Music, balloons and fun for all: Green River Festival brings back old favorites, adds a few new events

  • Green River Festival: Dustbowl Revival performs on the second stage. Recorder file photo

  • Bridget Kearney, of the band Lake Street Dive, performs with Benjamin Lazar Davis at the Parlor Room stage last year. Recorder file photo

  • Dancing in the rain at a previous Green River Festival. Recorder file photo

  • Attendees of the 30th annual Green River Festival at Greenfield Community College in 2016. Recorder file photo

Recorder Staff
Published: 7/5/2017 10:04:26 AM

Beyond a sea of spectators seated on blankets, in lawn chairs and underneath umbrellas, several teardrop-shaped splashes of color slowly hover into the sky over the Greenfield Community College campus.

It’s a sight to be seen over the course of three days every July during the annual Green River Festival. While four bands play from stages scattered across the campus fields and thousands of spectators sway to the tunes, some attention shifts to the magnificent hot-air balloons, a signature of the festival.

“The balloons are the magic,” said festival Director Jim Olsen of Signature Sounds. “There’s nothing like it — that in the middle of the festival a dozen or so balloons just take off.”

Plus, it sets the 31-year-old festival apart.

“As far as we know, we’re the only music festival in the country that has hot-air balloons,” Olsen said.

The Green River Festival will be held Friday, July 14, through Sunday, July 16, and will feature 40 bands, largely under the umbrella of American roots music, Olsen said. The performers play on four stages surrounded by booths operated by 26 food vendors and about 40 craft vendors.

New features

What sets this year’s festival apart from those that came before it, Olsen said, is primarily a focus on showcasing local bands with musicians ages 18 and under.

Through The Next Wave competition, brainchild of the festival’s food vendor coordinator, Liz Gardner, five young bands were selected as featured performers to play on the new stage on Friday (July 14) evening.

“There’s so much talent in this area,” Olsen said. “And the kids are really good.”

After Gardner proposed the idea, Olsen said organizers put out a call on social media for bands and received a few dozen applicants. Olsen said he liked the idea of trying something new.

“We love to try news things, change it up each year, add a new wrinkle to things, just so it doesn’t get stale,” he said of the festival.

Anyone age 18 and under will be admitted for free to see the five performances, he added.

“We’re really trying to interest the next generation of festival goers,” he said.

The lineup includes: Paper City Exile, a South Hadley alternative rock band, from 5:30 to 6 p.m.; Kalliope Jones, a Shelburne Falls indie rock trio, from 6:15 to 6:45 p.m.; Court Etiquette, a Northampton indie rock and roots band, from 7 to 7:30 p.m.; Nomad vs. Settler, a Brattleboro, Vt. indie rock group, from 7:45 to 8:15 p.m.; and Parlicum, an indie rock band from western Massachusetts, from 8:30 to 9 p.m.

Though it’s not associated with the festival itself, Olsen said Sarah Kanabay of the Franklin County Community Cooperative and Greenfield Assistant Planner Maureen Pollock are also spearheading a free pre-festival festival for the first time Thursday night from 5 to 9 p.m. at Energy Park on Miles Street.

Olsen said the event is “kind of a street festival” and “just sort of a fun way to have something downtown.” Three bands — The Fonz, Trailer Park and Colorway — will play while local restaurants and micro-breweries sell food and drinks from booths.

Roots

The festival’s history dates back to 1986, when radio station WRSI, now 93.9 The River, held a celebration at Greenfield Community College intended to mark the station’s fifth anniversary.

“The people who put that on, myself included, had no idea what we were doing,” Olsen remembered. “But it was a big success, a little thunderstorm and all.”

According to Recorder archives, that first concert attracted 2,000 guests, who came to listen to Ed Vadas and The Heavyweights, 10,000 Maniacs and NRBQ. However, unlike today, the shindig was sans balloons.

The following year, Franklin County Chamber of Commerce started a hot-air balloon festival, and it became an annual event featuring music. When WRSI decided to throw a 10th anniversary party, the events merged, creating the Green River Festival’s predecessor, called the UpCountry Balloon Fair and Music Festival.

In 2014, Signature Sounds of Northampton took over organizing the festival — “keeping all the best stuff” while expanding its offerings, said Olsen.

Since 1986, the event has expanded from one to three days and added more vendors and entertainment. Today, admission is capped at 5,000 ticket holders per day.

To know generations of people have enjoyed the festival, with many coming back year after year, is a great feeling, Olsen said. Plus, it’s something local residents take pride in, inviting their friends from out of town.

“There’s nothing better than that really,” he said.

‘A big 3-day block party’

In Olsen’s personal life, he attends other concerts and music festivals and tries to bring acts he sees and thinks will be good fits to the Green River Festival.

“It has to be crowd-pleasing and family-friendly,” he said.

Most of the music is high-energy and danceable, falling under the umbrella of American roots music, including jazz, bluegrass, folk and rock, Olsen said.

“We look at it as a big three-day block party and we want it to feel that way,” he said. “We want it to have that much fun.”

This year’s festival will attract attendees from 27 states.

“It’s becoming more of a destination for people from outside the area,” he said. Olsen believes the incorporation of well-loved bands are part of the attraction.

Being held on the GCC campus, the school’s President Bob Pura has attended 18 Green River Festivals. He said the festival is a great way to hear new music and appreciate the familiar.

“You never know the artist that you’re going to discover,” Pura said. “You go to hear your favorite, and then you find your new favorite.”

Because about one-third of the bands are local, and the festival also offers locally produced food and crafts, Olsen said feels it “presents a best of this area.”

There’s also the uniqueness of the hot-air balloons, which are launched up to five times during the festival, depending on weather conditions — each evening at about 6 or 6:30, and the mornings of July 15 and 16 (Saturday and Sunday) at about 6 or 6:30.

Being able to use the GCC campus is organizers’ “secret weapon,” Olsen said. Throughout the year — but especially from mid-winter on — GCC staff work with Olsen to coordinate the field layout and security.

“Each year there’s a purposeful conversation about what we can do better,” Pura said.

In his experience, Pura said he loves the family-friendly atmosphere the festival creates, where children can play during the day and people of all ages share in enjoying music and dancing.

“It’s really a joyous celebration of the human experience on many levels,” he said.

Pura said his favorite moments come near sunset, when the hot-air balloons begin to light up the sky while music plays. It’s a moment that makes even the bands give pause and comment on the beauty, he said.

“It’s always some variation of ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve never seen anything quite like this,’” Pura said. “To hear that from people who play all over the world is a wonderful statement about our community and this festival. …There’s something magic about that moment.”

Tickets

Tickets available at World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield; Turn It Up in Brattleboro, Vt., Keene, N.H., Montague and Northampton; at the Parlor Room Box Office, 32 Masonic St. in Northampton; online at:
www.greenriverfestival.com.

Three-day pass is $120, $170 with a camping pass; a two-day pass (Saturday and Sunday) is $110; and a one-day pass is $35 Friday, and $65 Saturday or Sunday. Children ages 10 and younger are free.


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