Solid Sound Music Festival and The Dad Rock Zeitgeist
The “improv quilting” expo, the walk-up Kombucha bar, the multiform kid-friendly programming, and the free astronomy lessons offered at Solid Sound didn’t exactly make the annual music and arts festival feel like a new age music carnival– but since all of those things were offered at the same time, that was certainly my passing consideration.
Wilco’s Solid Sound Music & Arts interactive took place this past weekend at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art at the foot of the Berkshire Mountain chain in North Adams, Mass. Since 2010, the Chicago alt-rock darlings have curated an annual festival for which Wilco-friendly bands perform on a river-bisected series of stages amidst the turrets and secret passageways of Mass MoCA’s meandering, oft-renovated enclosures. Guests are free to wander the museum and explore its artwork in between these concerts, which take place over a three-day weekend; patrons can glimpse those concert stages through astronaut windows and cubbyholes that perforate various access points throughout the museum. This year, Xu Bing’s magnificent “Phoenix”, a giant bird-of-lore made out of discarded metal scraps– an homage to the migrant workers of post-development China– proved a particular highlight as festival goers watched Yo La Tengo perform through a retracted garage door in the wall of the building that housed it.
On Friday night, Wilco played a two-hour cover set of songs that fans had requested in the weeks leading up the event. The list included Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate”, a gorgeous cover of the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing” (which was so good, the band played it twice), The Grateful Dead’s “Ripple” (to which the crowd sang along), The Velvet Underground’s “Who Loves The Sun”, Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, and The Kink’s “Waterloo Sunset”. As the evening’s “supermoon” slowly emerged from it’s cloudy veil, fireflies began to dot the scene as the band wound into a virtuosic cover of Television’s “Marquee Moon”, whose riffs fell in orgiastic tendrils until Wilco invited Yo La Tengo onstage and the two bands played “Tom Courtenay” together. The host band then topped their hit-mongering with a bewilderingly salubrious cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”, a recent radio hit that the band performed at the behest of one audience member’s random suggestion.
Moments after Wilco’s all-request show ended, fans funneled into the Hunter Auditorium where Yo La Tengo “live soundtracked” a film called “The Lovesong of R. Buckminster Fuller” for the evening’s grand finale. An exquisitely orchestrated piece about the inventor of the geodesic dome, Sam Greene’s documentary on R. Buckminster Fuller consisted of three parts: the director’s own spoken-word narration, a roulette of moving pictures and sound clips projected onto a movie screen on the auditorium stage, and Yo La Tengo’s live instrumentation, which set the action in motion and faded out in concert with the story line’s ebbing build. The band sat below the screen, lending cued brush drumming and gentle synth lines to its content. (This performance piece was a “live documentary”– the expository elements of film coming together spontaneously before a live audience.) Yo La Tengo would perform an hour-long, feedback-and-distortion-heavy set on the following afternoon. This performance, in contrast to the experimental drift of the first one, pulled openly from the acute tapestry of their 2013 album, Fade.
One room of Mass MoCA, all the while, had been converted into “The Loft by Jeff Tweedy”– a mock-up model of Wilco’s storied recording studio in Chicago. You could get a sense for the real studio’s layout by walking through the space and inspecting authentic guitars and stage clothing, which hung from the brick walls like holiday ornamentation.
Outside, everyone was drinking boxed water. There were Indie Rock-themed beers, like the “Wilco Tango Foxtrot”, an Imperial Brown Ale that was served to legions of gentlemen wearing Teva sandals and cargo shorts. At Solid Sound, the only girls hoisted in the air were infants bouncing on their father’s shoulders. Demographics that otherwise typify music festivals of this size and caliber operated in parallel reverse, with toddlers outnumbered twenty-somethings for a ratio that bound the festival with an aura of familial ease.
A few weeks prior to Solid Sound, I started seeing a resurgence in the use of the term “Dad Rock”– a term historically reserved for music that appeals to boomer-aged Dads, usually popular Rock records from the 60’s and 70’s, or anything related to Jimmy Page. Writers, moreover, were offering the term as an endearingly jokey descriptor of a certain breed of modern indie rock, a euphemism that has slowly made its way into blog culture and a few live show reviews that I’ve recently read. I first saw this new implication of “Dad Rock” used in reference to The National’s excellent recent album, Trouble Will Find Me—a collection of earnest indie rock ballads about an aging man’s struggle to articulate his own vulnerability, e.g., battling his own demons, glimpsing his own mortality, and coming to terms with his own past in a very self-specific manner. For much of the album, the singer’s oscillations between timorousness and temerity require a certain executive maturity and unerring form. Because it was so well-executed, calling The National “Dad Rockers” just kind-of made sense and didn’t require further explanation.
