On our absolute last day of summer vacation this Sunday, Clara and I went to the final day of Green River Festival in Greenfield, MA. The act she most wanted to catch was Bonny Light Horseman; my must-see was Son Little.
I must warn you, I like a lot of what calls itself folk music, but I really despise the folk music scene, so this is a fairly cranky review. I did like a lot of the music. But I had forgotten how many people apparently attend shows like this to put on a show. There was so much “Can you guys even believe how ecstatic and unselfconscious I am right now?” stuff going on.
The main stage show opened with Rachel Baiman, who has a nice enough voice, but delivered unremarkable lefty folk snark that didn’t hold my attention. Her new album is called Cycles (no, not Vagabonds, Martyrs, and Quilts) with a song called “Shame” and it’s all about how you shouldn’t shame women for having bodies. I know that’s what it’s about, because she told us so before she sang it (and she was right, that’s what it was about). Great works of art can always be summarized in a line or two, preferably a line that makes everyone go, “Wooooo!” I hope you’re writing this down so you, too, can be a artist.
Bonny Light Horseman was next, and they are remarkable. They are a supergroup made up of Anaïs Mitchell (here’s my quick review of her astounding show Hadestown), Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats, and Josh Kaufman of various things I haven’t heard of (okay, I also haven’t heard of Fruit Bats). The first thing they did was turn the bass down, which I took as a work of mercy and professionalism. If you can’t reach your audience without blasting them to death, maybe you need to go back and craft your piece a bit more.
Bonny Light Horseman does a lot reworked old English ballads mixed in with whatever other stuff they feel like, as far as I can tell. All of it is interesting, and some of it is stunning — the material, the arrangements, the voices, the performances.
They performed a few new songs they’re still working on, which they described as “hot tub music.” I’m kicking myself for not writing down the lyrics of some of the new songs they performed, but they really got me. Here’s a clip of the actual show that someone posted on YouTube:
They were generous performers, too, and gave the impression that they like each other and liked being on stage. Crazy how many professionals just don’t do that. They put on a really soulful show that kept my attention the whole time.
Anaïs Mitchell then introduced Ani DiFranco, and that’s when I started to wish we had set up our blanket on the other end of the field, upwind of the great wall of weed smoke. Weed has its uses, but it certainly does smell like poo. Yes, you can buy expensive weed, which then smells like expensive poo.
Anyway, Ani DiFranco. She seems completely unchanged from twenty or thirty years ago, when she emerged as this tiny, intense ball of energy and angst and talent and rank immaturity. Whenever I hear her music, I think: “Wow, she’s so good! Why don’t I listen to her more?” and then a few songs in, I’m like, “Okay, that’s enough.” She told the audience that they were her most enduring and reliable long-term relationship, and I know it was a joke, and I know that’s her schtick, but what a thing to say.
And it’s not just that she’s too intense or too personal or something. Goodness knows I’ve made a buck or two off baring my soul to strangers. It’s that she can write very clever, wrenching, heartfelt lyrics . . . and a lot of the time, she doesn’t bother, because she knows she can get away with writing stuff like this, instead:
“You get to run the world
In your special way
You get much more
Much more than your say
It’s all just patriarchy
I must insist you leave
This one thing to me”
That’s just poorly written, and I’m not just saying that because I was sitting on a fleece Our Lady of Guadalupe blanket from Walmart and felt fairly uncomfortable in more ways that one at this point. (If you are wondering at what age one becomes officially too old to sit on the ground all day, it is 46) The song did extract a “WOOOOOO!” from the crowd at all the right moments, so I guess it did its job. Woo, woo, woo everybody. No shame! Tampons! I don’t know why I’m so unhappy but probably I shouldn’t change anything about my life! Wooo!
By the time we got up to “Swan Dive,” there were absolute phalanxes of stoned “this is what a feminist” dudes performatively shaking their potato-fed asses back and forth and jabbing their fingers defiantly in the air, and the sun was beating down through the clouds, and one braless lady in a crinkly broom skirt dragged a shrinking little chicken-winged girl up to the standing section, shoved a pride flag in her hand, and dragooned the child into a long, joyless dance in front of everyone, not that anyone was paying attention, because they were too caught up in their own grinning sweating triumphant vibe. Kid couldn’t have been older than 7 or 8 years old, and the music was frankly terrifying at this point –extremely intense and absolutely deafening, and designed to be emotionally overwhelming.
I wanted to arrest absolutely everyone there, on the grounds that you need to grow up. It was the phoniness that got me. I don’t begrudge anybody to feel what they feel, but I can tell a faker when I see one, and there were a shitload of fakers in that crowd with their patched handkerchief skirts and their boho twine and copper bracelets and their floppy hats and their pedicures and their high priced poo.
Well, then I got up and bought myself a falafel wrap and gobbled it up, and felt a little more cheerful. Chickpea products always cheer me up. I don’t make the rules. I also took a long walk around the field and got the heck away from the amps, which I should have done hours ago.
It was late and we were tired but figured we had stayed that long, we might as well stick it out and wait for the one act I really wanted to see, which was Son Little. While we waited, we caught Sierra Ferrell on a side stage, and boy, was she fun. She has an old timey voice, clear as a bell, chewy as taffy, and she absolutely nails the aesthetic, but her songs sounded like originals. I can’t remember if she performed this one, but here’s a good example of how she sounds:
A real musician, a great performer. There was actual spontaneous dancing breaking out in front of this stage, and it was a pleasure to see. Apparently she and her band had some kind of calamitous time getting to the show, so Clara made a point of standing in line to buy one of her CDs and she said she was very nice in person. Definitely going to track down more of her work. Here’s another one she did:
Then finally, as the sun was setting, we saw Son Little. I used to listen to him constantly, and poor tender-hearted Benny, who was a toddler, used to worry about him so much.
I still worry about him. He’s sort of unreliable. He sang “Loser Blues,” which didn’t sound like much when I heard it recorded, but hearing it live, I just about fell apart.
Anyway, after a long, hot afternoon of tampon music, it did not bother me one little bit to pick up my blanket, go sit in the shade, and listen to a young man sing about how he’s not sure why his girlfriend is mad, but what about if they just do it, huh? That’s what his songs are mostly about, and he has a point.
He tried to get the audience to sing along or at very least clap along, but by that time, we had all been fried by the sun for eight hours and, honestly, we may have just mostly been too white to begin with. I felt bad, but when people try and get me to clap along, I know it’s going to go badly eventually. So I just sat there and stared and then clapped politely at the end. I still think this was better than whatever that girl with the overalls and the hula hoop thought she was doing.
I got myself a little paper cup of pork dumplings and coconut curry, and something that claimed to be Vietnamese ginger limeade and tasted an awful lot like Juicy Juice, but it had ice in it and it was fine. I also got a horrible sunburn, but that’s nobody’s fault but my own.
And that’s my review. It was a well-run show, very orderly. Lots of great food vendors, plenty of bathrooms, everything was well-marked, and there was plenty of room to spread out so I wasn’t worried about covid. I think everyone should smoke a little less weed and maybe give the patriarchy a second chance, like on alternate weekends, and then see if we can’t come up with some better music for the kids. Okay, thanks.