When it was confirmed I’d be covering Wilco’s biennial Solid Sound Festival for Surviving the Golden Age this year, I was excited. Although I don’t consider myself a hardcore Wilco fan, I’d had an unexpectedly great time at the festival in 2017 (my first year attending), and I now knew what to expect. Due to prior commitments, however, I was only able to attend the last day of the festival, Sunday the 30th. Fortunately, my StGA colleague, staff photographer Greg Scranton, was in attendance for Friday and Saturday, and between us we were able to document the happening in its entirety.
If you’re not familiar with Solid Sound, let me take a moment to briefly describe its history and theme: Beginning initially in August of 2010, and subsequently occurring every odd-number-ending year since, the Wilco-curated Solid Sound Festival promises a diverse range of musical acts, comedians, and artists who all converge on the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams for three days of music, art, and comedy. During the day, festival attendees are treated to multiple outdoor stages populated by bands who range from scrappy indie rock up-and-comers to international acts from all over the world to living legends. In addition, the indoor MASS MoCA galleries are filled with works by new artists and pop-up performances by comedians, lesser known acts, Wilco spinoff projects, and lecturers. Each night, the festival wraps up with Wilco or a Wilco-themed act headlining.
Due to the elevation, the weather in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts where Solid Sound Festival takes place can often be unpredictable. The weather app on my phone on the morning I left my home in southern New Hampshire showed a fifty percent chance of rain with a high of 65F. Not being a fan of standing outside in the blazingly hot New England summer sun for hours on end, I liked the latter half of the forecast. As for the possibility of rain, I made sure to pack a raincoat.
I arrived at approximately 10:30 A.M., a half hour after the box office opened, and was able to get free parking on the street less than a half mile from the venue. After obtaining a wristband press pass and having my backpack searched, I followed the crowd through the main building into the courtyard on the other side. Upon entering the outdoor area, it soon became clear that an unscheduled act was already performing.
I followed the audience and the sound of music to a locked fence where just beyond Jeff Tweedy was on the main stage with a full band, a surprise pop-up performance of sorts for the earliest attendees. Wilco’s always-charismatic lead singer made jokes between songs and at one point suggested charging each of us early birds fifty dollars. After Tweedy wrapped up his impromptu set, the sky began to take on a dubious shade of gray, and it was announced soon after that the acts scheduled to perform at the two outdoor stages would be moved indoors until further notice.The first band I caught was the Vermont garage-punk outfit Rough Francis. The band, made up of three sons of the proto-punk Detroit trio Death along with two additional members, played a balls-to-the-wall, screamingly loud set in a space with wood floors and a very low ceiling. It was at this point I realized that I’d regrettably left ear protection in my car. Because of this I ended up staying for only the first two songs in Rough Francis’ set, long enough to see their lead guitarist jump into the crowd and rip a face-melting solo amidst the photographers at the foot of the stage. Rough Francis’ sound and energy reminded me a lot of the MC5, I’m guessing this was due mostly to the influence of their forebears’ Michigan roots. Getting in and out of the venue during the day was easy. Although all three days of Solid Sound were sold out, there was always plenty of staff at the festival’s entrance so there was never a line. I killed time between acts by checking out the artwork of Trenton Doyle Hancock at an exhibit titled “Mind of the Mound: Critical Mass”. I wasn’t familiar with Mister Hancock’s art which is largely influenced by comic books, music, and film. The warehouse-sized gallery dedicated to Trenton Doyle’s work was filled with huge, colorful furry sculptures, circus-style tents featuring quirky films, mixed media paintings, and lots of mannequins, dolls, and life-size wooden standees.
At the very back of the “Mind of the Mound: Critical Mass” exhibit is where I caught the next act, a Haitian band called Lakou Mizik. The complimentary Solid Sound program I was provided with upon admittance to the festival described Lakou Mizik as, “A powerhouse collective of Haitian roots music with a soulful energy and mix of styles that all at once feel mystical and familiar.” Lakou Mizik pulled in a large crowd, I’m sure in part because, unlike other musical acts, this was the group’s only scheduled performance.
By noon the weather conditions had worsened to a worrying degree. I received a phone alert via the festival’s app that read, “SSF is under CODE RED for severe weather, all outdoor performances are suspended. Please seek shelter in the nearest building immediately.” Given that the one act I was looking forward to seeing above any of the others, the proto-punk legend Jonathan Richman, had been initially scheduled to play on the main stage outdoors in two hours, I couldn’t imagine how the festival would be able to accommodate what was sure to be a huge audience for Richman in any of the smaller indoor stage areas. As such, I was concerned I wouldn’t get a good spot in the crowd or, worse, I wouldn’t get in at all.
Between Lakou Mizik and lunch, I attempted to get into a performance by Julian Lage and Nels Cline, Wilco’s guitarist since 2004. This turned out to be an unexpectedly popular event, so much so the Solid Sound staff ended up having to decline my entrance due to overcrowding. Instead, I made my way over to a music and sketch comedy troupe who called themselves the Story Pirates. From the back of the gallery where the troupe performed, I observed the Story Pirates taking suggestions from an audience of children attendees seated on the floor just in front of the stage. The Pirates came prepared with cases full of props and outfits to change into based on their young audience’s active imaginations. The participation aspect of the troupe’s performance was a clever way to keep the children’s attention and, consequently, the kids seemed to dig what they were seeing.
