Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival lives up to its name

A review of Wilco's Solid Sound Festival at the Mass Moca on August 13-15, 2010

, Contributing Writer

Headlining a festival is nothing out of the ordinary for a band like Wilco. However, when the Chicago rock veterans made plans to curate their own three-day festival in Western Massachusetts, they certainly raised some eyebrows. Last weekend, on the grounds of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, Wilco’s inaugural Solid Sound Festival was nothing short of a delightful success.

At this point in their careers, Wilco like to do things on their own terms. They do most of their own promotional and production work on their own; they’ve had their own recording studio since the days of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and most likely they will release their next album on their own label. Considering all this, it’s not all that surprising that they would skip the likes of Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and Coachella, to experiment with a festival of their own. However, what is surprising is that they would bring their Solid Sound Festival north to the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts for a weekend at the MoCA in North Adams. The answer, as proved over and over again last weekend, was that this was much more than your normal music festival.

Frontman Jeff Tweedy touched on the appeal of being at a world class art museum in the opening day press conference and also on the manageable size of everything. Indeed, one of the highlights of the weekend was the relative ease of moving from one band to another and the fact that things were scheduled and laid out so that seeing every band each day was possible, something pretty much unheard of and impossible at a bigger festival.

The trade-off was the fact that there were no other bands comparable to Wilco’s stature, but what was lost in sheer name recognition, was made up for through a series of skilled up-and-comers, many from the New England area. Mountain Man, a trio hailing from Vermont, provided a lovely afternoon set on Saturday, and while the largely a cappella set might have been hurt by being stuck in the main outdoor courtyard forcing the intricate vocal harmonies to compete with passersby, it was in many ways the ideal music in the calm of the late afternoon sun. Likewise, hometown band, The Books, whose members attended Williams College and then setup up base in North Adams, had the last set on Friday night, and produced an entertaining show with their eclectic mixture of string-laden-folk meets electronic-experimentalism, with the added bonus of videos to accompany the songs playing behind the band.

One of the most memorable sets of the weekend came from specially Autumn Defense’s set, an alt. country band fronted by Wilco bassist John Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone The group’s sparkling take on early 70s country rock in the vein of Neil Young circa Harvest, made them anything but a simple side-project. Other notable sets came from Pronto featuring Wilco keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen. The legendary blues and gospel singer Mavis Staples also brought some more name recognition outside of the Wilco family.

Of course, although all the sets over the weekend were good, the main draw was Wilco. Everyone was there for Wilco. The large white lettering of “Mass MOCA” had “Wilco” overlaid in front of it in honor of the festival and even a local church was offering a Sunday pancake breakfast for Wilco fans. There was no mistaking what the main attraction was, and they didn’t disappoint. Playing for close to two-and-a-half hours and 30 songs when all was said and done, Wilco ranged through their catalogue of material, from the early country-tinged sing-a-long “I Must Be High,” from their debut, to 6 songs of their 2009 self tilted album.

From the get-go, Wilco clearly fed off the energy provided by Mavis Staples’ powerful performance of driving R&B earlier in the night. The only lulls came when the band dipped into some of their deeper cuts. Mostly they were to please fans, as Tweedy introduced one song by shaking off shouts for another, “if you want to hear that one, go online and request it 10 million times like this next one,” but the band knew their role as Tweedy laughingly introduced another relatively obscure number, “it’s our festival, we can play what we want.” No song, though, well known or not, went without some fan jubilation, and the crowd played a large role. In introduction to their 2002 classic “Jesus, Etc,” Tweedy noted jokingly that it was a song “some of our fans know some of the words to,” but even he was mesmerized as the entire crowd carried the tune, allowing him to simply smile out into the crowd and strum along on guitar. They ended the night with a solo-filled rendition of “Hoodoo Voodoo,” that had Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone dancing across the stage and trading licks like two kids at their own concert.

Tweedy finished out the weekend by himself with a mostly acoustic set on Sunday, pulling from a long and varied career that included a cut from the pre-Wilco band Uncle Tupelo as well as many side projects. With a light rain falling, Tweedy was joined by many of his Wilco bandmates and members of other participating, to close the festival out and bid the fans farewell.

One of the main benefits of being hosting the festival at a major art museum was the inclusion of art-related showcases. Two of the top highlights were guitarist Nels Cline’s interactive guitar pedal exhibition, which had one of the upstairs galleries continually screeching with the sound of distortion and reverb as people got a chance to fiddle with the settings of 13 different pedals. Drummer Glenn Kotche rigged a series of drums with various objects like springs, coins and chains attached and then mic’d them, allowing people to test out different percussive sounds. Perhaps the most interesting art piece was the gallery of Wilco posters. Pulled from 16 years as a touring band, the posters, mostly limited edition silk-screens, showed a band with genuinely creative and artistic output. Included in the exhibit was a poster for a Boston show with a black, Comic-style rendering of the city in foreground, and the green monster rising in the background like a pale green sky.

These side attractions, mixed with the fact that the festival was easy to navigate with very few delays (even parking was relatively free of hassle), proved to offer an alternative to the usual festival experience, and may prove to be a style that other small festivals model themselves after in the coming years. Because of the smaller size, the ticket price was pretty reasonable and the low-key affair could easily have been supplemented with all that the Berkshires have to offer without a fear of needing to get back in time to stand for three hours in a line in order to have any shot of seeing a band.

With such great success in its first year, it’s hard not to see Wilco make the Solid Sound Festival a yearly event. Given that New England has largely missed out on festivals of its own up to this point, this can only be a good thing.

Leave a Reply