Leave the leaf-peeping to the uninspired. FreshGrass, now in its seventh year, should be your go-to September tradition.
As previous festival-goers can attest, FreshGrass is much more than a “bluegrass festival.” Don’t get me wrong, bluegrass is at its core, and there are plenty of banjos and mandos to go around, but FreshGrass is really a roots music carnival embedded in MASS MoCA’s contemporary art playground. It’s not every day that you get to see top-notch bluegrass musicians playing with Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings or Franz West’s Les Pomme d’Adam as a backdrop.
From its start, FreshGrass pushed the boundaries. It’s always presented bluegrass legends alongside up-and-comers, standard bearers alongside innovators, professionals alongside tinkerers. This productive push and pull, combined with FreshGrass’ blend of new and traditional music, makes for interesting pairings and moments of spontaneous musical combustion.
But the experience is something else – MASS MoCA flips into full party mode, and every square inch of the museum complex is colored FreshGrass. If you need a break from the three-fingered banjo picking, you can retreat to museum, but don’t be surprised to find pop-ups in the galleries. (Lucky for you, MASS MoCA’s gallery spaces extend for days.) In addition to the music and art, there’s a slew of activities to fill out the weekend, including hiking, biking, award shows, workshops, and demonstrations. There’s also food trucks, luthiers, artist signings, films, family activities, and craft beer. A Compass Record store is onsite to sell artist merchandise. For the brave musicians who bring their own instrument, there’s a bag and instrument drop-off near the box office. In short, non-stop activity, world-class art, and some of today’s best musicians.
This year’s lineup includes many than 50 bands. Brandi Carlile, Railroad Earth, The Del McCoury Band with David Grisman, The Wood Brothers, Shovels and Rope, Crooked Still, Bill Frisell, and Sarah Jarosz are at the top of the lineup, but the list is deep. Check out Red Baraat, The Suitcase Junket, Alison Brown, and The Page Turners. Really, there’s just too many to mention. As if that’s not enough, three tremendous musicians (Dom Flemons, Sunny Jain, and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards) will perform their original scores set to silent films. These three pieces were part of the 2017 FreshScores Commissions, funded by the FreshGrass Foundation.
The main acts always impress (who’s not looking forward to Brandi Carlile?), but some of the most exciting stuff happens in the spaces in between the acts. A few local favorites will make an appearance during these pop-ups including the Ramblin’ Jug Stompers, who are FreshGrass veterans; Mike + Ruthy; and Upstate Rubdown. Harry D’Agostino from Upstate Rubdown recently took some time to answer questions from The Alt.
Don’t miss out on FreshGrass this year. For you last minute, spur-of-the-moment types, reasonably-priced day tickets are still available.
For more information on FreshGrass, go to www.freshgrass.com.
FreshGrass Highlight: Upstate Rubdown
Hudson Valley-based band Upstate Rubdown describes itself as “an acoustic septet drawing inspiration from every corner (and decade) of America’s musical heritage.” That’s a cool statement, but you really have to listen to them to take in its full meaning. Their music combines mandolin, cajon, upright bass, saxophone, and an energetic three-part female vocal harmony that is toe-tapping, contagious, and fun. Harry D’Agostino (upright bass) was kind enough to answer a few questions for The Alt about the band, their upcoming FreshGrass gig, and songwriting.
The Alt (Alt): Tell us a little about how you met, where in Upstate you’re from, and how the band (all seven of you) came together.
Harry D’Agostino (Upstate): For the most part we all met in New Paltz at the State University. Three original members of the band were from Ithaca, Binghamton, and Rochester respectively and “Upstate” happened to be a common thread for them (especially when surrounded by students from New York City and Long Island).
Alt: How long have you been at it?
Upstate: We’ve been at it in some way, shape, or form for six years, but there have been a lot of transformations along the way. Oliver Kammerman, the guitar player who helped get us started as a drummerless four-piece moved out of town in 2012, and we brought on mandolin, cajon, and cello. When we lost the cello we filled that space with a saxophone. When Melanie [Glenn] moved away for a year, we brought on another singer, and when Melanie returned we started writing for three female voices.
