In just its fifth year, FreshGrass continues to affirm its prominence as one of the finest annual music events in the Northeast. Though its lineups trend toward the ever-expanding universe of bluegrass-related artists, they continue to serve up a bold and tasteful selection of performers, and are somewhat fearless in embracing eclecticism on their stages amidst the surreal grounds of MASS MoCA.
Over three days of idyllic Berkshires fall weather, audiences were treated to some of string music’s top touring acts. Friday night the Punch Brothers brought their show to the main stage a little after sundown, and that energy level never dissipated for the remainder of the festival. Saturday night I’m with Her, something of an all-woman supergroup consisting of Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aofie O’Donovan, stole the show. Country music legend Dwight Yoakam managed to follow with a rousing set of his own though, winning the hearts of many bluegrass fans in the process. The night was capped off with a sensational performance by Leftover Salmon, who were joined by Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne.
The final day was anchored by a memorable bluegrass tribute to the music of Johnny Cash. Organized by Freshgrass mainstay banjoist Alison Brown, the band – which included mandolin player Frank Sullivan and guitarist Trey Hensley – was joined by a wealth of guest performances including Peter Rowan, following his turn on the main stage. Jerry Douglas’ latest project the Earls of Leicester and the Del McCoury Band added a little straight ahead bluegrass to the mix. And folksinger Willie Watson, formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show, had a packed audience eating out of the palm of his hand in a solo performance.
Though a relative newcomer to the bluegrass festival circuit, FreshGrass has shirked any notion that they should emulate what other events are doing, and are reliably assembling outstanding musicians, some of whom are titans of music history and others lesser known. One thing ties them together though: all of them need to be heard.
– Eric Russ