art: Wilco at the Solid Sound Festival.
Jeremy D. Goodwin
MoCA, Aug. 13-15
it was seeing Jeff Tweedy plunge into the water of a carnival-style
dunk tank, while wearing the heavy red suit he dons onstage
when Wilco is in full ham-it-up, showman mode. Maybe it was
watching a group of boys, none seeming more than 10 years
old, utterly mesmerized as they elicited ear-piercing nonsense
noise from Nels Cline’s guitar pedals. Or maybe it was the
fresh-baked bread at the Vietnamese food vendor.
Whatever it was, at some point something happened to make
it clear to me that the Wilco-organized (ahem, curated) Solid
Sound Festival was destined to be a very unusual rock festival
It seemed every element of the event was designed with the
comfort and convenience of the attendee in mind, from the
plentifully available water (ranging in price from free to
a whopping $2 for a bottle refill), to the free parking, to
the specially beefed-up wi-fi that enabled a flood of blissed-out
tweets all weekend raving about the experience at #solidsound.
Apparently, this is what happens when 5,000 music fans assemble
for the concert of a major rock band and are treated like
valued guests, rather than consumers to be prodded and gouged.
The fans responded by being, well, polite. They were less
prone to the hug-your-bro ethos and spontaneous yelps of approval
typically engaged in by their brethren in the jam-band-festival
world, but instead just took everything in calmly and casually,
intent upon the details and quietly mouthing the words to
(Cline’s pedals, by the way, entered the picture via an interactive
“installation” he designed in one of the galleries of Mass
MoCA, the unlikely venue for the event, which turned out to
be as important a contributor as any of the bands, Wilco included.
Elsewhere, amid an epic exhibition of Sol LeWitt’s wall-sized
drawings, Glenn Kotche set up at least a dozen majorly souped-up
drum heads, miked and prepared with metal coils, dangling
drumsticks, and other accouterments of experimentalism. Each
musician turned up on schedule to lead an explanatory tour
through his installation.)
Somehow, the Chicago-based Wilco created a scenario for not
just a very well-run festival but a moving communion with
its fans at a contemporary art gallery housed at the site
of a 19th-century factory in the Berkshires. Wilco-heads who
made the trip from elsewhere must have felt they had stumbled
upon something strange and wonderful—seeing the band, and,
on Sunday, Tweedy solo, on a stage framed by green, sloping
Berkshire hills and the red brick of reappropriated urban
grit. Other acts (and performance fare like Vermont’s boisterously
subversive Bread and Puppet) played in the museum’s courtyards
and its indoor Hunter Center. Festivalgoers wandered MoCa’s
galleries, perhaps taking in a bit of Leonard Nimoy’s conceptual
photography before downing a Magic Hat.
The sense of chillness oozed everywhere; the flip side was
the lack of the high-pitched, manic sense of excitement and
anticipation sometimes found at “event” shows. And so, about
10 rows of people from the main stage, one could choose to
sit in a camping chair and not be stampeded by people filling
every available inch of space, or have beer spilled on your
blanket by marauding packs of whitecaps. It was a tradeoff,
but it reflected the multigenerational, professional-leaning
Wilco fan base—and a curious lack of pained hipsters as well.
It was a scene where R.E.M.’s Mike Mills could mill around
and enjoy the festival after playing a set with the Baseball
Project; where John Stirratt, Wilco’s founding bassist, could
casually wait in line for coffee on Sunday afternoon; where
a random fan could curtly tell Wilco multi- instrumentalist
Pat Sansone to get out of the way of his toddler’s stroller
(and live to tweet about it).
And, of course, it was also a place where you could pay $10
for three chances to throw a ball at a metal plate, and plunge
the biggest rock star on the premises into a tank of water.
Here in Wilco-land, it made perfect sense.
It Rocked, Too
Solid Sound Festival
MoCA, Aug. 13-15
But what of the sounds of the Solid Sound festival? Well,
if you were a Wilco fan, you were clearly in the right place.
Festival organizers had literally displayed the band’s name
in front of the giant MASS MoCA sign on the gallery roof.
And after someone in the crowd called for “Shake It Off” during
Wilco’s Saturday night set, Jeff Tweedy quipped that there
were no “casual Wilco fans” in attendance.
For those who have hung with the band since their alt-country
days in the ’90s—and there were plenty, pushing strollers,
changing diapers—this was the ultimate Wilco experience. In
curating the lineup, the band provided a forum for all their
wide-ranging side projects. It seems like Wilco fans fall
into two groups: Those who go for Tweedy’s heart-on-sleeve
songwriting first and so prefer the band’s spare Americana
(up through 2002’s undisputed masterpiece Yankee Hotel
Foxtrot), and those who have religious experiences at
the hands of Nels Cline’s guitar work, and so prefer everything
in the band’s latter catalog.
Regardless of which side considers the other the casual fans,
both were likely satisfied. My allegiance is with Nels, so
his avant jazz trio, the Nels Cline Singers, were a Sunday
afternoon highlight. Recently proclaimed a “postmodern guitar
hero” on the cover of Jazz Times, Cline lived up to
his title, filling the courtyard of the Mass MoCA campus with
angular riffs and colorful feedback. Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche
is one of the band’s unsung heroes, but with his jazz duo
On Fillmore, he took center stage Saturday afternoon. Accompanied
by upright bassist and sound effects man Darin Gray, Kotche
moved from his kit to mallet instruments and piano, even inviting
Björk drummer Chris Corsano to join in. While the idea was
sound, a misstep came when Kotche ventured into the audience
swinging a long bamboo noisemaker overhead, accidentally breaking
the instrument against a woman’s skull. Tweedy later apologized
for the “decapitation.”
On the Americana end of things, Wilco bassist John Stirratt
and guitarist Pat Sansone proved that Tweedy isn’t the only
game in town with their band the Autumn Defense, while Wilco
keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen got the whole festival going
Friday night with his project Pronto. This side of the band’s
work was complemented by acts like Vetiver, Brenda, the Baseball
Project, and 19-year-old indie wunderkind Avi Buffalo. On
Sunday afternoon, as the rain began to come down, Tweedy reminded
everyone of why he’s deserving of a place in that lineage
of great guitar-strumming singer-songwriters, performing solo
renditions of Wilco tunes like “Spiders/Kidsmoke,” solo material
like the brilliant “Ruling Class,” and a spot-on version of
Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate.”
The festival’s unforeseen high point, though, came during
a set by Mountain Man, a young female vocal trio, whose chilling
harmonies have thrust the group before a national audience
hardly one year after leaving Bennington College.
And then there was Wilco. Opening with “Wilco (The Song),”
the set was one long testament to why this group have become
one of the biggest contemporary rock experiences, fully deserving
of its own weekend. Playing everything from the sentimental
“Wishful Thinking” to the seering “Bull Black Nova,” it was
clear that Wilco were more than a big name pop act that the
venue had hired to get people in its galleries; they’re one
of the few bands around deserving of the title big-A Art.