The first festival-scale concert I ever attended was a country-and-bluegrass gathering in the late ’70s when I was but a sprout. My uncle, a young and struggling Hollywood screenwriter, had flown back east specifically to attend the multi-day traditional-music event, which was only the first thing that confused me about the whole affair. There were no circuits in my pre-teen mind that would comfortably conduct the “come back from Hollywood” signal. To begin with: To the extent that I had any focused vision of Los Angeles, it was as a status rather than as a geographical point. Why someone would achieve that goal – whatever the realities of pizza-delivery second jobs and a half-dozen roommates might be – and then return for a sprawling East Coast field of nobodies listening to, of all things, bluegrass was beyond me.
My musical tastes at the time were, unbeknownst to me, leading to a deep appreciation of American traditional music; but my relationship to my parents’ collection of folk-influenced pop records – Rubber Soul, Deja Vu, Sweet Baby James, Life and Times, etc. – was, though foundational, shallow, and it in no way prepared me for the seizure-speed mandolin, the frenetic high-end filigree of fiddle, the fluid babble of finger-picked acoustic guitars. The counterpoint to the maniacal music, the rapturous and largely indolent (or, as I now realize, high-as-kites) crowd further baffled me. Shrieking teen approval of comparatively simple structures and memorable melodies was a live-musical dynamic known to me; this was something else: The audience seemed old and sedate to me, and I began to suspect that the musicians were trying to play every single note possible, at once, so the audience could claim to have heard them before everyone, on and off stage, I don’t know, just died.
So, it was with both curiosity and dread than I began to notice as the crowd called for one song in particular. Throughout the day, act after act, the audience members shouted out this same title. Unfamiliar as I was with the song-sharing tradition in American folk tradition, this was confusing, in itself. “Won’t they just play their own songs?” But that specific wonder gave way to a larger one: What is the powerful, unifying tune that this whole, sprawling field of grown-up weirdos has traveled and – for the love of the rec room – camped to hear?! What kind of sorcery is in this song?
One group paused to acknowledge the pleas, and gently refused, saying: “Naw, man, it’s just too good.” This was a song better than “Norwegian Wood,” better than “Woodstock,” better than “Steamroller,” apparently. Better than “Bad Bad Leroy Brown.” Finally, just before twilight an act took the stage, and the crowd were fully roused from their happy festival torpor. If anyone were to satisfy their appetite for this Song of All Songs, it was to be this particular group of bearded adults. It was, even to me in my befuddlement, an electric moment. I don’t recall how many songs the band played before they fed that appetite, but I remember the crowd’s explosive response when they were told, “All right, you’ve been waitin’ all day and you don’t gotta wait more.” And I remember my own internal explosive response when the band launched into the song . . .
In the years between my New Riders of the Purple Sage-induced precocious nervous breakdown and my arrival in North Adams, Massachusetts, for the Solid Sound festival, a lot has happened. On the one hand, I know now intimately how a song, one song, however indistinguishable to the uninitiated from others of its seeming ilk, can for the select spontaneously acquire its own nonnegotiable gravity; how a musical figure of just a few notes can be a kind of Big Bang, a point that becomes a place that becomes a population – the needling guitar intro to the Adam & the Ants B-side “Beat My Guest” still does it for me, personally, or the plodding heaviness of the first seconds of PJ Harvey’s “To Bring You My Love.” You’ve got your own. You’re thinking of it, now. So, while the specific charms of the psych-country-rock ditty “Panama Red” remain to me short of transporting, I get how for that group of people, in that place, it was divine and unifying.
On the other hand, festivals themselves have evolved. Though a few – Woodstock, Monterey – loom large in the early history of rock and pop, for a long time the multi-day, multi-act format figured less prominently in the concert-going experiences of fans than was the case for aficionados of less-commercial genres. Bluegrass and folk, as well as jazz aficionados, have long relied on this presentation approach; but the single-night Touring Headliner and Opening Act scheme was, for most of us, the standard encounter. (There were exceptions, of course, and this isn’t meant as an authoritative history of pop-concert booking innovations. So, steady your twitchy e-mail finger, Christgau.)
