For three days, beginning on Friday June 28th, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) in North Adams was once again transformed into the site of this year’s iteration of Wilco’s now famed Solid Sound Festival. Originating in 2010 and taking place bi-yearly since 2011, the Wilco curated festival is among the more extraordinary of the summer music gatherings. While your yearly mainstream festival may boast more acts than you could see in a month, often with 3 or more acts playing simultaneously on different stages, Solid Sound favors a more humane pace and overall environment with time to see just about every act performing with little overlap. There is also the wonderfully distinctive atmosphere that the museum and its grounds provide attendees. Originally built by Arnold Print Works around the turn of the 20th Century, the now reclaimed factory space is situated within the Hoosic River Valley and is among the largest venues for the exhibition of contemporary art in the United States. Not to sound snobbish but as you can imagine, if you’re hoping to see someone passed out in a port-a-potty or freaking out on the drug-du-jour you’ll likely be disappointed with Solid Sound. Not only is there a wonderful communal spirit the festival prides itself of being family friendly and going so far as programming events and acts for the little ones. In fact, when I told my kids I had seen one of their favorite podcast programs, Story Pirates, live I had to send a video of their performance for them to believe me. While they were entirely unimpressed with learning that I had also stood inches away from John Hodgeman and exchanged smiles with Nels Cline in passing, this is the type of environment you can expect at Solid Sound. This year’s lineup provided something for everyone with stand out performances and biggest surprises for all in attendance. I’ll mention both of mine, but for now let’s start with Friday’s lineup.
I will not be covering every performance but rather focusing on the ones I felt attracted the most attention and/or I personally wanted to check out. That said, I will be touching on over a dozen of the featured performances. First up on Friday in Courtyard C were the Portland, OR based quartet Lithics. Their angular and mathy hooks had the eager and attentive crowd nodding their heads and some even dancing in the courtyard. A theme throughout was the gracious and humble acknowledgements of the crowd and for the invitation to be a part of the festival by the various performers. Guitarist and vocalist Aubrey Hornor addressed the crowd by stating “this is a dream come true, we’ve always wanted to play this festival” before launching into the pummeling first track “Excuse Generator” from their latest album Mating Surfaces.
Following Lithics was the happiest Australian rocker around, Courtney Barnett. Her infectious smile and witty lyrics had everyone in a state of instant bliss. She strutted her stuff all over the big stage at Joe’s Field a.k.a. the “main stage” and worked the 2 dozen photographers in the pit below. Long lenses were drawn and shutters clicked away as she engaged us with typically elusive eye contact, guitar poses KISS would be jealous of, and big moves to the front and sides of the stage that stood as tall as “The Wall” from Game of Thrones. The substantial and early arriving crowd took it all in as well with rousing applause between songs and an array of kinesthetic interpretations of the music. So far the curation of the order of performers was spot on.
Closing out day 1 was of course the primary draw for the majority of attendees, Wilco. Performing their first of 2 official sets (not including Jeff Tweedy and Friends on Sunday) Wilco’s opening night theme of 2019 was karaoke for which they invited a few lucky fans from the crowd to come on stage and sing along with the band. Given the numerous times in which the crowd’s singing matched or even overpowered the P.A. karaoke was a fitting theme for the penultimate performance of the night.
TORTOISE – LA JETÉE
Closing out day 1 of the festival, veteran experimental instrumentalists Tortoise played an improvised set to Chris Marker’s landmark 1962 Sci-Fi film La Jetée. Just as the Chicago quintet manned their instruments there was a power surge on stage delaying the start of the performance. Shortly after a sarcastic bow and audible “thanks for coming” from resident joker Dan Bitney power was restored and he addressed the crowd in earnest this time. “Tonight we’ll be improvising live to La Jetée, a film by Chris Marker. The film is only a half an hour long so we’re just going to play it twice.” The crowd liked the sound of that and responded with a load roar before settling into their seats as the house lights dimmed and the film leader counted down to the start of the film. Having seen the film numerous times prior, I was able to enjoy the improvised soundtrack more than most I feel. While some audience members remained open to what they were seeing and hearing it was a challenge for many to digest what is already a rather mind-bending plot with the narration from the film and then layered on top of that Tortoise’s lovely and atmospheric soundtrack. Unfortunately, with the initial delay the crowd grew increasingly tired and weary and many chose to depart after the first 30 minute loop. Despite the early departure by many, it was indeed a lovely live score set to Marker’s haunting imagery.
JOHN HODGEMAN and JEAN GRAE
With forecasts of severe weather Saturday looked like trouble was brewing in the heavens above. As they say “it always rains at Solid Sound” and sure enough gray skies and thick cloud cover blanketed the valley and surrounding Berkshire Mountains. So an indoor comedy set from John Hodgeman and Jean Grae seemed a perfect fit. What initially centered on Hodgeman’s likeness to Hitler and day drinking, the largely improvised opening set morphed into a more formatted program with a live version of the beloved Maximum Fun podcast Judge John Hodgeman. With three cases heard from the audience, the best was a dispute about the location of a cup used to rinse one’s mouth out after teeth brushing. The point of contention was with the proximity of said cup to the toilet and it’s potential for cross contamination. Eeeeew! Regardless of ruling Hodgeman and sidekick Jean Grae made some stellar observations in the service of humor and had the crowd rolling in laughter at times. Having sufficiently warmed up the s.r.o. audience assembled in the Hunter Center auditorium Mr. Hodgeman introduced L.A. based comedian, actor, and fellow podcaster Rhea Butcher to the stage. Butcher who prefers they/them pronoun usage found their sweet spot in observation humor sharing many of their experiences to draw on common experiences among the audience. One of their best bits centered on an unconscious man on a place with Butcher and and a blonde. Need I say more? Up next was the comedian and actress perhaps best known for her NPR Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me appearances, Aparna Nancherla. Her endearing and sweet demeanor was almost instantly turned on it’s head when she described carrying around her purse that she had accidentally spilled hot cocoa into as a “shit baby”. Gulp
Peeping the weather through the occasional opening and closing of the adjacent exit door I decided to move out of doors and catch Chicago’s power pop trio OHMME. Although from a distance, the female fronted duo of Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart made a big impact. With the intermittent sun shower raining down OHMME commanded a packed Courtyard C and had hoots and hollers abound between and even during each song. The energy was high despite the showers as was the volume, which had some younger fans seeking refuge in their index fingers.
