Last weekend, the family and I headed to MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) in North Adams for Solid Sound, the music and arts festival curated by Wilco. We loved it, every bit of it, because Solid Sound was easily the best-run festival we’ve ever attended. And it’s all the more impressive because the weather dampened just about everything but the crowd’s spirits.
North Adams sits at the foot of the Berkshire Mountains, an old mill town with a population of about 13,000. After losing the last of its manufacturing base in the 1980s, the depressed town staked its future on contemporary art, and MASS MoCA opened in 1999 in a sprawling industrial complex that was once home to Sprague Electric and Arnold Print Works. It was the perfect spot for an arts festival, with more than 100,000 square feet of gallery space, courtyards for music, an indoor auditorium, lots of nooks and crannies to explore, and a huge field for the main stage.
It’s basically in the middle of nowhere, and that isolation turned out to be a plus, because you really have to want to attend Solid Sound. As a result, the crowd was comprised entirely of devoted music and art fans, not folks who were looking to get wasted and/or laid. In fact, I didn’t see any drunkenness or belligerence at all, which was amazing for a group of 10,000 people over the course of a few days and nights.
We took a shuttle from one of the satellite parking lots, met a clutch of smiling and helpful volunteers at the site, and started exploring. The next 48 hours were a blur of amazing music—R&B great Syl Johnson, retro-soul upstarts JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, rock legend Levon Helm, trumpeter Dave Douglas & Brass Ecstasy, and Wilco’s Saturday night set were among the highlights—laughs (comedy performances were curated by John Hodgman), oohs and aahs at the large-scale art (the Nari Ward and Sol LeWitt shows were truly awesome), unexpected delights (the kids played a Jell-O keyboard!), record shopping (picked up the new Wilco 45 and an out-of-print Randy Weston CD), falconry (that’s right, a demo with live raptors), delicious food (Indian, Thai, hot dogs, etc), and really nice people (working and attending).
When it rained, there was plenty to do inside with lots of room to spread out and relax. The folks who put this thing together seemed to think of everything—there was even an area designated for pregnant women. In fact, I can’t imagine how Solid Sound could get any better, but I bet its organizers will. And I hope to be there next year to see what they come up with.
[photos: John Lewis]