piece alt-folk band Parsonsfield, based in nearby Northampton, Mass., give Americana a makeover with its tasteful and rowdy sing-along anthems. Members Chris Freeman (vocals, banjo), Antonio Alcorn (mandolin), Max Shakun (vocals, pump organ, guitar), Harrison Goodale (bass), and Erik Hischmann (drums) made their name relentlessly touring the northeast for the better half of the decade since their nascent days as hobbyist musicians at the University of Connecticut, where agriculture student Freeman met paper artist Alcorn in a folk music club on campus, and they landed their first gig by accident when the club was mistaken for a band. After the addition of new members and experimentation with new instruments, including electric fan, gourd piano, and saw, the group refined its sound, changed its name and recorded its first album, Poor Old Shine (Signature Sounds, 2013) in Parsonsfield, Maine. “On stage, Parsonsfield will give you rich five-part harmonies one minute, sound like bluegrass on steroids the next, and then rock you over the head with unbearably cool and raucous Celtic rhythms. All with taste and class” (No Depression). Parsonsfield’s next album is due to be released just in time for the band’s FreshGrass festival debut.
Mexican-American alt-ranchera singer Rana Santacruz brings a global atmosphere to the FreshGrass lineup. Born and raised in Mexico City, Santacruz moved to Brooklyn in 2002 to re-invent his musical persona, after playing in the ‘90s alt-rock scene in Mexico City. Inspired by the endless burgeoning talent New York City offers, Santacruz’s music adapted a cosmopolitan flavor that ranges from Irish mariachi to Mexican bluegrass to alternative folk. He released his debut album Chicavasco in 2010 to rave reviews from critics — NPR Music says his “music is as magical as his persona” — and has since appeared at Austin’s South by Southwest, NPR’s Tiny Desk, New York’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. With his 2015 follow-up release Por Ahí, he further embraced his worldly tastes, influenced by “everything from Balkan-influenced dance music, bearded hipster cool, 1920’s jazz, and even bluegrass” (NPR Music). Santacruz wields an accordion while he sings heartbreaking songs marinated in Mexican folklore.