Get Your Groove On
Music festival season comes to the Berkshires and beyond
Contra dancing is a big draw in the dance tent at the Oldtone Roots Music Festival. This year’s festival also will have swing, Cajun, and square dancing.
Photos by Juris Mardwig
›The summer of ’69 will live forever in the minds of those who spent a long, rainy weekend in a mud-covered field in a little town in Upstate New York. Standing on the brink of a revolution, a whole generation watched and listened to the 32 folk and rock-and-roll artists who performed at Woodstock during three days in August that would change the music scene forever.
Since then, thousands of music festivals have popped up, littering hay fields with tents and sending music on the wind—and this little southwest corner of Massachusetts is no exception. The Berkshires and its neighbors play host to some of the Northeast’s most unique music festivals and to diehard festival-goers, who make a summer out of packing up their pup tents and hitting the hills to be “in the moment.”
“The kids are excited to go, it’s the event of the year for us,” says Tyringham resident Joshua Briggs, who, along with wife Rebecca Honig and their three young children, embraces nearby festivals as their official family vacation. “You go, you see people onstage. You walk through the camp at night while the music is playing. The music feels very present everywhere and very connected.”
The Briggs/Honig family, now in their fourth year as “festival groupies,” has quite a few venues to choose from: old stalwarts like the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in the Catskills, the big-as-a-boulder Mountain Jam festival (with headliners like Michael Franti and Peter Frampton) in Hunter Mountain, New York, and MASS MoCA’s FreshGrass, featuring Brandi Carlile and The Del McCoury Band.
“Each festival is unique, and each has a very different atmosphere,” says Honig. “On the one hand you have this rural tent village at Grey Fox, and then at FreshGrass, you’re in the middle of North Adams, camping in a field. That one feels very urban.”
The family has acquired a new favorite festival on their circuit. The fledgling but increasingly popular Oldtone Roots Music Festival in North Hillsdale, New York—at Cool Whisper Farm—is heading into its third year. Oldtone is the brain/lovechild of producers (and longtime musicians) Kip Beacco, Jim Wright, and Matt Downing. It shies away from the contemporary bright lights and epic sound of bigger festivals and instead looks to stay true to the purity of traditional roots music.
“The Oldtone festival fills a gap, I think, in the Northeast festival lineup,” says Wright, a longtime guitar and banjo player who hails from Virginia. He is currently on the hunt for retro RCA speakers for the Oldtone stage. “We’re really championing the traditional side of bluegrass and honky-tonk. It brings in a great mix of ages and generations. It’s a total embracement of much more traditional, toned-down acts.” (Pictured left, The Foghorn String Band performing at this year's Oldtone.)
This is not to say that Wright and other Oldtone producers and participants don’t enjoy a nice, big festival or two—the ambiance alone is a draw, especially when it comes to bluegrass and folk music. Beacco is a seasoned festival-goer and performer, and he often finds that the spell of any festival happens far from the mainstage.
“I think that the kind of music that is played informs how people are going to be in general at a festival,” says Beacco. “And the real beauty of this music is what happens in the campgrounds. People bring their instruments—banjos, guitars, fiddles, mandolins—and it’s very common to hear campground picking bands. When I first saw that happen at a festival, it blew my mind. Just random people who get together and start playing. It’s magic.”
Ad hoc picking isn’t the only magic that happens. There is something about festivals, particularly bluegrass and folk festivals, that encourages a kind of closeness that real life rarely offers.
“People show up on Wednesday night to camp, maybe not really knowing anyone around their campsite, and once Sunday comes along, you’re like this close-knit family,” says Beacco.
Honig agrees: “Go with the expectation that you will not be alone for long. Definitely expect to meet people.”
Lots of people. Honig says that some of their closest friends are ones who came along to the Grey Fox festival, and who, at first, were just acquaintances because their children attended preschool together. Now, they are like family. “You’re kind of setting up a world together,” Honig says of traveling the festival circuit. “And you keep adding to it, you keep perfecting it every year. You’re completely unplugged from life outside your ‘village’ for the time of the festival.”
“Music is communal, it’s a shared experience,” adds Briggs. “We don’t want our kids to learn any other way.”