Solid Sound Festival

The small city of North Adams, tucked away in the Berkshires in northwestern Massachusetts, was taken over this August 13-15 by the first (and hopefully not last) Solid Sound Festival.  Taking place at North Adams’ Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (or MASS MoCA), the music and arts festival was curated by alt-rock veterans Wilco, and included performances by Wilco themselves, frontman Jeff Tweedy, various Wilco side-projects, and a variety of other groups.  There were also performances by a handful of comedians, film screenings, demonstrations by Wilco members Nels Cline (guitar) and Glenn Kotche (drums), and of course, the sprawling museum itself to wander around it, with its consistently splendid array of visual art.

Arriving early for the festival’s 7 PM start time on Friday was like any festivalgoer’s dream.  It was practically surreal.  There was no traffic on the way into town, and parking was ample in a free lot extremely close to the museum.  There was an almost comical lack of guidance about where we could and couldn’t walk.  I was even allowed to bring a professional-grade camera into the festival—a policy which changed abruptly come Saturday.

Turns out Saturday morning, when the festival proper began, would be when the bulk of the attendees would arrive.  But for Friday evening, we and a few other lucky folks had the museum and the festival grounds (in various courtyards and fields surrounding the museum complex, which used to be a factory) more or less to ourselves, with none of the crush of crowds and lines for bathrooms and nourishment that are usually associated with musical festivals.  We wandered into Leonard Nimoy’s photography exhibit, messed with guitar pedals at Nels Cline’s interactive exhibit, shook hands with Cline himself, and checked out a number of the gorgeous museum’s other installations.  We walked right up to the front for the performance by Wilco keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen’s band, Pronto, in the museum’s beautiful Hunter Theater, ate some Mexican food that was both reasonably priced and delicious, and then we grabbed a seat for the show by The Books, which would also take place in the Hunter Theater.

The Books were practically a no-brainer on the Solid Sound Festival bill.  Not only does their folktronic, sound-collage music definitely have an intellectual, conceptual-art slant to it that makes them perfectly at home in a museum like MASS MoCA, but their live performance also includes a video component that seems almost like an exhibit from the museum itself.  On top of that, guitarist and vocalist Nick Zammuto graduated from just-next-door Williams College, and the duo was based in North Adams for some time—they recorded the marvelous album The Lemon of Pink in a derelict mansion adjacent to the museum grounds.  Their performance was fantastic—funny, engaging, and beautiful, and greatly aided by the addition of multi-instrumental virtuoso Gene Back to their touring lineup.  We left the festival after their performance feeling enthused about how aesthetically well-designed (down to the schedules and wristbands) and smoothly-run the festival was, and excited for the rest of the weekend.

The volume of attendees was certainly much greater on Saturday, but many of the good qualities from Friday carried over.  Parking was not as amazingly available, but annexed lots provided plenty of space and shuttles were frequent.  Occasionally, the fact that this was the first year of this festival showed.  Watching festival staff try to stop people from touching the Sol LeWitt paintings covering the walls in the tiny room where they housed the sure-to-be-crowded demonstration by Wilco’s Glenn Kotche was pretty cringeworthy.  But for the most part, staff and attendees were extremely polite (especially since the crowd skewed older than your typical festival set—and I never expected to see so many strollers at a music festival.)  Some of the typical festival woes returned—should I watch comedian Todd Barry or the delicate harmonies of Bennington, VT’s Mountain Man?  Does one sacrifice watching one performance for proximity to the stage at another one?  Still, the general vibe of Solid Sound was different, and more laid back, than most festivals; closer to the slow strolling one does through a museum than the amusement-park-like rush at festivals with a lineup of more prominent bands.

Some wonderful groups performed throughout the weekend—the aforementioned Books, Sub Pop folksters Vetiver, Sub Pop newbies Avi Buffalo, and soul veteran Mavis Staples, to name a few—but this was still clearly Wilco’s show.  The Autumn Defense (fronted by Wilco bassist John Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone) and The Nels Cline Singers put on good shows on Sunday, and both Pronto and On Fillmore (Kotche’s avant-project) were interesting to see.  Wilco’s set on Saturday night was clearly the centerpiece of the weekend, and the deciding factor for many of the festivalgoers.

Whether the fanbase for Wilco’s recordings has grown substantially over the past five years, I cannot say with certainty.  But with their current six-man lineup, in place since 2005, they have built up such a reputation as a not-to-be-missed live act that their live shows have seemed to get bigger and bigger every summer since I saw them in 2006.

On stage, they exemplify professionalism in every sense of the word, and their already-commendable chops and tightness as a group continue to improve each year.  They unify countless strains of rock music—pastoral folk, alt-country, sunshine pop, shaggy classic rock, and shimmering experimentalism—into a relentlessly engaging, catalog-spanning marvel usually landing in the 150-minute-plus (and 30+ song) range.  Saturday night’s set included live mainstays like “A Shot in The Arm”, “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”, “Impossible Germany”, “Handshake Drugs”, and “I’m The Man Who Loves You”, as well as glorious surprises like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era rarities like “Not For The Season (aka Laminated Cat)” and “A Magazine Called Sunset” and a surprisingly haunting, arresting rendition “On and On and On”.  The ferocious loyalty and expansiveness of their fanbase really showed when Jeff Tweedy stepped off-mic and the band played quietly while the entire audience sang along, with no guidance, to every single word of “Jesus, Etc.”  Needless to say, the performance upheld Wilco’s reputation as one of the most powerful, talented live acts currently in existence.  If you haven’t seen them live yet, grab the next opportunity to do so.

Jeff Tweedy’s “solo plus” performance on Sunday afternoon simply drove this point further home; fans went wild even for extremely deep cuts like “Alone” and “Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard”.  Tweedy’s presence, and voice, are so arresting, and his attitude so amicable (I have a hard time believing he once had a reputation for being gruff and sullen on stage) that it was hard to suppress a grin throughout his set.  Things got better when he invited out other musicians to perform a song or two with him—Nick Zammuto’s vocal on the Woody Guthrie-penned “Ingrid Bergman”, from Mermaid Avenue, and Avi Buffalo’s appearance for a cover of Neil Young’s “Look Out For My Love” were highlights.  By the end, most of Wilco, plus a few other musicians, made it on stage for stripped down renditions of oldies-but-goodies “It’s Just That Simple” (with a lead vocal from John Stirratt!), “Passenger Side”, and “Outtamind (Outta Site)”.  Overall, the set was a fantastic way to wrap up a weekend of extremely diverse music and art, and most importantly, of Wilco.

In the end, what the Solid Sound Festival really displayed was how committed the members of Wilco are to striving for the harmonious coexistence of experimentalism and accessibility.  MASS MoCA couldn’t have suited this motivation better; I remember enjoying the museum when I was young because, whie the art on display there is always “out there”, it is permeated by a strong sense of playfulness as well.  The same can be said for the music of Wilco, The Books, and many of the other incredibly diverse musical acts at the Solid Sound Festival’s first incarnation.  Here’s to hoping that the festival grows in prominence if they decide to put it on again—but not too much, as its feeling of being an incredible, unexpected treat for all who decided to splurge for a ticket was one of its most charming qualities.  That, and I’m not sure how many more people North Adams could handle.  But it might just have to, if Wilco’s status as an active, creative, willing-to-take-risks rock institution continues to grow the way it has been over the past few years.

~ by toren on September 9, 2010.

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