In an interview this year’s Solid Sound Festival, Jeff Tweedy told Rolling Stone, “We want to make it unique every year. We want to make it something you can only experience here.”
My review of the first Solid Sound in 2010, for my staff blog at Berkshire Living, opened with the line “My hometown is officially awesome.” The fact that Wilco chose this this place, my hometown, as the location of their very own music festival has always been a point of extreme excitement for me, and certainly one that contributes to the event’s overall uniqueness. Usually I would review this weekend from my point of view as a local, commenting on it’s impact on the area, local reactions, and the bigger picture. But this year I honestly felt a bit bombarded by all the information coming at me from every direction–whether it be the multitude of news articles with titles like “Solid Sound Success Leaves Impression,” hammering out every number and dollar amount even slightly related to the festival, or the Facebook posts by locals complaining about traffic and lack of cell phone service due to the mass onslaught of “dirty hippies” in town. It seems that everything has been covered, liberally, and I feel I’ve pretty much said everything I wanted to say in years past (although those reviews seem to be lost now). Instead, this year I’ve decided to simply share my own unique experience at Solid Sound, which inherently sometimes involves that fact that I am local, but not always.
So first, let’s get the facts straight. Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival brings money, people, and attention to North Adams and the Berkshires, and that is just plain awesome. And as for the ignorant locals who want to complain about it–you can’t please everybody!
Alright, now that that’s over with, on to the important stuff.
♦ ♦ ♦
FRIDAY, JUNE 21st
We arrived at MASS MoCA thirty minutes early to help set up the booths where the local Rotary Club would be selling hot dogs. This was the first year I’ve volunteered at the festival along with a press pass, so I was awarded the elusive double bracelet (pretty cool, huh?). The really cool thing about volunteering is that you only have to work four hours in exchange for free weekend passes. Luckily for us, our booth was overstaffed, so we helped set up and were on our way to enjoy the music after only about ninety minutes of volunteering.
The first thing–or things–that grabbed my attention was the “Totally Totem” installation by Marko Remec. Remec, an alum of nearby Williams College (heyyo!), “adheres readymade objects such as mops, brooms, safety mirrors and rearview mirrors to utility poles, transforming them into contemporary totems.” My favorite was the above installation, featuring over 500 convex mirrors wrapped around an old water tower. Anything that can distract rock fans from a big sign pointing towards BEER must be pretty cool. Of course, the reflective domes do present the perfect opportunity for an “I was here” selfie pic (which even I was not immune to–see photos below). My least favorite were the mops and brooms attached to poles that flanked one of the campus’s small bridges. Supposedly the works are supposed to “speak to facets of the urban and suburban condition,” but they just looked like bad Target cleaning product displays to me.
Next, I was lucky enough to catch a performance by the Storey Pirates, a super fun educational performance group that has been involved with Solid Sound since the beginning. Here they are performing a battle royale between a dinosaur and bumblebee. The dino won when the bee stung him and died (pretty morbid, right!?). The dino then went on to battle a grandma, her homemade pie, and Hello Kitty. There were live drummers and a hilarious announcer that made the whole thing highly entertaining, even in the intense heat. This is just one example of the family-friendliness level of Solid Sound–others included art workshops and a live fowl demonstration.
Then it was finally time for some rock and roll! Throngs of people pressed in tightly to the front courtyard for a glimpse of Austin-based band White Denim. I actually saw these guys in their hometown back in 2009 (completely by chance) at some little club, so I was really excited to see how they had grown over the last few years. They did not disappoint. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what genre White Denim falls under. Somewhere on the road between rock and psychedelia, bluegrass and jam took a pit stop at a seedy Austin bar. That’s where White Denim was born. The first set of the weekend was just as intense as the heat. Between insane crescendos of headbanging hairband caliber, the guitarists would escape into Phish-like jam run, sometimes tinged with bluegrass. The true star of the show was the lead singer, however, who could go from wailing like James Brown to cooing like Jeffy Buckley in one breath. His undeniable soul somehow marries the disparate sounds together in harmony.
