Forget Coachella, forget Bonnaroo, and forget Lollapalooza. This summer Western Massachusetts plays host to three different music festivals, all billed as prime destinations for the traveling music fan, and all organized to be as family friendly as possible.
Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival sets up shop at Mass MoCA in North Adams June 26-28. Also that weekend, roots rocker and Northampton native Stephen Kellogg brings his Fifth Annual Family Barbecue to his former hometown. And finally, July 10-12, the Green River Festival returns to the grounds of Greenfield Community College.
“I think there wasn’t any other option,” said Wilco bassist and multi-instrumentalist John Stirratt, when asked during a recent interview about the importance of the Solid Sound Festival being family friendly. “Lots of our fans have kids.”
Though held roughly every other year since its debut in 2010, the Solid Sound Festival is notable for more than just its accommodating attitude towards children. Being staged in and around the walls of a world-class contemporary art museum certainly helps the festival’s profile. And of course, there’s the fact that Solid Sound was founded and continues to be organized by a band instead of an organization or group of promoters.
“The idea of the festival dates back to 2008 when Wilco performed at Tanglewood, and the region was so welcoming,” says Deb Bernardini, who works as part of Wilco’s press team.
Since Tanglewood had such a packed schedule at the time, Jeff Tweedy and company were forced to look elsewhere for a venue to suit their future plan of finding a place where Wilco and its side-projects could perform over the course of a weekend. After settling on Mass MoCA as a location, the group has seen a consistent rise in attendance with each additional running of Solid Sound, including over eight thousand tickets sold for the event in 2013. But that success hasn’t stopped the band from experimenting with what activities to offer festival goers.
For example, in addition to music, Solid Sound also showcases a comedy stage, which in past years has featured appearances by Kristen Schaal,Hannibal Burress, Wyatt Cenac and many more. Comic and author John Hodgman, who appeared at the 2011 Solid Sound Festival, acts as host for the comedy stage and has even joined the staff, acting as an on-going collaborator.
Perhaps in a nod to the festival’s already “carnival-like” vibe, the Vermont-based Circus Smirkus has been added to the Solid Sound lineup for 2015. And, as always, a collection of special attractions will be featured alongside Mass MoCA’s own unique exhibits, giving attendees a look inside Wilco’s history and career.
Says Bernardini, “There are exhibits created by and pertaining to Wilco that can only be seen at Solid Sound including an interactive, fan-sourced Wilco timeline featuring ephemera, photos and recollections, as well as an opportunity for fans to stand on a recreated Wilco stage, complete with Wilco instruments, gear and stage backdrop.”
If that’s not enough reason to make the trip to northwestern Mass., there’s always the beauty of the area itself to appreciate and explore.
“With Wilco, we’ve been to a lot of festivals, big and small, and Solid Sound is sort of set apart by the fact that it’s in a really industrial immediate setting, nestled in the lush Berkshires,” concluded Stirratt. “You’re surrounded by brick and steel, but the green hills are right up against you. There really isn’t anywhere quite like North Adams.”
Conversely, according to former Paradise City resident Stephen Kellogg, there’s also no place quite like home. Though 2015 marks the first year Kellogg is bringing his Family Barbecue to Northampton, the delay has done little to diminish the love he has for the area that helped launch his career.
During a phone interview in May, Kellogg said, “When I think about my adventure, my arc through music, it all comes from Western Mass and Northampton.”
Whether logging time as an employee with the Iron Horse Music Group or meeting his fellow Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers’ band mates during his time at UMass Amherst, the facts seem to back up Kellogg’s claim. It just took a few years for the musician to work out the logistics of bringing his own brand of music festival back home.
Conceived of as an answer to the question, “What would I want to do with my favorite bands?” The inaugural SK Family Barbecue was held in 2011 in Connecticut. Featuring performances by Kellogg and the Sixers, the aforementioned barbecue, as well as a variety of field games like the three-legged race, a water balloon toss, the egg on the spoon and more, the basic elements of the festival appeared to be in place. However, subsequent editions of the gathering have undergone a continual evolution.
“Well, the thing is I’m not an event planner. I’m a musician,” laughed Kellogg. “We’ve made mistakes over the years, and probably one of the things that my friend who runs a really successful festival over in the U.K. said is, ‘The most important thing Stephen, is to keep the same location and to keep the same weekend every year.’ Well, we’ve done it five years and we’ve been in three locations, and we have almost never fallen on the same weekend. So, I get an F there for following the road map for how to have a successful festival.”
“But,” he added. “That’s always the biggest challenge because you pick a weekend, you pick a location…and I wanted to do it in Northampton this year because I thought this is where I got my start. If I was going to see one of my favorite artists, I think it would be interesting to go back to see where they began their career and kind of get to scope that out.”
To that end, not content to just play music and grab some burgers with his fans, Kellogg has also incorporated a trivia game show into the list of barbecue activities, so attendees can learn more about him and his music. Additionally, for the first time this year, he’ll be offering a guided walking tour of Northampton, so festival goers can check out some of his old local haunts.
Kellogg said, “I think people will enjoy it, not just because it’s me, but because it’s a chance to see the town and it’s such an amazing town.”
