The band’s carefully curated mix of visual art and music elevated both forms, while the only bad note was Mac DeMarco’s half-hearted slacker shtick
Monday 29 June 2015 15.38 EDT
Is Solid Sound a music festival that takes place in an art exhibition or an art exhibition that takes place at a music festival?
The answer is both. The three-day festival, which ended Sunday at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA), in North Adams, is helping redefine the outdoor summer music experience by pairing it with visual art installations and other activities that allow the mind to wander through limitless discoveries.
Because the event takes place on the sprawling campus of an early 19th-century textile mill, festivalgoers were encouraged to break from the music to cross steel bridges and catwalks, gather in courtyards, explore hidden nooks, and roam hallways where their curiosity was more often than not rewarded with video installations, large-scale canvases, installations, workshops and performances ranging from improvisational comedy from Daily Show regulars to poetry readings inside an Airstream trailer perched above the mill’s former boiler room.
The event is a biennial partnership between the museum and the Chicago band Wilco, which marked its 20th anniversary last year. Here is a band that uses its past to unite loyal fans – “a cult following”, joked leader Jeff Tweedy on Sunday – but it also stepped beyond its catalog of songs to point followers in dozens of directions that are tangentially connected to different phases of the band’s career.
There were the Felice Brothers, a country-rock band of siblings from upstate New York who approximate the communal joy of the Band. On Sunday, lead vocals were shared among four of the musicians, who brought both literary heft and ragged soul to their music. Cibo Matto, also from New York, played electronic dance punk on Saturday that featured buzzing guitar solos from Wilco’s Nels Cline. Richard Thompson, the British folk-rock veteran, offered mostly new songs from an album Tweedy produced. Performed with bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome, the songs were lean and with sudden and sharp twists in the music. On Guitar Heroes, Thompson summoned to life masters such as Django Reinhardt and Chuck Berry by channelling their riffs.
There was also room for the seductively strange: a Saturday afternoon collaboration between banjo/fiddle player Sam Amidon and veteran guitar experimentalist Bill Frisell fused folk ballads and electronic loops. For Short Life, both their instruments gently talked with each other until a pause when Amidon opened his mouth and unleashed several bird squawks that jolted the music into a jig.
This was a festival where the music got the mind moving, but NRBQ, the longtime roadhouse band now helmed by Terry Adams, gave all those feet a workout too. Wild-eyed and charming, Adams is an infectious showman. A two-man horn section, coupled with the chugging guitar of Scott Ligon, kept the boogie hot until the only room to breathe came when the musicians left the stage.
The festival’s single misstep was Mac DeMarco, a Canadian singer-songwriter who, along with his band, stumbled his way Saturday through a rambling set of inside jokes and half-baked songs. Watching their set was like eavesdropping on a group of stoners snickering in the basement, where every observation was considered a stroke of pure genius except, well, it wasn’t.
Heavy rain was forecast for the weekend but it never came. During bouts of light sprinkling, concertgoers headed for the galleries of Mass MoCA to move through a maze of art exhibits that commanded gestures as tall and wide as the industrial-sized spaces that housed them. One hangar featured a village of tents by Francesco Clemente that were draped in a camouflage of words and symbols suggesting primitive cults, holy shrines and sinister tales. Another hall opened to different works by surrealist Jim Shaw, who presented alternate histories of familiar superheroes, introducing hidden vulnerability against a backdrop of religious iconography. In one room, viewers walked through forest scenes showing Superman crippled over a rock of Kryptonite or falling from the sky; in another a dark cavern was transformed into a nativity scene featuring three life-size garden gnomes kneeling before a crib featuring a glowing orange jewel.
Up one set of stairs was a black chamber, two levels tall, which premiered Eclipse, an animated installation and soundscape by Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris that commemorated the demise of the passenger pigeon. Soon, onlookers had no choice but to crane back their necks as thousands of white birds rushed in a river above their heads.
Wilco musicians appeared throughout the weekend both in small rooms showcasing personal work and on the main outdoor stage where the band performed two headlining sets over two nights, the first acoustic and the second electric. The solo sets allowed concertgoers to watch each musician following his obsessions: keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen performed pulsing synthesizer music to a film of a mountainous train journey; guitarist Nels Cline played alongside a dance troupe, drummer Glenn Kotche paired with cellist Jeffrey Zeigler and orchestrated a group rhythm project; while bassist John Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone of Autumn Defense collaborated with Australian quintet the Windy Hills.
Along with the usual rock fans, a significant segment of the audience consisted of families with young children, which was appropriate as many of the bands shared familial ties as well – particularly Tweedy, which featured Jeff Tweedy, his teenage son Spencer on drums and two of his childhood friends on vocals and keyboards. Together they closed the weekend with a two-hour set of new songs, with guest cameos.
This was not your typical anthemic finale. Instead, Tweedy called musicians from the wings to join him in performing almost an hour of rotating covers (from Madonna and Neil Young to John Prine and Tweedy’s old band Uncle Tupelo). Most memorable was his version of John Lennon’s God, a song with references so tailored to a previous time and a particular songwriter it could have sounded dated or clumsy.
Instead, as dusk fell, the song’s powerful mantra of personal liberation pushed through, capping a weekend where exotic voices testified and were received loud and clear.