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Modern Pickin’

by The Staff on September 29, 2011

Fresh Grass Festival of Bluegrass and Art

After the three-day blowout that was the second incarnation of Wilco’s Solid Sound festival here in June, Mass MoCA continued to expand its evolving identity as a performing arts center last weekend with a stab at a bluegrass festival.

It came with a great name, FreshGrass, and top-shelf headliners in Yonder Mountain String Band and the Del McCoury Band. The undercard was led by the Infamous Stringdusters, who, though living on the jammier section of the bluegrass continuum, possess whatever commercial alchemy results in such notice as a 2011 Grammy nomination (in a country category), while trailblazers Yonder toiled as a boisterous cult favorite.

Though the two-day schedule was light by festival standards, there was at least one second-line standout: Sarah Jarosz, whose affecting, country-inflected vocals meshed well with the violin stylings of a fellow Boston-area music student and a cellist on loan from Natalie MacMaster’s band. Already a Grammy nominee herself, Jarosz seems a well-placed soundtrack placement away from whatever stardom is available to a comely, 20-year old American roots musician. (Her ear for interpretation faltered only with Tom Waits’ “Come On Down to the House,” from which she stripped the existential tension to turn it into a good-natured singalong.)

For all their jamgrass pedigree, Yonder played things close to the chest with a very rocking set to wrap things up on Sunday evening. Perhaps it was the literal five o’clock shadows on display, but the quartet had the intangible bearing of a rock band, leaning on a user-friendly setlist, but unwilling to surpress their chops (Jeff Austin’s mandolin solos were particularly prominent) or to miss finding the swing in genre covers like the Bad Livers’ “Pretty Daughter” as well as the Beatles’ “Come Together.” It was by no means a set for these road warriors’ history books, but demonstrated their ability to show up, turn on, and rock the courtyard of a contemporary art museum with string music for 80 minutes. As for the Stringdusters, they made lots of friends with a boisterous, balls-out set of jammy, bluegrass-inflected music that romped for nearly two hours to close Saturday’s lineup. They definitely seem to have internalized the innovations of Yonder while placing a bit more care and attention on their finely honed original material, which shone on this night with selections like “God’s Country” and “17 Cents.”

It was unclear from the outset, and became no more evident after the fact, how this bluegrass shindig relates to MASS MoCA’s other programming. Sure, it featured a couple progressive bands who are stretching the boundaries of this music, but a festival that focuses only on traditional bluegrass is a rarity in an environment where the once-shocking innovations of the NewGrass Revival—Is that a drummer? Why aren’t they wearing suits?!—have become mainstream in the best interests of the genre’s survival. But the takeaway there is that, whatever the genre, this risk-taking museum exercises a curatorial taste that results in quality live music, period. Sure, it’ll always be the home for Laurie Anderson’s latest conceptual experiment, and if David Byrne wanted to throw a Russian-language puppet show it would probably be a gala event. But whether it’s Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks; Medeski, Martin and Wood; Kid Koala; Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey; Marc Ribot; a bluegrass festival or Wilco, MASS MoCa has emerged as probably the most consistently relevant live music venue in the Berkshires. Any further development on this front would be most welcome indeed, y’all.