But as with most Internet slang, no one seemed to clearly define the new implication of the term before it had already made its way into the indie rock lexicon. “Dad Rock” is a nebulous term that would at first appear somewhat pejorative—the implication being, of course, that it’s relegated to music that is “safe” or in some ways domesticized, which isn’t exactly synonymous with leather pants and guyliner or the pantheistic iconography of “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll”. If “Dad Rock” once meant “music that would appeal to Dads”, then the backhanded implication was clear: if marital status (historically, and however incorrectly) connotes something that has been tamed, then “Dad Rock” is too safe to be exciting.
In 2011, after Wilco’s second year at Solid Sound, Jeff Tweedy famously rallied against the term. “When people say ‘Dad Rock’, they actually just mean Rock”, he told Rolling Stone after critics started tagging his music as Dad Rock. “When people hear something that makes them think, ‘This is derived from some sort of continuation of the rock ethos,’ it gets labeled dad rock. And, to me, those people are misguided”.
Two years later in 2013, our increasingly progressive Internet dystopia is slowly exposing one of music culture’s open myths: that rock music that’s very accessible and forthright is incongruous with what ‘Rock’ has historically deemed “cool”. The “terminal bachelor-as-musician” is a model that is quickly fading from quintessence. Tweedy perhaps said it best by confronting the label directly: “I don’t find anything undignified about being a dad or being rocking, you know?”
There were a ton of Dads at Solid Sound. There were plenty of Moms, too– I know this because they brought their children. So on Saturday afternoon, when local musician Sam Amidon brought out Beth Orton as a surprise guest, and when The Dream Syndicate gave their first North American performance since 1988, there were plenty of kid-friendly activities happening simultaneously (for example, opportunities to play pint-sized instruments or to paint).
Neko Case, Nels Cline, Low, and Os Mutantes drew some of the festival’s biggest crowds. Foxygen brought outlandish showmanship and an eccentricity that seemingly honored Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger and Animal House simultaneously. (The band was later kicked out of the festival because, as Jeff Tweedy aptly phrased it, “Foxygen was a little too awesome”.) NPR’s Radiolab recorded a live show on site, and the Hunter Center hosted a comedy cabaret with Reggie Watts, Al Madrigal, Jen Kirkman and comedian-author John Hodgman, who is best known for his work as a correspondent on The Daily Show.
It might speak to the aging crowd’s ease of temperament or conversely to the megabucks ambition of commercial festivals like South by SouthWest and Coachella, but few people at Solid Sound were running at whim of overlapping set times or struggling to reconcile each performance while endlessly chattering about what they might be missing out on elsewhere. Very few people had their phones out, implying that most Solid Sound patrons were just there to hang out.
For their second show, Wilco played a whopping 25 songs and 4 encores during a two-hour Saturday night finale– a set that drew heavily from 1999’s Summerteeth (6 songs), 2011’s The Whole Love (5 songs), and 1996’s Being There (5 songs). Wilco played only two songs from their best-selling Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Highlights included a heavy, instrumentative rendition of the band’s jerky, filigreed opus, “Art of Almost”, as well as a thrilling reprise of 1999’s “Can’t Stand It”, which Jeff Tweedy buried in an ornate panorama of riffing that concluded with him playing the guitar with his teeth. Drummer Glenn Kotche stood on his drums as the band segued into the crowd-lauded closer, “I’m The Man Who Loves You”, a ballad that concluded Wilco’s fifth hour of performance.
For a music festival, Solid Sound might’ve been a tad wistful— Wilco playing a two-hour cover set is, to a degree, a very nostalgic gesture— but when the band finally played the 11-year-old “Heavy Metal Drummer”, and when Jeff Tweedy finally sang, “I sincerely miss those heavy metal bands/ I used to go see on the Landing in the summer”, there wasn’t any room for the audience to mourn “the good old days”, much less to implicitly regard the performance as Dad Rock. The ‘heavy metal drummer’– and whatever he represents– isn’t dead. His listeners might have kids now, but under a glowing summer moon on the banks of the Hoosac River, it’s clear they found a new landing.