More music, bigger stages: In new hands, Green River Festival returns next weekend with headliners CAKE, Fleet Foxes and Gregory Alan Isakov

Saturday’s Green River Festival  headliner is Fleet Foxes, a Seattle-based band that fest organizers believe will appeal to a wide range of music lovers.

Saturday’s Green River Festival headliner is Fleet Foxes, a Seattle-based band that fest organizers believe will appeal to a wide range of music lovers. COURTESY GREEN RIVER FESTIVAL

Sunday’s festival headliner is South African-born singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov, who “has a great new album and a fantastic band,” said Festival Director John Sanders of DSP Shows.

Sunday’s festival headliner is South African-born singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov, who “has a great new album and a fantastic band,” said Festival Director John Sanders of DSP Shows. PHOTOS COURTESY GREEN RIVER FESTIVAL

Cake, known for modern rock hits including “The Distance” and “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” makes a return appearance Friday night.

Cake, known for modern rock hits including “The Distance” and “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” makes a return appearance Friday night.

An idyllic scene from a previous Green River Festival. The fest returns next weekend, June 21 to 23. Some 40-plus acts, including headliners CAKE, Fleet Foxes, and Gregory Alan Isakov will perform on four stages, playing a wide range of musical styles.

An idyllic scene from a previous Green River Festival. The fest returns next weekend, June 21 to 23. Some 40-plus acts, including headliners CAKE, Fleet Foxes, and Gregory Alan Isakov will perform on four stages, playing a wide range of musical styles. FILE PHOTO

Cimafunk, who return to the Green River Festival this year, had the crowds dancing wildly during their  2021 festival debut.

Cimafunk, who return to the Green River Festival this year, had the crowds dancing wildly during their 2021 festival debut. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By SHERYL HUNTER

For the Gazette

Published: 06-20-2024 3:35 PM

Summer is in the air, and with it the Green River Festival, one of the most anticipated and most popular summer events in Franklin County. Now in its 38th year, the festival runs from June 21 to 23, Friday through Sunday, at the Franklin County Fairgrounds in Greenfield.

Some 40-plus acts, including headliners Cake, Fleet Foxes, and Gregory Alan Isakov will perform on four stages, playing a wide range of musical styles.

The festival has grown and changed over the years, from a two-band event held at Greenfield Community College in 1986 to a three-day festival in 2015 that the New York Times named “One of 50 essential summer festivals.”

The festival’s move in 2022 from its longtime home at Greenfield Community College to its current location at the fairgrounds was the most significant change it has gone through, and this year’s fest ushers in another big change.

For the first time, DSP Shows of Ithaca, New York and Northampton will take over the running of the festival, a job previously performed by Signature Sounds Presents of Northampton since 2013. Jim Olsen, the president of Signature Sounds who has booked the music for the festival since its inception, announced in October that he had sold the festival to DSP Shows.

John Sanders of DSP Shows, who has been booking shows in the Valley for the past 25 years, is stepping into Olsen’s former role as festival director. Sanders estimates he’s booked about 5000 shows over the course of his career, at venues that include the Iron Horse, the Shea Theater, the Academy of Music, and the summer series at the Tree House Brewing Company in South Deerfield.

“The Green River Festival is the premier outdoor event of the summer, and Jim has done a great job of programming it and building it into an incredible festival with a great reputation in the industry,” said Sanders, who has attended the festival since 2001. “It felt like a good fit with what I’ve been doing in Pioneer Valley all these years.”

Green River fans need not worry — this will not be a drastic change.

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Some from the old Signature Sounds team are now working with DSP, and Sanders said Olsen has been a huge resource. Signature Sounds Presents is now a major sponsor, and Sanders assured us that Olsen, who has been christened “Festival Uncle,” will remain a presence at the three-day event.

DSP’s main goal is to improve the festival experience for patrons and artists, so some changes will be made.

“One of the big changes that people will notice is the direction of the main stage,” said Sanders. “We sort of changed the angle so it’s away from the houses and more toward the road. There will also be screens on each side.”

The screens, a fixture at most large outdoor festivals, will provide a better view for those seated in the back of the field.

The Dean’s Bean Stage, which primarily features music made for dancing, will remain the same. The Back Porch Stage, which takes its name from Olsen’s Sunday morning radio show, will be slightly larger. Olsen recently announced he will broadcast his radio show, which focuses on roots music, live from the fairgrounds on Sunday morning, June 23.

There will also be music in the Fairground’s Roundhouse this year.

“The minute I walked into that space, I knew we had to use it,” Sanders said. “There will be music there all weekend long. It will be a limited capacity venue, and those with VIP passes will have priority for entrance.”