Another local connection Kellogg is mining for his barbecue this year is musical talent. In addition to playing solo during a pair of scheduled concerts over the weekend, Kellogg will perform alongside Chris Culos of the band O.A.R., as well as Pioneer Valley musician Dennis Crommett, who Kellogg describes as playing, “in like 20 bands there in town.”
Appropriately enough, one of Crommett’s bands Spanish For Hitchhiking released its latest album, Night Alerts, in April, which included a song called “Make It Count.”
Featuring lyrics like, “It takes time / to grow this from a seed,” the number brings to mind a ready-made analogy for the SK Family Barbecue. It may have taken five years for Kellogg to bring such an event to his hometown, but the experience – kids, families, music, and all – seems to be right where he wants it to be.
“We could grow it into more, but it would become something else. It would be a different thing,” Kellogg said. “The goal is to keep it intentionally intimate because I want the people that want to be part of this sort of intimate experience to be there. I’d rather give 225 people a weekend they’ll never forget, than 500 or 600 people just a cool summer concert.”
Speaking of cool summer concerts, the Green River Festival is no longer one of the best kept secrets in Western Mass. Named one of 2015’s 50 Must-See Music Festivals by Rolling Stone, Green River has achieved national acclaim. However, to hear Jim Olsen, head of Signature Sounds Recordings which took over management of Green River in 2014 tell it, the event still possesses a unique local charm that can hook newcomers and delight festival veterans alike.
During an interview in May he said, “The Green River Festival feels like a music festival merged with a really great neighborhood block party. People tend to come in groups with the kids – 10 and under get in free – friends and family. You bump into your co-workers, friends you haven’t seen in a while and you meet new friends. I even know several couples who met at the festival. Everyone is there for a good time. When you add three stages of world class music and the best local food, beer, crafts and great kids’ activities, it just gets better.”
While bigger and better might be Green River’s calling cards at present, its humble beginnings tell a story of slow progression and hard-earned success.
“The festival was started 29 years ago when two separate events were held on consecutive weekends at Greenfield Community College,” recalled Olsen. “The first was a fifth birthday concert for local radio station WRSI featuring NRBQ and 10,000 Maniacs. The following weekend was the first Up Country Hot Air Balloon Fair presented by the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. Over the next few years the balloon festival started presenting music artists as well. It took many years for the festival to grow into the large event it has become.”
Hot air balloons are still a big attraction at the Green River Festival, and the sight of dozens of the crafts soaring through the sky around Greenfield and beyond on a warm summer day is often a highlight of the season. But festival attendees don’t have to keep look far for other activities to draw their interest.
This year’s Green River Festival will also feature circus performers, Frisbee trick dogs and a three-hole Frisbee golf course, a swimming area, a musical instrument petting zoo, a Mardi Gras style parade through the festival grounds, and more. Those wishing to check out The Maker’s Market can get their fill of local crafts, but tying everything together is the opportunity to hear a variety of great music.
Over 40 bands are scheduled to play over the course of the weekend. Acts like Tune-Yards will bring a more experimental sound, while others like Antibalas and Red Baraat will showcase different styles of world music. Of course, since Rolling Stone cited Green River’s “relaxed, guitar-centric vibe where you’ll more likely spot a fiddle than a turntable,” the spotlight is still on roots-based acts like Steve Earle and The Dukes as well as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which should have no problem entertaining the five to six thousand people expected to pass through the festival gates daily.
Olsen said, “I think the way Green River Festival is different is that it has a really special kind of energy. I think it’s due to the fact that it doesn’t have a giant audience or huge, crowded campgrounds and the hassle factor of so many of the big festivals. Everyone is there for the day only and are there to enjoy themselves. It’s just such a great atmosphere.”
Indeed, atmosphere is a word used often to describe, not just music festivals, but also any location or gathering that elicits observable feelings and emotions. Details can be forgotten, and events can lose their vibrancy to time and distance. But the memories that stick are the products of atmosphere. Fill up a dozen scrapbooks or download a thousand images, yet you’ll probably still always be chasing the vibe of a sunny summer afternoon, when the wind turned just right and music played from a stage hit you like a wave, cresting over your shoulders before receding from the present and into the past.
“As we become a more wired, less connected society, these kinds of events are more important than ever,” Olsen mused. “A festival is place to go to connect with your people, sharing something you love in real time.”
Stephen Kellogg’s Fifth Annual Family Barbecue featuring field games, trivia game show, children’s concert, and two nights of music with performances by Stephen Kellogg, Chris Culos (O.A.R.), Dennis Crommett (Spanish For Hitchhiking) and more, June 26-28, $125, Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center St., Northampton, (413) 586-8686, http://www.iheg.com/iron_horse, as well as other various locations in and around Northampton, http://www.stephenkellogg.com.
Green River Festival featuring Steve Earle, Tune-Yards, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and more, July 10: gates open at 5 p.m.; July 11: gates open at 12 p.m. and balloons launch at 6 p.m.; July 12: balloons launch at 6 a.m. and gates open at 12 p.m.., free/ kids, $20-100/ general, Greenfield Community College, One College Dr., Greenfield, (413) 341-3317, http://www.greenriverfestival.com.
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