MASS MoCA Welcomes Wilco: Fans Frolic at the Solid Sound Festival 2013
By Robert Burke Warren and Holly George-Warren
The hills are alive. The hills of North Adams, Massachusetts, to be precise, where on the weekend of June 21–23, MASS MoCA, the largest center for contemporary art in the U.S., hosts the third Solid Sound Festival, curated by the multi-Grammy-winning sextet Wilco. Conceived by the band and MASS MoCA, this gathering is a smaller-scale alternative to mega-fests like Bonnaroo, Glastonbury, and Lollapalooza. Solid Sound 2013 features Wilco, the band’s various side projects, Yo La Tengo, Medeski Martin & Wood, Low, Lucius, Neko Case, psychedelic tropicalia band Os Mutantes, and the only scheduled U.S. performance of the recently reunited Dream Syndicate. Also, comedians Al Madrigal, Jen Kirkman, Reggie Watts, and John Hodgman bring the laughs to the comedy tent.
In contrast to the usual festival experience, Solid Sound Fests 2010 and 2011 were laid-back and intimate, somewhat like a quirky country fair. The MASS MoCA complex, an impeccably refurbished, sprawling 19th century textile mill, transforms into an “art city,” with campgrounds, local food, and plenty of room to breathe. After going on hiatus last year, Solid Sound is slightly bigger than ever, but still easily navigable, family-friendly, and interactive; in addition to checking out bands, attendees can also enjoy many “please touch” installations – like Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche’s hands-on “Earth Drums” exhibit – plus a birding walk, post-concert guided stargazing, an off-site naturalist hike, and a make-your-own musical instrument and jam session for kids.
Solid Sound co-founder and Wilco bassist John Stirratt says the band hatched the idea for the festival while on tour. “The English have started this fantastic small festival thing,” he says. “We played Green Man in Wales, and End of the Road in Essex. They’re incredibly well curated, the food is great; they imply a slightly older audience, a little more kid-friendly, not a blockbuster situation, not Lollapalooza, where there’s a million 17 year olds. I live in Chicago, so I can go to Lollapalooza for a day, but it can be a rough hang, walking a mile between stages.”
Dream Syndicate front man Steve Wynn, who played the first Solid Sound with his side gig The Baseball Project, says, “You can tell it was put together by musicians to be relaxed and cool for both the audience and the performers. You don’t feel like you’re just being processed through the turnstile. Everybody is approachable, it’s very hands-on, you see all the bands hanging out during the day. It’s not so big that you have to be shuffled off by helicopter.”
Like Stirratt and Wynn, John Medeski, of Medeski, Martin & Wood, is looking forward as much to witnessing and partaking as he is to playing. “A festival gives the audience the opportunity to experience music they haven’t heard before and might not have gone to see,” he says. “It’s a really good way to get a general idea of what’s going on out there. For a band performing, the best thing is the energy that can be created at a festival. Something happens when you don’t have all day to prepare, and sound check, and get everything set up just right. You’re out of the comfort zone, which we thrive on. So many things can and do go wrong, and that forces the musicians to tap into a different level of connection in order to get through the performance.”
Similarly, MASS MoCA director Joe Thompson embraces the unpredictable. He works closely with Wilco to shape a festival simpatico with the museum’s modus operandi. “We like to make new work here,” he says. “The best work we show here is made on site. Artists often arrive not quite knowing what final form that work will take. There’s that vibe in this festival.”
Stirratt agrees. “The real nature of Solid Sound is determined by the people that come,” he says. “The fans do so much. They take a real active role in celebrating it, being at ease, and having fun and making it a cool situation.”
This year, Wilco has even given fans a chance to craft a set list via emailed suggestions for Friday night’s performance, calling it the “Request Show.” For encores they’ll re-create Johnny Carson’s “Stump the Band” bit from The Tonight Show, with John Hodgman moderating. The Solid Sound website reads, “This is the first-ever all-request concert by Wilco. It may also be the last.” The same can’t be said for the Solid Sound Festival, which, clearly, has just begun.