It’s always been sort of snowball down a mountain, but that moment when we started performing with three singers is when we sort of found our sound and style. The biggest change since then was when Kate Scarlett left the band a year ago, right after our first national tour. We had met Allison Olender only briefly on the road, but we heard her music and loved it. We invited her to quit her job, break her lease in Nashville, and drive all her stuff up to the Hudson Valley to join a band with a bunch of strangers, and she did it. It’s been a really fortunate experience.
The Alt: You’ve been praised for your contagious energy, your harmonies, and your Americana mashup of styles and genres. How would you describe your music to those unfamiliar with Upstate Rubdown?
Upstate: Genre’s a tough one. We listen to a real wide range of music, and all of that finds its way into what we play. I usually say we play music rooted in every corner and decade of the United States. We borrow sounds from Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit, Appalachia, et cetera, and we try to make something new out of them.
The Alt: You’re no strangers to big festivals, but tell us about your role at FreshGrass? What should the FreshGrass audience know about the band?
Upstate: We’re thrilled to play FreshGrass. Last year we weren’t on the bill, but we got permission to busk around the grounds in exchange for passes. We’ve done that for a few festivals to get a foot in the door, and it’s always led to really positive relationships.
The Alt: Given the size of the band, tell us a bit about your songwriting process.
Upstate: The songwriting process varies a lot. The ladies and I write the songs but we bring them to the band at different stages. Some of Melanie’s tunes come to the band near complete, and sometimes Mary [Kenney] and I bring songs that are much more in the works.
The instrumentalists all have a lot of input in their parts and it’s usually a give and take with the songwriter about what they’re looking for. Once Dean [Mahoney] brings in percussion the dynamics all kind of come into focus and Mary in particular adds a lot of the “special sauce” to the arrangements. All the really particular subtleties and nuanced decisions about phrasing and dynamics that get ironed out when the song’s near complete. Before playing with this band I didn’t fully appreciate how much small details could have a significant impact on the sound.
The Alt: A Remedy came out in 2015. Any plans for a new album? Anything we should listen for during your set? New songs?
Upstate: We’re definitely preparing for a new album. We’re still sorting through all of our material since A Remedy to figure out the best way to put it all together. After September our gigs will be slowing down a bit while we write, rehearse, and prepare (hard to do playing 120+ shows a year). Audiences at Freshgrass will definitely hear some new tunes and a new vibe from us this year. We’re incorporating guitar a bit more and writing songs with different subject matter. It’s both a challenging and exciting time for us creatively.
The Alt: It seems like an exciting time for musicians who like to stretch the idea of what Americana, bluegrass, folk, or what-have-you can be. Do you see yourself in this context – as a band that’s exploring some new ground?
Upstate: I think some of the greatest music ever is getting made right now in part because the lines are getting blurred. Duke Ellington used to say there were only two kinds of music: Good music and the other kind. I think more and more artists have really internalized that sentiment, and there’s more openness than ever to cross those artificial boundaries. It helps too that the music-consuming public has a craving for that. People’s ears are getting wider.
The other side of the coin is that it’s harder than ever to make a living doing this. There’s not really revenue anymore in selling records, and I think that impacts the quality of records people are willing to make. I’m not sure there are easy answers to that but you can definitely see how it impacts the ability of musicians to focus on what they do best.
The Alt: Are you having as much fun as your audience?
Upstate: We have a lot of fun on stage, but it’s certainly not just a big rolling party to be on the road. For every hour we play music, it’s 23 hours of late night drives, extensive load-ins and load-outs, crammed motel rooms, and food deserts. We love it and we’re really grateful for the opportunity to play, but you really have to feel that way to do it, because it’s not always an easy way to live.
To learn more about Upstate Rubdown and to watch some videos, visit www.upstaterubdown.com.