Green River Festival voluneers work hard so you can have a blast
Green River Festival volunteer Daniel Cutler organizes and erects signs, mostly made by Nan Parati of Ashfield, at the Greenfield Community College Campus on Thursday.
Recorder file photo
Crowds gather on the field at Greenfield Community College for the annual Green River Festival in Greenfield. The Franklin County Chamber of Commerce has shot down rumors about the long-running event, including one that had the festival moving to a new location.
Every year in July, thousands of people return to the community college campus nestled in the hills that cradle Greenfield. They come from far and wide to western Massachusetts’ signature summer event to enjoy fine music, local fare and, of course, hot-air balloon rides.
They come with a chair or blanket and an umbrella, setting up for the day, walking around and visiting a variety of vendors selling everything from handmade soap and clothing to Hula Hoops and honey.
It’s highly likely, though, that many of those thousands never give a thought to what it takes to put the Green River Festival together and make their weekend pleasant and enjoyable, unless their name is Jeff Martell, who has been volunteering before, during and after the festival for a dozen or more years.
“As a volunteer, I’m all over the place,” said Martell, 48. He lived in Greenfield for 20 years before moving to Laurel Park in Northampton to be closer to his work
“The Chamber used to be in charge of the festival, but it has since been taken over by Signature Sounds (Northampton),” said Martell. “It is very professionally run now. It was always run well, but more and more professionals, who do this for a living, are getting involved.”
This year, the festival is Saturday and Sunday in Greenfield. As of Wednesday, it was sold out.
He said he has done everything as a volunteer, and still does — he has taken care of the grounds and set up and even built stages in the early days.
“We have professionals doing that now,” he said. “That wasn’t very safe to have us volunteers building an entire stage.”
Martell said some volunteers are there to coordinate people involved with the festival, while others empty trash cans late at night. Some help book the acts while others stand four hours at a time collecting tickets as people enter the campus to park.
“The planning for this starts months ahead,” said Martell, who is also on the festival planning committee and has been for years.”
Martell said some volunteers spend all of their time before the festival soliciting vendors and then the two days of the festival making sure those vendors are happy.
“It takes a lot of people and energy to pull this off each year just so that people can go and have a good time for a few hours,” he said. “I don’t think people realize that.”
Martell said it is safe to say that many volunteers put in hundreds of hours.
“A group of volunteers, for instance, spends all of their time in the catering area backstage throughout the weekend,” he said. “All they do is feed and hydrate the musicians. They’re running around all day making sure about 150 people are happy and well.”
Martell said he’s done all the jobs, so he knows what each entails and there are none that don’t take a good deal of energy.
“The absolute dirtiest job is done by the mostly younger guys who go around each night and pick up trash after the festival closes,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe what they have to pick up. It’s definitely one of the dirtiest and disgusting jobs imaginable.”
Martell said production is another area where volunteers are on their feet and moving all day.
“They work the stages,” he said. “They have to get instruments on and off, amplifiers, which can weigh a lot, and they have to set up and take down sets that can be very complicated. There’s always a flurry of activity behind the stages.”
Martell said one of the biggest drawbacks to working the festival as a volunteer is that “you are vaguely aware of what’s going on,” but don’t really get to sit and enjoy it.
One of the perks for volunteers is that they receive free admission, which for two days is worth $75.
Martell said another perk is getting to meet people and musicians.
A musician himself, Martell, who grew up in the Berkshires, does a solo pub act and is in a Kirtan band — call-and-response chanting of hymns or mantras to the accompaniment of instruments.
He works for Country Dance and Song Society, an arts services organization for English country, contra and Morris dancers in Easthampton.
“I really can’t explain why I do this year after year,” he said. “A lot of people probably wouldn’t have. I guess one of the reasons is that I get to see friends and neighbors having a blast all weekend.”
He said when he watches people dance or jump up and down to the music of, for instance, Michael Franti and Spearhead — a band that blends hip-hop with a variety of other styles, including funk, reggae, jazz, folk and rock — he feels like they are having fun partially because of what he did to get the band on stage.
“We have one chance to get this festival right each year,” said Martell. “The challenge alone makes you feel good and anxious all at once, because everything has to work perfectly.”
“Shirley Holmes, who has been in charge of volunteers for almost a decade, came in and solved a lot of our issues with volunteers, mostly logistics and such,” said Martell. “There weren’t enough. Some weren’t reliable. It wasn’t organized. Now, all of that is solved, so things run a lot smoother.”
Holmes, of Erving, said she alone coordinates about 120 volunteers and then there are others who coordinate the volunteers for recycling, tickets, parking and more.
Martell said that the festival relies on well over 200 volunteers each year.
