Monday, August 30, 2010

Recap: Solid Sound Festival

Large silver letters spelling out “MASS MoCA” usually tower above the contemporary art museum in North Adams, Massachusetts, but on August 13th, even larger orange letters were fastened in front, declaring that the take-over had begun. From the signs along Route 2, to an announcement board outside the community center advertising a pancake breakfast and welcoming “Wil Fans,” to countless other local businesses hanging signs greeting the Chicago-based band and its fans, anywhere you looked, it was hard to miss that Wilco and its Solid Sound Festival had taken over this small city in the Berkshires for the weekend.

And let’s just say if your city must be taken over by a musical act, Wilco are benevolent overlords. Amenities included bike valets, free parking (with enough security to ensure no Ryan Adams fans—or actual Ryan Adams—took bats to your windshield), shuttles to and from the lots and free refills on water. No overpriced, reheated festival food here; instead Berkshire-based vendors offered chicken tikka masala, varieties of samosas, handmade ice cream and locally brewed beer. Families brought younger children for free; parents enjoyed morning yoga while their kids took in puppet shows. The band handpicked the lineup of artists and comedians and assembled their own exhibits. Make no mistake, this weekend was about Wilco—but if you were down with worshiping at the temple of Tweedy, the inaugural Solid Sound Festival was a breath of fresh air after a summer full of sweaty mobs navigating venues as crowded as the schedules.

Arriving early, we decided to check out the exhibits. After wandering the maze of MASS MoCA’s 14-acre refurbished industrial complex with no help from our map (seriously: aesthetically pleasing, but graphic designers are not cartographers, Jeff Tweedy), we stumbled into Sol Lewitt’s Wall Drawing Retrospective. Inside the vertigo-inducing walls hung Glenn Kotche’s Interactive Drum Heads exhibit. Passersby tinkered with the unique additions to the drums, unleashing echoes of haphazard percussion—which the Solid Sound volunteer manning the room must have appreciated. Although, no one had it worse than the staff assigned to the cavernous space housing Nels Cline’s Stompbox exhibit. Groups huddled around stacks of lunchbox amps connected to a smorgasbord of effect pedals, flicking switches and shifting EQ sliders, trying to detect changes in the deafening drone. Happier staffers kept watch over Pat Sansone’s room of Polaroids and the hallway of silk-screen concert posters from Wilco’s past.

In addition to contributing exhibits, the individual members got time to showcase their side projects. It began with Pronto. Keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen led his group in pleasant piano-driven pop, ranging from easy-going to edgy, recalling moments like “Hummingbird” or “You Never Know.” Bassist John Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone indulged the audience with the hazy, 70s soft rock harmonies (Sky Blue Sky, anyone?) of The Autumn Defense. Drummer Glenn Kotche and Darin Gray of On Fillmore traded duck calls before launching into eerie and experimental percussion and bass numbers that culminated in Kotche nearly decapitating a woman with a thunder tube. To watch Glenn go all out is to realize how vital his more subtle, unconventional beat-keeping is to Wilco’s sound. Finally came the Nels Cline Singers, which unfortunately is not an acapella group for tall men in short pants but an avant-garde jazz ensemble—yeah, I don’t even know. But what I do know, being familiar with the noise-outro of “Less Than You Think” and the guitar freak outs on “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” is that as I watched Nels wail with furious technical precision on his guitar and masterfully fiddle with electronics, it was not hard to imagine exactly where Jeff Tweedy saw Cline fitting in when he joined Wilco post-A Ghost Is Born.

All of these sounds converged on Saturday night as Wilco took the stage, managing to pack a lively performance of 30 songs into 2 and ½ hours. Mixed in with charged performances of live staples were some rarities including Yankee Hotel Foxtrot demo throwbacks like “Not For The Season,” “A Magazine Called Sunset” and “Cars Can’t Escape.” The audience came through on the “Jesus, Etc.” sing-along, which an impressed Tweedy ranked in “maybe the Top 2.” The band ended the main set on a strange note, playing the bittersweet “On and On and On” with Tweedy sans guitar, but soon returned with an upbeat four-song encore ending in a rousing rendition of “Hoodoo Voodoo.”

