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High Art Meets Hootenanny at MASS MoCA’s FreshGrass Fest

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Infamous Stringdusters perform on 9/21

“People might think of museums as being places where you have to be quiet and careful,” says Katherine Myers, director of public relations and marketing at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. “But MASS MoCA—we like to try new things.”

The dynamic and decidedly unstuffy North Adams museum’s latest venture has roots music fans tapping their toes in anticipation. From September 21-23, MASS MoCA is hosting its second annual FreshGrass Bluegrass Festival. The rollicking concerts extend the museum’s tradition of adventurous summer music festivals like Bang On a Can and Wilco Solid Sound well into shoulder season. And lest anyone doubt that there’s a large, enthusiastic, off-season audience, festival tickets are already sold out; Myers says MASS MoCA will be able to release more tickets if the weather cooperates and allows greater use of the museum’s outdoor performance spaces.

“Bluegrass is an interesting kind of music because there’s an old-fashioned kind of feel to it, but it’s also very popular with younger people,” says Myers. The music’s long history and vibrant present is reflected in the festival’s diverse lineup, which unites such bluegrass legends as David Grisman and Tony Rice with fast-rising talents like Carolina Chocolate Drops and Spirit Family Reunion.

Rhiannon Ghiddens, singer and fiddler with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who were enthusiastically received at their last MASS MoCA appearance two years ago, attributes the current groundswell of interest in bluegrass to the premium that roots musicians place on showmanship. “We’re not just sitting there,” she says. “We’re entertaining the crowd.”

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Leyla McCalla plays on Sunday 9/23

Bluegrass is a big-tent genre, encompassing sounds that range from quiet folk to shambling rockabilly foot-stompers; the FreshGrass festival includes artists with a wide range of styles. During the day, concert-goers can bop to the acoustic tunes of New Orleans-based cellist and banjoist Leyla McCalla. Come Friday and Saturday nights, they’ll rev their engines with high-energy groups like the punk-tinged band The Devil Makes Three. “Our hope is that people will just dance like crazy,” says Myers.

Most concerts will be held in the 10,000 square-foot Hunter Center or in MASS MoCA’s outdoor courtyard, depending on the weather. The museum will also integrate pop-up performances into its art exhibits too. “There may be a time when you’re just wandering around in the galleries and all the sudden there’s Alison Brown playing a little show with one amp or no amp,” Myers notes. 

Attendees who want to polish up on their banjo skills can attend music workshops with world-renown strummers Bill Evans and Brown on Saturday and Sunday. The musically-inclined can strut their stuff at informal jam sessions on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Those interested in understanding the physics behind bluegrass’s distinctive twang may be interested in a talk by a local luthier who will explain how guitars are made.

Visitors new to the bluegrass landscape will have a handy guide in Friday’s world premiere of The Porchlight Sessions, a documentary that filmmaker Anna Schwaber calls “Bluegrass 101.”

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Morgan O’Kane, who plays on 9/21, also appears in “The Porchlight Sessions”

The Porchlight Sessions features many of the bands playing at FreshGrass, including The Infamous Stringdusters and Morgan O’Kane, who Schwaber first spotted busking at an L train station in New York City. Schwaber says the documentary’s crowd-sourced perspective stays true to the music’s grassroots appeal. “It traces the evolution of the sound of bluegrass,” Schwaber says, “not through one band or a voiceover, but through the voice of the community.”

The documentary also gives longtime bluegrass fans plenty of reasons to stomp their feet in appreciation. “We’ve got some really beautiful, intimate, private performances,” says Schwaber. “A lot of people haven’t seen their favorite musicians in that kind of spotlight.”

Families can find plenty to keep the junior set occupied at the festival, too. MASS MoCA’s Kidspace activities include an instrument-making workshop with Mamie Minch on Sunday and a presentation on Bigfoot that culminates in kids shaping their own beastly creations at the Bigfoot Art Cabaret.

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A bird’s eye view of last year’s FreshGrass festival

Since MASS MoCA will have a captive audience during FressGrass, it’s taking care to provide attendees with a a wide range of local food and drink options, including plenty of vegetarian choices and a FreshGrass IPA produced just for the festival by The People’s Pint in Greenfield.

And no visit would be complete without tasting those aforementioned, intriguingly named moonshine slushies, a beverage that puts a (legal) twist on old-timey homebrew. “It sounds like they’ll cool you off while they burn you up,” jokes Carolina Chocolate Drops’ instrumentalist Dom Flemons. “I’ll have to get my hands on one of those.” —Sarah Todd

MASS MoCA FreshGrass Bluegrass Festival 2012
September 21- 23, 2012
87 Marshall St, North Adams, MA
Tickets temporarily sold out; any decision to release more tickets will be made by Thursday, September 20. To receive an email notification should more tickets become available, email

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