Before I start, can we just talk about Nels’ guitar solo in “Impossible Germany” for a minute? I think it changed something deep inside of me, on the molecular level. That Cline is a brilliantly fearless and inventive guitar player has been well established but his 300-odd seconds of six string frenzy set a high water mark that won’t be forgotten soon. But hey, let’s get into this edition of 2019 from the start.
Established in 2010, and now running in odd-numbered years, Solid Sound is Wilco’s self-curated festival where they integrate the music, comedy, and art world by nestling a full weekend of performances, installations, exhibitions, and other activities within the environs of an outstanding museum. The band always puts a special spin on things, but this year found the masses of Wilco fans polarized over the prospect of karaoke during one of their sets. A few weeks ago the band solicited video auditions for five to ten slots of what (to the winners, anyway) would be a dream come true – to sing a song on stage with your favorite band. I mean, seriously – this is on the level of Make A Wish happenings. But for the thousands who would be on the other side of the stage, it wasn’t all received as well, with some public grousing both before and after it was over.
To me, the verdict was a solid B. The majority of the people did a fine job under what must have been nerve-wracking conditions, and a few people really did well. To be honest, the sloppiest was from Cline’s wife Yuka Honda and her friend, kinda flubbing their way through “We Aren’t The World (Safety Girl)” with some off-key singing and loose choreography. A countrified “Say You Miss Me” went over well, and hearing “Hate It Here” from a woman’s perspective was an interesting counterpoint. After a youngster did a spirited take on “Heavy Metal Drummer,” a guy behind said to his friend “Well, I’ve heard Jeff sing that one enough times.” That said, the entire portion comprised just over half of the entire set when counting by songs, which was a bit top heavy. A couple of ringers also joined to the crowd’s delight though, with youngest son Sammy leading the way on “I’m Always In Love” before Courtney Barnett came back to the stage for “Handshake Drugs,” which ended in not so much a duel as a monolithic guitar tag team she built with Cline.
However, Jeff made it a point early on to say it’s a big singalong and the lyrics projected behind the band certainly facilitated things even though at times the source data was a bit dodgy. After the band played “Jesus Etc” Tweedy quipped “I think I just learned the words to that song. Is it really ‘Voices cry’ and not ‘whine?’ Don’t trust the internet.” Regardless of the lyrics sung, Tweedy and band made it very obvious they enjoyed and appreciated each of the intrepid singers who gave it their best shot. “One thing I’ve learned from the last day is that Wilco could really use a singer,” remarked Tweedy. Jeff, I don’t think you should quit your day job but the gesture and generosity towards the fans did not go unnoticed.
2017 has been the only edition of SSF that I’ve missed, and in the ensuing four years Mass MoCA has been really busy, expanding their gallery into new areas of the massive site. It’s a great improvement, and if you haven’t been out to the museum in a while it’s certainly worth a day trip. The old industrial mill setting has always been a perfect match for some of the larger, eye-catching installations that have rotated through the museum and now there’s just a lot of more of them to check out. Trenton Doyle Hancock’s Mounds exhibit was fun, a mix of giant piles of detritus that creates its own world. Annie Lennox had a similarly large pile of earth and ash, dotted with various bric-a-brac resting on top, as well as a mirrored floored cubicle that showcased her various gold and platinum records she’s collected along the way to stardom. The interior space worked especially well for Jarvis Rockwell’s piece entitled Us, a series of long and narrow rectangular sheets of glass suspended the length of a hallway at various heights, with toys and figurines of action movies, sci-fi flicks, and other pop culture worlds assembled in a loose community. Kudos to the museum management for utilizing this additional room, and as would be evident later, the extra space of the gallery would come in very handy.
Though Wilco tries very hard to make the weekend a representation of their collective self, including side projects and colleagues/contemporaries who are making interesting, creative, and/or challenging music, the fact remains that a fairly decent sized portion is there just because of Wilco and the rest is window dressing, with die-hards hanging at the rail and up close when Joe’s Field first opens, waiting for Wilco’s set to start. That’s a bit of a shame, because they have consistently put together a disparate and entertaining schedule. From the deeply emotional blues of Lonnie Holley, the super-group garage band (half of R.E.M.!) that is The Minus 5, the minimal hip-hop of Milo, the dusty Saharan blues-mutated-to-Hendrix of Mdou Moctar, the barest of bones post-punk sound of Lithics, and the meandering psychedelia of Wand, all sorts of sonic ground was covered. Cate Le Bon in particular has undergone a complete revamp from when I last saw her, both in appearance and sound. Her bleached tresses and sultry sax and synth-fueled songs were magical, with her sparsely intricate guitar lines still present. Tweedy joined her on stage for a sublime reading of “Strangers,” a totally under-looked gem from the Kinks. There were so many performances but I would be remiss in not mentioning the engagingly elastic, super percussive and swinging set by Tortoise. Their Friday night live score to La Jetée was derailed by stage power problems at the outset and consisted mostly of some light jazz improv skitter, but their main set showed them in the proper light.
