By Jennifer Huberdeau
NORTH ADAMS, Mass.
A man clad in bluejeans, a long-sleeved dress shirt, a suit vest, black boots and a gray Victorian top hat sits on the pavement in one of my favorite photographs from the 2013 Solid Sound Festival. You can tell the man is listening intently, but to what or to whom, you can’t tell.
He’s surrounded by festivalgoers in a variety of clothing — plaid shorts, jeans, khakis, T-shirts and button downs — but it appears none of this matters to him. He is just there, listening.
I think I like this photograph because it reminds me of three days I spent at Solid Sound that year. It was the first time I had covered the actual festival. Mind you, I wasn’t there to cover the performances, but rather the people attending it. People who had come from around the country to spend three days in the state’s smallest city.
Up until then, I covered Solid Sound from the outside. I wrote about the economic impact of the festival and talked to store and restaurant owners. I wrote about permits and attended planning meetings for temporary campsites. I wrote about the public safety planning meetings I attended. I wrote articles suggesting locals rent spare rooms through Airbnb. (Back then, I had to explain what Airbnb was.) I’d gone behind the scenes as the festival was being set up and was there for Wilco’s news conferences. I’d even written a story, before the first festival in 2010, about a group then called Develop North Adams raising funds and returning benches to the city’s downtown. But 2013 was the first time I covered the Solid Sound Festival from the inside. And it was the best “people watching” experience I had ever had.
I remember back in 2010, when it was first announced that Wilco planned to curate a three-day festival of music and art, that initial reaction was mixed. There were those who were excited, but there were also those who were hesitant. There was hesitation because there were many unknown factors, the biggest being just who Wilco’s fans were.
2010 was a time of great change in North Adams. After 26 years of having the same man in City Hall’s corner office, there was a newly-elected mayor. There was a new lifeblood in the city; people who didn’t accept the status quo. Change came quickly, most visibly in the form of pocket parks and benches (which had been removed to discourage undesirables from hanging out in the business district).
But even those who were initially hesitant, despite their fears of unruly concert goers, quickly warmed to the idea of the festival. The reason? There was the fact that in 2008, Wilco had played at Tanglewood and sold about 10,000 tickets for a single show.
When Wilco’s fans began arriving that first year, there was a sense of awe. These people weren’t dirty, vulgar drug peddlers. They were well-dressed, polite, middle class Americans with their toddlers and teenagers in tow. If you listened carefully, you could hear a collective sigh of relief in the city. And then began the love affair with the Solid Sound Festival. The city and its residents welcomed Wilco, the festival and its attendees back with open arms the following year. And, when it was announced that 2012 would be a year without Wilco and its festival, as the band had to tour for a new album, there was some heartbreak. But the band promised it would return in 2013, and they did.
So there I was, inside the festival for the first time, people watching and shooting short videos (which have unfortunately disappeared into the ether) of the performances and the people in attendance. I remember talking to a man with a gigantic waxed moustache; families with young children who were making art in Kidspace; teenagers hanging out with their parents; groups gathered around cellphone charging stations and people with hair every color of the rainbow. I remember volunteers with pins that proclaimed, “Ask me, I’m a local.” I remember the people more than the music. I remember a man, in a gray Victorian hat, sitting on the pavement, listening intently.
2013 was the year that Wilco pledged to make Solid Sound a biennial event and filmed the documentary “Every Other Summer.”
It was also the year that I heard Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy tell then-Mayor Richard J. Alcombright, “This is our home-away-from-home now. You’ll have trouble getting rid of us.”
They’ve kept both of those promises. •
Jennifer Huberdeau is the editor of UpCountry Magazine. From 2005 to 2014, she covered all things North Adams as part of her beat at the North Adams Transcript.