Apparently there was a time, when I was in elementary school, when the main attraction at The Green River Festival was hot air balloons. The balloons are still there twenty-five years later, but now they just provide a fantastical and prohibitively expensive[i] diversion from a lineup of some of the best bluegrass and indie rock acts in the world. I had the privilege of hanging out for the whole weekend, watching and talking to some really good bands. I caught glimpses of some of the headliners, including Steve Earle, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, J Mascis, Rubblebucket, and tUnE-yArDs, but I’d like to tell you about some of the equally incredible acts whose names were a little lower down on the marquee…
Twisted Pine are a group of young graduates of the Berklee College of Music who seem like time travelers from 1950s Appalachia (or maybe just the cast of a really well-done school play set in that era). Ricky Mier looks the part of a rambling, bearded mountain man wielding his banjo, while mandolinist Dan Bui presents as a pleasant and refined southern gentleman; violinist Kathleen Parks and guitarist Rachel Sumner appear as red-lipped, sun-dressed, sugar-voiced belles. And these kids sure can play. They met at school, started playing tunes by guys named Scruggs and Flatt and Martin together, and embarked on a whirlwind ride that has seen them festival-hoping, taking on and defeating all challengers[ii] for the past year or so. Listen to them tear up Bill Monroe’s “Old Dangerfield,” off their self-titled EP:
You heard the hot pickin’, but once you pour their honey-sweet vocal harmonies into this cup of tea, you realize these kids have the potential to become something really special. I hear there is an album of their original songs in the works, so we’ll soon enough find out how they plan to realize their gifts. For now we can simply enjoy how expertly they can transport us into the past. Here they are burning through Jimmy Martin’s “Hold Watcha Got” to open up the festival on Friday night:
THE PINE HILL PROJECT
Veteran singer-songwriters Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky have been frequent collaborators[iii] throughout their parallel, three decade-long careers, but had never recorded an album as a pair until last year. They combined their talents (and a lot of their fans’ donated cash)[iv] in The Pine Hill Project, and produced Tomorrow You’re Going, an album of covers, which includes a version of Gillian Welch’s “Wichita,” and this rendition of Nick Lowe’s “Battlefield”:
On Friday night, they dealt an admiring audience at the main stage a polished and pleasant performance, drawing on a massive catalog of their own, and other people’s songs. Shindell reached back for his first big hit, a ballad of heartbreak on Halloween called “Are You Happy Now?”
Chuchito Valdes represents a third generation of virtuoso Cuban jazz pianists. His father Chucho Valdes and grandfather Bebo Valdes are each revered performers who led beloved big bands in their lifetimes. Chuchito followed in their footsteps, eventually taking over leadership in the band Irakere from his father, its founder. He was featured in a night of music from the Latin world on the festival’s second stage, and his preening machismo represented Cuban culture as strongly as his bombastic execution of the Afro-Cuban styles largely invented by his forebears did. It was a lot of fun to watch his hands dance frenetically over his keyboard, his face contorting and straining in utter concentration. The keys and the sounds they produced seemed like a natural extension of Chuchito’s spectacular ego:
“Maku” is a term used to describe certain indigenous people in Columbia, indicating they are of a lower station than the more affluent, European-descendants within the country’s society. The members of MAKU Soundsystem view themselves as a band by and for the people. They fuse traditional rhythms with synthesized electronic noise and funky horns and basslines. It allows the band a lot of different avenues to explore within the layers above a foundation of driving cumbia beats played by vocalist Lala Conde on a llamador drum. Plugged-in guitarists Juan Ospina and Camilo Rodriguez and synth player Felipe Quiroz can steer the sound toward the rough, angsty energy of a punk song or the undulating intensity of pop dance track. The horn section, led by Andres Jimenez and Isaiah Robertson, Jr, bring a soulful element to the music that enriches the band’s heart and social consciousness.[v] Listen to the new song “Agua,” recently released ahead of a forthcoming album, to hear how all these part blend together:
The band’s show on Friday night at the festival was incredibly high energy, they seemed overjoyed to be playing in front of a sizable crowd on a hot summer night. The audience poured sweat as we danced, propelled by MAKU’s infectious enthusiasm. Here they are playing “MND (Music Never Dies),” off their EP of the same name:
THE SUITCASE JUNKET
Since I first discovered The Suitcase Junket back in February, his act has picked up a little more recognition, and Matt Lorenz has some regional radio play, some cool new music videos, and a European tour under his belt. There are some other scratchy-voiced, kick-drumming solo songsmiths out there on the indie music landscape, but in my opinion, no other act combines novel instrumentation and unique creative talent with an ability to write songs that would sound good absent any sort of shtick the way The Suitcase Junket does. Take in his catchy tune “Twisted Fate,” off his self-released 2015 album Make Time (listen for the awesome throat-singing solo at around 1:20):
