If one is not lulled into a shallow reverie by the pretty trees and colonial architecture, the 39 or so towns that make up the Berkshires can be bewildering. In Western Massachusetts, Route 7 is miles and miles of agrarian-to-suburban economic disparity; on one end, rural farming communities, and on the other, old money bastions, a wounded paper mill town, a college town, struggling and fancy.
When I lived in the Berkshires 30 years ago, North Adams, Mass.—all rolling foothills and repurposed industrial desolation—was known for cheap bars, cheap rent, bad acid, and...that’s pretty much it. There were no jobs. No art galleries. No locally sourced pickle shops. After Sprague Electrics closed, the population went down by 4,000 and unemployment was at 14 percent.
In 1999, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) took over the Arnold Print Works/Sprague Electric factory complex. Since then, North Adams has seen reasonable benefits. There’s more jobs, more attention, more “culture” (whatever the hell that might mean), more tourism (at least to MASS MoCA itself), and a general sense of “Well, if the factories aren’t coming back, this’ll do in a pinch.”
In 2009, North Adams saw the inaugural Solid Sound Fest. The festival, “three days of art, music, and comedy,” founded by the alt-Americana, occasionally experimental folk rock band Wilco, takes place every other summer at MASS MoCA.
I’d always abstractly intended to get around to attending Solid Sound. This year, I was looking for a reason to ride the roads I’d spent my childhood cruising with my dad, up until his death earlier this year. My childhood home two towns over is unoccupied, on account of my mom dying of COVID in 2021, and my sister also happened to be visiting home that weekend. I figured, fuck it. Guess I’ll go see what Wilco is up to.
Seemed like a bad time I could write about. Or, better, some transcendent-type shit that I could turn into a book. After all, even though my dad was more a Chic/Sondheim guy, my sweet, taciturn stepdad (who died in 2015) had dug Wilco, and my mom had loved what he loved.
My childhood friend Magoo, with whom I’d gotten my second teenage arrest, canceled on me. Which meant no townie cred, which meant no drugs; which was narratively disappointing but probably for the best. Middle-aged dudes on psychedelics, in the throes of grieving, don’t historically make for the best audience members for things called “The Substack Mystery Hour.” But remembering the Substack founder’s quote of “defund the thought police,” I gave that nonsense a pass anyway, and got stoked to watch America’s Danish Sweethearts, Iceage.
It would rain off and on all weekend, but especially like a motherfucker on Friday. Iceage were delayed as festival workers, at heightening degrees of agitation, screamed at attendees to get inside the designated museum buildings that surrounded the fest’s outdoor stages. Eventually Iceage went on. Given the wetness, given the context of rural bohemia, their gothic cowpunk seemed to connect with the crowd as much as it did with me.
Paying the $5 service charge at an ATM, I started drinking, thinking I should—just in case I wanted to have an adventure or feel strongly about a band. When I was a teenager, I loved drinking in North Adams. The town’s combination of steep inclines and concrete waterways made it a combination of Pittsburgh and Venice, if either of those romantic getaways had been ripe with disaffected State College students willing to buy MD 20/20 for underage townies.
Thirty years later, I was considerably more outside of myself, listening to Sylvan Esso’s likable freak folktronica burble-and-scrape a hundred yards away, and wondering if I should buy some honey from the locally sourced honey stand to leave at my mom’s house in case her ghost had a sweet tooth.
Down the street at the Mohawk Tavern, there were no Wilco banners or T-shirts sporting the logos of bands dropped by Sub Pop in ’97. The bouncer greeted us with a Celtics joke and the Steve Miller Band were being played from the bar speakers. For all I know, it has been playing on repeat in every bar in North County since I left town at 17. I ordered a Fernet like a jerk-off and happily accepted a tequila.
By 9:15 p.m., I’d walked back to Solid Sound as Wilco began one of their three weekend sets (the third, on Sunday, being “Jeff Tweedy + Friends”). On Friday the band performed their new album Cruel Country in its entirety, which had just been released that day. Ticket buyers were gifted with a download of the album, but it still says something about Wilco’s boldness that the crowd was expected to take in a two-hour set of solely new material. Neurotic and having inherited my father’s temper, I can’t attend quiet club shows, for fear of focusing on nothing but crowd chatter. But at Solid Sound, among thousands, I didn’t hear a peep even during Cruel Country’s most subdued moments.
Of which there were many. Wilco’s charms have always been...subtle. Even-keeled. Melancholy but restrainedly so. Depression, to be sure, but not too much. Trying to break your heart, yes, but, more important, trying.
There’s a lot to be said for soothing intelligence. And if your Band doesn’t have a Rick Danko, it’s wise to skirt the fuckable aspects of country rock altogether. Those were my notes on the night’s performance. For the record, when I compared the show’s encores to Prairie Home Companion, the friend and editor I was on assignment with became visibly upset.
With the designated driver getting tired, we drove back to my mom’s house to drink beer in the kitchen. At one point, I noticed my sister staring at the refrigerator door where our mom had kept family photos, which my sister and I had left untouched, like a memorial or a denial. I asked what she was looking at. “Oh, you know, nothing,” she said. Having done enough journalism for the day, I didn’t ask a follow-up.
