MASS MoCA Freshgrass Festival is a music showcase
Alison Brown performs during the FreshGrass Bluegrass Festival last year at MASS MoCA. She will be back on stage at this year’s festival.
Photos by Douglas Mason
The tuning of a banjo blends into the tempo and strum of son jarocho, Mexican folk music from the Gulf coast. “It works very beautifully,” says Rana Santacruz, singing to the accordion and his own original music. Born in Mexico City, he lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and will perform in the annual three-day FreshGrass Bluegrass Festival at MASS MoCA, September 16 to 18, 2016.
Santacruz describes his music as bluegrass mariachi, a blend of influences, and he says this kind of crossover has happened for more than a century. He recalls a high-energy polka, well-known during the Mexican Revolution, “Jesusita en Chihuahua”—Pancho Villa would have it played going into battle. As it traveled from one musician to another, it became a common bluegrass tune, known today as the “J.C.” or “Jessie Polka.”
Bluegrass, traditional American music, has always grown from a worldwide blend of sounds, and now it draws musicians around the world into a contemporary movement. And MASS MoCA is moving with it. According to FreshGrass, bluegrass is American roots music with acoustic instrumentation—banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, bass. Says Rachel Chanoff, MASS MoCA’s curator of performing arts and film, FreshGrass musicians interpret, expand, and redefine the music.
The festival is cutting edge, she says, in a throwback way. FreshGrass recognizes traditional bluegrass, welcomes emerging artists, and pushes limits. Among this year’s headliners, Old Crow Medicine Show, 14-time Grammy-winning mandolin master Ricky Skaggs, and international banjo champion Alison Brown will join Dublin folk-rock songwriter and guitarist Glen Hansard.
“I’m so excited to breathe the same air he’s breathing,” says MASS MoCA’s director of communications Jodi Joseph, who has known Hansard’s music for years. “He has lyrics that have touched my life so poignantly.” Joseph wholeheartedly welcomes new music and unexpected interpretations to the Berkshires. Among the more than 50 musicians and groups in this year’s lineup, she points to young country phenomenon Sierra Hull; Lau, a progressive folk-rock group from Edinburgh; and Ruthie Foster, three-time Grammy nominee for blues as musicians who are winning recognition and expanding the genre.
“Foster has such a dynamic voice,” Joseph says. “I think people will hear her and walk out of a food line, grab their kids, and get to that stage as fast as possible.” Parsonsfield from Northampton performs with an energy that pours through its shows, she says, and Bang on a Can musician Philippa Thompson will play with Brooklyn music co-op M Shanghai—on the musical saw. “You wouldn’t see it anywhere else and might not think of it as bluegrass,” Chanoff says.
But as with Santacruz’s music, bluegrass is at the root of it. He will perform with a bass player, fiddle, banjo, alto saxophone, two trumpets, and drum, though he knows bluegrass groups often do not have percussion. “They are sensitive and adapt very well to other genres,” he says of the ensemble. “None are purist bluegrass, but all are influenced by it.” He remembers first hearing the banjo on TV and tuning his guitar to try to match that sound. Bluegrass influences the songs he writes, as do Mexican folk ballads, Balkan brass bamds, Tom Waits, magic realism, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and even classic Mexican films like Los Tres Huastecos, a comedy about triplet brothers.
Some of his fellow musicians will also explore “the porous border between film, music, and performance,” as Chanoff calls it, in FreshScores, live compositions to silent films. The musicians choose their own films, which in the past year have ranged from comic to strongly thoughtful—for example, The Great Train Robbery, The Flying House, and A Child of the Ghetto.
The program began last year and has strengthened this year with commissions to three musicians: Gypsy jazz guitarist Stephane Wrembel; fiddler Darol Anger, an associate professor at the Berklee College of Music; and Aoife O’Donovan, the lead singer of Crooked Still. Chanoff sees her as part of the new, progressive bluegrass movement, exploring through her solo songs and Yo-Yo Ma’s Goat Rodeo Sessions.
Santacruz finds this type of movement natural. When he came to New York, he met musicians from different backgrounds. Put people with instruments together in one room and they will play together, he says. And it happens here, where musicians sit in with each other onstage, workshops spill into jam sessions, and spontaneous music fills the galleries. People bring tune guitars and play under the upside-down trees.
FreshGrass has grown a loyal, relaxed and friendly group of fans. “It’s so rewarding to stand in a field with hundreds of people listening to a band they’ve never heard before and getting into it because they have such an open heart for music,” Joseph says. People are starting to know MASS MoCA for this homegrown festival with a Berkshire flavor—the camping, local food and brews, and the mountains around them, she adds. And they will come to listen to Alison Brown’s banjo tribute to The Band and Santacruz singing in Spanish to a tenor waltz:
“In a clay box you left a piece of your heart … I tie it close to my soul, and it takes away my pain … and when I miss you and think of you at night ... in that clay box, I find you again.”
Get REAL With FreshGrass
At this year’s FreshGrass, MASS MoCA will offer an app called Real. Use it to get the festival schedule and updates, and to find musicians wanting to jam. The festival always spills over into informal groups playing reels in the galleries. FreshGrass now has a Spotify radio channel in partnership with Yep Roc Records, where performers can release music. Subscribe and have a chance to meet Aiofe O’Donovan