Solid Sound Festival
87 Marshall Street
North Adams, MA
Festival Pass - Adults: $149.00, kids age 7-10: $50.00
Children 6 and under are free
Single-day tickets for Friday, June 21 and Sunday, June 23 are $65
Single day tickets for Saturday, June 22 are sold out
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The Aston Magna Festival: As the Masters Intended
By Robert Burke Warren
Time travel is possible after all. But instead of spaceships or portals, the musicians of the Aston Magna music festival, at Bard for three Fridays in June and two in July, use period instruments to perform Baroque and Classical works as they were played in the days before massive symphonies and concert halls; alongside violins, clarinets, and trumpets, Aston Magna incorporates the theorbo, the chalumeau, the harpsichord, and the viola da gamba, the sounds of which will transport you from the 200-seat Olin Hall to another era.
“There’s a sense of discovery,” says violinist Daniel Stepner, longtime artistic director of Aston Magna, which is celebrating its 41st season. “There’s something revolutionary about getting back to original scale, because our lives are so supersized, and we’re used to such huge volumes and stimulation.” Aston Magna not only renders this music in its original form; according to Stepner, “Our mission is also to deepen the appreciation of the cultural milieu, and the political history surrounding its creation.”
To that last point, Stepner offers a lecture one hour before each performance, during which he’ll discuss not only the instruments and vocal techniques of Aston Magna, but also the times in which the pieces were conceived and performed: For “The Art of the Chalumeau,” on June 14th, Stepner will cover the history of this haunting precursor to the more strident clarinet, as well as the zeitgeist of the early 18th century, when most of the evening’s music was commissioned by aristocrats. “The performers,” Stepner says, “like Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart, were not aristocrats. None of the big composers were. But the aristocrats were very interested in poetry, music, and literature. They had time. And the composers became intellectuals in their own time through contact with the aristocracy; the music they composed was often done at court or a large room in a castle, with maybe 50 to 100 listeners. It was only in the Industrial Revolution, with the middle class rising, that concert halls were enlarged. As the middle class grew, the halls were made bigger and bigger, and the instruments changed, made more penetrating.”
The second concert, on June 21st, “J. S. Bach: The Six Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord,” will feature Stepner himself on violin. Of Bach, Stepner says, “He was not a well-known composer in his time – an organist, teacher, and performer, yes, and a huge influence on Mozart and Beethoven. But his music wasn’t published until much, much later.”
More Bach will be on hand for the June 28 concert, “Masterworks by J. S. Bach and Marin Marais,” in which Aston Magna will revisit Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto; they are the first period musicians to have undertaken the piece with the theorbo, the viola da gamba, and baroque trumpet, as Bach would have envisioned it. Frenchman Marin Marais (at right), a rock star of the court in his day (he had 19 kids), was master of the cello-like viola da gamba, which sets him apart from the keyboard virtuosi in this festival. He would sooner recognize his deeply expressive, bass-heavy music at Aston Magna than anywhere else.
For “Shades of Love Lost – Madrigals of Monteverdi and Wert,” on July 5th, audiences will be treated to the drama of the madrigal, which arose in 16th century Florence and was, in part, funded by the Medicis. It would evolve into the operatic aria.
The festival closes on July 12th with the inspired “Music From the Library of Thomas Jefferson.” Turns out our third president wasn’t just a genius politician, architect, and horticulturist, but also a violinist and keyboard player. “He played violin regularly in Paris when he was ambassador,” says Stepner. “He bought several keyboard instruments for Monticello, including the new invention, the fortepiano. [Which evolved into the modern-day piano.] He cataloged his music library himself. He had lots of early Baroque, but also Haydn, Mozart and J.C. Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach’s son, the more famous Bach at that time.”
How do people who’ve never heard music played on period instruments react to Aston Magna? Says Stepner: “If they know the music, then hear how we play it, with period vocal techniques, they’re fascinated, sometimes bemused by the differences. The differences are in balance and timbre, you hear a difference in the texture of the piece. It appeals to many people because of the clarity. People are thrilled with the intimacy of the music presented in the kind of venue for which it was originally intended. We are not loud. The human ear homes in, though. One hears details and subtleties. That’s part of the attraction.”
The Aston Magna festival: A trip to a time when subtlety and detail were the order of the day, a reprieve from the ever-increasing racket of the 21st century. See you there.
Friday evenings, June 14, 21, and 28,
and July 5 and 12 at 8 p.m.
Bard’s Olin Hall
Advance tickets: $35 ($30/seniors)
Students with valid full-time student ID, or under the age of 25, may purchase up to two $5 student rush tickets on the day of the performance.
