Most of the people that packed MASS MoCA’s Joe’s Field on Saturday night bore a striking resemblance to drowned rats, and yet you couldn’t have found a happier bunch anywhere. The sight had a real effect on Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. “Thanks for standing out in the rain all day,” he told us, adding in amazement, “Such a great attitude!”
It’s true, the weather hadn’t been cooperating. Rain started bucketing down just before Wilco’s Friday night set, causing a 20-minute delay that was admirably filled by an impromptu comedy routine from John Hodgman (curator of this year’s Comedy Cabaret) and Justin Long, Hodgman’s partner from the “Mac/PC” commercials. But literally a minute before Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion were scheduled to kick off Day Two of Solid Sound 2011, the sun burst out from behind the clouds, followed by sterling blue skies. I attributed this change to the umbrella I carried in my overstuffed backpack. I hold that kind of power, after all.
Guthrie describes the songwriting duties in her life relationship as “80/20 Johnny/Me.” But the songs the duo plays have lyrical depth and unquestionable integrity, so in that sense, Guthrie is definitely her father’s child. That said, the alt-folk/country/rock sound that sailed around Courtyard C is firmly rooted in this generation of music; “Brightly Dark” sounds like a contradiction, but it fits as a description for tunes like “Target on Your Heart” and “Speed of Light.” Irion is unwittingly frightening in that he is a right-down-to-the-sideburns dead ringer for Neil Young – not just in looks, but in his slashing guitar lines and howling harp. Thankfully, he doesn’t sing like Neil, so we got harmonies from Irion and Guthrie that simply soared, all of them buoyed by Radolslav Lorkavic’s outstanding keyboard work.
At most festivals, if one of the acts is not your cup of espresso, your options pretty much begin and end with “walking around looking at t-shirt vendors.” Needless to say, it’s a bit different at MASS MoCA. Also, the proximity of the stages allows you to hear any surprises while you walk through galleries filled with things designed to twist your head around. If you go to next year’s Solid Sound, don’t ignore the galleries in favor of the stages. Greg Haymes caught the tail end of Glenn Kotche’s drum demonstration in Sol Lewitt’s maze of murals, and I accidentally came upon Guthrie & Irion doing an impromptu acoustic set in the middle of the main gallery, using the high-ceilinged room’s acoustics to make a sing-along even more ghostly.
The gallery that houses Katharina Grosse’s mega-installation “One Floor Up More Highly” has a giant garage door in the middle of it, and MASS MoCA rolled it up so gallery-goers could watch Liam Finn tear up Courtyard D. Finn’s primarily been a solo performer, using a guitar and a loop machine to give him the background he needs. He brought drummer/brother Elroy Finn and bassist Jolyon Mulholland to MASS MoCA, and to say this freed Liam up would be a colossal understatement. He literally flew around the stage, whether he was just singing, playing guitar, or pounding the second drum kit that Glenn Kotche guested on for “Second Chance” in mid-set. He went Iggy Pop wild, and that’s not journalistic hyperbole.
After the show, a girl in a pink Red Sox cap told me, “(Liam’s) father was standing next to me. He called Liam ‘visceral!’” I wanted to tell her she’d been standing next to Crowded House/Split Enz founder Neil Finn, but I was deathly afraid she’d say “Who?”
The rain returned at the tail end of Here We Go Magic’s set, and once again, it came in torrents. This made the lobby and Courtyard C’s open-air bar/restaurant a tad congested. MASS MoCA can handle over 5,000 people at once, but the math only works if most of them are outside. The thing is, though, many of them did stay outside! The front of the Courtyard D stage was packed as Jamie Lidell (who looks like Peter Wolf and sings like Jay Kay) thrilled us all with a soulful version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Courtyard C was a mosaic of multi-colored slickers as Dave Douglas’ Brass Ecstacy kept knocking us out with everything from a horn-centric take on Tweedy’s “You Are Not Alone” to one of the trippiest versions ever of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.”
No stranger to major festivals, Douglas was completely sincere when he said how honored he was to be on the bill. The thing is, we all felt that way! A weekend of acts chosen entirely by musicians – not by promoters or “industry people” – in an art gallery in the Berkshires seemed an almost whimsical concept last year, and at the end of the day, it worked… but could it work again? In a word: “HELL YES!” I’ve been to theme parks that weren’t as family-friendly as Solid Sound, and I saw enough kissing couples over the course of the day to make three E-Harmony commercials. Joe’s Field wasn’t mud as much as it was quicksand by the time Chicago legend Syl Johnson & the Sweet Divines took the stage, but you couldn’t have blown this crowd out with dynamite.
It goes back to what Tweedy said about “attitude.” Solid Sound is not a bunch of people rocking out in the middle of a field. It is literally special, and completely one of a kind. Just ask the five or six generations of concertgoers who were in attendance, down to the month’s-old infant wearing huge noise-deadening headphones during Wilco’s closing set. I’ve been going to concerts for over 30 years, and I’ve never had an experience like Solid Sound. It didn’t even matter that I needed to use my umbrella… although I’m really glad I brought it.
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Matt Mac Haffie
LIVE: Solid Sound Festival @ MASS MoCA, Day One, 6/24/11
WILCO SET LIST
I Love My Label (Nick Lowe)
Dawned On Me (new song; live debut)
A Shot in the Arm
Side With the Seeds
Company In My Back
War On War
At Least That’s What You Said
It’s Just That Simple
Can’t Stand It
??? (new song; live debut)
Jesus, Etc. (crowd singalong)
Box Full Of Letters
Hate It Here
You Never Know (with Liam Finn on electric guitar and vocals)
The Late Greats
Heavy Metal Drummer
California Stars (with Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion on vocals)
Airline To Heaven
Outtasite (Outta Mind)