After a revved-up strumfest from the Feelies (where I was secretly hoping fellow VU acolyte Jonathan Richman would join in and play “I’m Waiting For My Man” or “Beginning To See The Light”), Wilco’s Saturday night headlining set dispensed with any gimmicks and got straight into business. Clearly near the top of anyone’s list when it comes to playing as a live unit, the band has a deep catalog to pull from and between the two nights they played 49 songs with no overlap. Impressive! The set had a very nice ebb and flow to it, with the slow build of “Hell Is Chrome” into “Muzzle of Bees” and then onto the aquarium drinkers in “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” The pace picked up via the mid-tempo “War On War” and the utterly gorgeous “Company In My Back,” where the two keyboards of Jorgenson and Sansone created a really beautiful texture. Tweedy got a laugh when he said he usually had to warn people when they were gonna play a song from their first record, but “Shouldn’t Be Ashamed” and later on the rollicking “Box Full Of Letters” would stand tall and proud next to any random Westerberg song. A couple of new songs poked their way into the general populace (“Empty Corner” and “White Wooden Cross” which my guess will be on the forthcoming LP in the Fall), and while there were no out and out surprises, the return of the brooding “Bull Black Nova” was welcome.
And of course, the guitar solo. “Impossible Germany” is a bit of a polarizing song among Wilco fans, with some listing it as one of their favorites while others use it to relieve spent beer or restock on new beer. The beginning of the solo is rather tame, with flitting notes and a meandering style while Tweedy and Sansone hold down the rhythm. In due course, Nels amps up the urgency and suddenly his somewhat freakishly long fingers sound like they’ve sprouted siblings, running all over the frets while his pick arm muscles have been transformed into the sort of fast twitch type that power hummingbird wings. And that goes on for another solid couple minutes, building and building until I expected the neck to buckle and the strings to melt. Damn!
Sunday had an ominous start before any band started playing, with strong storm cells bringing some thunderclaps along with torrential downpours. Here’s where the expanded museum space came in handy, because everything that was slated to be performed on the Courtyard C and D stages was moved inside and the main field was indefinitely closed. The museum and event staff kept everything pretty organized and chill (aside from one overly loud security guy who kept yelling at people to keep clear from the taped aisles during Lonnie Holley’s set), and it was apparent that a decent chunk of people from Saturday decided to call it an early festival and head home. Which brings me to one of the negatives of the event’s success- the banning of chairs and blankets from in front of the sound desk was a good idea, but there were so many people who did have chairs that the areas in front of the bleachers were wall-to-wall with fairly tightly packed people and that left the narrow, chalk-lined ‘aisles’ as the sole conduit for people up front to move back and forth. I can’t say how packed the 2017 event was, but this felt significantly more crowded and I’m not sure how the event will deal with it, or if they think they need to change anything (hint – I think they do).
The clouds cleared and new ones stayed away long enough to delay Jonathan Richman’s set, and he offset some of the delay by singing an Italian song in a Capella, as one does if they’re Jonathan Richman. Earnest and enigmatic, transparently opaque, Richman and side man Tommy Larkins on bongos captivated the crowd easily. His child-like songs have a depth that’s not apparent if you are just skimming them, but dig deeper and you’ll find it. He’s also a suave dancer, and “He Gave Us The Wine To Taste” had him telling a mini-joke halfway through about an employee getting a bottle of wine from his boss as a gift. “Well, how was the wine?” “It was just right.” “What does that mean?” “It was good enough to drink, and if it was really good you wouldn’t have given it to me, so it was just right.”
As is the case, Tweedy and Friends closed out the event, under sunny skies even. With his son Spencer on drums and Jim Elkington on guitar, they ran through a few songs from the Tweedy record and newer ones from Jeff’s solo record, Warm and Warmer. Noting the clear skies, Tweedy remarked that there’s gonna be a lot of sad songs and that they’d sound a lot better in the rain. No rain, but teardrops fell from Tweedy’s sister and aunt during “Orphans,” a song about Jeff’s late parents. After a few musical guests cycled in and out, the skies darkened once again and a brief torrent happened right before, yep – “Let’s Go Rain.” As the song ended, the rain was gone, and the sun produced a magnificent rainbow behind of the crowd. “Look at that stupid rainbow!” Tweedy exclaimed with a huge smile. Another magical ending to a very unique event. Tweedy reminded us that there’s more of ‘this’ (the community brought together) than whatever’s out ‘there’ and it’s a simple philosophy to keep in mind. Thank you Wilco for helping to create and nurture it.
Slideshow of the entire weekend… click on the photo to access the gallery: