Review: 2011 Solid Sound Festival at Mass MoCA in North Adams, MA
Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival, held at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MOCA), is more than just a small music festival. With two headlining performances from festival curator and alt-country juggernaut Wilco, music and art in every corner of the old factory grounds, not to mention free parking and even a “Vegetarian Oasis,” no amount of rain could negate the Eden created last weekend in North Adams (though I did admittedly write a love-letter to my poncho). A multi-generational event, an annual destination, one older woman described Solid Sound as reminding her of her time at Woodstock – equally as laid back, but without the rampant drug use.
At Friday’s press conference, when asked about the band’s relationship with Western Massachusetts, front-man Jeff Tweedy responded that “a tentacle of our global operations has planted itself firmly in the Berkshires.” With manager Tony Margherita based in Easthampton, MA, the area has become a second hub for the band, next to their Chicago studio. With an area as remote, spacious, and unconventional as Mass MOCA (not to mention bizarrely friendly as compared to the rest of Massachusetts), the marriage between the gallery and the band is one that was meant to be.
Before I get into the music, let’s chat about the venue itself. Between this year and last year, as far as the art on the grounds was concerned, every exhibit (120,000 sq. feet of gallery space) had been completely rotated. Being a contemporary art museum, the media was radically mixed – with videos, photos, ink-jet prints, torn paper bags, spray paint, paper cups, rude instruments, commercial containers, cellophane, plastic cutlery, and performance art, the displays ranged from industrial to whimsical. Some of the most powerful exhibits included a photo series by Santiago Sierra of workers being buried, a performance piece by the same artist that involved a live soldier in a white room standing in a corner (“American Veteran of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan Facing the Wall”), and a chilling video taken by Emily Jucir in 2002 on her walk to work crossing Israeli checkpoints. On the more playful side, one clever nook of Mass MOCA installation featured Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche’s “inGLENNtions” – a set of eccentric instruments concocted using house keys and horse shoes (among other unique shapings and random household objects) to diversify his sound production.
As far as the festival’s music was concerned, while it may seem like the musicians selected were pretty random, Wilco’s own sound is an amalgamation of many genres. Even with regard to the diversity in their side projects, Tweedy quipped that “a lot of our bands outside of Wilco wouldn’t necessarily be invited to the same festival, so it was nice of the band to invite ourselves.” With roots in country, folk, Americana, experimental, classic rock, pop, and soul, Solid Sound invitees and side projects could perhaps best be interpreted as a Wilco deconstruction, each act’s genre related to one or more of these mixed facets.
On the country/folk/Americana side we had bands like Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, husband and wife duo from the Berkshires and Guthrie legend progeny that launched us right back in time to cool 70s harmonies, bringing the spirit of the Berkshires to the Western Mass Festival. They were certainly not the only folk act of the weekend, however, nor were they the only family present. The Handsome Family also featured a married couple whose ballads I could picture in a Wild West oater, Day III headliner Levon Helm & His Rambling Band (of “The Band” fame), among a variety of musicians had his very pregnant daughter in on the country-blues action, and Wilco warm-up act on Night I, Pajama Club, featured yet another couple – Neil and Sharon Finn (Neil of Split Enz and Crowded House), bringing a New Zealand 80s-inspired Industrial Pop to the field stage.
Following in his parents’ footsteps, but more in the experimental realm, was Neil and Sharon’s son Liam Finn (extending the family affair with brother Elroy on drums for the live show). His music plugged experimental tints on a more straightforward rock, and his performance radiated so much fire it was like watching a kid unleashed on a sugar-high – he even turned sound check into a dance party. Also representing for the experimental sphere was San Francisco-based Sic Alps, whose bare-bones noise-pop was only abstract enough to keep the music interesting while still being plenty catchy, and though they reminded me of a progressive 90s grunge, group Purling Hiss even more closely mirrored the 90s for me, but with a psychedelic Nirvana-on-acid twist. Here We Go Magic was perhaps the most accessible experimental group – poppy hipster Brooklyn incarnate. Toe-tappy airy experimentation, they reminded me of a more underground Arcade Fire, and kind of Wilco-esque in background drones. Representing as the most notable avant-garde act during the weekend not involving a Wilco member, though, was none other than Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), whose sonically-rich ambient rock is nothing short of legendary.
I think of all the genres, though, my favorite part of the weekend were the soul singers. Chicago soul master Syl Johnson & the Sweet Divines had the crowd dancing in mud puddles and locked into call-and-response mode, JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound brought an animated motown throwback that had the crowd swooning (their Wilco cover didn’t hurt, either), and if it’s possible, I fell in love with UK-based Jamie Lidell even more than before. Freestyling and improvising on his already-brilliant tracks, Lidell made his live performance as distinct from his albums as his mustard jacket was from his hot pink shoes. Compass was one of my top five albums of 2010, and live he most certainly did not disappoint. Soul was even further infused into the festival with evening dance parties hosted by The Rabbit Factory’s DJ John Ciba, where festival-goers not only got to mingle with each other, but if they were lucky may have even had the opportunity to boogie with Wilco multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, who brought his smooth moves to Courtyard C for the late-night hootenanny.
