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Beer and Baseball Hats in the Berkshires: Solid Sound 2017

On a muggy Friday evening in the rolling hills of the western Massachusetts Berkshires, a crowd of L.L. Bean-clad festival goers descended slowly on the sleepy town of North Adams. Though its main street is spare and some of its sidewalks are old and wearing, the town is home to one of New England’s most beloved music festivals: Solid Sound.

Hosted by the much-praised Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCa, for short), the festival was birthed in 2010 as the brainchild of the ever-prolific Chicago-based rock band, Wilco. Over the past seven years, Solid Sound has attracted musicians, comedians and artists from across the country. Levon Helm, Hannibal Burress, Yo La Tengo, Jen Kirkman and Mac DeMarco have made up the festival’s diverse lineups since its inception.

This year, the festival boasted an eclectic mix of artists from all ends of the musical spectrum, from jazz to funk to indie rock. As patriarchs of the festival, Wilco was the centerpiece, playing sets every day of the weekend.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. Solid Sound Festival at MassMoCa.

Drawn more to the spectacle of festival life than the music, we decided to head down for the weekend. The promise of camping, a good museum, quality people-watching and a chance to get out of town was enough for us to make the trip. So we packed up the car with an excess of snacks, sunscreen and bug spray to see what Solid Sound was all about.

The trip from Burlington to North Adams is reason enough to make it down to the festival, with Route 7’s gentle curves snaking past small Vermont towns littered with antique shops and flea markets set against the spine of the Green Mountains. The road winds down through verdant river valleys freckled with wildflowers among the tall grass wetlands this time of year, and deep woods hiding trails to mountain peaks alongside dilapidated barns filled with rusting relics of other eras.

When we crossed the state border, taller mountains fell away, yielding rolling hills and eventually the polished landscape of Williams College grounds before we reached North Adams. There, country roads turned into narrow streets lined with clapboard duplexes, crooked power lines and dive bars. In the midst of the small town skyline made of church steeples and steel bridges was the crisp helvetica MassMoca sign, assuring us we were in the right place.

Since the festival takes place in the middle of New England’s most balmy months, camping is a highly popular choice for those who spring for weekend passes and make the trek to North Adams from all over the Northeast. As we pulled in to camp, we began to get a sense of the festival’s flavor as families loaded out of RVs, and groups of middle-aged friends and fathers cracked open Coors Lites to kick off the weekend.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. The hats of Solid Sound Festival 2017.

Inside the festival grounds, the scene looked much the same: a sea of Teva sandals, cargo pants and the occasional fedora. Graphic tees featuring corny dad humor abounded, with messages ranging from “Baltimore: there’s more than murder here!” to “I am listening to Ryan Adams because I am very emotional right now.” The amply sized MassMoCa compound had been transformed into a wonderland of craft beer carts, hipster taco trucks and designer hot dogs all under countless strings of Christmas lights. Stages were set against the white-washed brick facade of the museum, and the first notes of whispy folk music echoed through courtyards as the evening began.

Known for its whimsical and laid-back character, Solid Sound attracts a different set of characters than the rowdy, drunken bunch of flower-crowned hippies you might expect from a summer music festival. Here, gone is the scent of pot wafting through humid air and foreign is the sight of neon face paint around the glazed-over eyes of 16-year-olds. Here, you’re more likely to walk past a mom sipping a mimosa in a flowy top or a toddler dressed in a “Raised on Wilco” shirt his dad bought for him in preparation for the weekend.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. A dad naps between sets at Solid Sound.

Friday night was a warmup, and after a night of heavy rain soaking our tent, Saturday sun beat down on the festival in full force. When we returned to MassMoCa, the crowds were warmed up and ready for another day of good, clean fun at the festival. One of the day’s first offerings was a jam packed comedy show, first showcasing the sassy sensibilities of Michelle Buteau of Big Morning Buzz, Key & Peele, and The Eric Andre Show fame. She poked fun at her upper-middle class white audience in between cracking self-deprecating and painfully relatable jokes about relationships, farting and being a woman.

