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A Civilized Affair

by Jeremy D. Goodwin on August 18, 2010

Solid Sound Festival
Mass MoCA, Aug. 13-15

Contemporary art: Wilco at the Solid Sound Festival. Photo by Martin Benjamin

Maybe it was seeing Jeff Tweedy plunge into the water of a carnival-style dunk tank, while wearing the heavy red suit he dons onstage when Wilco is in full ham-it-up, showman mode. Maybe it was watching a group of boys, none seeming more than 10 years old, utterly mesmerized as they elicited ear-piercing nonsense noise from Nels Cline’s guitar pedals. Or maybe it was the fresh-baked bread at the Vietnamese food vendor.

Whatever it was, at some point something happened to make it clear to me that the Wilco-organized (ahem, curated) Solid Sound Festival was destined to be a very unusual rock festival experience.

It seemed every element of the event was designed with the comfort and convenience of the attendee in mind, from the plentifully available water (ranging in price from free to a whopping $2 for a bottle refill), to the free parking, to the specially beefed-up wi-fi that enabled a flood of blissed-out tweets all weekend raving about the experience at #solidsound. Apparently, this is what happens when 5,000 music fans assemble for the concert of a major rock band and are treated like valued guests, rather than consumers to be prodded and gouged. Who knew?

The fans responded by being, well, polite. They were less prone to the hug-your-bro ethos and spontaneous yelps of approval typically engaged in by their brethren in the jam-band-festival world, but instead just took everything in calmly and casually, intent upon the details and quietly mouthing the words to the songs.

(Cline’s pedals, by the way, entered the picture via an interactive “installation” he designed in one of the galleries of Mass MoCA, the unlikely venue for the event, which turned out to be as important a contributor as any of the bands, Wilco included. Elsewhere, amid an epic exhibition of Sol LeWitt’s wall-sized drawings, Glenn Kotche set up at least a dozen majorly souped-up drum heads, miked and prepared with metal coils, dangling drumsticks, and other accouterments of experimentalism. Each musician turned up on schedule to lead an explanatory tour through his installation.)

Somehow, the Chicago-based Wilco created a scenario for not just a very well-run festival but a moving communion with its fans at a contemporary art gallery housed at the site of a 19th-century factory in the Berkshires. Wilco-heads who made the trip from elsewhere must have felt they had stumbled upon something strange and wonderful—seeing the band, and, on Sunday, Tweedy solo, on a stage framed by green, sloping Berkshire hills and the red brick of reappropriated urban grit. Other acts (and performance fare like Vermont’s boisterously subversive Bread and Puppet) played in the museum’s courtyards and its indoor Hunter Center. Festivalgoers wandered MoCa’s galleries, perhaps taking in a bit of Leonard Nimoy’s conceptual photography before downing a Magic Hat.

The sense of chillness oozed everywhere; the flip side was the lack of the high-pitched, manic sense of excitement and anticipation sometimes found at “event” shows. And so, about 10 rows of people from the main stage, one could choose to sit in a camping chair and not be stampeded by people filling every available inch of space, or have beer spilled on your blanket by marauding packs of whitecaps. It was a tradeoff, but it reflected the multigenerational, professional-leaning Wilco fan base—and a curious lack of pained hipsters as well.

It was a scene where R.E.M.’s Mike Mills could mill around and enjoy the festival after playing a set with the Baseball Project; where John Stirratt, Wilco’s founding bassist, could casually wait in line for coffee on Sunday afternoon; where a random fan could curtly tell Wilco multi- instrumentalist Pat Sansone to get out of the way of his toddler’s stroller (and live to tweet about it).

And, of course, it was also a place where you could pay $10 for three chances to throw a ball at a metal plate, and plunge the biggest rock star on the premises into a tank of water. Here in Wilco-land, it made perfect sense.