Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival 2017

In the northwest corner of the state of Massachusetts is the city of North Adams. In addition to being the home of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (or Mass MoCA as it’s more commonly known), North Adams has hosted the Solid Sound Festival on Mass MoCA’s grounds every other year since 2011. The three-day event, curated and headlined by the Chicago alternative rock band Wilco, features a variety of both new and established musicians as well as comedians and performance artists. This year Solid Sound took place between Friday, June 23rd and Sunday, June 25th. I attended the festival on Saturday, one day after Wilco performed the entirety of their albums Being There (the winning album from a poll the band released to their fans online prior to the event) and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (a surprise bonus to everyone in attendance) back-to-back.

I left home at 8 a.m. Saturday morning in a miserable mood, wondering to myself why I’d asked my editor to be sent to cover an event by myself, in a city I’d never been to, headlined by a band I would describe myself as being a casual fan of at most. Of Wilco’s ten studio albums (not including collaborative records, e.g. Mermaid Avenue Volume’s I & II), I’m familiar with five. Four of said full-lengths had been acquired through my local library over time as they became available. The fifth album, the band’s most recent, Schmilco, was one I’d been sent a digital copy of to review for this site last year.

In addition to a few tuna sandwiches, granola, brownies, chips, and bottled water, I’d packed sunblock, insect repellant, and a raincoat, three items recommended on Solid Sound’s FAQ page. After a two and a half hour-plus solo car ride through steady rain, I entered the town of North Adams just as the clouds were breaking. I stopped at a Cumberland Farms gas station/convenience store on the edge of town to use the bathroom. Inside, sitting at a counter, eating breakfast with three other healthy-looking people, was a guy wearing a yellow headband who looked exactly like avant-garde folkie Sufjan Stevens. While not scheduled to perform at Solid Sound, Stevens’ act could easily fit in with the eclectic slate of musicians on the bill. Regardless, I chose to interpret the sighting of this doppelganger as a good omen.

Parking on the streets of North Adams is free. As soon as I saw groups of people exiting their vehicles with backpacks and chairs, all walking in the same direction, I immediately pulled my car over to the curb and gathered my things. I followed the crowd down the street and under a bridge to the venue’s entrance. Comedian Eugene Mirman, scheduled to perform that afternoon as part of a comedy showcase hosted by John Hodgman, was walking toward me with a female companion. I couldn’t help myself. “Hey, Eugene Mirman!” I said as I walked past as if we were old pals. He stopped, turned and stared at me for a moment as if trying to figure out if I was someone he should know. I waved. He said, “Hi,” and kept walking. I was immediately embarrassed and angry with myself for not at least saying, “Love your work!” or, “You were great on Flight of the Conchords!” I was given a wristband at the gate, and after my backpack was thoroughly searched I was admitted entrance into the venue. As I made my way inside, I recognized comedian Hari Kondabolu exiting a nearby building. This time I kept my mouth shut.

As a New Hampshire resident and an outsider music geek, one of the acts I was most looking forward to seeing at Solid Sound was The Shaggs. For those who don’t know, the Wiggins sisters were a trio from Fremont, New Hampshire who were encouraged by their father to form a band and cut a record. The Wiggins girls’ amateurish sound and lack of musical ability didn’t win them any fans with radio stations. It wasn’t until long after The Shaggs’ lone 1968 LP, Philosophy of the World, began to be discovered, shared, and enjoyed amongst notable fans, including Frank Zappa and Kurt Cobain, that the band began to enjoy a cult following amongst collectors of outsider music. The reunion of the surviving Wiggins girls at Solid Sound was exactly what anyone familiar with the group would hope for. The ladies performed alongside a supporting band and sounded as perfectly imperfect as they did fifty years ago. Some folks in the Solid Sound audience got it, others didn’t. Regardless, everyone in attendance was respectful and supportive. I cried tears of joy and applauded until my hands hurt.

I’d never heard the Brooklyn band Big Thief before I caught their set on a separate stage immediately following The Shaggs. The band was described on the Solid Sound mobile app as “a classic, buzzy indie-rock outfit.” Big Thief’s lead singer and guitarist, Adrianne Lenker, has a voice simultaneously reminiscent of Tori Amos and Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval but with a gut-punch sincerity that hits you twice as hard when paired with her often sad, prosaic lyrics. I was bowled over. I was witnessing only my second musical performance of the day, and I again found myself tearing up, this time at the near tangible fragility and unanticipated beauty Big Thief’s songs conveyed.

Big Thief, Big pop-up crowd.

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Between acts I chatted up other attendants who I found to be exceedingly friendly, intelligent, and excited to discuss what they’d seen and what they were looking forward to seeing. With very few exceptions, most folks I spoke with had passes for all three days of the festival. Every Wilco fan I encountered who had expected to hear the band perform Being There in its entirety admitted they were surprised when treated to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot immediately after. One fan said that between the two albums, singer Jeff Tweedy held up two fingers to signify to the audience that they were about to get a bonus. Another audience member told me he initially thought it was just a coincidence that the first three songs of Wilco’s first encore were also the first three tracks from YHF until he realized what was up.

I caught only a portion of the Seattle pop/rock band Deep Sea Diver’s set. The quartet had a decent turnout for their forty-five-minute performance and the majority of the audience seemed to enjoy what they heard. I had a pretty decent spot near the stage for Peter Wolf & the Midnight Travelers and the band did not disappoint. For a performer now in his seventies, Wolf danced and stalked the stage, shaking and thrusting his skinny hips like a man in his twenties, all the while belting out a solid mix of hits from his J. Geils Band days as well as his solo material. The band was amazingly tight and Wolf was generous in acknowledging the players while punctuating their most dynamic moments with James Brown-like punches and kicks. The performance was altogether invigorating and inspiring. My overall mood was lifted forthwith.