Sansone was certainly not the only Wilco member to be found lurking on the concert grounds. Kotche did guest spots on a few bands’ projects, Sansone played along with Jamie Lidell, Tweedy sang along with JC Brooks on the “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” cover (this was the only Wilco appearance that wasn’t obviously staged, since Brooks literally fell on the ground when Tweedy appeared by his side). A few of the acts joined Wilco onstage both nights (see setlist), and Wilco came out to join Levon Helm for Bob Dylan and The Band hits to close out the weekend. Wilco members unpretentiously availed themselves to a charity dunk-tank, could be seen enjoying their various festival invitees’ sets (oftentimes with their families in tow), and could be caught onstage not only in guest spots, but leading their own individual side projects as well.
Indeed, the band’s side projects varied in sound as much as the aggregate of Solid Sound guests. The Autumn Defense, John Stirratt and Pat Sansone’s project that has been together over a decade (longer than Sansone’s Wilco tenure), is a poppy folk that incorporates the occasional bluesy sliding vocal. If you stuck it out to the end, you may have been lucky enough to catch their cover of Bob Welch’s “Sentimental Lady,” a song that Stirratt grew up singing on the back of his school bus. The other Wilco members were far more experimental in sound, though how far in space they explored certainly varied. Mikael Jorgensen’s project, Pronto, was probably the most experimentally accessible, and Nels Cline & Thurston Moore’s “Pillow Wand” was perhaps the most abstract. Though Glenn Kotche’s side project On Fillmore did not perform, Kotche’s other half, Darin Gray, constructed a stretched dream-drone before Kotche took the stage himself. Perhaps the most epic portion of Kotche’s own solo performance was “The Monkey Chant,” based on a Hindu epic. Accompanied by powerful animation, Kotche was able to craft an Amazonian sound that encapsulated the moving tale and narrated it clearly through percussion and image alone. Now we just need to transmit the bat signal to Jim O’Rourke in Japan to get Tweedy, Kotche, and O’Rourke back together for a Loose Fur reunion, the band that served as a catalyst for bringing Kotche into the Wilco fold. It’s perhaps the only thing the festival was lacking beyond sunshine.
I’d be remiss not to mention the Comedy Cabaret, which provided not only a physical shelter from the dreary weather, but a haven to comedy nuts. A mustache-sporting John Hodgman ran the Cabaret, which featured comedians Morgan Murphy, Eugene Mirman, and Wyatt Cenac, with special appearances by David Rees and Lewis Black. In between sets Hodgman interviewed local celebrities, and he headlined the afternoon skillfully with an excerpt from his new book That Is All, sharing deranged millionaire fantasies, and closing with a Ukulele number.
Of course, the main events were the two Wilco headlining acts. Over the course of two nights they played nearly 50 songs, with the only repeats being those from the just out limited-edition 7-inch on their brand new label, dBpm Records. With so much music to fit in there was relatively little banter, besides an intro by John Hodgman and Justin Long (better known from the commercials as “Mac” and “PC”) with a rain update and up-beat chatter to open Night I. The first night accentuated numerous rarely-performed songs while still sneaking in some classic favorites, and while the second night showcased a few more new songs, both nights combined were a pretty representative cross-section of Wilco albums. It was amazing that between the two nights and 50 songs, there were still so many songs I wished they would have played – the only downfall of possessing such a tremendous catalog.
Their new music seemed poppy and upbeat, more in-line with some of Wilco (the Album)’s style, and perhaps a little like their earlier country-er hits, but more will be fleshed out when their new label’s full release drops later in the year. The highlight of both sets was on Night II during “Hoodoo Voodoo” when their mild-mannered roadie, Josh Goldsmith, who looks like John Oates or perhaps like a character out of the movie Almost Famous, stormed the stage with cowbell in hand, but lacking any clothing above his waist. That dude had some sick moves – I didn’t think anything could have distracted me from that sight until Sansone and Cline got into a dramatic guitar dual. I’m still not sure who won – Sansone, Cline, or the gyrating Mr. Mustache.
So what’s next for Wilco? The band claimed to be more intent upon making sure the weekend ran smoothly before thinking ahead to future years, but a few things are certain: new album, new label, new friends and band cross-pollination can only lead to more great music, more great art, and more connections among bands and fans. My fingers are crossed tightly for more Solid Sound paradise in years to come, and I’m already looking forward to next year!
Wilco Night I:
***In the pouring rain, walked out to “raindrops keep fallin’ on my head”***
I Might (new song makes its live full-band debut)
Bull Black Nova
Muzzle of Bees
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
Whole Love (live debut)
Shouldn’t Be Ashamed
Born Alone (new song -live full-band debut)
I’m The Man Who Loves You (Dedicated to Tweedy’s wife, Susie)
Red-Eyed and Blue
I Got You (At The End Of The Century)
I Got You (Split Enz cover feat. Pajama Club)
Wilco Night II:
I Love My Label (Nick Lowe)
Dawned On Me (new song – live debut)
A Shot in the Arm
Side With The Seeds
Company In My Back
War On War
At Least That’s What You Said
It’s Just That Simple
Can’t Stand It
Unknown title (new song – live debut)
Box Full Of Letters
Hate It Here
You Never Know (feat. Liam Finn)
The Late Greats
Heavy Metal Drummer
California Stars (feat. Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion)
Airline To Heaven
Outtasite (Outta Mind)
Hoodoo Voodoo (feat. roadie Josh Goldsmith on cowbell)
For more on Solid Sound Festival visit their official website