Saturday, September 29, 2012

2012 Fresh Grass Festival at Mass MoCa

What was once an enormous factory is now home to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCa) a museum dedicated to modern art that also hosts several performing arts events, including  a bluegrass/ acoustic music festival called Fresh Grass, which we attended last weekend.  When I tried to get tickets to the festival I was surprised to learn it was temporarily sold out, pending a good weather forecast.   But once I got there and saw the size of the performance areas, I could understand why, since they could only comfortably accommodate a few hundred people.
Old Tyme Kozmic Trio
The facility has housed many industries over its 200+ year history, most recently an electronics/  transistor factory.  I could envision a heavy metal fest being held at the site with all the industrial background, as there is literally plenty of actual metal on the premises -  rusting old boilers, machinery, and  other remnants of its past.  But the music presented as part of Fresh Grass festival ran the gamut from bluegrass to old-timey to jazzy/acoustic new grass and rock, attracted an enthusiastic crowd of all ages from babies to elders. There is very little green grass at Fresh Grass, as most of the space in front of the stage is concrete.  It is not the most comfortable space for a festival since no chairs were allowed due to space constraints.  If you wanted to sit you had to either find a picnic table off to the side or on the upper deck which was set up as a bar/ cafe.  Some of the early arrivals spread out their blankets on top of concrete, but when the headliner bands came on most people were up and dancing anyway.
On Saturday we saw Old Tyme Kozmic trio (Rushad Eggleston, Darrol Anger and Bruce Molsky)  Joy Kills Sorrow,  Alison Brown,  and David Grisman, who did a more bluegrass-y set than other times I've seen him.  There was also a movie screening of a documentary about bluegrass called "The Porchlight Sessions".  My favorite set of Saturday was the Devil Makes Three, a high energy acoustic trio who played indoors while it poured rained outside at what was called  a "barn dance" but was more like a club atmosphere with a stage facing a rubbery floor surrounded by black walls, high ceilings and a bar set up in back.  The band's material was new to me but most people there seemed to know all the songs and were singing along. There were also some "pop up" concerts inside the galleries, where Rushad was kind of like a pied piper and some of the other bands who had played on Friday gave additional performances indoors.

 Sunday started out with a solo set by Leyla McCalla, the cellist for the Carolina Chocolate drops, and she was joined by some of the other band members for some songs.  Lonesome River Band was the most bluegrass-y set of Sunday.  Carolina Chocolate Drops put on a very spirited performance that had most of the audience singing and dancing along.  The bones and banjos clattered and clanged and Rhiannon's voice soared to the heavens.
Carolina Chocolate Drops

They were a tough act to follow, but Trampled By Turtles was able to fill the bill with their foot stomping wicked fast punked out acoustic music, which is only "bluegrass" in instrumentation. To me it sounded more like punk rock.

Mass MoCa is a rambling space filled with surprises, with lots to see and do between music sets.  It was an added bonus to be able to view multiple art exhibits, which included O, Canada, some abstract/ geometric installations by Sol Lewitt, an  "Invisible Cities" exhibit and a huge installation by Sanford Biggers called  "The Cartographers Conundrum" which purported to combine the funky and the sacred in a tribute to "Afro futurism"... think the Mothership from Parliament/ Funkadelic, Sun-Ra, and even those silver-painted dudes who work the streets in New Orleans.  I have to admit I did not make that connection the first time I viewed the piece, which consisted of several instruments scattered around the floor with broken star shaped mirrors, and a huge  pipe organ simultaneously appearing to explode and  levitate in front of a series of pews which started out solid on the ground and gradually became more translucent and suspended in air in a heavenly array.  At the time there was a banjo player performing in front of the organ which made it more interactive, and the organ and the pews underscored the sacred part.  The "Afro-futurism" angle was revealed to me on a tour I took the second day,  and by viewing a multimedia presentation in another room. 

Apart from the galleries there were all kinds of sights, sounds and smells to behold.  Musicians jamming all around the grounds and up in the old boiler room, pigs roasting on a spit out back, gift shops and an antique shop, a restaurant/ cafe and full bar,  upside down trees,  a massive clock tower, bicycles for rent,  chimes and other sounds emanating from rusted pieces of machinery and boiler rooms you could climb up into,  an Air Stream trailer up on permanent scaffolding filled with all kinds of retro artifacts,  high stone and brick walls and metal chutes,  wildflowers everywhere, and swings under the highway overpass - instead of a homeless camp, it was kind of a  playground for hippies.  While it is somewhat sad to think of all the jobs that used to be done there and all the thousands of people that used to be employed there, it is good to see the space being put to use and still inventing things.  And as often happens, in my travels, I may not have taken the opportunity to experience this place  if it weren't for the music festival that attracted me to it.

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