For the seventh time since 2010, Wilco moved their headquarters temporarily from Chicago to North Adams, MA and kicked off another edition of Solid Sound. As Tweedy sings in “Outtasite (Outta Mind),” here they come again and they’re bringing their friends. For every event they’ve found a way to make it unique, from an all fan-requested covers show, to fanbase-sourced singers/live karaoke set (hey – they all can’t be great ideas), an all-acoustic set, and also dropping into the more common trope of playing an entire record live; but as Wilco does, they went above and beyond in 2017 and after they closed with the final song from Being There, shocked the audience by playing the entire Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as the encore. So what was the band’s planned wrinkle for this postponed/re-scheduled from 2021 event?
This year the Friday night show happened to coincide with the just-released Cruel Country so why not play that in its entirety? Ticket holders got a download link a few days before the actual release date so they had the option of familiarizing themselves with the double album prior to arriving at Mass MoCA, but I decided to go in completely cold. More on that in a bit.
For Solid Sound virgins, the festival is held at one of the best art museums in the East, a sprawling industrial factory that is re-fashioned to display excellent and sometimes quite large modern art installations and as a ticket holder you get to wander throughout the labyrinthine halls to find these treasures; occasionally there will be a short pop-up performance by one of the festival performers as well. This year they were all noted on the schedule via the Solid Sound phone app aside from a Jeff Tweedy/Darin Gray improv noise set that was unannounced. I kind of wish they would revert back to the element of surprise and just send out an app notification a few minutes before the performance as it lends more chance and unpredictability to the proceedings. As there is tons to do during the festival, the only one I managed to catch was Sammy Tweedy’s modular synth piece, some moody beats and electronic squiggles that were a lot different from his fresh-faced vocal contributions he does while performing with his dad. Bonus points for the Melt-Banana shirt.
The proper stages are in the two courtyards, one with a raised deck that’s got a bar and the other one just down the walkway, about two or three times larger. If you take a left from facing that stage in Courtyard D you can either pop into a building for some Wilco pennants and stickers or hit the other side on the left that had a full bar, a coffee and ice cream window, and a pop-up record store. Something for everyone! Keep heading over the bridge over the sluice way and you’ll come to Joe’s Field where the main stage is. Thankfully the festival has adopted the same policy as Newport Folk where the territory in front of the sound desk to the stage doesn’t allow chairs or blankets but there are plenty of places on the edges and in the back to spread out and get a little bit of your own relaxation zone. Way in the back were a variety of food trucks, the festival merch tent and if you kept going past the port-o-lets you’d find other food vendors, ranging from hot dogs to vegan options to pot stickers, crepes and rice balls – the selection and quality is way better than most festivals and the lines typically weren’t too bad (the same can’t be said of the coffee/ice cream stand; that seemed to have a long and consistent queue of customers for most of the day and night). Back in the main entrance building, the Hunter Center was home to the comedy portion as well as late night performances.
In the early days of this every other year festival, there was room to stretch out and not worry about crushes of people; every since about 2015 or so that’s changed and while the capacity can’t really be increased, they removed the aluminum bleachers from Joe’s Field and also created a “Friends Of The Festival” level where for some more money you get some extra perks like a lounge, dedicated bathrooms and one or two pop-up appearances that weren’t open to the hoi polloi. There isn’t a VIP-only viewing area thankfully; the best spots are fair game for anyone.
It’s not surprising that a lot of people come mainly for Wilco and the associated side projects but the lineup is always curated with a great mix of older acts (Terry Allen, Sun Ra Arkestra, Mike Watt), newer stuff (Cut Worms, Tuomo & Markus), some adventurous sonic journeys (Consentrik Quartet, Angel Bat Dawid) and a bit of up-and-comers (Japanese Breakfast) and I think it’s highly unlikely that anyone walks away from the festival without at least one new band they are excited about and want to delve into a bit deeper. But the meat of the festival is what Wilco decides to bring, and on that front the reaction was a tad bit mixed. As I said before I’d purposely stayed away from Cruel Country and standing in a slightly damp field isn’t the most ideal way to soak in a double record for the first time but damn – as Killdozer once said, “this is good shit.” Tweedy’s political leanings are pretty clearly to the left and he leans hard into taking a critical eye at the current state of our country. The title track is a sad-eyed realization of our simultaneously great and terrible nation; “Hints” tells of the stark polarization that’s been steadily tearing us apart over the last decade or two, and sadly accelerating all the time. “There is no middle when the other side/Would rather kill than compromise.” Can’t argue.
The band took a honky-tonk approach on “Falling Apart (Right Now)”, a song about love gone wrong. Any passive viewer of the Instagram-based Tweedy Show that started in the early days of the pandemic knows that Jeff and Susie’s bond is as strong as anyone’s in the world and they have a deep and constant love but damned if Tweedy doesn’t consistently write entirely convincing songs about relationships that shift into ruinous ashes. Here’s another one, with a perky upbeat song that could stand along side any sweetheart of the rodeo. This is a record that will be taking up a good chunk of my listening time over the next few weeks, and I see lasting power in it, unlike the last handful of records they’ve released.