After a standing-room only lunch in the main building’s cafeteria, I walked back over to the gallery area where the LA-based psych-rock band Wand was performing. Watching the band set up, I noticed a cello bow minus a cello and saw that the group’s only female member had a microphone and a synthesizer. Before they started playing, I was almost certain I was in for something distinctly different. Wand did not disappoint. The band hit us with a spiraling, psychedelic garage rock sound that offered unique grooves intermingled with pop hooks. At one point their lead singer picked up the cello bow and began drawing it across his guitar’s strings causing the instrument to emit long, haunting tones. Wand’s drummer was a slight-but-powerful fellow who played so enthusiastically and energetically that at some points his drumming was what drew the most attention. Overall, an impressive performance all around.
Just before 2 P.M. the SSF phone app sent out a notification that read, “We are now allowing people onto Joe’s Field. Jonathan Richman’s performance will begin at 2:30.” This was great news. I immediately made my way over to the field and got a good spot about four bodies back from the fence in front of the main stage. A guy standing in front of me turned around and said, “You just missed it, Jonathan came out and talked to us for a bit.” I chatted up a fellow next to me who said he and his wife and son had traveled all the way from New Mexico. I asked him if he had family in New England. He said he didn’t and that their whole reason for coming was to attend Solid Sound for all three days. A moment after this interaction, Jonathan Richman walked onstage minus any instrument or microphone and said something like, I didn’t want you guys to get bored out here, so I figured I’d come out and sing you a song. He then launched into an acapella version of an Italian ballad. As you can imagine, in true Jonathan Richman fashion, it was at once beautiful and quaint. The small crowd applauded appreciatively before Jonathan waved and disappeared offstage.
The field soon filled up with fans, and just after 2:30, Jonathan Richman and his conga drummer, Tommy Larkins, walked out onto the main stage. For a solid hour, Richman and Larkins entertained the large audience with songs, stories, jokes, and dancing. Richman is sixty-eight-years-old, but there’s no evidence that time has slowed the man’s wit or talent. Richman would tell a humorous anecdote, then launch into a song from his 2018 album, Sa, then put down his guitar and do a funny dance to Tommy’s beat, then pick the guitar back up and do the whole thing over. At one point, Richman meandered into a cover of King Harvest’s 1972 hit “Dancing in the Moonlight” that had the entire audience singing along during the choruses. He sang one song entirely in French and when it was time for his 2016 single, “People Are Disgusting”, Richman created a call-and-response interaction with the audience. For me, the entire set was a rollercoaster of emotions. In one moment, I’d find myself laughing and applauding Jonathan’s eccentric dancing and in the next moment I’d be crying as he sang a song from the perspective of a dog in a cage who only wanted to be rescued. It was a truly moving and magical hour, after which I sincerely considered dropping out of life and following the man around the world.After Jonathan Richman’s set wrapped up, I spent some time in an area of the museum called the Prow. As suggested by the room’s name, the Prow was located in one of the main building’s corners. The walls were made up largely of windows that allowed the afternoon sun to shine into the entire space. On one side of the Prow was a long table covered with art books. On either side of the table were chairs for visitors to sit and peruse the often exotic and beautifully crafted tomes. I talked with a couple from Brooklyn who told me they’d sacrificed seeing Jonathan Richman in order to catch OHMME for a second time. I was surprised, but the couple insisted that the experimental pop duo’s performance on Saturday was so great they couldn’t resist an opportunity to see OHMME’s pop-up appearance that afternoon.
There was no scheduled Wilco performance on Sunday. Instead, Jeff Tweedy & Friends were to be the final performers of the weekend. If I wasn’t going to see Wilco proper, I wanted to at least see Nels Cline perform in one of his various project capacities before the headlining act put a wrap on the entire affair. Fortunately, an hour and a half before Jeff Tweedy & Friends were to perform in Joe’s Field, I was able to catch CUP: Nels Cline & Yuka C Honda. The married duo featured Honda standing behind a bank of electronics, laptops and tablets and Cline on an electric guitar. The set was an entirely instrumental affair with Yuka’s equipment emitting glitchy clicks, bleeps and bloops while Nels plucked beautiful sounds from his guitar with the assistance of a cadre of pedals at his feet.
Jeff Tweedy and his band took the main stage in Joe’s Field at exactly 5 P.M. The songs in the set were often sad, but Tweedy was sure to keep things light in between with frequent humorous anecdotes and asides. At one point, Tweedy brought out the Boston Red Sox’s organist Josh Kantor to accompany him on keyboard. For another song, he brought out Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart from OHMME. On yet another number, Tweedy’s son Sam Miller joined him to sing backup. Things were going smoothly until about 6:15 when the clouds rolled in and a downpour seemed imminent. It was at that point I figured I could avoid a good deal of departing traffic and a healthy soaking if I slipped out early, and so that’s exactly what I did.
The Wilco fans I spoke with at Solid Sound in both 2017 and this year were some of the most kind, intelligent, and courteous music lovers I’ve ever had the pleasure to converse with. Although I certainly regretted missing a few of the acts that performed on Friday and Saturday, and while the weather wasn’t perfect on the one day I was able to attend, I still had a great time at Solid Sound Festival this year and saw some incredible art and witnessed some unforgettable musical performances. I look forward to being invited and attending again in 2021, hopefully next time for all three amazing days.