Side note: One thing I love about Solid Sound (and any festival of this caliber, really) is the ah-may-zing people and fashion watching it offers. I was really digging this chick’s mustard go-go inspired outfit. It wasn’t until later that I discovered she was a member of the band Lucius (see Storey Pirates photo above). I’m not sure if it is the same singer or two different ones in the photos, however, as both women wore matching outfits (and hair) the entire weekend. Which brings me to another thing I love about Solid Sound: the musicians walk around with the fans. And the festival is small enough that you actually have a real chance of seeing them. BUT–no one ever bothers them (or, much of the time, even notices them), except once in a while to say, “Great set last night.” Ah yes, the magical land of MoCA, where the famous and the ordinary walk together hand-in-hand. Except for Tweedy, of course, he is equal to none.
We ventured to the front of Joe’s Field to take in a bit of The Realtives’, a funkalicious all-male group from Dallas. Joe’s Field, so named for MoCA director Joe Thompson, is a sprawling oasis of land in the middle of the city–a hidden gem, really, tucked below some low-income housing on Route 2. The initial work and investment that MoCA put into it for the first festival in 2010 was definitely worth it.
I really appreciate that each year Wilco has brought an authentic, matching-suits, “Get on UP!” funk group to Solid Sound. It’s a homage to their blues roots and a guaranteed good time (in my opinion, anyways). We hung out in front for a while swaying to the grooves of the Relatives, but the heat was beginning to get to us, so we headed to the back of the field to take in the rest in the shade. You can see in the photo below the masses of people already staking claim to their spots for Wilco’s first performance. It’s quite a lovely scene, really.
Finally, it was time for Wilco to take the stage for their all-request covers set. I expected this experiment to be pretty great: Wilco is great to see live, but after a few times, and only so much popular material they need to cover, their shows start to run together in memory. So I was pretty excited to hear them play some entirely new and different things.
They hit the stage with “The Boys Are Back In Town” (how appropriate), and the party was officially started. Seriously, this was just about the wildest I have ever seen Wilco fans get, and I think much of it was due to the added excitement of not really knowing what would come next. The “Stump the Band” portion of the set, hosted by comedian John Hodgman, was fun but the whole schtick got old a little too quickly, with Hodgman proclaiming “This is my favorite song!” at every one he pulled.
Aside from a few snaffus–Jeff forgetting the words to “Ripple,” a drunk female fan totally messing up the Stump the Band portion (apparently she was supposed to request a song for a short list given to her, but instead asked for a random Cranberries tune and gave Tweedy some shit)–the whole thing was a big success. Wilco better start preparing themselves for next year…
My personal favorites from Friday night were “Simple Twist of Fate” (Bob Dylan), “Ripple” (Grateful Dead), “Who Loves the Sun” (Velvet Underground), “And Your Bird Can Sing” (sung twice, The Beatles), “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” (Blue Oyster Cult), “Get Lucky” (Daft Punk), “Surrender” (Cheap Trick), and “The Weight” (The Band). And although I’m not completely familiar with the song, Wilco’s cover of the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” toward the end of their set turned out to be the perfect choice for this moment that could only happen at MoCA: while singing the line “I’m in love with Massachusetts,” the freight train that rolls through North Adams along Route 2–the same one that would gently shake my childhood home when rumbling by in the night–seemed to emerge like a ghost train out of the darkness to the left of the stage and blow its whistle at just the right moment, to the sheer delight of the crowd. Whether orchestrated or not, I found it to be completely magical.
You can view and download the entire covers set list here.
And here’s a great video of them performing “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk:
SATURDAY, JUNE 22nd
While Saturday afforded more wiggle room for exploration, the heat limited my time in the sun to mini bursts of activity before I had to escape to the shade or, better yet, the AC. My fair skin does not get along well with the relentless summer sun (even with a protective layer of sunscreen), and I myself am just not made for the heat–I fainted from heat stroke at Lollapalooza last year…twice. I wasn’t about to chance it this weekend. So while I didn’t get to see or do everything I would have liked, I still had a music-, art-, and fun-filled day.