The encores were similarly themed; Wilco doesn’t half-ass these things. The only non-Tweedy lead vocal in the Wilco canon is the breezy “It’s Just That Simple,” and John Stirratt showed just how good his voice is when he is not lending sweet harmonies, a song that wouldn’t be out of place on those records The Eagles put out when they were still good. Tweedy’s love for punk rock is well known and if this is a country-tinged set well why not some Meat Puppets? Hell to the yeah, “Climbing” was an inspired choice, as was the re-arranged Uncle Tupelo classic “New Madrid,” and having Neko Case come on stage to belt out Connie Smith’s classic “Once A Day” was a flashback to when Nashville knew what was what. And speaking of Tweedy Show, the traditional closer of “Reincarnation” was the perfect keystone to the night.
Before talking about their second set of the weekend, jam band fans can be known as pretty demanding of songs and variety. When Wilco trotted out seven songs from Cruel Country that they played the night before, the line of Karens demanding full refunds because they didn’t get entirely unique back to back sets was simultaneously amusing and depressing. News flash! Musicians like creating new music and when that music is fucking good, well – they like to play it again and again. Are these the same people who stomp the ground when “Jesus Etc” or “Via Chicago” gets played during their 62nd time seeing Wilco? Who knows, and let’s not think about it any longer. Starting the set with the sublime “You Are My Face” (and Stirratt with that co-vocal!) was a clarion call that this wasn’t going to be a rote greatest hits set. The part just before when Jeff sings “I have no idea how this happens” is when the energy really picks up and the band ratchets into a new gear; it’s also a song where the dual keyboards of Mikael Jorgensen and Pat Sansone really shine.
It’s a true pleasure seeing this band when they are firing on all cylinders (and that’s 99.985% of the time, based on my empirical data set) regardless of what particular material they are playing. Since the band just did some special shows celebrating the 20th anniversary of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the stage was festooned with semi-circles recalling the iconic design of the Marina Towers that feature on the record’s cover, some speculated a full dose (or at least heavy) from that record but surprisingly it was Sky Blue Sky instead. The epic tension/release “Impossible Germany” was played as usual and the cathartic guitar explosion of Cline’s frenzied lead colliding with Tweedy and Sansone’s steady, foundational rhythm chords is always a big payoff. “Maybe the sun will shine today/the clouds will roll away” from “Either Way” was an apt song for this sometimes drizzly and rainy weekend, underscoring the bumper stickers at the merch proclaiming IT NEVER RAINS AT SOLID SOUND (hint – that’s a bald-faced lie). Of non-SBS songs, there was plenty to like from the muscular guitar work on “At Least That’s What You Said,” and the chestnut of “Jesus, Etc” was punctuated and modified by Michelle Zauner’s lead vocal and for true headz “The Good Part” was a particularly deep cut to kick off the encore. Once again, Wilco delivered two very different performances that were still 100% on point with their vision as a band. New Englanders are pretty fortunate that they’ve chosen the northwest corner of Massachusetts for this bi-annual event. Wilco loves you, baby.
Here are some notable highlights from the rest of the festival:
The jazz segment of the festival was very strong this year, with excellent performances across the board. Angel Bat Dawid played a powerful solo show, recalling the ecstatic jazz of the 60s in a free-wheeling and highly charged set that saw her summon the power of the rain clouds and bringing down a lashing. I can’t understand how Marshall Allen can still be a vibrant leader of the late Sun Ra’s Arkestra at 98 years old but as a band leader and sax player he is somehow defying basic principles of human biology. Hard to believe he started playing with Sun Ra sixty four years ago but he’s kept the mantle of Ra’s rambunctious and joyous message alive. Tuomo & Markus was some weird neo-psych mix of Nordic jazz in some lost desert and Glenn Kotche was seen entirely enjoying their set from the crowd. Nels Cline is certainly no stranger to jazz groups and played as part of Consentrik Quartet; drummer Tom Rainey was notable among this talented foursome. I’d only seen On Fillmore twice before, both times at Solid Sound and was looking forward to the deftly crafted interplay of Kotche and bassist Darin Gray once again. But after a searing first song where Gray coaxed all kinds of noises from his double bass while occasionally shouting into the air, the band was joined by singer Jonna Tervomaa and a couple accomplices and reverted back to a basic rock band rather than a fearless duo.
Neko Case lives just up across the border and was a pretty late add to the lineup, appearing under the Wild Creatures moniker, also the name of her most recent digital-only greatest hits comp. She’s a vet from the 2013 festival but played in a different format from her usual band, a drummer-less quartet that also included fellow Pornographer AC Newman. The lack of percussion gave a different feel to the songs in a positive way. Will Oldham, after ditching a few Palace name permutations has settled on Bonnie “Prince” Billy for a while now and played the same Courtyard D stage to a full crowd. He handed out green sheets of printed lyrics before the show and it appeared as though this entire set was new music, with a band I’d never seen him play with before. Long-time friend Mick Turner (The Dirty Three) was there with fellow Mess Esque member Helen Franzmann, Ben Boye of Freedom Band etc, Tim Eriksen Cordelia’s Dad, and Cheyenne Mize who played with Oldham on the Among The Gold 10″ from 2009. It was a bit of stretch to expect a sing-along to completely new songs but Oldham spoke convincingly of the spirit of community and how important music is to bring people together. Max Clarke aka Cut Worms played the smaller courtyard C stage early on Saturday the simple, honest songs were well-received; it doesn’t hurt that he’s got a somewhat uncanny semblance to Townes Van Zandt.
