Friday the 13th is bad luck?
Not if you were a music fan at MASS MoCA. It was the kick-off of the three-day music and art fest organized by eclectic rockers Wilco and the massive North Adams museum.
It wasn’t a big flashy opening. It was more like a dipping-your-toes-in-to-test-the-water opening. Just three bands – Pronto, the Deep Blue Organ Trio and hometown heroes the Books – but it certainly gave you a good idea of what to expect as the rest of the fest unfolded over the weekend.
Although the bands didn’t officially start until 8pm, the first volley of music at the fest took place at 6:50pm out in the museum’s parking lot, where the white-clad members of the Bread & Puppet Theatre band cut loose with a rousing brass band rendition of the classic “Red River Valley.”
Afterwards, the band and some stilt-walking members of the agit-prop theater company paraded over to the museum entrance to serenade festival-goers on their way into the bash with ragged but rousing renditions of such tunes as “Hold That Tiger” and “St. James Infirmary.”
Wilco keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen and his side-project band Pronto launched the fest proper with a diverse set in the Hunter Center. They were the first of the many Wilco off-shoot bands that were scheduled to perform throughout the weekend’s fest.
In near darkness onstage, the new line-up of Pronto – featuring drummer Greg O’Keefe, bassist Adam Chilenski and keyboardist Jared Samuel, in addition to keyboardist-guitarist-vocalist Jorgensen – eased into their set with a captivating ambient-glitch opener which developed into a chugging, trance-inducing instrumental.
Another instrumental showcased some old-school new wave influences chockful of buzzing, shimmering Gary Numan-like synth riffs. It was captivating stuff.
When Jorgensen leaned into the microphone, however, it seemed as though the most intriguing elements of the band’s music faded into the background. Not that Jorgensen is a bad singer. Not at all. It’s just that the songs sounded surprising ordinary, and the band’s sound lacked the instrumental uniqueness of their opening numbers.
The Deep Blue Organ Trio was the real deal. The veteran Chicago threesome has been pumping out the time-honored organ trio sound for a decade now, and they’ve got it down cold. Led by Hammond B3 organist Chris Foreman, the jazz-blues band also features guitarist Bobby Broom and drummer Greg Rockingham.
Blind since birth, Foreman leaned into the keys and wailed through Victor Feldman’s “The Chant” to open their set outdoors in Courtyard C. Broom added just enough of a modern jazz edge to occasionally swing the sound into the present day – especially on a magnificent ballad rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” – without abandoning the classic organ trio sound. And Rockingham was right in the pocket, holding it all together with a repertoire that stretched from the old Benny Goodman hit, “These Foolish Things,” to the percolating funk of the Ohio Players’ “Sweet Sticky Thing.” Quite simply, one of the best bands of the whole fest.
North Adams’ own the Books anchored the Friday night line-up with a headlining set back in the Hunter Center. Unfortunately, by that time, the festival audience had grown to a size considerably beyond the Hunter’s capacity. Despite the overcrowding and over-heating of the Hunter, the fans were clearly thrilled to cheer on the heady hometown favorites.
The Books are a smart duo with Paul de Jong on electric cello and Nick Zammuto on guitar and vocals. On Friday night, they were augmented by multi-instrumentalist Gene (anybody got a last name?) on bass, guitar, keyboards and violin.
Video is a crucial component to the experimental band’s performance, but by the time we squeezed into the Hunter, we were left with only two choices – stand in the back where we could see the video screen but not the band (who were seated) or stand up front and watch the band, but not see the video screen. We tried both options and preferred the band to the video.
They opened with “Group Autogenics,” a wryly humorous, somewhat surreal slice of hypno-therapy from their brand new album, “The Way Out.” But they also dipped into their catalog for intriguing takes on “Be Good to Them Always,” the almost baroque “That Right Ain’t Shit” and “Take Time.”
And finally, the Numero Group held court in the courtyard DJing and VJing at the end of the night for those who wanted to keep the party going…or just chill out a bit before heading home.
Photos by Mike Wren
Perfect weather. Great music. In a thoroughly intriguing setting. The Solid Sound Festival couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.
Reviews of Day Two (Wilco, Mavis Staples, more) and Day Three (Jeff Tweedy, the Nels Cline Singers, more) are coming soon with lots of photos. Stay tuned…