Our Opinion: North Adams has carved out place on festival map

Against the beautiful backdrop of towering Mount Greylock, thousands of music lovers have descended upon North Adams for this weekend's FreshGrass festival, which began Friday evening and extends through Sunday morning and features 50-plus musical acts, including Brandi Carlile, Railroad Earth and the Del McCoury Band. Live music, great food and drink, family fun. This, in a town that has in recent years has benefited from an unanticipated way of bringing in visitors.

Pluck is the key word here for this roots- and bluegrass-based romp. Not simply the pluck of stringed instruments, of course, but the pluck — the resolve, the determination — that has seen to it that North Adams' place on the live music map turn from faint black dot to bold red star. In its seventh year, FreshGrass serves as shoulder-season counterweight to June's three-day Solid Sound Festival, featuring Wilco, a slightly larger, louder affair.

Both festivals are held at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Think back 20 years ago when North Adams, stripped of its industrial identity, struggled to redefine itself. The community looked with great hope to the success of Mass MoCA, which rose from the ruins of the former Sprague Electric Company and opened in 1999. MoCA has become a world-renowned modern art mecca that dramatically expanded its footprint earlier this year and established itself early as a multi-use venue. It could not have been anticipated, however, that Mass MoCA would also become a successful concert venue that established the city on the concert circuit.

The museum is actively urging audience members to get out and around the city to see what else there is to offer (Eagle, September 15). Ideally, they will like what they see and come back to explore more shops and restaurants. That kind of activity could also benefit neighboring communities like Adams and Williamstown.

If we were to trace the DNA of this most welcome of cultural creatures, perhaps credit first goes to Tanglewood and its forward-thinking Popular Artist Series, which drew the likes of Wilco to the Berkshires back in 2008. The band and management had their eyes on the Berkshires, and soon enough the Chicago-based alt rock band, which didn't care for the giant festival circuit, felt inspired to start the Solid Sound Festival in North Adams — something a little low-key, family-friendly, small-townish.

The debut festival in 2010 was a triumph for music lovers — and North Adams' businesses, and it has continued every other year before solid grounds of enthusiastic music-lovers. In the meantime, Mass MoCA has proven its bona fides as gracious and expert hosts, and Solid Sound and FreshGrass have become mainstays in the city, drawing in visitors, filling hotels and restaurants, and expanding that bold star on the festival map.


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