Basilica Soundscape: A Music Festival for Grown-ups, Done (Mostly) Right

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The grown-up music festival is a difficult idea to get right. Of all the attempts in recent years to create a festival that offers something beyond rolling around in the mud with people on perilous amounts of ecstasy and/or avoiding dickheads in Native American headdresses, only All Tomorrow’s Parties has really gotten the formula right. Sadly, ATP’s business savvy hasn’t matched their taste in music, and their ongoing financial/logistical problems have left a gap in the market for someone to put on a festival that brings together a relatively esoteric bill, a crowd more interested in music than partying, and an experience likely to appeal to those who’ve had more than enough of festivals with six stages and a bazillion bands on the bill.

This is Basilica Soundscape’s third year of operation — it’s held in Hudson, NY, in the eponymous Basilica Hudson, a 19th-century factory that’s been restored and repurposed into a swanky 21st-century art space. It’s a striking setting, and given that in a moment of rare foresight your trusty Flavorwire contingent managed to secure the last three-bedroom Airbnb house available in Hudson, we approached the weekend with a good deal of optimism and a comfortable pair of slippers.

Photo credit: Adam Lareau

There’s a great deal to be said for a weekend-long festival where one can sleep in a real bed at night, even if Basilica does also offer a camping option for people who are brave and/or under the age of 30. The duality makes for an interesting crowd — clearly affluent older people and interested locals rub shoulders with bedraggled kids who’ve caught the shuttle bus in from the campsite. In a way, it’s not unlike Hudson itself, which is a strange town stuck halfway between economic depression and ostentatious gentrification. The main street is like a sort of idealized extrapolation of Williamsburg, with determinedly cool design firms, bougie restaurants, and stores selling artisanal knickknacks and fancy tea and whatnot, but go a block past it on either side and you’re walking through some pretty down-at-heel neighborhoods that don’t seem to have benefited even a little bit from the recent influx of New York expats.

The festival itself is still a work in progress — this year’s bill could have done with some levity, because when Swans are in the running to be the most fun band to play over the course of the weekend, you’re perhaps taking everything a wee bit too seriously. It could also certainly have done without some of the readings that interrupted the musical performances, including a serving of Thought Catalog-esque alt-lit and a relentlessly sophomoric half-hour lecture from Meredith Graves of Perfect Pussy. But on the whole, the sequencing worked well, and the space is wonderful, with acoustics that put much fancier venues to shame. It made Tim Hecker’s set on Friday night — which was the weekend’s musical highlight, and would have been a visceral experience in any setting — something close to a spiritual epiphany. (It left your correspondent in such a state of bliss on the floor that a kindly fellow patron shook me gently out of my reveries and asked if I needed some water.)

Emily Reo. Photo credit: Adam Lareau

It’s this sort of music that works best at Basilica, I think — Julia Holter delivered a gorgeous set earlier on Friday night, and again the acoustics were perfect. The smaller hall (with seating!) that hosted excellent sets by Emily Reo and Majical Cloudz is also a thoroughly lovely place to watch and listen to music. By contrast, the latter-day L7 sounds of White Lung and the latter-day Mogwai sounds (with added screaming metal bro) of Deafheaven were a questionable fit for the venue — they didn’t sound great, and they didn’t feel right, either. Guardian Alien’s unique dude-playing-epic-drum-solo-over-a-Diamanda-Galás-vocal sound fared better, but still felt like a curious choice for this space.

Swans. Photo credit: Adam Lareau

Happily, Swans can tear up pretty much any venue, even if their epic-ness is starting to bleed into jam-band territory (it’s hard to get away with an intro that literally lasts half an hour, no matter who you are.) Their set spanned two hours, six songs, and perhaps ten chords — where Swans sets in the past have been kinda like a large man punching you in the head repeatedly, this was more like being crushed slowly by a monolith or something. I mean this, of course, in the best possible way.

On the whole, Basilica Soundscape is an excellent festival experience — the music’s great, the venue’s gorgeous, there’s a good choice of food (including a truck that specialized in furnishing anything from french fries to artichoke hearts with astonishing amounts of garlic), the bar where the afterparties are held serves tooth-curlingly strong drinks, and it’s two hours on Amtrak from Penn Station. And you can sleep in a real bed. Who could ask for more?

(Feature pic: Julia Holter by Tom Hawking and his cellphone)