Matt played two sets at the festival, opening up on Saturday afternoon on the main stage and playing “in the round” on the third stage with Charlie Parr and Kris Delmhorst. I finally had the opportunity to sit down and talk to him later that day, and you can listen to the interview on our podcast next week. His solo set drew a large crowd of pleasantly surprised listeners down in front of the stage, standing on tip toes trying to get a look at his setup of salvaged and repurposed instruments[vi] and leaning toward friends to whisper stuff like “Holy shit, this guy kicks ass!” Here he is performing the song “So No”:
Speaking of musicians I stumbled upon live early this year and absolutely love, Arc Iris also played two sets at Green River. The group was founded by singer and multi-instrumentalist Jocie Adams after she left The Low Anthem three years ago. She writes simple, beautiful songs that sometimes sound a little like classical compositions, sometimes like glam rock anthems, sometimes like jazzy show tunes, sometimes like old time traditionals, often all of those styles mashed-up into rapid fire medleys. After almost two years of touring, the band has evolved into a lineup of Robin Ryczek on cello, Zach Tenorio-Miller on keyboards, and Ray Belli on percussion, with Adams leading soaring harmonies and cycling from acoustic guitar to clarinet to piano, sometimes within the same song. The lack of a standard electric guitar tandem frees Arc Iris to explore unexpected sonic spaces, and they are rapidly maturing and growing into those spaces. “Singing So Sweetly,” off their self-titled 2014 album, is a nice introduction to their unique concept:
Playing live, the guitars, banjos, and horns that dot the arrangements on the record are absent, and Tenorio-Miller fills those voids by any means necessary – left hand on his keyboard, right hand on his synth, feet working pedals, his voice resonating above and below Adams’. Ryczek is out on the frontier of her instrument’s capabilities, and her virtuosity sometimes casts her in the role a lead guitarist might play in your average rock band, authoring signature intros and outros and melodic lines that tie the songs together. Belli’s bashing on his drum kit anchors the group to rock music and keeps them from drifting into an abstract, experimental wormhole. On stage, they have taken to wearing shining metallic outfits, rhinestones on the girl’s faces, as if they are the cool new jam band from the same planet that brought us Ziggy Stardust.[vii] Here they are finishing up their Saturday set with the song “Swimming”:
Experimental pianist Marco Benevento was up next, generating sounds with a peculiar setup of effects pedals cobbled onto, and a laptop resting on top of, his studio piano. He played with bassist Dave Dreiwitz and drummer Andrew Borger, the trio working their way through a set of throbbing instrumentals that got the crowd up and moving. When I saw Benevento’s name on the festival lineup, and that he was playing around dinnertime on the third stage, I wondered if we might see some kind of conventional jazz piano set that harkened back to his work prior to the release of the thoroughly innovative record Invisible Baby in 2008, but we were treated to the full band, full effects, highly danceable stuff instead. Stuff like “At the Show,” a single just released last month:
It was great to see Benevento live, wearing a suit in the ninety degree heat, hair plastered to his forehead as he smiled his way through a full set of his highly original music. Known for his broad ranging collaborations[viii] with other artists (he drew a series of vocalists, including Arc Iris’ Adams, on stage with him at Green River), his own stuff is just as good, if not better. If he had just kept playing, I would have stayed and danced for hours of more songs like “Coyote Hearing,” and I suspect the rest of the sunburnt revelers there would have too:
Check back in with Old School Record Review tomorrow for Part Two of my coverage of the festival, which includes videos of performances by Punch Brothers and Valerie June.
[i] Yup, $250 a ride is too rich for my blood.
[ii] Twisted Pine won the band competition at FreshGrass last year.
[iii] Perhaps most notably as part of the group Cry Cry Cry, with Dar Williams.
[iv] They put up maybe the most successful crowd-funding effort I’ve ever heard of, which makes sense when you consider that their educated Gen-X fan base have now removed themselves from the cities they once gentrified and are now living comfortably in quiet bedroom communities, drinking a little too much wine and surfing the internet looking for someone to give money too in the evenings (I think 6% of any donation to Hillary Clinton’s campaign is set aside to ensure Shindell, Kaplansky, and maybe Shawn Colvin keep creating albums). They showed up in force at the festival, and seemed moderately satisfied with a food and alcohol selection that must inescapably be described as “artisanal.”
[v] Watching MAKU, I imagined this is what it might sound like if the Zapatistas formed a band. Their motto is “Party for the People,” and they are part of the cooperative artistic community at the Calles y Suenos Community Center in Chicago.
[vi] Matt’s website describes his “band” this way: “A resurrected dumpster-diamond guitar, an old oversized suitcase, a hi-hat, a gas-can baby-shoe foot-drum, a cookpot-soupcan-tambourine foot-drum, a circular-saw-blade bell and a box of bones and silverware that operate much like a hi-hat. He pounds out rhythms with his feet and his twang-and-buzz guitar growls through a couple of old tube amps. On top of all this is the ethereal edge of his overtone throat-singing.”
[vii] While I was recording, there was a little girl standing next to me wide-eyed, with her mouth handing wide open, watching Jocie Adams in her gold body suit, and Ryczek and Tenorio Miller’s huge manes of blonde and curly brown hair whip around as they jammed their way to a crescendo. I’m pretty sure she thought she was seeing some kind of space princesses play music. After the show, her mom brought her over to get her picture taken with the band. It was spectacularly adorable.