Above is another one of Remec’s “Totem” installations, set on top of the hill at the back of Joe’s Field. We spent a lot of time just hanging out in the shade in this spot, along with just about every family with young children at the festival. There are a ton of hippie children at Solid Sound, which is actually pretty entertaining. Plus, if you’re ever looking for shade, just follow the sound of crying babies and you’re sure to find it.
Every year Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche builds a cool interactive drum installation on the MoCA campus. This year, however, I wasn’t very impressed: “Hey, let’s dig some holes in the ground, stick drums in them, and call them ‘Earth Drums!'” Eh, not buying it, Kotche. But the kids were loving it, so I’ll give him some credit there for keeping them entertained. The installation did, however, cause serious injury to my friend Lisa: as she was leaving the grounds on Friday night, she followed the crowds through the back around the Earth Drums and, not very aware of her surroundings she admits, fell right into the space between the earth and a drum, leaving a gnarly bruise on her leg. She confronted Kotche about it on Sunday, however (all in good fun), and he promptly put the responsibility on MoCA, with a grin.
The first band I really wanted to see on Saturday was Lucius, a Brooklyn-based duo that has been called “the next Feist” by the New York Times. Their combination of haunting harmonies (seriously, the really could be twins the way their voices mesh together so seamlessly), booming stadium drums, and their overall lush sound with their mod twinsie outfits makes for one alluring and magnetic group.
Lucius’s sound was perfect for the echo-y brick and asphalt box that is “Courtyard D” of Solid Sound, created by the walls of the former factory. I have a love-hate relationship with Courtyard D. The downside is that there is very little possibility of escaping the sun. If you want to get close to the band, you must resolve to standing on the steaming black asphalt in direct sunlight very close to other, very hot people (like I said before, I don’t do very well with long periods of intense heat). The upside is that the courtyard is visible from a few choice spots within the museum, granted you are okay with not necessarily seeing the band’s faces. My favorite is from MoCA’s biggest gallery, currently housing Xu Bing’s Phoenix, which has garage doors that open up directly to the courtyard. This spot is ideal because a) the sound is amazing, b) there is AC, and c) you get to enjoy jaw-dropping, larger-than-life artwork and Wilco-curated music at the same time (plus it’s kind of cool to look down at all the little people melting in the sun). What could be better!?
The rest of Saturday we spent hopping from set to set (including The Dream Syndicate and Yo La Tengo, who I saw at MoCA almost seven years prior), but never quite settling in one place for too long due to the intense sun and sticky crowds. The great thing about the MoCA campus is that it’s large enough to find your own space, but small enough to still hear whoever is playing without being in front of the stage–so we ended up planting ourselves in the shade right between the river and the mirrored “totem,” where we could easily hear acts from both Courtyards D & C (although a bit echo-y) and Joe’s Field. It was from this comfortable spot that we listened to the rest of Yo La Tengo, Foxygen, and Low.
**A note on Foxygen: I was not there to witness the beginning of the Foxygen scandal that took place in Courtyard C–to be honest I wasn’t at all tempted to see them perform. Perhaps it was the heat or my exhaustion or both, but their all-over-the-place, guitar in your face performance sounded something like regurgitated hair-band-punk-stew from where I sat, and I was not feeling it. Sorry, Foxy. My friends did see and talk to the mysterious tambourine player during Wilco’s performance, however. I was on a beer run, but apparently this guy ran up to them with a tambourine and told them how he was going to get up on stage to play. We were all impressed when he actually made it in to the security area, and then laughed when we saw him being hauled away. We later heard whispers that it was actually a member of Foxygen, and then sort of gasp-snorted-chuckled when Jeff Tweedy made some passive-aggressive comments about it on stage and then dedicated their drunk driving anthem, “Passenger Side,” to the young bucks. Let this be a warning to all future young bands that befriend Wilco: word travels fast at Solid Sound, so be on your best behavior.**
ANYWAYS…We made our way over to the field stage to catch most of Neko Case, who tantalized fans with songs off her newest album. I unfortunately didn’t get any decent shots of her, but I will tell you that she was as captivating in person as her voice always made me imagine she was. I have to say that she may have been an odd choice to play right before Wilco–after such a scorcher of a weekend, her sultry voice and chill tunes seemed to be making everyone a bit sleepy.