The next day, it rained again. The CREEM photographer said that Angel Bat Dawid was “so sick,” but I was standing under the parking lot overpass, phasing in and out of time, wondering if multiple Adderall, combined with just enough fIREHOSE T-shirt sightings, might make it 1992 again. I wondered if, at the end of the festival, Wilco might be willing to wear a purple dress, and some dangly earrings my mom favored, and let me mow the lawn.
The Chicago avant-rhythm-and-avant-blues singer NNAMDÏ put on a performance of slow-burn loveliness. It was strange and compelling enough to make some of the audience rethink previous Facebook posts regarding auto-tune. The guitarist channeled Thin Lizzy (or Ted Leo, or maybe Steely Dan), and the drummer made life seem tantalizingly workable.
Mike Watt and the Missingmen did what they were born to do: utilize a minimalist weaponization of the Beefheart catalog to set small, hopeful fires. I sometimes find Watt’s gruff, cheerful Jam Econo proselytizing to be too much like unasked-for advice, but cynicism does die in the face of him and Wilco guitarist/Cibo Matto husband Nels Cline wilding out on the Minutemen version of Blue Oyster Cult’s “The Red and the Black.” If you can’t trust them honeys when they volley “It’s alright” back and forth, who can you trust?
During Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s lovely and restrained set of ascetic gospel, an eccentrically agile child, with Coke-bottle lenses, pulled his mother toward the stage. His mother, perhaps noticing the number of sleeping or visibly bored children tethered to the rapt adults around her, said, “Buddy, I don’t think that’s going to do it for you.” But when he gripped the bars of the stage barrier and stared in awed attention for the majority of the set, she let him. When he did begin to squirm, and his dad lifted him up to give him a ride away, the little boy protested, “No! I really want to hear this music.”
Later, in what was beginning to feel like a call to contrition, Wilco played another two-hour set. It was good in the way that movies directed by George Clooney are good. I felt virtuous watching it, as my thoughts wandered to whether my cats like me, like, really like me. The snare drum sounded like a Bluetooth speaker clipping in and out. The version of “At Least That’s What You Said” was as fantastic as a literal cowgirl in the sand. For seven minutes, it was practically a different concert. Then Wilco returned to reasonable, politically pointed placidity. Their fans ate it all up, like Parrotheads-who-make-good-decisions.
It didn’t rain on Sunday. Sunday was heavy on the hep, presumably curated more by Nels Cline. Solid Sound always walks that fine line between downtown and gentrified pastoral, Edie Sedgwick and old bohemians, but the final day was blissfully top-heavy with Sun Ra Arkestra, Terry Allen, and Eleventh Dream Day.
Sun Ra Arkestra were grand, I suppose. I enjoyed it, but I don’t know jazz, so I really couldn’t say. Terry Allen was a beast, as much Leonard Cohen–doing–Randy Newman versions of “Pancho and Lefty” as a prophet in his own right, with a band that (with a guest turn by David Byrne) ably gave vibes combining Nashville with, uh, Nashville (the movie).
As for Eleventh Dream Day? They simply ruined me. I’ve always considered these Chicagoans to be the best “very good, if not great” band on the planet. But apparently I’ve been holding that thought for 30 years, because when they kicked into “Testify,” I lost it. I sobbed. The sheer irretrievability of it all rushed into my chest, and I felt like the middle-aged orphan, wasted on a refusal of nostalgia that still looks and feels very much like nostalgia, that I am. To be honest, it wasn’t a great sensation. I can understand why so many people don’t care about music that much. Regardless, for the duration of their set, Eleventh Dream Day were my favorite band on earth.
Jeff Tweedy was going to play again. But I had to get out of there.
One of the core questions of human coexistence, at least amongst those who use the term “the social contract,” is “What does Wilco owe us? What do we owe Wilco?” When I asked the bartender at the Mohawk Tavern whether the festival had any effect on the bar, he didn’t answer. I almost asked again until I realized that he was waiting for his boss, who was on the stool next to mine, to answer. The bar’s owner, either sussing me as a nosy outsider or just meaning it, said, “It’s great. The festival is great for us.” I finished my Bloody Mary pickle and thanked him, and then I left.
The drive back to NYC was fun. I smoked cigarettes in the car like I was skipping school and listening to “Teenagers From Mars” for the first time. Every Cumberland Farms, every Stewart’s, every Friendly’s, and every stoplight we passed reminded me of my father. As he was dying, my girlfriend and I went to the local poultry farm (in a different Berkshire town), and the proprietor, who either had two lazy eyes or just didn’t feel like making eye contact, said, “Tell your father that the town is on the rise! It is thriving.” That bemused my dad, but he did adore the Berkshires, so it made him happy enough. So I’m glad for North Adams. It’s not like Sprague Electric was going to reopen anytime soon. And I don’t expect the Berkshire youth to subsist, as we did, on cough syrup and boredom. Wilco are solid. Viva Solid. If you can’t go home again, it’s nice to know that the threat of a good time is still there.