But it’s kind of an exercise in narcissism to throw a festival all for yourself, so the band brought some friends along, too. We were treated to the sweet harmonies of Burlington-based Mountain Man, the finger-picking goodness of Sir Richard Bishop, and the jam band groove of Vetiver. Crowds vibed to sample-happy hometown heroes, The Books, and indie newcomers like Brenda and Avi Buffalo alike. But the real crown jewel of the lineup was Gospel legend Mavis Staples. In addition to old standards, the 71-year-old icon belted CCR’s “Wrote A Song For Everyone” and The Band’s “The Weight.” Jeff Tweedy even joined her on stage for the title-track of her newest album, “You Are Not Alone.”

Mavis wasn’t the only act to share the stage with the Wilco frontman. On rainy Sunday evening, Jeff Tweedy was putting on a charming solo performance in which he engaged in his favorite activities: singing and goading audience members—offenses included laughing at a bum note in “Muzzle of Bees,” being unprepared to back-up whistle on Loose Fur’s “The Ruling Class,” and being too knowledgeable on the capo placement for Uncle Tupelo’s “New Madrid” (“That’s a desperate cry for help”). Although he refused requests to cover “Single Ladies” again, he broke out affecting covers of Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate” and “So Much Wine” by The Handsome Family.

But my favorite cover of the evening (and one of my favorite moments of the whole festival) came as he welcomed the young Avi Buffalo to the stage for a cover of “Look Out For My Love.” I stood there thinking that I could only dream of achieving the same level of musical idolatry nirvana that the visibly nervous Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg must have been experiencing if, well, Jeff Tweedy brought me on stage to duet to a Neil Young song. Other guests included Nick Zammuto of The Books crooning “Ingrid Bergman,” Scott McCaughey of Minus 5 joining in for “The Family Gardener” off Down With Wilco, and Nels Cline on lap steel guitar for a rare and stunning “Dash 7.”

After promising more friends, Tweedy returned with The Autumn Defense and Nels Cline, relinquishing lead to John Stirratt on “It’s Just That Simple.” Adding Mikael Jorgensen to the mix, Wilco minus Glenn Kotche (who was expecting a baby “any minute—well, hopefully not any minute” and had understandably left) gleefully stumbled through the drunken “Passenger Side,” ending on a folky take of “Outta Mind (Outta Sight)” with Tweedy appropriately barking “Look out, here I come again / and I’m bringing my friends!” And with that, the festival was over. The band waved goodbye, and Tweedy shouted a promising “See you next year!” as he left the stage.

It was easy to forget that I shared this experience with a crowd of 2,000 to 5,000 others. Under the (mostly) sky blue skies of the Berkshires, everything seemed relaxed and intimate. It was the kind of atmosphere in which it wasn’t strange to run into John Stirratt taking in the sounds of the Deep Blue Organ Trio in front of the beer tent or to see Nels Cline towering above the crowd awaiting Pronto. It seemed perfectly normal to bump into Mikael Jorgensen mid-bite into your hot dog or for your friend to mistake Pat Sansone for a tour guide and block him in line for the sugar. And there was nothing out of the ordinary about having Glenn Kotche hold the door for you right after Wilco rocked the main stage or about spotting Jeff Tweedy perched atop a dunk tank in that ugly nudie suit he wore on the cover of SPIN. It was their festival, after all—and I think I'm not alone in hoping that they’ll return to North Adams again next summer to continue their reign.

-- Catherine DeGennaro

1 comment:

Vinny V. said...

Catherine, your skill with words never ceases to amaze me.

The only way I could have a better impression of the show would be for me to have gone to it myself, which, seeing as I was out west at the time, would have been rather impossible.

Bravo, and keep up the good work.