Green River Festival fans will have to wait until next year

  • Lucinda Williams closed out Friday night at the 2019 Green River Festival. Staff File Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Low Cut Connie plays the main stage at the 2019 Green River Festival. At left, above, Bob Eppsteiner of Northampton holds Tess Eppsteiner while watching Parsonsfield last year. Staff File Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Local favorite Heather Maloney plays the main stage at the 2019 Green River Festival. Staff File Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Staff File Photo/Andy Castillo Staff File Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Milo Goffredo, 10, at right, and Rose Collin, 10, both of Amherst, look down on Greenfield Community College’s campus from a hot air balloon d Staff File Photo/Andy Castillo

For the Recorder
Published: 4/30/2020 6:05:58 AM

GREENFIELD — The Green River Festival is always one of the highlights of summer in Franklin County. But this year, the grounds of Greenfield Community College will be free of joyful music, dancers twirling on the lawn and glowing balloons.

Signature Sounds Presents, the Northampton company that holds the festival, has announced the Green River Festival 2020 has been postponed until July 2021 in light of the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

The festival, now in its 34th year, was scheduled for the weekend of July 10 to July 12 at GCC. The postponement of this three-day event, which features more than 30 musical acts performing on multiple stages as well as local food, beer, wine, crafts, children’s activities and a balloon illumination, was made out of concern for safety. Festival Director Jim Olsen said he came to the decision after considerable deliberation and input from local officials and their hosts at GCC.

Olsen said he realized in early March that Green River Festival 2020 could be in jeopardy when his organization Signature Sounds Presents started canceling shows at venues including The Parlor Room in Northampton and the Shea Theater Arts Center in Turners Falls over worries about COVID-19.

“This whole thing hit so quickly,” Olsen said. “We had just finished the Back Porch Festival, which was a big success this year, and then in another week we were all shut down.”

All of these shows are on a much smaller scale than the Green River Festival, which at capacity draws a crowd of 6,000 and requires many months of preparation. Some of these preparations can be quite costly.

“The sending off of the money to make it happen starts kicking in about three months out and we couldn’t really move forward not knowing for sure if we could actually have the festival. That would have bankrupted us for sure,” Olsen said. “We delayed as much as we could, but in the past couple of weeks it became apparent that we couldn’t safely do the festival.”

While the music takes center stage, the Green River Festival is a social experience with people gathering together to eat, drink and dance. Even if there had been a lessening of social distancing guidelines, Olsen wondered if people would feel comfortable being part of such a large crowd.

Humble beginnings

The festival has been a popular event in Franklin County since its humble beginnings in 1986. The first festival was actually two separate events held two weeks apart: One was an anniversary party for WRSI-FM that featured musical guests NRBQ and 10,000 Maniacs; the other was a balloon festival sponsored by the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce.

In the years that followed, the two events merged to become the Green River Balloon Festival, and by 2001, the festival had grown to include more music and multiple stages, and its name became the Green River Festival.

Olsen has booked the music since the festival’s inception, and in 2014, his Signature Sounds Presents took over the full operation of the festival, which had previously been handled by the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce.

Americana music has always been one of the main features, but over time genres such as indie rock and world music could also be heard. Some of the artists who have graced the festival stages include Taj Mahal, Mavis Staples, Lucinda Williams, Dr. John, Brandi Carlile, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Michael Franti and Spearhead and the Avett Brothers. Local artists have always been a big part of the mix as well.

In 2015, there was a flurry of national press with publications including Rolling Stone and the New York Times citing the Green River Festival as being one of the best small music festivals in the country.

This year’s lineup included everyone from guitar phenomenon Billy Strings to indie singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis. The Head and the Heart, Jade Bird, Sarah Jarosz and Mandolin Orange were some of the other acts slated to perform.

“My favorite part of the whole thing is putting the lineup together,” Olsen said. “Then you wait nine or 10 months and you actually get to watch these bands play in real time. For me, personally, the loss of this is the most heartbreaking part.”

Cautiously optimistic

The good news is many of the acts scheduled for 2020 will perform at the 2021 festival instead. Olsen said that when organizers called the bands to inform them what was happening, most expressed their desire to return. Olsen said he hopes they will be able to get at least half of them back.

Will the string of event cancellations, and perhaps more still to come, can residents expect to hear any live music in the summer of 2020?

“It’s really hard to say,” said Olsen, who maintains that he is cautiously optimistic that shows will resume at the end of the summer into September. “We are basically on a week-to-week situation that won’t become clear for a while. Some industry publications are thinking there won’t be live music until this time next year, which is a terrifying thought.”

Signature Sounds also presents the Arcadia Folk Festival in Easthampton each fall and the future of this event, which is much smaller than the Green River Festival, is uncertain at this time.

In the meantime, Signature Sounds is hosting a number of virtual concerts to help with the financial losses from the canceled live shows. The Parlor Room Home Sessions can be accessed at signaturesounds.com/homesessions and have been a success.

Coming shows feature Amythyst Kiah on May 1, Twisted Pine on May 5 and Heather Maloney on May 7. Signature Sounds is currently exploring other ways to connect with audiences and are even exploring creative ways to celebrate the Green River Festival during the weekend it was scheduled to be held.

Moving forward

Olsen said that while organizers are focused on moving forward, he’s working hard to keep his staff employed.

Not holding the festival as scheduled is a financial hardship, and since the majority of the festival funding comes from ticket sales, Signature Sounds is hopeful that people who purchased tickets for the 2020 festival will hang onto them, as they are valid for the 2021 festival. To encourage this, they are offering incentives for the festival faithful.

For those who keep a ticket, it will be upgraded to include early entrance for each day of the 2021 festival, admission to an exclusive musical event as part of the 2021 festival, 20 percent off of 2021 festival merchandise, 10 percent off of Arcadia Folk Festival and Back Porch Festival tickets, and a first crack at buying additional Green River Festival tickets at the lowest price.

Those who cannot plan ahead to 2021 can obtain a full refund for their 2020 Green River Festival ticket. On Thursday, May 7, ticket holders will receive an email outlining how to request a refund.

All refund requests must be received by May 31 at midnight. All refunds will be processed in early June and completed by June 10.

Residents can also make a donation to the festival at greenriverfestival.com to help the organizers in the meantime. All Green River Festival donors will be entered into a drawing to win a special prize package of two weekend passes for 2021 and some festival merchandise.

Olsen said he and Signature Sounds are grateful for the support they have received so far, as volunteers, sponsors and performers commit to returning for next year’s festival. He also said he looks forward to July 2021, when everyone can be back together to enjoy this beloved summer tradition.

Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at soundslocal@yahoo.com.

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