Mike Watt is a lifer in the best sense of the word, a guy fully committed to bringing his vision to life on stage but always looking for the right people to help craft it along the way. (More on that later; I had the pleasure of talking with Watt and Nels Cline specifically about collaboration and their approach, which will be published separately). The guy was tightly wound with SST from the beginning and Minutemen and fIREHOSE records are still critical pieces of any self-respecting record collection. Along with his solo work he’s also been a goddamn Stooge! When Iggy calls, you make time for those gigs. Today he’d light the main stage on fire with his Missingmen, Tom Watson (Slovenly) and Raul Morales on drums. Right out of the gate Watt proclaimed “We came to play!” and they did not shirk on that promise. “Fun House” was a direct statement that they were not fucking around. Choice Minutemen songs like “Fake Contest” and “The Glory Of Man” ricocheted like gunfire through a western canyon and some choice covers were sent into overdrive. First Cline laid out some blistering lines on Blue Öyster Cult’s “The Red And The Black” and even sang into Watson’s mic, but the real fireworks came with the epic twenty minute take of The Pop Group’s “We Are Time.” My favorite set of the weekend.
Terry Allen was someone I didn’t know anything about and had the old school American songbook feel to his set, in a very Randy Newman sort of way. Obviously people know and respect him since when you get special unannounced guests like David Byrne joining you, you’re doing something right. Solid Sounds generally have a card or two up their sleeve, and this was an ace of spades to hear Byrne play two songs with Allen (as well as guesting with Tweedy for the “California Stars” festival closer).
Eleventh Dream Day is another Chicago connection, a full-throated quintet that brings the blazing guitars of Rick Rizzo and Jim Elkington in a very Crazy Horse manner. Janet Beveridge Bean held down the beat with Doug McCombs (Tortoise being another Windy City tie-in) while providing heavenly vocals, and ex-Coctails/current Wilco studio manager Mark Greenberg played keyboards and sang too. Hard to believe I’d not seen them for thirty years, when Rizzo used his guitar head stock to spear a ceiling tile at TT’s. The band sounded ferocious and the set ended with Rizzo tossing his vintage Les Paul high into the air before saving it from a visit to the luthier and snatching it out of the air.
The New Blood:
Japanese Breakfast (aka Michelle Zauner) had her first real exposure to the mainstream when SNL asked her to be musical guest on this season’s closing show, and she played Boston Calling the day after her Solid Sound show; she’s certainly on the upswing. Slightly psychedelic, a little electro-pop, a lot of smiles and emotions and a dash of Nels who scorched through his guest spot on “Posing For Cars.” The closer “Diving Woman” from her debut LP remains my pick of the litter. Sylvan Esso were a little out of place as a full-on dance party, but Amelia Meath got the crowd energized from the storm that paused the festival as she shimmied, shook and swayed across the stage in her latex outfit while husband Nick Sanborn manned the synths. Perhaps their other musical outfits are more Wilco-adjacent (Mountain Man; Megafaun) than Sylvan Esso but they certainly had their share of enthusiastic fans in the wet field.
Another aspect of Solid Sound is the unmistakable layer of Wilco-related fingerprints all over it. Each band member has a slot to showcase some of their solo or side projects and as mentioned most were also involved with some sort of pop-up performance; as mentioned I caught On Fillmore and Cline’s jazz project but missed Jorgensen’s piece, the photography exhibit that Pat Sansone hosted and later his show with John Stirratt playing some breezy sun-soaked songs as The Autumn Defense. Then there’s the One Degree Of Jeff Tweedy, with plenty of spidering webs creating tenuous to solid connections. In addition to the previously Eleventh Dream Day relationships, the Watt/Cline history runs deep, Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath has played a prior Solid Sound with Mountain Man and were originally booked to play this year’s earlier Sky Blue Sky event, NNAMDÏ opened last year’s Wilco/Sleater-Kinney tour, and the sibling team of Liam Kazar and Sima Cunningham were busy all weekend, playing their own sets and sitting in with others, and helping to close out the fest with the final Tweedy band set. Noting that these songs are really more suited to dark, wet depressing weather and not the bright, sun-splashed setting that Sunday provided, Tweedy mentioned that when they play those songs the beach balls deflate themselves. Featuring mostly slower tempo material form Warm and Love Is The King, I would have preferred a bit more oomph to the proceedings aside from Elkington’s searing work on Love’s title track. Sammy came out to sing “Helpless” as he’s done before, with Rizzo and Bean helping on vocals and Sam Evian bringing his guitar. The stage was flooded with the rest of the Wilco members as Byrne figured out the chords to “California Stars” and Tweedy mentioned that we should do this again. Sounds like a plan – just let us know the dates!