I sought refuge from the combination of rain and sweltering sun in Building 6 where Japanese multi-instrumentalist Yuka Honda (Cibo Matto, Plastic Ono Band) a.k.a. Eucademix would perform a live set for vocals, keyboard, and computer sampling. Mixing ethereal samples and processed vocals with occasional keyboard notation, Honda built beautiful and at times haunting textures for those attendees seated on the floor and standing among the artwork in the long corridor of Building 6.
With little time to spare I rushed through Courtyard D to catch a few songs by veteran collective The Minus 5 before heading over to Courtyard C to catch what I believe was the unexpected surprise favorites for many, Mdou Moctar.
Having previously seen the “Jimi Hendrix of the Sahara” I knew what was in store but many of the uninitiated were quick to sign up to learn Berber on Duolingo following their set. The Tuareg trio and their nimble fingered bassist ripped through an energetic set comprised of songs primarily off their latest release Ilana: The Creator. Roars from the crowd could be heard throughout the grounds as I arrived early to the adjacent courtyard for Tortoise. Following Mdou’s set, what seemed like every third person filing out of the courtyard could be heard raving about how amazing it was to the person next to them. It’s always wonderful to see a band or artist get the recognition they deserve and excite so many new fans in the process.
I returned around the bend to Courtyard D for Tortoise. With an improvised set under their belts from the previous evening, it was a return to the familiar for the band and fans alike. The stage was packed full of instruments including two drum kits, a massive vibraphone, various electronics, and several amps with a packed house braving the sweltering Saturday sun. Also on stage was Jim Elkington, fellow bandmate of Doug McCombs in Eleventh Dream Day manning keyboards and sequencers for the most part. Their set drew heavily from their 1998 album TNT and as usual saw the shuffling of performers and their instruments. Perhaps due to the near capacity crowd and the shape of the courtyard but Tortoise’s set was among the louder of the weekend and I am definitely not complaining about this. Up next was a short jaunt over to Joe’s Stage for what would be my most anticipated set of the weekend.
CATE LE BON
Welsh songstress and guitar virtuoso Cate Le Bon took to the stage donning a vintage full length blue dress and her new platinum blonde hairdo showcased on the cover of her new album “Reward”. Adorned with a variant of her unique eye makeup Le Bon and company opened with the appropriately titled “Daylight Matters” also from her latest album. In fact, much of their set would be culled from “Reward” and would feature the ambitious instrumentation found on the album. While the crowd appeared attentive during her set it was not until Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy joined Le Bon and the band for a couple of songs including a cover of The Kinks’ “Stranger” that they would move en mass toward the central viewing area. As a fan I met later that day who flew all the way from England for the fest put so succinctly, “When Tweedy came out and joined her I almost had a little wee.”
One final act played to the thousands gathered at Joe’s Field before Wilco’s final set that evening and it was appropriately the band that likely influenced most of the acts that performed at the event, The Feelies. Originally formed 43 years ago with a 16 year hiatus from 1992 to 2008 the reunited quartet sounded as tight as they had in their hayday. Playing three cuts from their 1986 masterpiece The Good Earthand one cut from their 2011 Here Before Jeff Tweedy would then join the band to add guitar and vocals to a cover of the Neil Young and Crazy Horse classic “Don’t Cry No Tear”. They would go on to play tracks from much of their catalog including 1988’s Only Life and 1991’s Time for a Witness before closing with “Raised Eyebrows” and “Crazy Rhythms” respectively, off of their debut seminal 1980 record of the same name. What an auspicious set to be played at such a momentous event like this. It was truly a highlight.
Finally, what the majority of attendees had been clamoring for, Wilco took to the stage under a clear night sky that had been under the threat of severe weather all day. The thunderstorms would have to wait one more day while Jeff Tweedy, Nels Cline, John Stirratt, and company put on a show for the ages. Opening their 22 song set with “Hell Is Chrome” the band of all-stars would delve deep into their vast catalog including classics such as “Box Full of Letters” from their debut album A.M. right on through to 2016’s Schmilco with “Someone to Lose”. As the evening sky grew darker and the oppressive heat subsided the band rounded into form and finished the set with “Outtasite (Outta Mind)”, the hit single from their sophomore double album Being There. As the audience applause no doubt echoed among the surrounding mountains to the far reaches of the generally sleepy town of North Adams, the band returned for two more songs. Their first encore was the driving tune “A Shot in the Arm” from their last album of the 20th century, Summerteeth. With one final song to send the masses home happy, Tweedy and company ended with a rousing rendition of “I’m a Wheel” from 2004’s A Ghost Is Born<. And with that, one day remained and on Sunday it was the weather’s moment to shine, or in this case thunderstorm. Continue to Day 3 Coverage———–>