Following Buteau was the impossibly charming Nick Offerman, who immediately launched into his trademark campfire song comedy with tunes about his wife, Megan Mullally (whose power comedy-music duo Nancy and Beth were also on the festival lineup), Siri, and Ron Swanson. Each song was the perfect balance between satirically self-aware and riotously raunchy all with the perfect finale of “Bye Bye ‘lil Sebastian” from Parks and Recreation. “If you know this song, you are welcome to sing along—if you don’t, you are in for a real treat,” he giggled. The audience let out sighs of nostalgia and some put their lighters in the air for Pawnee, Indiana’s favorite mini-horse and one last resounding applause at the song’s end.

MAX MCCURDY. Michelle Bouteau performing.

Back outside, the music was in full swing. We caught a stunning set from the Brooklyn-based indie rock group Big Thief, followed by a raucous power pop performance by Jessica Dobson’s current Seattle-based project, Deep Sea Diver. Both sets filled the courtyards with delicious sound under peak afternoon sun.The crowd swayed and sweated between beer refills until the music was over. Festival-goers started to feel more like family as we saw familiar faces again and again and got into the rhythm of hopping from show to show, breaking for barbecue in between.

Amidst the afternoon’s excitement, we went inside for a breather and a quick chat with one of the day’s favorites, Big Thief. In a cavernous room with floor-to-ceiling windows opening to the courtyard where moms were intently gyrating to Peter Wolfe’s set, we asked the band about their Solid Sound experience.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. The Solid Sound crowd listens to Big Thief.

“It feels really good; it’s really cozy,” the band’s guitarist Buck Meek said. Big Thief is new to the festival scene, but Solid Sound is the first of many they’ll be playing throughout the summer from Winnipeg to Newport.

“We’ve never played a big festival; we’ve never heard that ‘waaaaaaa!’,” bassist Max Oleartchik laughed. Despite the setting’s newness, during their set the band seemed to be totally in tune with the audience, atmosphere and each other as they delivered raw and ambient riffs with powerfully emotional lyrics that echoed with potency into the air. “You have to find a different resonance in the middle of the day in the sunshine, singing about emotional stuff; it’s an interesting thing to do in the day,” guitarist and lead singer Adrianne Lenker said.

The band cogitated on performance as an art form and the different modes of being it takes based on the kind of audience they’re playing to. “One night we played at this big rock club and the next we played at a church, and it was so different; you can’t just plug a set in anywhere and expect it to stick,” drummer James Krivchenia said. To them, everything comes down to presence. “We’re in what we’re singing for the whole show if it’s hard or if it’s joyful, it doesn’t matter as much — it feels right when it’s present,” Lenker said.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. Big Thief, one of our Solid Sound favorites.

“If you have all these ideas of what you want it to be then it’s useless; it’s all about being like water,” Oleartchik said. “We have to do this with other people we don’t know which is very strange; the larger the audience is, it’s more abstract,” he said. “Today was a big crowd, but we could feel them and we’re starting to do better on that level.” What Big Thief was looking for – that presence – the Solid Sound audience delivered again and again throughout the weekend.

The final taste of that tight-knit community between artist and audience filled the air as the sun set behind the hills and Wilco took the stage for a rambling two-hour set. The band played old favorites as lifelong fans sang along and slow danced into the night. In between songs, Jeff Tweedy appealed to the sentimental crowd with his philosophy of art’s importance in hard times. “The most important thing is that we get to make art and show it to each other,” Tweedy said as everyone cheered in accord.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. Wilco fans await the band’s big show.

Tweedy and the band played long after the end of their time slot, and slowly Wilco fans trickled over to one last cool-down show, Jeff Parker Trio, to end the evening. The sky had darkened and a smattering of stars poked out from under rain clouds as couples swayed shoulder to shoulder and a pair of free spirits danced with hula hoops to the sound of double bass.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. A pair of whimsical festival goers dance to Jeff Parker Trio.