Then, in the early ’90s, Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction organized the first Lollapalooza. It was meant as a carnival-esque blow-out to celebrate/mourn the band’s final tour, but became an annual enterprise in its own right; and seemingly inspired a slew of other such – even more ambitious – events. From the first, though, the pop festivals were different in quality – that is to say, not degree of good-ness, but “vibe” – than the other generically defined shows. It was perhaps that the crowds were, on average, younger; but it also had something to do with the partisan and sometimes exclusive devotion of pop-music fans to one subset of the idiom, or one specific band in contrast to another. (Youngsters may find this hard to believe listening in retrospect, but there was once a time when the variations between contemporaneous guitar bands Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots and Pavement had sectarian significance. So profound was the indulgence in what Freud called the Narcissism of Small Differences that some of them wrote mean songs about the others. No, really.)
So, while the festivals provided pop, rock, rap and other fans with catholic tastes the benefits of geo-chronological consolidation – presenting the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees on the same stage as, say, Ice T & Body Count – the feeling on the ground, among jostling fan bases, could be fractious.
Look, I’ll say it: Red Hot Chili Pepper fans are nightmares.
The 2017 Solid Sound festival was the fifth since its kickoff in 2010; this was, however, my first – though I attended only one day. As you have, no doubt, gathered, I am undeniably post-sprout: I don’t have three-day energy in me for anything but getting through anything but three days – for the love of the rec room. But I was excited to see the Alvin Brothers, whom I missed, and I wanted to catch Television (whose guitars still sound fresh and distinct), particularly. Others, whom I knew less well, also proved gratifying: The notorious novelty act the Shaggs turned in a charming, ramshackle type of outsider pop; former J Geils frontman Peter Wolf was more than worthy of his big-cat patterned blazer, having lost none of his R&B swagger and surety; Solid Sound? Wilco main man performed a delirious and riveting noise set in a pop-up performance; the Robert Glasper Experiment injected an eclectic, stylish funk into an afternoon otherwise heavy on rootsy Americana; and the two songs by Kevin Morby I ambled through fortuitously on the way back from a notable taco truck the name of which I failed to note were buzzy, joyous, psych-pop delights–made all the more delightful by the contributions on guitar by former Capital Region resident Meg Duffy, whose own project Hand Habits is worth seeking out.
What was really transporting, though, was the vibe. MASS MoCA continues to become an ever-more-valuable treasure. The sprawling, gorgeous campus is a near-Disneyland for culture hounds of all breeds. All the aforementioned acts were set amid and/or within museums displays of visual artists like Sol LeWitt and Nick Cave, who, alone, are worth a drive across the Berkshires. Or a flight. I ran into a dozen or so friends and acquaintances for whom Solid Sound has become a semi-annual given; including a back-in-the-day friend who made a specific trip up from Atlanta to attend. I’m not well-traveled enough to say it was the friendliest place in the world on that weekend, but it was the friendliest place I’ve been in recent memory.
We listened to several songs by Kurt Vile as twilight and exhaustion settled in. Headliners Wilco were to take the stage next, but we still had ahead of us the trip back home and, after a long craft-beer-lubed conversation with a North Adams resident, a strong desire to check out a local bar, a “real dive.” Impiously, then, we cut out and walked the half mile down State Street past the one bar we had been warned off as “too sketchy” to the tolerably sketchy one immediately adjacent. The few folks at the bar – all with unbraceleted wrists, un-press-passed necks – turned to eyeball us. We ordered our beers and settled in for what ended up a gregarious account of the town’s personality, a riotous explication of the next-door neighbor’s specific sketchiness and of our bartender C.J’s hopes for the future. We stepped outside for a smoke right before calling it a night, leaving a camera and a purse on the bar top, and marveled at the whole half-mystical niceness of the night and the town and music and crowds and individuals and everything, everything.
We stubbed out our cigarettes, headed back in to grab our gear and to promise to return for happy hour the very next time hit the museum. The bar stereo played softly but most of the small crowd had gone. The song was a recognizable country-rock number, one I’ve never much cared for in the past but that seemed different, better, great, in context.