Solid Sound Festival | Massachusetts | Review

By: Jack Deming

Solid Sound Festival :: 06.24.11-06.26.11 :: MASS MoCa :: North Adams, Massachusetts

Wilco by Jeb Barry
Next to a flood canal, over some railroad tracks, and packed into Sprague’s old capacitor factory grounds, the second year of Solid Sound Festival (or Wilco-fest to some) was three days of music, art, and occasional stalemates with Mother Nature. MASS MoCa was the host again this year, with two stages in their easily navigated courtyards, and one larger stage shadowing Joe’s Field. Upwards of 6,000 would eventually squeeze in over the weekend to see Wilco and their friends.

Wilco, Solid Sound’s curators, have turned North Adams, a city caught between the failure of industry and the influx of art in Northern Berkshire County, into what frontman Jeff Tweedy describes as “one tentacle of their international operations.” For the past few years, Wilco has been on cruise-control. With an ever upward attitude, Wilco has created their own style of music, their own record label, and of course, their own festival.

The variety of Solid Sound is what separates this event from others, including food from African cuisine to hot dogs, Lagunitas and Goose Island on tap, and one of the largest contemporary arts museums in the country, open for all to explore in addition to the music. North Adams is a happening place when Wilco comes to town, and the small town feel is an endearing touch to the strong arts community that has assimilated there over the years. In just two years of Solid Sound, the growth of the festival is visible with bigger acts and better organization. Much of the credit is due to Wilco’s ability to assemble the widest array of musical styles, creating one of the most unique festival lineups around. Choices like the dark, country sound of Handsome Family, the soul of Syl Johnson, and the indie-prog rock of Here We Go Magic make up a unique blend of new mixed with old. You never know what’s going to roll over the Berkshire Hills, and Mother Nature’s inability to hold up made for at times a soaked and muddy affair. But all things considered, you have to hand it to the Wilco fans. There’s no way of categorizing them, and there’s no way of raining on their parade…or festival!

Wilco @ Solid Sound Fest ’11 from Facebook
Wilco - Nights One & Two - Joe’s Field

Wilco’s first set was delayed by 20 minutes while a rainstorm of biblical proportions rolled through Joe’s Field. However, this night would turn out to be the far more superior of the two sets Wilco graced us with. “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” teased the crowd as Wilco made their way onstage. Glenn Kotche kicked out the opening of “Heavy Metal Drummer,” and the energy never floated away after that.

Nels Cline was in expected top notch form, providing his notorious zeal as he unleashed solos on songs like “Hummingbird” and “Impossible Germany.” Wilco had to deal with the elements as well, as lightning knocked out power to the stage for one brief moment of collective breath holding. But hark! The clouds rolled away and the “Handshake Drugs” kicked in as the crowd sang with Tweedy over the sound of a passing freight train next to the field.

Wilco’s lighting department never fails as each night had a new scheme. The first night featured projections and lights entwined in cloth draped from the rafters, while the second night featured upside down lamps hanging above the stage. Wilco seems to enjoy taking advantage of visual elements to emphasize and glorify their stage presence. Setlist management, too, was pivotal to each night’s performance, and a good balance was struck for two unique nights. Each night included a mix of new songs as well as some never played before. But, it was classic Wilco songs that highlighted each night. “Via Chicago‘s” beauty captivated night one, and “Spiders,” “What Light” and “Jesus Etc.” highlighted a night two that at times seemed flat before blowing us away with a four song encore.

Purling Hiss by Tiffany Yoon
Purling Hiss - Courtyard D

Purling Hiss is a band I had never heard before, as the case may be for many others. But wow, this Philly-based power trio cracked open Solid Sound with a face-full of guitar-oriented distortion blasted across Courtyard D. When it comes down to it, all that can be said about Purling Hiss is that they pump out good old fashioned power rock mixing up post- punk and Crazy Horse grunge (Rust Never Sleeps kind of stuff) and seem to find some common ground between these poles.

Mike Polizze is the center of attention on stage, while rumbling drums and a groaning style of bass provide a loose, chugging foundation for each solo screaming louder than the last. Polizze’s guitar playing is a nasty, start -to- finish full sound that has elements from Dickey Betts to Bruce Springsteen to Clapton to Mike Campbell. Purling Hiss provided a spark opening this festival, representing the first in a series of groups that are up and coming raw talent looking for fans.

Day 2

Thurston Moore by Jeb Barry
Thurston Moore - Courtyard D

Thurston Moore took top spot for Day Two, bringing an acoustic group he called Demolished Thoughts to Solid Sound for what would be one of the most beautiful, and powerful performances of the weekend. With his hair drooping messily over his face, Thurston led a band that included a harp player and violin player, essential to his chaotically constructed buildups that dominated each song.

With such a commanding prescience and attention to the dark detail of each tune, Moore played “January,” a song about July oddly enough, “Benediction,” his most beautiful effort, and a crowd rousing rendition of “Trees Outside The Academy.” Samara Lubelski’s violin is possibly the greatest addition to Thurston Moore’s acoustic sound, as its eerie presence meets Moore’s guitar stylings on every note. As Moore checked his cell phone for texts, he told us about being called Opie as a kid for his resemblance to the Andy Griffith character. “Blood Never Lies” ensued with a special dedication to Ron Howard.

Thurston Moore proved once again how revolutionary he and his music can be while still carrying a post-punk feel. This time he did it acoustically. I could find no flaws with Thurston Moore on Saturday, and as he walked off stage the lightning seemed to roll in on cue.