All too soon the night was over, and dimly lit school busses carried weary but smiling festival goers back to their tents as if they were kids coming back to their cabins after a long day at camp. The soft sound of an acoustic guitar playing Wilco covers faded into the night along with the giggles and sighs of parents shepherding their already asleep children into their Airstreams. I dozed off slowly to the sound of my campground neighbors cracking open one last cold one as if they were old friends.

And The Kids Share Lovers

“I’m trying to wrangle everyone into a group costume…but it’s a secret!,” said And The Kids frontwoman Hannah Mohan. Mohan and her bandmates are gearing up for a two-night run at Signal Kitchen Thursday and Friday, excitedly rallying friends and assembling outfits for the weekend’s festivities.

“We love playing in Vermont, there are so many amazing bands playing with us,” Mohan said, “I have all my best friends so it’s really fun.”

The band has been touring with their new album, “Friends Share Lovers,” for the better part of 2016, and are finishing off the year with shows in the U.S., Canada and Europe. They’re coming back home to New England with friends to see and old times to revisit.

Mohan hails from western Massachusetts, where she and the band spent their formative years living in tents, playing residencies and growing together. “When we started the band, we decided ‘ok, no jobs for us, we’re not gonna pay rent,’” Mohan said. “We found this piece of land in Hadley right on the [Connecticut] river and payed this guy 100 bucks a month to live on the property while we were on tour.”

And The Kids. COURTNEY CHAVANELL.
And The Kids. COURTNEY CHAVANELL.

With a makeshift practice space crafted from a Pods container, Mohan and drummer Rebecca Lasaporano roughed it during the band’s inception. Mohan testified to the importance of place in her life ever since, which seeps into her music as well.

“I’m a cancer and our whole thing is we revolve around home,” she said. “I’m also a crab, so my home is on my back. There’s a huge inspiration for me to write about habitat.”

Even on tour, Mohan’s connection to place inspires her. “Out of nowhere, I loved Madison, Wisconsin,” she said, “I got really attached — we bought a tape deck at this vintage store, I just really didn’t want to leave.”

Anchoring to home has been problematic for And The Kids, too, as Canadian synth player Megan Miller’s visa troubles have kept her from touring with the band in the U.S. “We wrote “Friends Share Lovers” before our keyboard player got deported, so there are some songs about her,” Mohan said, “we had to come up with power songs we could play as a two piece.” 

And The Kids. COURTNEY CHAVANELL.
And The Kids. COURTNEY CHAVANELL.

Despite Miller’s absence on tour, she is anything but missing from the album. Her synth riffs float through the album’s most atmospheric tracks, like “Creeper” and “Picture” with exquisite and ethereal spookiness.

“Creeper is my favorite because of Megan’s fucking synth part at the end,” Mohan said.

“We went deeper into the ocean of experimenting with sonic shit on this album,” she said, “We recorded it on tape, too, so that’s fucking amazing.”

The album is nebulous and playful, resounding with anxious emotion and confusion, yet remarkable sophistication. “We were trying to have more of a concept linking all the songs on this one,” said Mohan.

Along with strikingly evocative sounds is And The Kids’ glittering and gorgeous album art by Brooklyn, New York  artist Chase Carlisle.

“Aesthetics are really difficult because we have different visions, some of us want a more mature look and some want sketchy drawings,” Mohan said. “Now I just want fucking gorgeous stuff that doesn’t take two seconds to make.”

“I’m gonna hang out with a bunch of my friends and go to my old house in Colchester, maybe build a fire,” Mohan said. “We’re trying to make a music video with Joey Pizza Slice too, he makes awesome VHS videos.”

Gone, sadly, is their trademark inflatable deer, Andrea, that Mohan rescued from the woods in Washington, D.C.

