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Solid Sound

by Raurri Jennings on June 29, 2011

MASS MoCA, June 24-26
This year’s edition of Solid Sound was a wet one. With rainstorms passing over the retrofitted electronics factory in North Adams that is MASS MoCA, all in attendance could be thankful for the wealth of indoor attractions at this year’s festival. Since last year’s inaugural event, MASS MoCA moved in more than 120,000 square feet of new exhibits, including a massive installation of psychedelic spray-painted gravel and glacial Styrofoam slabs by Katharina Grosse.

Wilco (the rainstorm): Jeff Tweedy onstage at Solid Sound. Photo by Julia Zave.

Late Saturday, before the scheduled set by Syl Johnson and the Sweet Divines, a thunderstorm threatened to derail the festivities, forcing all of the attendees indoors. MASS MoCA turned into a bus terminal with people squatting on any empty scrap of floor space to take shelter from the storm. Pat Sansone of Wilco and Jamie Lidell could be seen milling about the interactive Moog synthesizer exhibit among the soggy masses. Wilco’s performances on both Friday and Saturday were marred by delays and power outages due to the inclement weather, but when the lights went out during their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot ballad “Radio Cure,” the crowd kept the song on life support by belting out the chorus.

Purling Hiss brought some raw power to Solid Sound. Being the first band to play a three-day festival is not ideal, but the Philly-based power trio made the best of it, ripping through a set filled with string squeals and brick-heavy fuzz. Like a young J Mascis, Polizze pushed his instrument to the brink, snapping the high E string of his Stratocaster before ending the set with a cathartic bout of head banging and whammy bar dive bombs.

Jamie Lidell’s funk/soul freakout Saturday afternoon made all of the standing around, torrential downpours and aching backs worth it. Lidell was backed by a mysterious keyboard player known as Mr. Jimmy, a rock-steady drummer, and guest star Pat Sansone from Wilco, who chipped in with tambourine and Wurlitzer piano. Simultaneously embodying Stevie Wonder and the Riddler, Lidell howled and triggered blips and electronic drum fills with his sampling machine while Mr. Jimmy summoned squiggly tones from the keys like Prince in his Dirty Mind heyday. The set closed with a soulful rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that could have been seamlessly sandwiched between sermons at a Sunday service.

Doing their part as headliners for the festival, Wilco turned in two solid sets of cracked Americana. Stock tunes included the Nels Cline guitar-solo standard “Impossible Germany,” krautrock behemoth “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” and sing/sway-along “Jesus, Etc.” When asked during the kick-off press conference how the band’s two shows would differ, Jeff Tweedy offered the wry reply that there would be a set on Friday and another set on Saturday with different songs. He was not lying.

The band also used their set on Saturday night to feature songs from their new record, tenatively titled The Whole Love, which will be the first full-length release on their new record label, dBpm. The band showed off their avant-garde chops on noisier tracks like “Bull Black Nova” and “Via Chicago,” showcasing the twin-headed noise machine of Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche, but the rest of the show was a rather staid affair. At times, particularly during some of the songs from 2010’s Wilco (The Album), the band seemed uninterested.

On Sunday, Wilco collapsed into their individual side projects. Glenn Kotche began the day with his minimalist percussion, performing songs from his solo album Mobile and playing a percussion score to an animated film retelling of the Ramayana, titled “Monkey Chant.” Kotche simultaneously pounded out martial drums and xylophone melodies while images of warrior gods slaying monkey kings and a 12-headed mustache monster flashed across the screen.

Nels Cline played with friend and avant-guitar soulmate Thurston Moore as Pillow Wand. When asked about the project, Cline said the duo would play a solid hour of what they called “dream guitar.” Their set started off dreamily enough with Cline and Moore gently strumming the bridges of their guitars with threaded bolts and wedges of metal. But over the course of the hour of continuous sound experimentation the dream veered into uncharted territory, cresting at one point with the sound of two million finches squawking in syncopation and Moore stabbing his headstock into the stage and bending the neck to its limit.

After Pillow Wand shook every molecule of the courtyard, Levon Helm Band played a late-afternoon set that served as a fitting denouement to a day of falconry and feedback. Oh, did I mention there was falconry?