“I feel some connection between you and me.” Jeff Tweedy sang those words from “Hotel Arizona” during the second of two shows his band Wilco delivered over the weekend, and they absolutely rang true. Tweedy acknowledged this by saying that the festival wouldn’t happen without the audience. Now in it’s fourth year, the festival is stronger than ever, a really unique chance for Wilco fans scattered far and wide to celebrate the music and ongoing creativity. Us Bostonians have it easy, since it’s a pretty picturesque 2.5 hour drive into North Adams. Locales such as Seattle, Santa Fe and Toronto were embarking points for some other fans, with two from Brazil and Senegal sharing the long distance traveler award.
So what separates this festival from the burgeoning ranks that compete for the music lover’s attention? Obviously this is very Wilco-centric; in addition to the all acoustic set that headlined Friday, the Tweedy band closed out Sunday and each band member had side project performances going throughout the weekend too. After consecutive editions in 2010 and 2011, it’s settled into a bi-annual cycle, and the just-released documentary filmed during 2013 should give more than a glimpse into what makes this weekend so special.
The rest of the programming is also handled by Wilco and their management team, who are based a short distance away in Northampton. Though there were plenty of white dads in the crowd, the selection of acts was far away from the derided ‘dad rock’ tag that lazy pigeonholers have tried to apply to Wilco. Unfortunately some snafus popped up unexpectedly; legendary blues man Taj Mahal was unable to attend due to health issues (Noho locals Speedy Ortiz filled in at the last minute with their buzzsaw rock attack), and the State Department had a computer problem that prevented work visas being sorted for renowned world music pioneer King Sunny Adé.
Not to worry – jazz legend Charles Lloyd brought forth a glorious sound to the cloud-covered environs of Courtyard D, with Bill Frisell (who also performed as a duo with Sam Amidon) sitting in, and the enthusiastic crowd demanded and got an encore, a full twenty minutes of bonus time. Shabazz Palaces, a duo featuring Ishmael Butler (ex-Digable Planets) and Baba Maraire that stretched the boundaries of hip-hop and electronic music. Cibo Matto were another bright color in the spectrum, the duo of Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori bringing a seriously playful vibe to the festival. Along with Shabazz Palaces, they were the most visually arresting combo, with their masculine, burly bass player wearing a striking geometric print dress and ruby red lipstick that matched his bass. Over at the far side playing a silver Jazzmaster was the inimitable Nels Cline, who also happens to be married to Honda and brought his special crunch and clatter via six strings and various accessories he used to alternately massage and torture those strings.
Fans of the alt.country and folk side of Wilco were rewarded as well. Since Tweedy produced the just-released record from Richard Thompson, it was no surprise that he’d show up and display his prodigious talents on the fretboard, electronic version. Watchers of the Solid Sound Twitter feed were disappointed that he didn’t play a surprise pop-up acoustic set nestled somewhere in the sprawling museum galleries, but others were rewarded with Autumn Defense (Pat Sansone and John Stirratt’s breezy SoCal band) and an entirely different set from Ryley Walker. Walker and his crack band played a sprawling, spiraling vision that fused folk elements to psych voyages for the scheduled performance, but in the gallery the ‘art’ moved to the forefront. Using monofilament on his strings, he coaxed whispers and shrieks from his acoustic body, while drummer Ryan Jewel used a bow on the cymbal edge and guest John Moloney added to the percussive clatter behind the muted pyrotechnics of guitarist Brian Sulpizio and the bowed double bass of Anton Hatwich.
Another prodigious budding talent on offer was William Tyler, who has lent his skills to Lambchop, Silver Jews and Bonnie “Prince” Billy in addition to his solo work. Fans of Daniel Bachmann and Steve Gunn will find much to like about the open-tuned guitar work of Tyler, who also had a dry sense of humor that made him instantly likable. Younger fans were treated to the easy-going and good-natured goofiness of Mac DeMarco, who had an absolutely massive line for the meet and greet session. His guitarist asked for a floppy hat and someone obliged, with DeMarco catching the expertly tossed hat and passing it over to the now shirtless Andrew Charles White. Despite the laid back vibe, he and his band can absolutely play, with a blistering “Reeling In The Years” providing testament. And the youngest fans were thrilled with the playfully over the top antics of Story Pirates.
