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Contemporary art: Wilco at the Solid Sound Festival.

Photo: Martin Benjamin

A Civilized Affair

By Jeremy D. Goodwin

Solid Sound Festival

Mass MoCA, Aug. 13-15

 

Maybe 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 experience.

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. Who knew?

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 the songs.

(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.

 

And It Rocked, Too

Solid Sound Festival

Mass 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.

—Josh Potter


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