After Peter Wolf’s performance, I spoke with more attendants who at this point in the day were mostly talking about how much they’d enjoyed either Big Thief’s set or the surprise performance by Wilco’s lead guitarist, Nels Cline, which must have occurred around the same time in one of the museum’s many buildings. I saw a small part of former Woods’ guitarist Kevin Morby’s performance before making my way to an area known as Joe’s Field where legendary proto-punk band Television were scheduled to perform.

Having been a fan of the group’s influential 1978 masterpiece, Marquee Moon, for as long as I can remember, I was having a hard time believing I was about to witness Tom Verlaine and company in the flesh. After about twenty minutes, however, out walked Television to rousing applause. The band performed magnificently, with Verlaine’s voice sounding exactly as it had on record forty years prior. It’s fair to say that the set was made up of more jazzy, instrumental noodling than vocal moments, but the band still managed to get in a fair share of the recognizable, influential songs they’ve become immortalized for.

After Television’s performance, but before the start of Kurt Vile and the Violators’ set, I swung by a stage where Robert Glasper Experiment were performing. In addition to a saxophonist, guitarist, bass player and multi-instrumentalist, the elaborate assemblage included Glasper himself centerstage in a black cowboy hat with a giant white keytar over his shoulder. To Glasper’s left, percussionist Mark Colenburg featured prominently and thunderously on drums. The sextet performed a freewheeling, soulful mix of jazz, rock, and hip-hop.

Robert Glasper and keytar cover Police.

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Although it could be argued that every band performing prior to Wilco’s headlining spot was the opening act, Kurt Vile & the Violators were given the key slot of 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on the same stage Wilco were scheduled to close out the day’s events in the 9 o’clock hour. And while Kurt and his band might have looked like babies compared to some of the more experienced acts that preceded them, they played well and even managed to win over a decent amount of aged folks still in attendance after Television’s set who showed their appreciation by dancing along to Vile’s unique brand of twangy indie rock.

After the Violators wrapped up, the stage was set with elaborate artificial foliage and eerie purple lighting for Wilco’s performance. All in attendance at the festival congregated in Joe’s Field, waiting for the night’s final act. I spoke with a Wilco fan from Vermont who told me this was his sixth time seeing the band. He said that the night before, the band had been accompanied onstage during their final song by comedian Nick Offerman playing a cowbell.

The sun went down fast, balloons outfitted with miniature glow sticks began to fly around the huge audience. Clouds of marijuana smoke drifted upward from random parts of the crowded field. I was told to keep my eye on a red tunnel as that would be where the band would emerge from just before they’d hit the stage. I couldn’t have been the only one who noticed when Tweedy and company walked out of the chute, because the crowd erupted a moment before the band appeared onstage.

Wilco opened with “At Least That’s What You Said”, the first song from their 2004 album, A Ghost Is Born. As soon as the opening bars were concluded and Tweedy took his first solo, the audience went bananas, erupting in exuberant whoops and applause. At the end of the song, Jeff teased the second track from A Ghost Is Born before stopping, laughing into the mic, and saying something to the effect of how last night was for the full album performances and that he and the band thought it would be funny to make the audience think they were going to pull off a threepeat because “we’re [meaning Tweedy and the band] dicks.” The between-song humor didn’t stop there. Among the band’s twenty-nine song set (including two encores), which lasted just over two hours, there would be many jokes and even an impassioned monologue about the importance of art, inspiration, and creativity.

The most memorable musical moment during the first half of Wilco’s set occurred during the song “Art of Almost”. The stage lighting went into overdrive as the band launched into an awesome cacophony. Nels Cline performed each solo with his entire body, jerking every appendage as if to push all his energy through his instrument and out into the audience. The most memorable non-musical moment occurred during the song “Via Chicago” when what looked like either a giant moth or bat flew directly into Jeff Tweedy’s face, and he stopped singing long enough to loudly exclaim, “Oh shit! What the fuck!?” The winged creature could be seen flying up into the lights immediately after the incident. Tweedy later said the audience had just witnessed the time he’d been most scared being onstage in his entire life and, to the delight of everyone in attendance, hyperbolically referred to the animal that attacked him as a “falcon.”

Omitting the prior night’s two albums, Wilco’s Saturday night set was made up of both well-known and deeper cuts from the band’s twenty-plus-year catalog, including “One by One” and “Hoodoo Voodoo” (the night’s final song) from the Mermaid Avenue album they recorded with Billy Bragg.

Wilco’s set didn’t end with a surprise celebrity cameo. Instead, during the final chords of “Hoodoo Voodoo”, a Frank Zappa-looking shirtless man appeared onstage. He was hitting a cowbell with a drumstick and doing a snake-like dance around the band. While heading back to my car, I was informed by a couple of diehard fans that this man was Wilco’s roadie, Josh, and that this is something he’s known to sometimes do at the end of Wilco’s shows.

It was a long, lonely drive back home around dark, winding roads and through rural, rolling woods before I finally reached a highway with actual streetlights and other vehicles on it. I don’t know if I left Solid Sound Festival more of a Wilco fan than I was, but I can honestly say that I felt much better at the end of the night than I had that morning, and the first song I wanted to hear when I woke up the next day was “At Least That’s What You Said”.

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