The centerpieces of the weekend though belonged solely to Tweedy and his bandmates. While they couldn’t top the joie de vivre experiment of last festival’s all cover set, the acoustic set was exuberantly received by the crowd. Sneaking in Uncle Tupelo’s “New Madrid” and “We’ve Been Had” was a nice look back at Tweedy’s roots, and a few of the Mermaid Avenue tracks (the collaboration with Billy Bragg to craft music to unused Woody Guthrie lyrics) made their way into the set list. The sweet, heart-rending version of Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You In The End” started the encore with a gentle push, and a trio of rave ups (“Casino Queen,” “Hoodoo Voodoo,” and “I’m A Wheel”) sent us off into that good (and dry) night.
Because if there’s one unwelcome visitor at Solid Sound, it’s rain. I’ve been to all of them and the previous two have had their share of periodic soakings. 2015 would be no different. One of the items to sell out at the merch table was the Wilco rain poncho. The forecast for Saturday had rain a near 100% probability, so the set times were smartly advanced an hour. Despite Tweedy’s optimism, he makes a far better songwriter than meteorologist and the slow but steady advance of rain arrived, increasing in rate as the clock ticked. No matter though – the crowd was prepared and the band rewarded with several blistering versions of their songbook; “Sunken Treasure” saw Cline lead two incendiary blastoffs into the stratosphere, “Born Alone” displayed a similarly raw and primal energy that’s absent from the studio version, and obscurity/diehard favorite “A Magazine Called Sunset” provided just one of several highlights. Late last year, the band released a deluxe 4LP collection of rare and hard to find songs that first found life on soundtracks, as b sides, free downloads, bonus discs or as iTunes exclusives and the encore start was designed for these Wilco ultra-nerds who already had all of that stuff. After “Let’s Not Get Carried Away” and “Dark Neon” concluded, Tweedy quipped that that would be the last of the Japanese b sides. The night ended with a trio off Being There and “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” was a glorious sing-along/send-off into the dark and rainy night, as people gathered soaked blankets, dripping lawn chairs and shivering children. Maybe Jerry Brown will reach out to Wilco and book a year-long tour all over California.
Sunday was a much more low key affair from the approximately 9,000 people who attended Saturday, and the focus was on the various member’s side projects. Nels Cline performed as Stained Radiance, a performance piece that included live painting by Norton Wisdom projected onto a large screen, and some outré interpretive dancing by three people clad in different color sheeting. Art with a capital A; sometimes captivating, sometimes veering over the line into pretentiousness. Glenn Kotche did a few pieces with cellist Jeffrey Zeigler (ex-Kronos Quartet) that mixed field recordings Kotche created when walking about at previous Solid Sound festivals and avant percussion and cello. Zeigler performed “Babel,” a John Zorn song on solo prepared cello with equal parts percussion and string resonance, driven by an aggressive bow delivery. There was a fifty strong ensemble of volunteers who played prepared snares that joined in at the end.
If this sounds like a completely packed weekend, keep in mind that there were also stellar sets from Parquet Courts, Real Estate, late night live accompaniment to projected images (Real Estate on Friday, Cibo Matto on Saturday), the amazingly deep selection of on-site Euclid Records, the Mass MoCA collection, the Wilco timeline with rare photos and ephemera, the complete comedy stage featuring Tig Notaro and John Hodgman, the surprise 11AM poster book signing by the band, the festival-only Summerteeth IPA on offer via Smuttynose, well… there was that and so much more.
At the stage edge as Tweedy (the band) closed out the weekend (note – the set was great but I would be remiss without mentioning that the presentation of “Into The Groove” as “All Along The Watchtower” with Cibo Matto was amazing), Tweedy (the person) thanked everyone for coming and promised that they would do everything they could to keep improving the experience. While I can think of a few tweaks they could look into (more food trucks, since getting sustenance on Saturday meant killing 45 minutes of time waiting; perhaps a chair/blanket-free zone in front of the stage like at Newport Folk Festival to prevent territorial disputes), it’s clear that a lot of thought and effort goes into each weekend to make it a special event. Start clearing that late June weekend in 2017.
Primarily based in Boston, Massachusetts, Tim Bugbee is no stranger to traveling throughout the country or overseas to capture the best live music photos.