Finally it was time to Wilco to take the stage once more. I must admit this performance is a bit of a blur for me–it was a long, hot day and Lagunita’s Wilco Tango Foxtrot was calling my name. This night we avoided the running around and hunkered down in a spot to the far right of the front of the stage, just near the backstage entrance, although my sister and I made frequent skipping-and-dancing trips to the front every time we heard a favorite song. Like I said earlier, when Wilco is playing the hits, their shows tend to start running together (Via Chicago, Impossible Germany, Passenger Side, Can’t Stand It, Heavy Metal Drummer, etc.). The “super moon” that night seemed to put both the audience and the band under a crazy spell that night (the ghost train also reappeared, invigorating the crowd with each blow of its whistle), culminating in a frenzied encore of “A Shot in the Arm,” “California Stars,” “Just A Kid,” and “Dreamer in My Dreams.” By the time we left late that night, half our group was prancing and the other half dragging themselves towards the exit–super moons must effect people differently, I suppose.
Listen to the entire set list here: http://www.wfuv.org/audio/archives/fuv-live/wilco-solid-sound-festival-2013
Another scorcher, Sunday was a day of taking it easy. Our troop, or what was left of it, made it down to MoCA shortly before Autumn Defense, side project of Wilco’s John Stirrat and Pat Sansone, took the stage. We plunked ourselves down in the cool corner of a one-minute film festival exhibition inside the museum until we felt brave enough to face the heat once more. We watched the first part of their set from the lookout in the Xu Bing gallery–Autumn Defense proved to be the perfect band for this particular summer afternoon, with their sunshiney lyrics and jingle-jangle guitars. Plus everyone was fairly exhausted and probably not in the mood for another Foxygen experience.
We then took a roundabout route (read: walking through the museum to stay in the AC) to Jeff Tweedy’s installation of the weekend, a recreation of The Loft, Wilco’s Chicago studio, which was located on the other side of the courtyard. The Loft was kind of cool, featuring instruments, stage costumes (or suits, rather), and even rugs owned by the band and taken directly from the studio, although I was overall underwhelmed by the minimal effort that went into it. It did prove to be a nice alternative spot to view the crowds below, however.
Afterwards we plopped ourselves in a shady spot near Courtyard C to check out Radiolab & On Fillmore. The collaboration seemed really cool (they were telling a story about dinosaurs!), but it was really hard to hear and see everything everything happening in that particular setting, so we decided to just head over to Joe’s Field and lie in the shade to wait for festival closers Medeski, Martin & Wood, which I in particular did not want to miss.
By the time they took the stage at 6pm we had lost even more of our group. MM&W came out blazing with some super chunky funk and a heavy dose of distortion. Had it been the first day of the festival, I would have been right up front swaying to the grooves, but as it was we lazily bobbed our heads from our perch on the hill. Nels Cline was a favored special guest by band and crowd alike with his signature trippy experimentation on the bass. To be honest, much of the set is lost to me now, as I couldn’t help being distracted by the thoughts of a shower and my bed. We made it about a half an hour before officially saying goodbye to Solid Sound 2013.
On our way back to the car, walking in front of the museum, we could hear Cline and Tweedy and perhaps others joining the group for a rowdy rendition of “Hate It Here.” “Aw,” I said, “I love this song,” with no intention of really doing anything about missing it. Yes, Wilco, we do hate it here a bit when you’re gone, but for now all we want is a nap. Until next year…