FreshGrass, MASS MoCA’s 3-day bluegrass and roots music festival, announces additional bands for its annual September festival. UK experimental folk group Lau, mandolin virtuoso Sierra Hull, Texas blues and roots sensation Ruthie Foster, alt-folk, Northampton-based Parsonsfield, and Mexican bluegrasser Rana Santacruz join the festival lineup, which already brims with Americana favorites including Old Crow Medicine Show, Glen Hansard, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Rosanne Cash, The Devil Makes Three, a Saturday night hoedown featuring The Infamous Stringdusters, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Aoife O’Donovan, Alison Brown, Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, Stephane Wrembel, John Reischman and the Jaybirds, Mr. Sun, Mile Twelve, and last year’s FreshGrass Award winners Old Salt Union and Zoe & Cloyd. FreshGrass, at MASS MoCA on September 16-18, 2016, features bluegrass traditionalists and innovators on four stages and in every nook and cranny of the museum’s 28-building, 16-acre campus. This year’s festival marks an integrated partnership with No Depression, the quarterly journal for roots music and online roots music authority.
Lau is at the center of the British folk scene. Featuring guitar, fiddle, squeezebox, and the hearty vocals of its three members (Kris Drever, Martin Green, and Aidan O’Rourke), the band’s name comes from an old Orcadian word for “natural light,” and its music follows suit. “Steeped in folk heritage but with a love for experimentation” (The Guardian), Lau’s shimmering folk melodies and countless instrumental layers shed new light on traditional music. With its debut album released in 2007, Lau won Best Group for three consecutive years at the BBC Folk Awards, has made appearances at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, Vancouver Folk Music Festival, Calgary Folk Music Festival, and wowed a U.S. audience at last year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival. With three masterful studio albums released, Folk Radio UK names Lau as “the mothership for an extraordinary artistic outpouring and some of the best music being made anywhere in any genre.”
Championed by Alison Krauss as having talent with no boundaries, mandolin extraordinaire and prodigy Sierra Hull hits the FreshGrass stage on her way to a tremendously bright future. Hull began playing mandolin at age 8, was signed to Rounder Records at age 13, and now at 24, after attending and graduating from Berklee College of Music on the prestigious Presidential Scholarship, has already recorded three studio albums, collaborating with mentor Alison Krauss. Her most recent, Weighted Mind, produced by banjo luminary Béla Fleck, is a “stunning coming-of-age album” with which Hull joins the likes of Nickel Creek alums Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins as “pedigreed virtuosos whose youthful, searching musical minds have taken them into postmodern singer-songwriter territory and beyond” (NPR Music).
As a musician who grew up in a family of gospel singers in small-town Texas, Ruthie Foster brings the blues to the FreshGrass lineup this year. Often compared to both Bonnie Raitt and Aretha Franklin, Ruthie has rocked stages around the country with her soulful, heartfelt voice. “Ruthie’s voice is such a singular, powerful instrument, and she has such mastery of it,” her producer Meshell Ndegeocello touts. “She can turn it on, belt it out, and bring you to your knees, all in an instant.” Foster’s three most recent albums have all been nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album, and from 2011 to 2013 she earned three consecutive Blues Music Awards. She’s also won three Koko Taylor Awards for Best Traditional Female Blues Artist, an Austin Music Award for Best Female Vocalist, and a Living Blues Critics’ Award for Female Blues Artist of the Year, among others. With appearances on stage with Susan Tedeschi, Bonnie Raitt, and The Allman Brothers Band, Ruthie Foster is an authentic blues singer who honors the artists before her and captures new musical moments in each and every one of her performances.
Adding some local flavor to the festival, five-piece alt-folk band Parsonsfield, based in nearby Northampton, Mass., give Americana a makeover with its tasteful and rowdy sing-along anthems. Members Chris Freeman (vocals, banjo), Antonio Alcorn (mandolin), Max Shakun (vocals, pump organ, guitar), Harrison Goodale (bass), and Erik Hischmann (drums) made their name relentlessly touring the northeast for the better half of the decade since their nascent days as hobbyist musicians at the University of Connecticut, where agriculture student Freeman met paper artist Alcorn in a folk music club on campus, and they landed their first gig by accident when the club was mistaken for a band. After the addition of new members and experimentation with new instruments, including electric fan, gourd piano, and saw, the group refined its sound, changed its name and recorded its first album, Poor Old Shine (Signature Sounds, 2013) in Parsonsfield, Maine. “On stage, Parsonsfield will give you rich five-part harmonies one minute, sound like bluegrass on steroids the next, and then rock you over the head with unbearably cool and raucous Celtic rhythms. All with taste and class” (No Depression). Parsonsfield’s next album is due to be released just in time for the band’s FreshGrass festival debut.
Mexican-American alt-ranchera singer Rana Santacruz brings a global atmosphere to the FreshGrass lineup. Born and raised in Mexico City, Santacruz moved to Brooklyn in 2002 to re-invent his musical persona, after playing in the ‘90s alt-rock scene in Mexico City. Inspired by the endless burgeoning talent New York City offers, Santacruz’s music adapted a cosmopolitan flavor that ranges from Irish mariachi to Mexican bluegrass to alternative folk. He released his debut album Chicavasco in 2010 to rave reviews from critics — NPR Music says his “music is as magical as his persona” — and has since appeared at Austin’s South by Southwest, NPR’s Tiny Desk, New York’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. With his 2015 follow-up release Por Ahí, he further embraced his worldly tastes, influenced by “everything from Balkan-influenced dance music, bearded hipster cool, 1920’s jazz, and even bluegrass” (NPR Music). Santacruz wields an accordion while he sings heartbreaking songs marinated in Mexican folklore.
In addition to more than 50 band performances, FreshScores — live music played while classic silent films are screened, the FreshGrass Award — 20 emerging artists competing in the band, duo, fiddle, and banjo categories for up to $25,000 in cash prizes and recording time at Compass Records, festival events include workshops, the festival’s legendary jam sessions — during which professional musicians pick and play among the crowd, many of whom bring their own instruments, camping (located a short distance from MASS MoCA’s campus) and family programming. World-class art, some massive in scale, is on view all weekend, as admission to MASS MoCA’s galleries is included with every festival pass. Festival-goers enjoy dozens of pop-up concerts across the museum’s 16-acre, post-industrial campus nestled in the bucolic Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts.
Advance 3-day adult tickets are now available for $99, with student tickets priced at $89, $46 for kids 6-16, and free admission for kids five and under. Available for $300, FreshPass is a deluxe festival experience offering preferred seating at most stages, meet-and-greet opportunities with FreshGrass artists, access to the FreshPass Lounge, and locally sourced snacks and beer. MASS MoCA members receive a 10% discount on festival ticket prices. Single-day tickets may be offered closer to the event, as space allows. FreshGrass details will be updated on the festival website, freshgrass.com. FreshGrass is held rain or shine.