Wilco Rocks Mass MoCA

Weekend Long Solid Sound Festival

By: - Aug 14, 2010

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A couple of years ago Wilco blew the roof off of Tanglewood.

It was the first taste of the Berkshires for the Chicago based rock band.

Joe Thompson was there that night. As he told me hanging out in the Mass MoCA courtyard last night “They were awesome. What a powerful band. They’re the real deal.”

Some two and a half years of planning went into organizing the weekend long Solid Sound Festival which opened last night on a glorious summer evening.

“Their schedules were impossible” Thompson told me. “We thought we had it together last summer but it didn’t happen. We did have a big music event, on precisely this same weekend, but nothing on this scale and ambition.”

Pointing to the sky he said with a hallelujah “Thank heavens for National Grid. Without them this never would have happened.”

Thompson was referring to the property which abuts the boundary of the 17 acre Mass MoCA footprint that comprises the former Sprague Electric. An enormous effort has gone into creating what is bemusedly refered to as Joe Thompson Stadium or Joe’s Field. It sits on Mass MoCA land but faces the open space owned by National Grid. This has allowed for creating a facility to hold up to 7,000 fans in an open field setting. It entailed removing as well as creating fences to contain the area.

“We have had large outdoor concerts in the past in our courtyards” he said. “But in the event of rain there was the option to move indoors to the Hunter Center. For our largest concerts of the weekend on Saturday (tonight featuring Wilco) and on Sunday (Jeff Tweedy’s acoustic concert) the audience will be too large to have that option.

“This is the first time that we are selling rain or shine tickets” he said. “So we were asking fans to take a chance months ago by buying $95 weekend tickets. There has been a lot of risk taking involved.”

When introducing the band during a Friday afternoon press conference, attended by about 100 media representatives, he estimated that some 6,000 plus passes had been sold. We asked if he were pleased and comfortable with those numbers. The guarded answer was “Yes.” But he expressed concerns about security and management issues if the numbers reached the limit of 7,000.

The press conference was held in a gallery of the Sol LeWitt building. When it was over, and the space was filled with young rock fans new to a museum setting, Thompson was visibly nervous about protecting the walls from damage.

While the Solid Sound Festival is a great adventure and bold experiment there are many challenges involved. The entire North Adams community is both excited and thrilled to have this world class band and ambitious event but also holding its breath. I have been through enough festival riots, from Newport to Woodstock, the trashing of Harvard Square following a Janis Joplin concert at Harvard Stadium, and several Sly Stone riots to know what may happen.

If the mellow mood and good vibrations that prevailed last evening are any indication all will go smoothly for these next two days. One of the most interesting benefits of the event is that in addition to music, comedy and groups like Bread and Puppet Theatre the audience will have access to the museum and its exhibitions. This is a brilliant carrot to lure a young audience into a contemporary art museum. Particularly with the endorsement of Wilco it is such a wicked cool thing for kids to do. Check it out.

As Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy commented having the event in such a great museum is a whole lot more interesting than a rock festival in a corn field in Nebraska.

Of course Thompson and North Adams are keeping their fingers crossed that all goes smoothly. There was a lot of beer being poured last night, at five bucks a pop, but I didn’t smell any pot. Or anyone tripping, barfing and passing out. But we still have a couple of days.

I ran into a kid from Gloucester. That’s where my family comes from. I asked where he was staying. “Don’t know yet” he said. “We’re looking for a place to camp or crash.”

Been there done that.

Of course the big question is will Wilco come back next year? I asked Thompson that question twice. Once during the press conference and later when we were just hanging out and groovin’ on the vibes. I heard that Mass MoCA has a five year contract with Wilco. “No” he said. “Not true. We will wait and see how this goes.”

Which is the exact same answer that  Jeff Tweedy gave when I asked him. Also I asked why Mass MoCA was the only East Coast appearance this summer? They have done one other gig in South Bend, Indiana. “We have been touring so much, constantly, especially after the last album, that we just wanted to take some time off.” So is this a vacation I asked? He just smiled. Call it a bus man’s holiday.

It seems that the band had been intimately involved in all aspects of curating the festival. All of the music acts were chosen by Wilco. Including the local band The Books which gave a smashing performance in the packed Hunter Center last night. Over the weekend we will also hear the spinoff bands of the group in various permutations and combinations. Like last night Mikael Jorgensen, the keyboard player’s group Pronto which opened the festival in the Hunter Center.

The band was asked what they thought of North Adams and the Berkshires. “Warm” was the answer of one of two original members of Wilco, bass player, John Stirratt. We thought he was referring to the weather on a hot afternoon. But he clarified that he meant warm in the sense of friendly and welcoming. They all chimed in on the beauty of the Berkshires. In that sense it is not an arm twister to lure them back.