Also at The Daniel Arts Center at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, June 15 and The Mahaiwe, June 29, both in Great Barrington.
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Old Crow, New Song: Old Crow Medicine Show at MASS MoCA
by Robert Burke Warren
Like a longtime married couple who’ve survived everything from overfamiliarity to substance abuse to trial separation, Nashville-based Old Crow Medicine Show deserves a standing ovation just for showing up at MASS MoCA on Tuesday, May 28. Attendees will keep the applause coming, however, from opening song to encore, as the sextet, formed in 1998, still deliver their rollicking, punky string band material with uncommon passion. “A band can’t be around for fifteen years without some changes,” says multi-instrumentalist Christopher “Critter” Fuqua. “Shakeups, ups and downs, that’s the nature of the beast. It’s pretty unusual when you think about it. It’s a marriage.”
Fuqua knows whereof he speaks. After bonding in an elementary school production of The Red Badge of Courage, he founded OCMS in Ithaca, NY, with childhood friend Ketch Secor, Old Crow’s dynamic leader and frontman. Unlike most youngsters, they unplugged, infusing old time, hardscrabble acoustic music with the dervish energy of their beloved punk and metal records. With a boost from the O Brother Where Art Thou? phenomenon, they rose quickly from city sidewalks to the festival circuit to A Prairie Home Companion and the Grand Ole Opry, introducing many twenty-somethings to Americana. A good time, for sure, but the pace and the attendant chaos took their toll. After writing, recording, and touring nonstop, Fuqua left the band in 2007 to get sober and, he says, to save his life. As his mates soldiered on, Fuqua rehabbed, cooled his jets, and attended college, working toward an English degree. In 2011, the band went on an indefinite hiatus, but returned late last year with the lauded Carry Me Back, welcoming Fuqua (who’d sorely missed making music) back to the fold with open arms.
How has sobriety affected time spent in a band famous for blistering live shows, not to mention many a song celebrating, uh, drinking? How’s the “new” Critter Fuqua faring?
“I’m a more authentic me because I’m sober,” Fuqua says. “There’s a new spirit in the band. Everything feels real fresh. Ketch and I recently realized we’ve played music over 20 years together. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Old Crow Medicine Show has enjoyed an uptick in popularity these last couple of years, due in part to the recent “New Acoustic Wave”; hot, banjo-toting bands like Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, and the Avett Brothers cite OCMS as an influence. In an increasingly digital age, why the current fascination with back porch-friendly fare?
“Americans in particular always fetishize the ‘authentic.’” Fuqua says. “People want to have something that roots them. A lot of Americans feel unrooted. A banjo and a fiddle and acoustic guitar roots them in some way.”
Another reason for Old Crow’s continued upward trajectory is the tunes. In addition to revivifying old traditions and tackling well-worn chestnuts, the men in Old Crow Medicine Show write canon-worthy songs. Their biggest hit, “Wagon Wheel” — on which Secor shares writing credit with Bob Dylan — is certified platinum, has been viewed more than 17 million times on YouTube, and exists now in the campfire singalong firmament alongside “Free Bird,” ”Friend of the Devil,” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” During his sabbatical, Fuqua says he met fellow college students who knew and loved the tune, but had no knowledge of Old Crow Medicine Show.
On Carry Me Back, they do it again with “Levi,” a powerful, mournful-yet-celebratory soldier’s tune both old timey and contemporary, about a real-life American Army sergeant and fan of Old Crow Medicine Show who was killed in action in Iraq. Not only has Levi’s family expressed appreciation, but vets frequently attend OCMS shows, helping the band raise the roof.
“Seems like just about every show we meet a veteran,” Fuqua says. “War has always been a theme in our writing, and soldiers like our music. It hits home, it touches a facet of American life that feels so separate for them. There’s a part of America that’s not at war, and there’s a part that is. Some people have sons and daughters over there, and some just have a sticker that says, ‘Support our Troops.’
“Sometimes people think protest songs and folk songs are in the past, but they need to realize I can have my own voice and I can write about my brother in Afghanistan and have it be real. Doesn’t have to be dated, it can be right now. Unfortunately war is almost a force of nature. It’s always here.”
