June 29, 2011

Rock Over Boston North Adams: Wilco's Solid Sound Festival

[Photos from Wilco's Solid Sound Festival at MassMOCA in North Adams, MA 6/24-6/26/2011. Photos by Michael Piantigini.]

It rained. Like, a lot. I'm generally skeptical about big music festivals. Overcrowded, hot, overpriced concessions, and acts I'd rather see in a dark club at night rather than a massive dusty field in broad daylight. But I'll be damned if Wilco don't have this all figured out. I doubt you'd find very many of the reported 6300 (at its max) attendees of Solid Sound with anything bad to say, even about all that rain. It was a nuisance at the time (and I have the shoes to prove it), but it already seems like a distant footnote.

Sure, the letters crawling down the clock tower at the entrance spelled Wilco, but the vibe here was more celebration than marketing opportunity. I suppose some more cynical than I (if that's possible) could argue that Wilco's latter-day reasonableness is their weakness, but here at Solid Sound, at least, it was decidedly in our favor. Beers topped out at $5, sandwiches at $6 (with chips!), the crucial rain ponchos were $2, Popsicles were a buck, and bottles of water - also one damn dollar. By Sunday, I was almost begging to be ripped off in some way. The closest I came was the money I seemed to be separated from in Euclid Records' extraordinarily good pop-up record store on site, but since I got a bunch of great records in return we'll call it even. The man I assumed to be the store's owner told me "yeah, for one weekend you might have the best used record store in the country." We may have.

Handpicked by Wilco, the bands at the festival covered a fair amount of territory. The edges of noisy garage psych were covered by festival-openers Purling Hiss and Sic Alps, folkies Sara Lee and Johnny (that's Sara Lee Guthrie, of course) got Saturday started, while indie pop was later covered by Brooklyn's Here We Go Magic. Sixties soul was covered by near-legend Syl Johnson (who loves to talk - justifiably - about how Wu Tang Clan paid him a boatload of money for a sample, and about his recent box set), 70's roots rock by The Band's confirmed legend, Levon Helm, and 80's pop was taken care of by legend-in-some-circles Neil Finn and his new band, Pajama Club.

As is fitting the family atmosphere at Solid Sound, the various Wilco side projects well-represented: Mikael Jorgensen's Pronto was missed by this reporter, but John Stirratt and Pat Sansone's The Autumn Defense played to an overflow crowd in the smaller Courtyard C, and Glenn Kotche and Nels Cline were inescapable), Neil's son Liam Finn played a crackerjack set on Saturday. He sounded at times like his father, but with a much bigger, more rocking sound that warrants further investigation.

Courtyard D's brick borders were filled by Nels Cline and Thurston Moore's guitar duo Pillow Wand's squalling one hour noise improv barely 90 minutes after JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound's solid Chicago soul and funk groove had people dancing in the same spot.

Our hosts Wilco headlined playing full 2-hour sets on Friday and Saturday night, and played only a couple of songs twice: their new taut new-wavy single "I Might," and another new one, "Born Alone." The small handful of other new tracks they debuted hinted at a peppier, poppier new album when The Whole Love is released this fall. Any Wilco fatigue I might have been experiencing dissipated rather quickly as they dug into their catalog highlights both old ("Shouldn't Be Ashamed," "I Got You (at the End of the Century)" on Friday; "Box Full of Letters," "Passenger Side" on Saturday) and new ("Impossible Germany," "Bull Black Nova" on Friday, "Hate It Here," "One Wing" on Saturday). A festival like this was made for guest spots, of course: they followed up their "I Got You" on Friday night with Neil Finn joining them for his similarly titled Split Enz classic and Saturday brought some guest guitar work from Liam Finn on "You Never Know," and some vocals from Sara Lee Guthrie (and her bandmate Johnny Irion) on her grandfather Woody's lyrics to "California Stars."

Levon Helm and His Rambling Band
closed it all out with "The Weight," of course, though some of us were winding the mountainous Route 2 back home by that point. We saw enough of his set to regret it, though. He's a legend for a reason, and his band has a confidence and a gravity befitting that legend. Glad I got the chance to see him. He does a regular series of concerts in his home studio in Woodstock, NY for a small audience. Might be a worthwhile pilgrimage.

MassMOCA - and North Adams in general - were gracious hosts and it's easy to see why Wilco would want to base their showcase here. Plus, the remoteness of the spot keeps the numbers manageable. It was not at all difficult to keep running into friends - and members of Wilco and the other bands - all over the museum's campus. Might has well have been in a friend's backyard.

-Michael Piantigini

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