“I start contacting volunteers in mid January,” said Holmes, who has been coordinating many of them for nine years. “I send out emails in January and I wait for answers.”
Holmes said she hit a snag this year because the festival is being held a week earlier than usual.
“People who had volunteered in the past had planned vacations around being back by the third week in July got a surprise,” she said. “But, I’d say about 50 percent of the people who volunteer for me come back every year. They really look forward to it.”
Holmes said even when there are problems, everything always seems to pull together and things work out in the end.
Martell said the Green River Festival, which started out in 1986 as two separate events on consecutive weekends — a balloon festival run by the Chamber and a local radio station’s anniversary party — has become a “world class” event.
“People expect that everyone and everything will arrive when they’re supposed to and that it will all go smooth until it’s over,” he said. “There are a lot of moving parts that have to fit and volunteers are a big part of making that happen.”
People interested in volunteering at the festival should email greenrivervolunteers@ signaturesounds.com
Martell said he has seen the festival change over the years.
In 1986, before he became involved, the Chamber’s Upcountry Balloon Fair was held one weekend and WRSI radio station held its anniversary celebration the following weekend with NRBQ and 10,000 Maniacs the only two bands performing.
In the early years, ballooning was the focus, but that changed around 1990, when the festival started featuring artists like New Orleans music legend Dr. John, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Taj Mahal, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.
“It just keeps growing and growing,” said Martell. “Many of us have stayed on for years, so there’s also a lot of experienced people running the show and volunteering.”
In 2001, the festival changed its name to the Green River Festival and expanded the musical lineup to include more artists and multiple stages.
Emmylou Harris, Buddy Guy, Lucinda William, Mavis Staples, Arlo Guthrie and other big names have taken the stage since then, said Martell.
“I don’t think I have a favorite set,” said Martell. “There have been so many good ones.”
He said Brandi Carlile and her band probably have had the most fun on stage out of all the bands he’s seen over a dozen years.
“They had so much fun,” he said. “It was so obvious. They were also very nice, polite, friendly and helpful.”
He said he would like to forget one year.
“Many years ago now (2002), Dave Carter died right before the festival,” said Martell. Carter, who was heralded as the “voice of modern folk music” was scheduled to play at the festival but died suddenly of a heart attack. He was 49. Many people at the festival learned about his death when it was announced from the stage.
“It put a damper on the weekend, but we all got through,” Martell said. “I also had kidney stones the entire weekend one year, but had no choice, the show had to go on,” said Martell. “I suffered through.”
When pressed for insider stories on the festival, Martell’s response was “Lots of secrets will remain sacred.”
He said that this year he is in particular looking forward performances by Heather Maloney and Darlingside and Josh Ritter and The Royal City Band.
Martell suggests that anyone going to the festival keep a cooler in their vehicle. “Rolling coolers won’t be allowed on the grounds this year,” he said. “I’d pack some healthy food and drinks and keep them in your vehicle in a cooler.”
Martell said festival-goers won’t be able to bring tents onto the grounds either. “They aren’t allowed, no matter what someone wants to call them,” he said. “People try to call them canopies or whatever, but they’re tents.”
Martell said people should travel light — bring a chair or blanket, an umbrella, bottled water (there will be filling stations), sunscreen and that’s about it.
“Come to have fun, not carry stuff all over the place,” he said. “Just bring what you need.”
Martell said dogs are not allowed at the festival.
“They don’t want to be here and they certainly shouldn’t be left in hot vehicles.”
Martell said the target demographic is people in their 30s, 40s and 50s. “It’s a family event, so bring kids,” he said. “It’s a pleasantly clean and nice event.” Children under 10 are admitted free and there will be plenty of games and activities for them. There will also be children’s musical performers, circus acts and a Mardi Gras parade.
Martell said he likes to sit, when watching an act on the main stage, somewhere from the middle to the back of the crowd.
“You can always leave your stuff to go up front and dance, but you can’t help that people are stepping on you if you set up too close and people go up front to dance,” he said.
“The festival is a great event,” he said. “It has gone from an amateur production to a seriously professional one and it’s right in our back yard. How cool is that?”
The festival will feature more than 30 bands on three stages with easy access. Music will range from indie rock to reggae and Cajun to zydeco.
Food will be available for purchase throughout the weekend — everything from burgers and pizza to ethnic and vegetarian — and new for 2014, Berkshire Brewing Co. will have a beer and wine tent.
For more information about the Green River Festival, visit: www.greenriverfestival.com.
Staff reporter Anita Fritz worked at The Recorder from 2002 to 2005 and then returned in 2006. She covers Greenfield and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 280.