The VIP upgrade is an add-on that provides a variety of perks, including special viewing areas at each stage, access to VIP lounges, gift bags, and more. Note: the VIP add-on does not include admission to the festival or parking. Those are separate purchases.

Offering music at the Roundhouse serves as a replacement for the Green House shows that had taken place the past few years.

The festival is expanding in another way: this year, it is offering children’s entertainment with the creation of Kidways, a dedicated area that will offer fun activities for the entire family, including art projects, a juggler, a puppet show, and music from local bands The Grumpytime Club and Little Roots. Festival admission for children 12 and under is free.

But let’s get down to what really brings us to the Green River Festival — the music!

“We’ve got some bigger headliners this year – I am excited about everybody,” said Sanders.

“Fleet Foxes are somebody that I really feel appeals to a wide cross section — people who like Americana like Fleet Foxes. People who are into indie rock like Fleet Foxes,” Sanders said about the Seattle-based band that will headline Saturday night.

CAKE, known for modern rock hits like “The Distance” and “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” makes a return appearance Friday night. Always a crowd-pleaser, CAKE last played the festival in 2010.

Sunday’s headliner is South African-born singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov. “He has a great new album and a fantastic band,” Sanders said. “He will create the perfect vibe to close out Sunday.”

“We are also leaning a little more toward global arts or world music, if you will,” he added, “with artists like Cimafunk, Dakhabrakha, and Mdou Moctar.” Cimafunk, a Grammy-nominated Afro-Cuban artist, is a festival veteran who had the crowds dancing wildly when he played here in 2021.

“I’ve had people say the Dean’s Bean Stage is their favorite because it’s so high energy,” said Sanders. “I’m excited that it has that reputation, and I want it to continue.”

One of the most exciting aspects of the Green River Festival is the opportunity to discover new talent, and there are some excellent up-and-coming acts not to miss, including Joy Oladokun, whose star is fast rising thanks to songs like “We’re All Gonna Die.” Then there’s singer-songwriter Tommy Prine, the son of John Prine, and Snacktime, a seven-piece funky punk band from Philadelphia who put on an energetic show.

Snacktime will also be leading the annual kid’s parade through the fairgrounds. “We are so excited to be included in such an incredible festival,” the band wrote in a recent email. “So many legends and so many amazing artists that are going to explode over the next few years.”

There are some returning favorites too, like bluegrass band Twisted Pine and Bonny Light Horseman, a folk supergroup that consists of Josh Kaufman, Eric D. Johnson and Anais Mitchell. Mitchell, the songwriter of the Tony Award-winning play “Hadestown,” has also played the fest as a solo artist.

“We love Green River Fest and can’t wait to return with this new batch of songs,” said Mitchell. “Green River has always felt to me like a concentrated dose of everything that is beautiful about western Massachusetts — the wild land and creativity, and the community that has sprung out of it!”

Mitchell is in another band called Big Red Machine with Robin Pecknold, the lead singer of Fleet Foxes. Both bands play on the same day so we can keep our fingers crossed that they will jump on stage together.

As always, there will be a solid representation of local talent. “We are definitely committed to presenting local artists at the festival!” said Sanders. “I think we have some great local talent this year, including Prewn, Love Crumbs, Cloudbelly, and many others.” Some of the other bands include Kalliope Jones and former Valley residents Izzy Heltai, Speedy Ortiz, and Naia Kete.

Cloudbelly, a local band from Montague, will be the final band playing on Sunday night — they begin their set a half hour after Isakov closes the Main Stage. The band’s album “i know, i know, i know,” released earlier this year, is receiving positive reviews and was voted one of the best albums of the year so far by the Boston Globe.

“The lineup for the band this year is far and away the best it’s ever been, and we’re thrilled to be back at the fest,” wrote Cloudbelly singer-songwriter Corey Laitman in an e-mail.

With new management and a strong lineup, this Green River Fest should prove to be a new — but not totally new — experience for attendees who have enjoyed the fest for so many years.

“An important part of purchasing the festival … was [Olsen] wanted somebody who was going to take care of it and and would take it to the next level,” said Sanders. “So we are keeping it rooted in what it’s always been and that is a festival that showcases western Massachusetts.”

Parking passes to park on the fairgrounds are running low. A free shuttle bus will run to and from the center of Greenfield one hour before gates open and one hour after gates close. The town of Greenfield will waive parking fees during the festival.

As of this writing, single day tickets and weekend passes to the fest are still available at greenriverestival.com. Tickets will be sold at the gate if available.