“Andrea the deer…she had a really rough tour with Ra Ra Riot and she’s kind of out of commission now,” she said. Regardless, And The Kids has incredible music, lovable antics and a guaranteed sprinkling of glitter to offer when they return to Vermont. Catch the band at 8:30 p.m. Oct. 27 and 28 at Signal Kitchen and in the station at WRUV Friday at noon.

Meandering Stowe’s Main Street & Beyond

        Sometimes, you just need to take the day and get out of town. After a long week of running from Colchester to College Street, walking down a different Vermont Main comes as a much-needed change of pace. On a relatively balmy, brilliantly beautiful January afternoon my friend Eva and I headed southeast on I-89 into the mountains to Stowe.

        For skiers and riders, Stowe has an obvious appeal; the resort has 460 acres holding 98 trails and 11 lifts. But for those who prefer to admire the trails snaking down Mount Mansfield from afar, Stowe’s Main Street establishments offer a cozy change of pace from hanging out at Bailey/Howe.

IMG_9544
Main Street, Stowe, Vermont. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.

        The road to Stowe is predictably gorgeous, from the first 180-degree vista of the Green Mountain peaks near Williston to the cruise up Route 100 snugly situated besides Mount Hunger.

     On either side of the road nestled in pine forests sit local, artisan cheese and wine shops, craft breweries, and outdoor gear outfitters in typical Vermont fashion.   

        As the road snakes into town, it passes snow-coated golf courses etched with Nordic tracks, fly-fishing creeks, and charming saltbox chalets. Downtown Stowe greets visitors with historic inns, white-steeple churches, and general stores stocked with everything from canned tuna to children’s books.  

        Approaching Stowe, you’ll first come up on the Vermont Ski and Snowboard museum housed in a classic white clapboard town hall.  Here, you can learn all about everything from snow bunny fashion to slope maintenance through the years of Vermont ski history.

Make a left turn and you’ll swing up to the sprawling Stowe Resort by way of mountain road as it meanders over covered bridges and past small shops and markets.

Black Cap Coffee, Stowe, Vermont. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.
Black Cap Coffee, Stowe, Vermont. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.

        Just down the street, Black Cap Coffee sits warm and welcoming on the corner of Main & School streets. The painted red brick café is homey and bright, filled with paintings and pottery by local artists. Black Cap roasts excellent coffee in-house, and its baristas can whip up a killer maple latte.

        If you’re hungry for some savories, head to Jamie’s on Main. The staff is lovely and so is the food—you can stay and hang out or grab a to-go snack for the mountains.

IMG_9542
Main Street, Stowe, Vermont. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.

After we’d had our fill of good coffee and Stowe sightseeing, Eva and I headed a few miles up the road to Putnam State forest. The quiet woods, hidden amongst gorgeous mountain estates and small family farms, are filled with waterfalls, young pine forests, mountain streams and stunning views.

        We got out of the car and tramped along the lowland marsh trail up Moss Glen Falls: snowed-over and frozen, but with clear blue water still rushing underneath. In the summer months, the falls get plenty of visitors but in the middle of winter you’re likely to be alone in the woods.

        Grabbing hold of protruding roots and scooting slowly past ice patches, we reached the top of the waterfall and looked out west. The evergreens frame flawlessly a delicious view of Mansfield’s western slopes and the valley in its shadow.

Putnam State Forest. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.
Putnam State Forest. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.

        From the falls, you can wander deep into the forest on a well-kept trail covered in pine needles in the summer, and packed snow in the winter. Or, you can head back down the hill, get in the car and explore the country roads, harmlessly trespassing through some beautiful backyards.

Putnam State Forest. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.
Putnam State Forest. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.

        Whether you’re skiing or not, spending a day in Stowe is a treat. It’s just far enough away from the campus routine to feel like an adventure, and there’s plenty to do whether you’re pining for a quiet woodland hike, locally roasted coffee, or a snapshot of smaller-town Vermont life.