MASS MOCA, North Adams, MA
My 2nd visit to this festival set in the former industrial town of North Adams, deep in the magnificent Berkshires of Massachusetts. It is now the home of the largest museum of contemporary art in North America, MASS MOCA. The festival, curated by Wilco, takes place every 2nd year. I previously attended in 2015 and wrote about it on this site. Unfortunately I was unable to attend in 2017 for some sad immigration reasons, wild horses couldn’t keep me away this time. I realise there was another festival on the other side of the Atlantic this weekend, the one in North Adams was on a smaller scale, about 9,000 festival goers (sold out), around 30-35 musical acts (plus comedians, authors etc), 5 permanent stages, plus several “pop up” ones inside the museum.
This year I opted to stay in town in (extremely basic) student accomodation where rooms were made available for the festival duration. It meant that I parked my car on Friday and didn’t use it again until Monday. Also I got to see more of the lovely town and could see more time on site including the museum (the ticket price included entry to the museum on all 3 days). The town virtually becomes Wilcoville for a few days, you know that anyone with a wristband on is there to see their favourite band and one can just start chatting about them at any opportunity.
The headliners on each day are now becoming traditional, Wilco (with a theme) on Friday night, Wilco again on Saturday night and then Jeff Tweedy closes the festival on Sunday afternoon with his “friends”. The Friday theme this year was “karaoke”, this was met with some dismay from the die hard online fans, we pay our hard earned money to hear Jeff sing these songs! Competitors were invited to send in offerings, around 12 were chosen and they got one rehearsal with the band before getting the chance to sing with their heroes on stage. The band played for about half an hour before the karaoke started, Jeff announced where they were from and they got on with it, with all the lyrics displayed on a large screen behind the band. Was actually a lot of fun, but possibly went on a bit long before ending with “Courtney from Melbourne, Australia” (support act Courtney Barnett) joined them for an incendiary version of “Handshake Drugs”, Jeff sang a few more with the lyric screen in place, saying that he had got the lyrics wrong for a while on some of them and it was over, an interesting and not completely successful experiment.
On Saturday on the smaller stages, amongst others, I caught Milo (a rapper), The Minus 5 (inc 2 members of REM), Skyway Man (folky arty pop) and Tortoise (awesome instrumental band). Then on the main stage I saw my fellow country person Cate le Bon for the first time, she was wonderful with Tweedy joining her for a lovely duet of The Kinks’ “Strangers”, this was followed by the “avant garde pop punk” of The Feelies, Jeff back on stage for a cover of Neil Young’s “Don’t Cry No Tears” and then Wilco hit the stage for the big show of the festival, the Sat night headline set. It was my first full Wilco show in nearly 2 and a half years, they didn’t disappoint opening with a personal favourite of “Hell is Chrome” from the heavily featured A Ghost is Born album (5 songs), they breezed through songs from 9 different albums (inc 2 lovely songs from their upcoming release). Personal highlights being an extreme version of “Laminated Cat” previously released on a Loose Fur album and, as always, Impossible Germany was stupendous with Nels Cline losing his mind on lead guitar. Actually, it was all great, An interesting setlis played perfectly with incredible lighting and unsurpassable sound quality.
I was bit exhausted after that long incredibly hot day, but made it back in early on Sun for some improvisational Nels Cline and Julian Lage accompaniment to a series of short films on a screen behind them, mesmerising. This was in the largest indoor venue, just as well, as a massive thunderstorm came through shutting down the outside areas for a ocuple of hours. After some straight country from Buck Meek in one of the galleries I finally made it outside for an eccentric, endearing performance from Jonathan Richman, before catching most of my first Autumn Defence set (John Stirrat and Pat Sansome from Wilco), enhanced by the addition of a string quartet. Then the finale, Jeff (with family and friends inc all of Wilco at times) took us through a much of his recent solo albums Warm and Warmer. A lovely cover of “It Must be Love” (popularised by Madness) was followed by Neil’s “The Losing End” and the rain started to fall in torrents remarkably just as they went into “Let’s Go Rain” (a song about building an ark), the song ended at exactly 6.30 (the festival closing time) and a rainbow appeared on the horizon. Jeff seemed a bit incredulous “Aw, look at that stupid rainbow”, it was actually pretty moving. Couple more wonderful covers with a couple of dozen on stage, Doug Sahm’s “Give Back the Key to My Heart” before ending, of course, with “I Shall Be Released”. It was over, not just rain falling, but also a few tears from yours truly. See you in 2021…
Adults from 20 something to 70 something, plus many small children seemingly having an enjoyable time.
It made me think..
It’s the most special festival I have ever been to, amazing what good things can come from great art, great music and nice people in a superb setting. Almost transcendental.