Speaking of forces of nature, some you can experience at will and some you cannot. The righteous Old Crow Medicine Show is one of the former, a reminder of the power of music to hold things together, against the odds.
Tuesday, May 28, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $35 advance/ $40 door
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Dancing the Myth: From Isis to Isadora
By Robert Burke Warren
This Mother’s Day weekend, two deeply devoted dance organizations combine their resources, offering audiences a chance to celebrate life, love, beauty, and the feminine energy that brought us all here. Kaatsbaan International Dance Center in Tivoli hosts the Isadora Duncan International Institute Dancers’ From Isis to Isadora on Saturday, May 11 and Sunday, May 12, honoring the vision of the “matriarch of modern dance,” Isadora Duncan. (Photo montage and rare video here, picture of her above.) With the estimable Jeanne Bresciani at the helm, the IDII carries on the work, in Duncan’s own words, of creating a “luminous manifestation of the soul,” and Kaatsbaan, a 153-acre historic site nestled on verdant farmland formerly owned by the Roosevelts, is a thriving dance mecca, with a Metropolitan Opera-sized stage, yet only 180 seats.
Doyenne of dance Bresciani is directly linked to Isadora Duncan, and overflows with enthusiasm when discussing her art, and the upcoming performance, which will include 23 dancers. “I was taught by Isadora’s adopted daughter (and IDII co-founder) Maria Theresa Duncan herself,” she says. “She was passionate, radiant; she danced ‘til she was 90 years old. She was called the last dancing “Isadorable.” She’s a woman who, in a particular year, danced a Carnegie Hall solo concert, had a baby that summer, then another baby that December. A real woman.”
The fearless, revolutionary Duncan could not have chosen a more fitting apostle than Bresciani to carry her vision into the 21st century. Duncan’s style was — and is — rooted not only in movement, but also in philosophy, particularly the philosophy of the Greeks. True to that, Dr. Bresciani (she’s a Ph.D and an MA), who cataloged the self-taught Duncan’s extensive library, infuses performances (and conversation) with allusions to Rilke, Sappho, Rumi, Jung, Plato, and Da Vinci, among others, all of whom sought, like Duncan, to illuminate the soul.
“From Isis to Isadora,” Bresciani says, “draws inspiration from myth. Everything I do comes from myth. Mythos is the glue that holds the culture together.” The Isis myth, one of the great “mother goddess” myths of the ages, particularly inspires Bresciani as a potent, timeless story for modern-day audiences, who come to performances from an increasingly fractured world. In the Isis myth, the goddess restores her husband/brother Osiris, who has been dismembered by the jealous god Set and strewn about Egypt, so that they may produce Horus, the “last god,” the god of the sky. “We’re such a fragmented people,” Bresciani says. “We need the myth of Isis, where she’s gathering the parts of the beloved Isis and Osiris together, creating, forging the last god, without whom there would be no progeny, no divine race of beings. We must gather the fragments of the great creation of the eternal material that never dies, never goes away. That’s why I do the work I do, and why I do it the way I do it, rather than just teaching steps. You add Shakespeare to it, you add Ovid and Dante, and we have a world that never dies.”
The program “also includes a waltz of someone who is getting the energy of the ancient world and doesn’t know where it’s coming from, and drops out of the ballet and finds something freer and looser; then we have the Olympian, a depiction of twelve tiny little sketches of the ancient Olympic events; we have In Her Garden, a paean to nature and beauty and freedom, then Roses From the South, an Isadora dance set to a famous Strauss waltz.” The barefoot dances include all the trademark Duncan elements: fluid movement, skipping, flowing scarves (of course), and exuberant, faun-like leaps.
How do audience members new to Isadora Duncan’s style react after an IDII performance? Says Bresciani: “People say, ‘It’s what I always dreamed dance was but never saw before on a stage.’ It’s the dance ‘the people’ love. It’s not necessarily the dance of the intellectual, it’s not edgy, it doesn’t break things apart, it doesn’t deconstruct things, it doesn’t leave you hanging. Isadora was always about the triumph of the human spirit. Something is resolved in beauty… you’re never left thwarted or undone. I may die onstage, but it’s a triumphant, ecstatic death. It is for a purpose, for a reason, everything is endowed with a passionate cause; there is nothing gratuitous. There is no movement that doesn’t have a meaning.”