Here We Go Magic - Courtyard C

With a shirt straight out of Margaritaville and a alternative pop sound from Brooklyn, Luke Temple and Here We Go Magic laid out electronic textures, singing on top of singing, and a dizzying amount of chaos that all seemed to crash together over simple drum beats into some new realm of ambient experimentation. At times it sounds like Talking Heads and at others Radiohead, but you just can’t put a finger on it. “Collector,” from their latest release Pigeons, is a prime example: Temple sings his “I got a mild fascination” chorus over the muttering of bassist Jen Turner and keyboardist Kristina Lieberson. Quite frankly, I love what these folks do. They really have created a sound that you just cannot understand, even hard at times to concentrate on due to the collected chaos of so many voices and sounds being molded together. But this sound is constructed so perfectly that the finished product is something fascinating - everything just comes together and makes sense. It’s a meeting of psychedelic pop and alternative indie-trance, and it is refreshing to the senses.

Handsome Family by Jeb Barry
Handsome Family - Courtyard C

The country stylings of husband and wife duo Handsome Family seemed to fit in perfectly at Solid Sound, helping to round out the representation of all genres. Chicago-based Rennie and Brett Sparks brought out their dark ballads of folk, murder, and being drunk on Christmas, providing a sequence of haunting songs with a sound comparable only to Johnny Cash’s American recordings, accompanied by lyrics that meet somewhere between Robert Hunter and Warren Zevon. While it was homely country music at its finest with banjos, guitars, and breaks featuring husband and wife banter, the vocal harmonies were the highlight of this “Family” music. Brett’s voice has that soaked- in-bourbon quality a la Tom Waits, matching well with Rennie’s lovely Emmylou Harris-esque style, making for fantastic performances of songs about coffee, suicide and the Wisconsin window Smasher of 1913. A fairytale feel to Rennie’s lyrics brings one back to primitive times of personal and world madness, and Brett’s mild mannered singing rumbles from under his beard to take you back in time.

Day 3

Levon Helm & His Rambling Band – Joe’s Field

Sunday night, Jeff Tweedy introduced the highlight of the weekend, Levon Helm. Since his voice was nothing more than a hoarse croak, Levon only occasionally belted out a few lines. Bandleader and guitarist Larry Campbell took over the majority of singing duties with help from Helm’s daughter Amy and Campbell’s wife Teresa Williams. Levon was in his naturally top form on drums, still the best at what he does and not missing a beat with his unrepeatable style that sounds just as perfect as it did in the basement of Big Pink.

Levon Helm by Jeb Barry
His band acts like a big happy family onstage, constantly communicating through their set as they play along with a legend of musical Americana. If a song is killer (and all were) Levon lets them know by clapping along with the audience. A horn section, stand -up bass and Hammond B3 Organ (played by Gov’t Mule’s Danny Louis, filling in for the absent Brian Mitchell) accentuated that classic Band sound to match with Campbell’s superb rock n’ roll guitar work.

A great mix of American music is fused into Levon’s lineup as the Rambling Band plays anything from Bob Dylan’s “Going to Acapulco” to a chilling acoustic rendition of Jerry Garcia’s ballad “Attics Of My Life.” These are mixed, of course, with Band classics like “Wheel’s On Fire,” “Look Out Cleveland” and “Ophelia.” Levon’s warm demeanor shined through his never-ending smile and patriarchal demeanor. As we screamed out his name, on occasion, he would turn around in his stool and thank us with a smile, a stare, and a salute.

The greatest single moment of Solid Sound Festival was the entirety of Wilco joining Levon and his band for “I Shall Be Released” and “The Weight.” The former brought tears to many eyes, and left us arm in arm, swaying and screaming along. Tweedy even attempted a Richard Manuel falsetto for the last verse much to everyone‘s amusement and approval.

And oh yes, the finishing touch! “The Weight” ended all festivities with Levon belting out the “Go down, Moses” verse to a roar of audience appreciation. Levon is one of the last survivors of a musical form that got to the root of the human experience, and Wilco is among the few bands that carry that torch. Solid Sound has become their template for just that.

JC Brooks by Jeb Barry
JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound – Courtyard D

This guy JC Brooks was the best small name act Wilco booked for their festival. Take James Brown, Little Richard and Tower of Power, all wrapped up in one, and you have JC Brooks. The man is keeping Motown alive, fresh and young with his style. As a performer, the man is dynamite, strutting along the stage with an unstoppable surge of energy running through him, telling the crowd how it is.

Original songs like “Baltimore is the New Brooklyn” and “75 Years of Art Sex” showed great musical depth from his energetic and crescent fresh Chicago-based band, and a cover of Wilco’s “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” featured a surprise appearance from Tweedy. An unsuspecting Brooks was so shocked he spun around and fell flat on his back. When he found his legs again, the two of them belted out the funkiest version you’ve ever heard. The raw power of Chicago soul rolls through these guys like you wouldn’t believe.

Pillow Wand - Courtyard D

The program had these guys billed as a “Face Melting Guitar Duo,” and no description but this could have sufficed. It’s hard to explain what happened on that stage, but think about it this way: Nels Cline and Thurston Moore join together for the first time in 13 years and experiment with guitars for an hour straight. What ensued was the most amazing conglomeration of 12-stringed madness ever heard. Experimental is the keyword as these two drove us into a trance of exploratory sounds using their fingers, tools and electronics to mesmerize all lucky enough to experience this strange and wonderful moment. “It was beautiful, organized sound chaos,” my friend Jason Peabody explained, “just a transformative experience.”

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[Published on: 7/6/11]

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