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  • Rich Kassirer

Two New England festivals are all about the music

Mavis Staples joins Lake Street Dive at Newport.
Mavis Staples joins Lake Street Dive at Newport.

Here in the New England, we have no Bonnaroo, no Coachella, no Lollapalooza, no New Orleans Jazz Festival: summer music extravaganzas with lineups filled with pop superstars, celebrity spotting and amusement park activities. We don’t have venues like Red Rocks in Colorado or The Gorge in Washington state, where the vistas are even more amazing than the acts that play there.

That’s OK, we don’t need them. What New England has is two of the best summer music festivals – the Newport Folk Festival and the Green River Music Festival – if your main interest is actually listening to great live music.

I’m not saying you can’t hear great music at the other festivals. It’s there in abundance, maybe even overabundance. But with everything that’s going on outside or alongside the music at those giant events, it’s easy to see how focus can get jumbled.

At both Green River and Newport – two very different festivals – the music is the entertainment. There are no Ferris wheels or big-top tents. There isn’t even overnight camping.

This summer, as in past summers, I attended both festivals, hitting both days at Green River, and one day at Newport. What amazes me about both experiences is how intently the crowds listen to the performers. You can sit on your blankets half way back or further in the crowd and people will be listening instead of talking. This rarely happens even in small clubs with a room full of a band’s fans.

I remember a couple of years ago when the Decemberists first played Newport, Colin Meloy told the crowd, “We’ve never played to a more attentive festival audience.”

What makes Green River special is that it is family-oriented. Situated on the grounds of Greenfield Community College in Greenfield, Mass., the main stage is the big attraction for music fans, while kids have free reign on the lower field, where the second and third stages share the ample space with hula hooping, arts & crafts and a small climbing wall. None of this disrupts the music; it all just makes it easier for music-loving parents to enjoy themselves.

And while this is not a concert review per se, this year’s performances by Trombone Shorty, Josh Ritter & the Royal City Band, Trampled by Turtles, Puss n Boots, the Alvin Brothers, Barnstar!, and more was such a hit the festival completely sold out both days for the first time.

For Newport, at Fort Adams State Park, it’s the history that drives everything. Yes, the festival’s main stage idyllically sits on a peninsula surrounded by a harbor filled with yachts. But it is Pete Seeger, the legend of Bob Dylan, etc., that inspires the promoters of the festival to bring in acts that want to be part of that history. It’s no longer just folk music, but that’s fine. It’s a desire by the artists and the fans to experience the rush of contemporary music as when Seeger, Joan Baez, and others performed there.

The Friday I was there, acts ranged from indie rockers Ryan Adams to Jenny Lewis, indie band Lake Street Dive to Grateful Dead songwriter Robert Hunter, reggae master Jimmy Cliff to blues rocker Reignwolf. It was an astonishing diverse lineup… and that was only the first day!

Newport sold out all three days, but that has become the norm there. A couple of years ago, I felt it had outgrown its space, seemingly unable to handle the crowds. Concession lines were too long, seating at the smaller stages was less accessible. This year, however, the venue seemed to have adjusted. Maybe it was because I was there on Friday and not the weekend, but at least to me, it felt like there had been some adjustments – more concessions, a video screen at one of the smaller stages – that opened things up and made it feel less crowded.

There are still some issues, especially for those wanting to stay for multiple days. Camping would help, but neither festival can do that – Greenfield is at a college (dorm rooms, maybe?) and Newport is a state park. Newport has the added issue of being in a very chi-chi town before adding the festival increases to lodging prices. But if music is what matters, there are no better festivals in the country than right in our own backyards.

To see more pics from Newport Folk Festival, click HERE

To see more pics from Green River Music Festival , click HERE

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