Ever since it was announced live on an internet webcast in early April, I'd been looking forward to Wilco's Solid Sound Festival with a mixture of excitement and dubiousness. What would a multimedia festival curated by Wilco be like? Would everything work out? What if it rained? Would enough people really travel to a small town in western Massachusetts for the weekend? Would too many people come? Would I hate it, like I hate most music festivals?
Last weekend, I got my answers. My three travel companions and I mustered in Albany on Thursday and took the scenic hour's drive to North Adams, arriving in the late afternoon. We parked the car in the Holiday Inn Berkshires lot, and there the car remained until Monday morning. Before long we were out and about, admiring the green hills and abundant church spires in the distance. We ran into a festival-working friend who mentioned the museum grounds were open, so we headed down the street for our first look at MASS MoCA.
We weren't the only people wandering through the museum's outer courtyard that afternoon, but there weren't many. A front page newspaper story on display in the hotel lobby likened the Friday-Sunday festival to a winter storm, advising locals to gather supplies and then remain indoors if possible. In that case, we figured, on Thursday afternoon, we were the flurries.
The museum complex looked promising, and I was itching to explore the brick buildings of this former textile mill and electric factory. MASS MoCA opened about ten years ago, and now houses unique installations of contemporary art. This seemed like a cool setting: so far, so good. And when Jeff, tooling past on a bicycle, stopped to welcome us to the festival - well, it was time to throw my preconceived fest notions out the window for the duration of the weekend.
That's pretty much how the next four days would go. So many friends, artists, bands, and comedians taking up temporary residence in a small town made it feel like summer camp. Surreal, arty, rock and roll summer camp. Summer camp if summer camp had Magic Hat beer and Intelligentsia coffee instead of bug juice; an all-star dunk tank instead of a lake. If arts and crafts consisted of luthiers making guitars and artists silk-screening posters in place of lanyard weaving. If the camp boy-girl dance featured The Numero Group spinning funk and soul for a dancing mass of fans, guests, and talent alike under a giant outdoor movie screen. You know, that kind of summer camp.
On Thursday evening we took a short preview tour of the museum, met the director, explored the poster hall and Pat Sansone's Polaroid exhibit, saw the interactive drum head installation being set up, and decided against taking a trolley for a joyride. On Friday we met more arriving friends, and made our first of many trips to the closest (sneakily Canadian) brunch cafe. We thoroughly toured MASS MoCA, winding through all the exhibits and spaces. We played with Glenn Kotche's drums (with a few tips and tricks from the crew), and watched Nels Cline turn on his Solid Sound Stomp System for its first official session. Nels originally planned five stations instead of two, but there were still more than enough pedals to keep everyone busy. I think I saw a few gear geeks shedding tears of joy.
On Friday evening, Solid Sound began in earnest. After drinks in town (the Baseball Project guys got an early start at the Mohawk), we were ready for the music to begin. Kicking things off right was Pronto, playing to a packed house in the Hunter Center. Post-dinner we caught some of The Books, who were enthralling visually as well as musically. The night ended under the stars with The Numero Group's DJ set. Relaxing on the deck among friends, I thought: okay. I can totally get behind this whole concept.
Saturday, the longest day, was hectic but fun. Things I saw: Tony in the dunk tank, John in the dunk tank, the music of Brenda, the comedy of Hannibal Burress, Glenn nailing a woman (his words) during On Fillmore's set, The Baseball Project, Mavis freakin' Staples, and Wilco. Mavis was amazing, and Wilco played "Laminated Cat" electric with the full band - something I've been wanting to see since Nels joined the band approximately six years ago. Another Numero Group dance party and various shenanigans followed.
Sunday, the last day of the fest, was more low-key. We began the day at a local church's community pancake breakfast. While dishing up sausage and fluffy, delicious pancakes, the volunteers were eager to discuss Solid Sound. They were proud of the festival and enthusiastic about Wilco, though most had never heard of Wilco before the band took over their town. I hope all of us fans served as good ambassadors.
After running into Kristen Schaal in the gift shop and getting Paul's book signed at last, we settled in for our final day of music. The Deep Blue Organ Trio got things going in Courtyard A, and Outrageous Cherry's upbeat set followed in the next courtyard over. We visited the dunk tank, where our star pitcher Rob took down both soundman Stan and Mike Jorgensen - twice. The Nels Cline Singers provided a loud late-afternoon soundtrack in Courtyard C, before the gates opened for Jeff Tweedy's solo (+) performance. As the + in the festival billing hinted, Jeff brought up various guests to play with him that afternoon. We heard "Ingrid Bergman" with Nick Zammuto from The Books, "Look Out For My Love" with Avi Buffalo, and "Tennessee Porch Swing" with Sir Richard Bishop. "Dash 7" with Nels Cline sounded eerie and beautiful as a light drizzle began to fall. "It's Just That Simple" with The Autumn Defense had the crowd singing along with gusto. For the last songs, Jeff brought up the rest of Wilco (minus Glenn) for a six-man acoustic - and a little electric - jam.
In the end, it seemed everything fell into place and the fates smiled on this inaugural run of Solid Sound. Things could have gone badly if the days had been rainy - the indoor spaces weren't really equipped to handle a festival's worth of guests all at once - but the weather remained gorgeous up until Sunday afternoon. By the end of the Jeff's festival-culminating set the rain had arrived, but by then it just felt like a final flourish. I don't think it's too much of a leap to say that most people left North Adams hoping a new summer tradition had been born. To my surprise, I was one of them.