Live Review

The New England Festy, Sept. 17-18, 2016, Prowse Farm, Canton, MA

Old Salt Union on September 22, 2016

The last full-bore music festival I attended was the 2008 Austin City Limits Festival. A great three-day lineup of musicians, but I remember feeling like a disoriented steer in a roundup in the intense heat and the dust, and being glad Lone Star beer was so darn cheap and went down like sweetwater. The whole three days was overwhelming and I remember being disappointed because there were so many musicians I couldn’t see due to overlaps in the scheduling.

I’ve considered attending ACL again and other more local music festivals over the years, notably the Newport Folk Festival, the Lowell Folk Festival, and Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, but their sizes, the crowds, the idea of complicating the festival with a camping trip, and did I mention the crowds?—just made me want to put on my headphones and curl up in a ball.  

Then I got wind that the inaugural The New England Festy was coming to Prowse Farm in the Blue Hills. The lineup wasn’t great, but decent, the price was right, and the real clincher was I could go home and sleep in my own bed every night and start the next day with a hot shower and a good cup of Peets.

All of the marketing for The Festy, the very unhip but undoubtedly focus group-approved nickname the organizers give the festival, includes words like “experience” and “family friendly” and “community”. Those words would normally give me if not the fantods, then an actual full-borne apoplectic seizure. The Artist Farm, what appears to be the marketing arm of Six Chair Productions, uses words like “branded experiences” to explain what they do. It’s clear I’m not part of whatever brand or demographic that holds the Festy values dear. I was worried I’d be trapped in some weird liminal space where I’d wake up in the back of a soccer van wearing a pair of khakis and my cowboy boots replaced by a pair of boat shoes. And it kind of was like that. During Josh Ritter’s set, I returned to my where my wife and I had planted our chairs, amazed that “they”—all the good-hearted, progressive parents who, thanks to the family-friendly policy that let children in for free—knew all the words and were now dancing with their little hippie kids in a kind of frenzied we-are-the-world free-for-all. But then I remembered that twenty years earlier, in a previous life, I was singing the words to the Barenaked Ladies’ “If I Had A Million Dollars” with two little squirts in the back seat and hopping around with them standing on the tops of my feet before bedtime. It ain’t easy looking into the abyss and seeing your own much younger reflection morph into your curmudgeonly self of today.

For the most part, both days of the festival ran like the trains during Mussolini’s rule. Logistics like parking, the toilets, water stations, and food vendors were excellent and the staff friendly and helpful, and the sweet fragrance of cannabis hung in the air like a whiff of an old flame’s perfume. There were the usual hiccups you find in your standard group of music lovers, or just people in general: the narcissists who think the festival is their personal playlist and perform modern dance interpretations of the entire set list in the middle of the crowd, and latecomers who drop their chairs and blankets in front of those who came early and can’t understand why everyone “just can’t be cool.” But all this could be just folded into the overall festival experience, and really couldn’t detract from the great whole.

From a press release, Six Chairs Productions calls The Festy Experience an event celebrating bluegrass, folk, and all other types of acoustic-minded music. Day one and day two definitely had different vibes based on their bigger acts. Saturday saw David Wax Museum and their Mexican-infused music, Josh Ritter’s catalog of happy pop, and The Wood Brothers sophisticated licks and cerebral lyrics. Sunday’s headliners saw The Infamous Stringdusters and Greensky Bluegrass and their brand of jamgrass, newgrass, or as I like to say, brograss—really big, testosterone-laden walls of sound that act as sonic carpet bombing for dance breaks that seem to go on and on. Different strokes, really, and that was kind of the joy of being at Prowse Farm those two days: There was a bit of something for everyone, and if you didn’t like what was happening, you could go grab a fish taco and a beer and hang out with some friends you just met.

Along with the big names, there were many absolutely thriller, memorable moments, and thankfully the three lone women performers (seriously Festy: three? Three woman artists were all you could find?) out of all the men who played during the 20 straight hours of music were involved. Some stellar moments included:

-- Old Salt Union who opened the festival. They were just so darn happy to be there they couldn’t contain themselves, and played their country/bluegrass music—“Tuscaloosa” and “Feel My Love” were notable—with contagious enthusiasm.

-- Really kind of a big name, but the aforementioned David Wax Museum with female musician number one, Suz Slezak, playing fiddle, keyboard, and the donkey jawbone. They hit it out of the park with “Yes, Maria, Yes”.

-- The smaller second stage could barely contain Portland, Oregon-based Fruition with woman number two, Mimi Naja.

-- Justin Townes Earle. Just a man and a guitar. Most of the bands rocked out. Earle, a beanpole of a figure, seemed to want to hide in the shadow of the equally skinny mic stand. But despite what’s been written about him, he seemed to still be trying to get out from under his father’s shadow. He referred to his mother and his grandmother more than once. He was probably the only person at the festival who could relate advice Guy Clark had given him when he was a kid, and when someone in the crowd asked him what kind of guitar he played and he said it was a cheap one because Gibson and all those other makers priced him out, you couldn’t help but think, “$27 and a Jap guitar”. His song about him having his mother’s eyes was the most haunting, real, naked thing I’ve heard in a long time.

-- Sierra Hull, woman number three, commands the mandolin in new and surprising ways, eliminating the traditional bluegrass sound and replacing it with something of her own. Her touching song about missing her mother while on tour makes you wonder what she would write if a real tragedy struck, and her rendition of the haunting melody of “Mad World” renders every bit of pathos that song has.

-- Lau, easily the biggest surprise of the festival. Their music conjures up images of the harsh and rugged land and sea of their northern Scotland home. An innovative mix of folk and electronic, much of their sound always started out small, building on echoes and loops, then building to a crescendo that built to a shrieking hurricane.

-- Local band, Sessions Americana, seemed happy to be home after a U.S. tour and before embarking on a European tour, and played with all the joy and zaniness that is their trademark. The multitalented Jefferson Hamer, who produced their latest record, sat in with them adding some really nice licks on a gorgeous old Telecaster. He looked for the all the world like he’d been kidnapped by a band of drunken Renaissance minstrels.

Photos from both days can be found here at http://actionbobmarkle.blogspot.com/2016/09/new-england-festy-2016-pictures.html