MASS MoCA Welcomes Wilco: Fans Frolic at the Solid Sound Festival 2013
By Robert Burke Warren and Holly George-Warren
The hills are alive. The hills of North Adams, Massachusetts, to be precise, where on the weekend of June 21–23, MASS MoCA, the largest center for contemporary art in the U.S., hosts the third Solid Sound Festival, curated by the multi-Grammy-winning sextet Wilco. Conceived by the band and MASS MoCA, this gathering is a smaller-scale alternative to mega-fests like Bonnaroo, Glastonbury, and Lollapalooza. Solid Sound 2013 features Wilco, the band’s various side projects, Yo La Tengo, Medeski Martin & Wood, Low, Lucius, Neko Case, psychedelic tropicalia band Os Mutantes, and the only scheduled U.S. performance of the recently reunited Dream Syndicate. Also, comedians Al Madrigal, Jen Kirkman, Reggie Watts, and John Hodgman bring the laughs to the comedy tent.
In contrast to the usual festival experience, Solid Sound Fests 2010 and 2011 were laid-back and intimate, somewhat like a quirky country fair. The MASS MoCA complex, an impeccably refurbished, sprawling 19th century textile mill, transforms into an “art city,” with campgrounds, local food, and plenty of room to breathe. After going on hiatus last year, Solid Sound is slightly bigger than ever, but still easily navigable, family-friendly, and interactive; in addition to checking out bands, attendees can also enjoy many “please touch” installations – like Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche’s hands-on “Earth Drums” exhibit – plus a birding walk, post-concert guided stargazing, an off-site naturalist hike, and a make-your-own musical instrument and jam session for kids.
Solid Sound co-founder and Wilco bassist John Stirratt says the band hatched the idea for the festival while on tour. “The English have started this fantastic small festival thing,” he says. “We played Green Man in Wales, and End of the Road in Essex. They’re incredibly well curated, the food is great; they imply a slightly older audience, a little more kid-friendly, not a blockbuster situation, not Lollapalooza, where there’s a million 17 year olds. I live in Chicago, so I can go to Lollapalooza for a day, but it can be a rough hang, walking a mile between stages.”
Dream Syndicate front man Steve Wynn, who played the first Solid Sound with his side gig The Baseball Project, says, “You can tell it was put together by musicians to be relaxed and cool for both the audience and the performers. You don’t feel like you’re just being processed through the turnstile. Everybody is approachable, it’s very hands-on, you see all the bands hanging out during the day. It’s not so big that you have to be shuffled off by helicopter.”
Like Stirratt and Wynn, John Medeski, of Medeski, Martin & Wood, is looking forward as much to witnessing and partaking as he is to playing. “A festival gives the audience the opportunity to experience music they haven’t heard before and might not have gone to see,” he says. “It’s a really good way to get a general idea of what’s going on out there. For a band performing, the best thing is the energy that can be created at a festival. Something happens when you don’t have all day to prepare, and sound check, and get everything set up just right. You’re out of the comfort zone, which we thrive on. So many things can and do go wrong, and that forces the musicians to tap into a different level of connection in order to get through the performance.”
Similarly, MASS MoCA director Joe Thompson embraces the unpredictable. He works closely with Wilco to shape a festival simpatico with the museum’s modus operandi. “We like to make new work here,” he says. “The best work we show here is made on site. Artists often arrive not quite knowing what final form that work will take. There’s that vibe in this festival.”
Stirratt agrees. “The real nature of Solid Sound is determined by the people that come,” he says. “The fans do so much. They take a real active role in celebrating it, being at ease, and having fun and making it a cool situation.”
This year, Wilco has even given fans a chance to craft a set list via emailed suggestions for Friday night’s performance, calling it the “Request Show.” For encores they’ll re-create Johnny Carson’s “Stump the Band” bit from The Tonight Show, with John Hodgman moderating. The Solid Sound website reads, “This is the first-ever all-request concert by Wilco. It may also be the last.” The same can’t be said for the Solid Sound Festival, which, clearly, has just begun.
Solid Sound Festival
87 Marshall Street
North Adams, MA
Festival Pass - Adults: $149.00, kids age 7-10: $50.00
Children 6 and under are free
Single-day tickets for Friday, June 21 and Sunday, June 23 are $65
Single day tickets for Saturday, June 22 are sold out