“The space itself made the festival make sense” Tweedy said. “The idea that this art museum is going to allow us to put on a three-day festival, that’s great. It’s an awesome art museum, so we will have a lot of stuff to look at. That’s better than having people come out to a field somewhere. We were excited that a place like this could have people like us.”

“It’s beautiful” John Stirratt the guitarist said. “There’s something about the topography, the hills and the mountains, I feel at home here.”

“It’s incredible. It’s just amazing to have what feels like a smaller, more isolated type of community that has a major art center as a part of its identity. That’s awesome and that’s exciting. Unfortunately, it’s not very common. We’ve been super impressed from day one.”

With so much going on during high season in the Berkshires it has been tough to drop in the Wilco weekend to an already insane schedule. During the morning I met with the artistic team of the rock musical The Last Goodbye at Williamstown Theatre Festival. From there I headed straight to Mass MoCA hoping to be able to park and pick up tickets.

In the early afternoon it was still quiet. The calm before the storm.

Richard Criddle, the chief of the installation crew of the museum described the three ring circus atmosphere. “During intermission the trapeze artist is selling peanuts at the concession stand. We have been flat out.”

One nice touch is that Criddle and his crew had reconfigured the famous Mass MoCA letters that sit on the roof of a building and mark the sky line. The roof now also spells out Wilco.

Doing some last minute chores at home we arrived for the 4:30 press conference. It was intense and lasted about a half hour. We wandered about and checked out the exhibition of Polaroid shots by Patrick Sansone of Wilco. He had been absent from the press conference. There was a drum sculpture installation by band member Glen Kotche in the LeWitt building. He was also scheduled to arrive later.

We departed for dinner at one of our favorite spots Red Sauce. The owner chef was taking a breather when we arrived. We asked but they had no extra reservations that night. It is mostly a popular restaurant with locals. Doesn’t get much tourist traffic. But they wanted to know all about Wilco.

It was surprising when we found on street parking close to Mass MoCA. That won’t be true when we return today.

We found good seats in the Hunter Center and waited for the 8 PM start of Pronto. By then the space was packed.

But the band sucked, Particularly the dreadful vocals of Mickael Johansen. He was a late full time member of Wilco. Started as a techie and moved his way into playing keyboards. Pronto is his vanity project one of several by band members. Give it up dude. You can’t sing and the music is just boring.

Having endured about 45 mindless and enervating minutes it was time for a beer on the patio. We found some chairs and joined Criddle and his wife the artist Debora Coombs as well as Mass MoCA curator, Denise Markonish and Williams curator John Stomberg. They were discussing her project for an exhibition of Canadian art. She hopes to complete about 400 studio visits in every province of Canada. Sounds exciting and super ambitious.

It was such a gorgeous evening and we opted to wander around the courtyard where a lot was going on. On the stage of Courtyard C there was  jazzy funk being laid down by the Deep Blue Organ Trio.

We ran into a lot of friends and neighbors. Eric and Barbara Rudd were enjoying the event. No, Eric was ecstatic. It seems that Mass MoCA is finally flourishing into the vision that drew them to the area some 20 years ago. For a lot of us it’s been a long time coming. City Councilor Lisa Blackmer and her husband Bill were out and about. We chatted with gallerists Matt Belanger and Marianne Petit of Greylock Arts.

Hanging with Joe Thompson I asked how many had come that night? Looking about it seemed packed. By then it was about 9:30 and he told me that as of a half hour prior the gate was about 1,600 for the evening. Well short of the throng anticipated today but a great turnout for a glorious evening.

We headed into the Hunter Center for the set by The Books who went on at 10. Stomberg is a huge fan. All the seats were taken so we stood up front. We spotted former Whitney Museum Director, David Ross, in the stands.

After the mediocre and enervating music for most of the evening The Books were just terrific. They got a huge ovation when they opened by stating “It’s good to be playing in our home town.” The Books are an American folktronica duo, formed in New York City in 1999, consisting of guitarist and vocalist Nick Zammuto and cellist Paul de Jong. Their releases typically incorporate samples of obscure sounds and speech. They have released three critically-acclaimed albums on the German label Tomlab, and recently released their fourth studio album, The Way Out, on Temporary Residence Limited.

Zammuto is a graduate of Williams College which is an impetus of why they settled here. He pointed to a mountain and said “We made our first album there.” Then pointed to another, and another, and finally over that one indicating where their various albums were produced. They also introduced a third musician who has started to play with them. I didn’t catch the name and tried to look it up on line. “He can play anything” they said and indeed he is a perfect match with the duo.

The music of The Books is so unique, subdued, nuanced and fascinating. That combined with terrific and insightful lyrics. But the music is just half of what they do. Behind them were video projections that coordinate with the songs. Many of the individuals in the first video were North Adams friends and neighbors. It was a hoot to see Jane Hudson who is herself a video artist.

It was a fitting ending to a magnificent evening. More today and tomorrow.