The Upstate Beat: Bluegrass masters and roots-music innovators convene at MASS MoCA’s FreshGrass

Grand Ole Opry members Old Crow Medicine Show will perform at the FreshGrass festival at MASS MoCA. (photo provided)
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Grand Ole Opry members Old Crow Medicine Show will perform at the FreshGrass festival at MASS MoCA. (photo provided)

MASS MoCA’s FreshGrass festival started as a relatively small get-together in 2011, with only a few hundred people in attendance. It’s since grown into a major bluegrass and roots music festival, with more than 40 acts appearing on four stages over the course of three days.

The festival returns to the contemporary art museum’s 16-acre campus in North Adams, Mass., this weekend (Sept. 23-25) with its usual stellar lineup of roots music traditionalists. The festival is notable for pairing old-guard legends with fresh-faced innovators. When I attended eight years ago, Twisted Pine — a young five-piece bluegrass group from Boston — stole the show with their wild, foot-stomping performance.

This year, up-and-coming acts to look out for include East African retro-pop combo Mesafa, Ozark folk singer Willi Carlisle, Portland’s Americana outfit Never Come Down and San Diego trio Thee Sacred Souls.

Big names this year include classic country icon Tanya Tucker, Grammy-winning guitarist Gary Clark Jr., Grand Ole Opry members Old Crow Medicine Show, infectious string band Trampled by Turtles, bluegrass masters The Del McCoury Band, soul-pop singer Yola and roots legend Taj Mahal.

The festival includes a competition open to all festivalgoers: Banjoists, fiddlers, guitarists and bands compete head-to-head for the FreshGrass Award, performing one standard or traditional tune and one original composition. The grand prize winner in each category takes home money, free recording sessions, and the band winners get to perform at the next festival.

Other festival highlights include FreshScores, a silent film with original live music, pop-up performances inside the museum galleries, and local food and spirits vendors.  Full-fest, single-day, and a few camping passes are still available at press time.

Freak Out in a ‘Moonage Daydream’

So far, the reviews are mixed, but I’m excited to see “Moonage Daydream,” the David Bowie film currently playing in local theaters until the end of the month, including the Regal Crossgates IMAX theater in Albany. The film by Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture, Cobain: Montage of Heck) uses David Bowie’s voiced narration and never-before-seen archival footage to tell the story of the groundbreaking artist’s creative, musical and spiritual journey. One recent review called it a “mess,” but the trailer makes it look like the kind of movie you can sink into and enjoy: a kaleidoscopic collage of visually stunning footage and Bowie’s amazing songs.

The Week Ahead

— Downtown Albany hosts another music and arts festival this Saturday, Sept. 24, with its much-loved Art on Lark fair that celebrates local artists, small businesses and musicians. The city’s historic Lark Street (between Madison and State) will be closed to traffic and filled with artists’ booths for painters, photographers, jewelers, sculptors, ceramicists and more. The musical lineup includes outlaw-country band Brule County Bad Boys, the psychedelic-experimental T.V. Doctors, Hudson Valley dream-pop songwriter Kendra McKinley, Albany hip-hop group Capital City Crooks, and Saratoga bluegrass-folk outfit Sullivan’s Smirk Jerkers. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
— Yo La Tengo’s 30-years-and-counting career is unparalleled in its creative breadth. The indie-rock trio of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew has collaborated with everyone from Homer Simpson to Ray Davies, even creating a holiday tradition with their legendary annual series of quickly-sold-out Hanukkah shows. The band’s show at Lark Hall (351 Hudson Ave, Albany) on Monday, Sept. 26, promises more of their sometimes-hushed, sometimes-raucous magic. 8 p.m.
 No Fun (275 River St, Troy) continues to push musical boundaries, hosting Medicine Singers on Wednesday, Sept. 28, in a collaboration between the Native American group and Israeli guitarist Yonatan Gat. The Medicine Singers’ live show is the stuff of legend: the group sets up in-the-round, with the audience encircling the band, and performs a trance-inducing set involving powwow drums and shamanic chants, while the boundaries between performer and audience are blurred. 8 p.m.

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts, Life and Arts

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