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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.

Music Making for the Masses

 

It is genuinely hard to find someone who doesn’t enjoy listening to music. It’s quite a bit easier to find someone who doesn’t play music.

While factors such as lack of interest or time might play a part in this gap, the disconnect between listening and playing music is surely due to the difference in difficulty between listening and playing music.

Playing a guitar is hard, and there are infinitely wrong ways to do it. Listening to music is easy as can be as there’s no “wrong” way to hear an album. While the difficulty of learning to play an instrument, such as guitar, discourages a lot of people from trying to learn, others choose to embrace the challenge.

Holden Jaffe, a NYC-based singer-songwriter and frontman for the indie band Del Water Gap is one of these people.

He started his musical journey by learning how to play drums at age 12. His focus eventually shifted to guitar while spending his junior year of high school abroad in Zaragoza, Spain.

Upon moving to a big city for the first time, he knew he would have to part ways with his beloved space-robbing drums.

“I had brought my guitar, and I spent a lot of time that year sitting in my room, getting better at playing and writing songs.” Jaffe said; “then I kinda caught that bug and continued through my senior year of high school.”

DEL WATER GAP. The band performing at Stone Studio in Lakeville, Connecticut.

While playing the guitar had logistical beginnings, as Jaffe became more interested in writing, it made more sense for him to play a melodic instrument he said.

Up until the early ‘70s, the only music making method was Jaffe’s instrument-based method. Anyone unwilling to put in the time and effort to buy and learn an instrument was relegated to simply listening to music rather than playing it.

That was until one album—Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 masterpiece There’s a Riot Goin On—exposed the world to the then-primitive technology of drum machines. Interestingly enough, Sly’s motive for using a drum machine for the first time was not some genius attempt to re-invent the music industry; it was simply a logistical reaction to his drummer quitting the group due to a souring relationship.

Digital music technology has come a long way since the first drum machine, the Chamberlin Rhythmate, was released in 1957. Drum machines, synths and MIDI controllers are now becoming commonplace in most college dorms and apartments.

Be honest — everybody knows someone who “makes sick beats.” While over-confident, under-talented people such as these may contribute to the impression that increased accessibility of music-making is an awful thing, real musicians tend to disagree.

That change in accessibility is the biggest change to music—both the industry and the art form—in the history of recorded music, Jaffe said.

“I think it’s great; I’ve gotten so many opportunities to create content and meet new people, and to have a career I wouldn’t have otherwise,” he said.

Jaffe also shrugged off the common misconception that making music digitally is “easy as pie.”

“People treat these Digital Audio Workstations like instruments –they have to practice them and get to know them like instruments,” he said. “There’s no difference there.”

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. Del Water Gap performing in Burlington.

Jaffe has also noticed this increase in the accessibility of making music digitally. “A lot of friends are now moving in that direction,” he said, “and a couple of my most consistent collaborators are now in that world.”

Things are no different in Burlington, as every year there are more and more people digitally producing music.

One of those people is junior Mike Garrett (aka Mike G), who takes an old-school approach to production.

Mike G’s main instrument is an MPC-2000 XL, a storied drum machine and sampler that’s been the tool of choice for countless hip-hop legends over the years, like J Dilla, Nujabes, DJ Premier and many more.

“This machine is indirectly responsible for hip-hop, so I felt I had to get one at some point,” he said, “and I’m using the same thing my favorite producers did, so I can sort of put myself in their shoes and think, ‘this is what it’s like when Pete Rock makes music.’”

Garrett also took the old-school route of buying an MPC made in 2000 due to his self-proclaimed affection for old machinery.

“I love old electronics; they have cool little quirks to them that new things don’t,” Garrett said, “and the quirks are your friends.”

Even as someone who is passionate about producing the hard way on now-defunct technology, Garrett shares Jaffe’s opinion that the increased accessibility and ease of making music is a great thing.

“If you make music, I don’t think you can actually have a problem with more people making music, or that you can think of making music as an exclusive thing,” he said.

Garrett also commented on how advancements in production technology are beneficial even to old souls such as himself.

“In my research of trying to make a full analog studio setup, I’ve found it’s ridiculously expensive and requires a truly amazing amount of hardware,” he said, “but now your computer can do the same things all that hardware would do, so now it’s just so much less expensive to make music.”

A love for hip-hop, though, doesn’t attract everyone to the expensive and sometimes-frustrating world of dealing with decades-old analog electronics, and there are different paths to digitally producing music.

UVM junior N’Kosi Edwards has taken one of these alternative paths, choosing to produce with a modern MIDI controller – the AKAI MPK Mini 2 – and a Digital Audio Workstation, Logic Pro.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side.

“[Producing] is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while,” Edwards said, “and once I saw young producers like Young Chop getting big I thought, ‘maybe I should start making beats, that looks kinda fun.’”

For Edwards, the desire to produce came hand-in-hand with his love of rapping. “I’ve always been infatuated with how people could twist words in hip-hop,” he said, “which is why artists like BIG Krit were always an inspiration, because he made his own music and rapped over it.”

The increased accessibility and popularity of making music has not gone unnoticed for Edwards. “I know a lot of people that rap and make music,” he said, “like my friend Louis that got signed to a record label. I get a lot of inspiration from people like him, that are just doing their own thing.”

Edwards also shares the opinion that the more accessible music is, the better.

“If it wasn’t for that I probably wouldn’t be making beats, so I have to give thanks that it’s so much more accessible now,” he said.

Edwards’s use of only one MIDI controller is something he surely couldn’t imagine before he got started producing. “Back in the day, when I didn’t know much about it, I thought I would need a whole bunch of equipment,” he said.

The only downside that Edwards could see with increased accessibility is that “it has definitely given people the ability to mass produce a lot of crappy music, but who’s to even say that? People might say my music is crappy,” he said.

Digital music production has come an unspeakably long way since that first Chamberlin Rhythmate went on sale in 1957, and there’s certainly no end in sight. Digital music tech has gone from that ancient Rhythmate with only 14 drum patterns, to Digital Audio Workstations with thousands of samples built in, with the ability to download an almost infinite number of additional sounds.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. N’kosi Edwards making music.

It’s gone from the first digital sampler—the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer—costing $5,000 upon its release in 1980, to MIDI controllers like N’Kosi Edwards’s AKAI MPK Mini 2, which costs as little as $100 on eBay.

It’s gone from expensive analog tape recorders that added unwanted white noise with every recording, to programs like GarageBand, offering a far superior recording experience for free on any Mac computer.

In short, it’s easy to see why digital music production has become so much more common and accessible in the last few years: it’s more intuitive, cheap and advanced than it has ever been before.

And with that, there’s more music available now than there has ever been. And even if that means there’s now more crappy music out there than ever before, statistically there has to also be more great music out there than ever before, right?
In order to enrich your life by checking out the amazing music these great artists make, I strongly encourage you to check out their respective online libraries. For some soul-touching, emotionally-rich indie grooves, listen to Holden Jaffe’s super-group Del Water Gap on Spotify, iTunes, or Bandcamp (https://delwatergap.bandcamp.com/), and be on the lookout for their upcoming EP! For some futuristic yet old-school raps and instrumentals, check out N’Kosi Edwards on Soundcloud at https://soundcloud.com/nkosi11. Unfortunately, Mike G’s music is yet to be published online, but be on the lookout for his gritty, 90s hip-hop greatness hitting the internet’s airwaves in the near future.