For anyone tired of chaos — and who isn’t? — From Isis to Isadora, at idyllic, rustic-yet-state-of-the-art Kaatsbaan, offers a reprieve like a mother’s warm embrace, the enduring vision of a modern-day goddess.
From Isis to Isadora: The Ancient and Eternal Ideal in Art
Saturday, May 11, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, May 12, 2:30 p.m.
Adults, $30; children, $10
120 Broadway, Tivoli, NY
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Siren Song: Arum Rae at Infinity Hall
Want your dreams to come true? Change your password. Last year, singer-songwriter-guitarist Arum Rae Valkonen — Arum Rae to her fans — changed all of hers (since changed again, hackers) to “DreamsComeTrue2012,” and enjoyed her most amazing year ever, with chart-topping national recognition, record deal, cash windfall, and a coveted spot opening for Willie Nelson at Austin City Limits’ prestigious Moody Theater. Still riding that life-changing wave, Arum Rae — whose current EP “Waving Wild” is available for free HERE — brings her blend of raucous blues, modern rock, and troubadour chops to Infinity Hall on Sunday, May 5, for a post-brunch set at 12:30 p.m. While her style incorporates multiple influences, folks will walk away stunned most of all by her voice, comparing her to Norah Jones, Amy Winehouse, PJ Harvey, “a female Jack White,” and a kind of punk rock siren with R&B flava. All will agree she’s a star.
Arum Rae’s been working the low side of the road for a decade, bouncing from her mother’s home in rural Virginia, to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, to Savannah, Georgia, and finally to Austin. Along the way, she’s self-released a 2004 eponymous debut (and several follow-ups, one under the moniker White Dress), sung backup on hip-hop recordings, driven ten hours to open mic nights, written several albums’ worth of material, and finally drawn the attention of pros — now peers — like the Civil Wars and Gary Clark, Jr., both of whom invited her to tour and, with the Civil Wars, to collaborate.
The tipping point of 2012, in fact, was her song “If I Didn’t Know Better” — co-written with the Civil Wars’ John Paul White. Hit ABC series Nashville used it in an episode — sung by stars Sam Palladio and Clare Bowen (Gunnar and Scarlett) — and this propelled Arum from debt-ridden, under-the-radar indie to buzz-worthy hitmaker, a shift that, while dreamed about for years, initially stunned her. Arum says, “I went to see the Civil Wars play at the Austin City Limits festival last year and (Civil Wars’ chanteuse) Joy (Williams) gives me a hug and she’s like, ‘Congratulations! Your song’s number 16 on Billboard!’ I was like ‘WHAT?’” She laughs down the line, a smoky, blues-belter’s chuckle. “I didn’t even know what that meant! I walked away and got on my iPhone, Googling.”
Of the song’s success, she says, “It definitely allowed me to move to the East Village and waste a bunch of money and find out I didn’t want to live there. I’m a country girl. But most important, it’s let me re-invest in myself financially and feel like a normal human being. When you work for your art all the time, you’re always behind on paying for everything. I got to pay off bills. And it made me feel a bit more official, something to stand on that was not just an idea in your bedroom of what you want to be and do. “
If a high school teacher hadn’t encouraged wayward teen Arum Rae to audition for Berklee, the fledgling singer’s own “bedroom idea” might never have materialized. To her surprise, she nabbed a voice scholarship at the esteemed music school. “Having to do jazz and classical theory,” she says, “and writing in the styles of Bach and Gershwin, gave me the tools to be a songwriter.” Interestingly, however, Arum Rae focused on business. “I just thought having an artist performance degree is a joke,” she says. “As a performer you have to gain your voice by performing. The business thing is very intriguing, and I really love people, and I love working with people, striking deals. It’s fun.”
One of the deals she recently struck was with superstar producer Mike Elizondo (Alanis Morrisette, Fiona Apple, Maroon 5, Dr. Dre, 50 Cent). The material they’ve recorded in L.A. awaits release in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, Arum Rae is keeping to the modus operandi that got her where she is: staying on the road, honing her material, writing, and performing with a hungry, skilled rhythm section who watch as their boss, like a mythical siren, slays with song. —Robert Burke Warren
Infinity Music Hall
Sunday, May 5, 12:30 p.m.
20 Greenwoods Road West