FINDING A STRONG VOICE Brenda frontman Joshua Loring.
Maybe the most surprising thing about Portland indie band Brenda’s set at the Wilco-curated Solid Sound Festival on the Mass MoCA campus in North Adams, Massachusetts, on Saturday was that people were actually there to see it. Lots of them.
The band were invited to play the inaugural festival by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy after he heard a song from their then-unreleased album, Silver Tower (Mckeenstreet Music), while shopping at Rogues Gallery in Portland — where Brenda’s label manager, Graeme Kennedy, was conveniently working. At a press conference on Friday, Tweedy (prompted by Annie Larmon, photographer, Phoenix contributor, and girlfriend of Brenda guitarist/vocalist Joshua Loring) recalled stumbling across the band. “I loved it. It was melodious and interesting. I had to find out who they were,” he said.
I figured this story had a predictable ending: Brenda play an opening slot on Saturday morning, almost no one is there because they stayed up too late the night before, the experience proves vaguely dispiriting, and maybe nothing will come of it. (This seems to be the story of the band’s appearance at the Nateva festival in Oxford earlier this summer. During Brenda’s set at Solid Sound, Loring thanked Wilco and the festival staff, mentioning that it’s “much nicer than . . . other ones.”)
But no. Hundreds of people were on hand to watch Brenda perform at 12:30 pm Saturday, in one of Mass MoCA’s two courtyards, flanked by a recommissioned paper mill filled with hall after hall of massive art installations. I saw an old guy in a Nateva shirt and a young girl in a Sparks the Rescue tee. Guys with notepads were taking more notes than I was, professional photographers were shooting. After their second song, Loring, typically wry on stage, did something he doesn’t do often: he relished the moment. “This feels good. Really good. I’m psyched.”
The previous night, I met up with the band (Loring, bassist Peet Chamberlain, and drummer D.J. Moore) in the museum’s other courtyard, on a large patio overlooking a stage and film screen. Visibly anxious, the guys distracted themselves by eating nachos and trying to covertly snap a picture next to R.E.M. guitarist Mike Mills (part of MLB-themed supergroup the Baseball Project this weekend), who was eating a quesadilla behind us. We marveled at the festival’s comfort and mellow nature (babies and lawn chairs were pervasive, and a large chunk of the over-35 men looked like middle-aged rock critics, which is to say people too old and smart to still be wearing T-shirts aligning themselves with rock bands), and its uniquely pleasing environment. The band discussed how to deliver a gift they brought — a map of Maine from 1899, purchased at Emerson Books — to Jeff Tweedy. Above all, there was a sense of surprisingly strong conviction among the band, and especially Loring (who at one point said, “I want so fucking badly to make it with this band”) that they want to seize this serendipitous moment, and ultimately graduate from Portland to the major-minor leagues of the indie scene.