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Wilco's Solid Sound Festival - Mass MoCA (North Adams) - June 28-30

5 July 2024

Wilco fans have it pretty good. Nearly 30 years into their existence, Jeff Tweedy and company are still very active in the studio and on the road and not just in America, providing fans loads of opportunities to connect. And forging a strong connection is what the band really does best. From intimate living room shows that Tweedy does to raise money for charity to band-centric shows in Cancún or Reykjavík, the original and still best gathering of this particular tribe is Solid Sound.

Starting in 2010, this is the eighth installment of the intimate festival at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art that Wilco curates thoughtfully, with every last detail nailed down. True, more tickets have been sold since the first couple of events and has sold out since 2013, creating less open space and longer lines at times. But some careful planning can avoid most of these pinch points, whether it’s a prime viewing spot in Joe’s Field, or grabbing some food, drink or merch. One of the rate-limiting aspects is securing adjacent lodging, and to alleviate Airbnb robbery, options for camping or using the nearby dorms are somewhat spartan but pretty convenient and cost-effective.

The band has tried a new twist on the opening night show for the last several events, ranging from an all-covers show, a fan-led karaoke singalong for the first 10 songs, unveiling and playing a brand new record, or playing a previous record as voted on by the fans, then throwing a big breaking ball when Being There ended and the encore was the complete Yankee Hotel Foxtrot?

So what did the band cook up for this edition? Something that many bands would shriek in terror and hide if asked: deep cuts. And not just second or third tier favorites of diehard fans, but some true obscurities. I consider myself pretty well versed in the band and there were a few songs that had me scratching my head.

In addition to some favorites that do get trotted out occasionally, like true headz favorites such as “A Magazine Called Sunset” or the long and ambling “One Sunday Morning” that kicked things off, there were gems like “ELT,” “Camera” (the much rawer version of “Kamera”) and EP-only tracks such as “More Like The Moon” and “Panthers.” And then there were three songs that have never been played before, the highlight of the set and possibly festival being a stunningly beautiful “Venus Stopped The Train,” a discarded studio recording from the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sessions that traded in dodgy mp3 forms before finally making its official appearance on the deluxe box set a few years ago. Just Tweedy with an acoustic guitar and Mikael Jorgensen playing piano, the entire grounds were dead quiet and soaking in the heart-rending beauty of this song.

The other key moment of the set was the closer “Tell Your Friends”, a bandcamp-only track simple song that spoke volumes on how people do and should interact with each other.

Back in 2009, when Wilco (The Album) was released, the lead track was “Wilco (The Song)” which was a direct exhortation that Wilco does indeed love its fans, and proof is the existence of this festival, a gift and a unique and ever-changing way for the band/fan bonds to be forged even stronger.

(And to underscore that point, I did a somewhat deep trawl into all of the songs that have been played over the eight festivals. A total of 402 songs, with 151 different ones. “Impossible Germany” has been played the most, at every festival, and somewhat incredibly “A Magazine Called Sunset,” ranked as the 96th most-played song by has been played the same amount of times (four) as “Misunderstood” which is their tenth most-played song.)

Of course it’s not just Wilco on offer and the band always picks a wildly eclectic lineup that mirrors the individual members’ music taste. Fans got a treat having Jason Isbell as support for the first night, who himself could easily headline a festival of this size. Isbell is not afraid to take on stark and raw emotions, some that might be fictional (“King Of Oklahoma”) or ones that are clearly more personal. “When We Were Close” is a vivid rendering of his lost-friendship with the late Justin Townes Earle, a complicated song that has evoked a strongly adverse response from Earles’ widow. A great take on this situation can be found here. “If We Were Vampires” and “Cover Me Up” clearly walk closely to Isbell’s personal relationships, his partnership and recent divorce from Amanda Shires hanging all over these songs, leavened slightly by a strong reading of R.E.M.‘s “The One I Love” sandwiched in between.

The country and folk side of the band is covered expertly by John Stirratt and Pat Sansone’s Autumn Defense, and like-minded acts included legends such as Nick Lowe and Iris DeMent as well as newcomers Courtney Marie Andrews, Fenne Lily, harpist extraordinaire Mikaela Davis and the naked storytelling of Joanna Sternberg.

And then there’s the other side of the coin. Nels Cline’s prodigious talent was honed in the avant-garde jazz world prior to joining Wilco, but both Tweedy and drummer/percussionist Glenn Kotche are no strangers to challenging sonic creations. Of all the flavors melded across the three days, this stood out as Wilco’s way of destroying that tired ‘Dad rock’ tag and demonstrating that they are not afraid to swim in choppy waters. Dry Cleaning was a somewhat controversial choice as playing the main state just before Wilco rather than Lowe backed by Los Straitjackets but they showed they could hold their own in front of a crowd that was certainly not wearing their colors. The London quartet’s sound features the deadpan vocals and opaque lyrics of Florence Shaw, striking casual but determined poses while the band pounds out a terse mesh of sound. Cline joined in for “Conversation” and peeled off several layers of eardrum membranes in the process.

The fearsome Saccata Quartet featured Cline and Kotche along with bassist Darin Gray who also shares a stage and/or recording studio with Kotche as On Fillmore, as well as the incredible and sorely unheralded drummer Chris Corsano who has an impressive body of work behind him. The fearless, without a safety net aspects of this group evoked the ecstatic jazz of the 60s, and it would be an easy bet that records from Impulse!, ESP’-Disk, BYG/Actuel, FMP and other legendary free jazz labels have gotten a lot of rotations on their personal turntables.

Hailu Mergia played a much more lowkey jazz set that made the rainy setting a bit more tolerable, and inside the Hunter Center Mary Halvorson teamed up with drummer Tomas Fujiwara took inspiration from past women composers, putting their own stamp on the songs. Late on Saturday night, guitar virtuoso Marc Ribot played a live score to Yakov Protazanov’s 1924 Aelita, Queen Of Mars, perhaps the first full-length sci-fi movie.

Other outré bands included the noisy indie rock of Water From Your Eyes which featured a Tweedy appearance. Given the perennial weather patterns that this festival has endured, maybe they could have renamed themselves as Water From The Skies for this one time.

The intense chaos of Soul Glo seemed like an outllier at first, and before their set I had a chance to ask them how they saw themselves in the context of the festival lineup. “This wouldn’t be the first time we played a festival where we were the only loud band but we’ve been pleasantly surprised enough to know that somebody’s gonna like it.” Indeed, they got the crowd in Courtyard C to create the first-ever Solid Sound mosh pit, with an intense Bad Brains meets Rage Against The Machine meets Dälek stew spiking up the adrenaline levels for all within earshot.

Lastly, a band that was a perfect fit for this sort of style was Horse Lords, a quartet whose Solid Sound appearance has been long in the making. They’ve been featured on Wilco’s year end/best-of lists and the band told me they actually were surprised to be asked to play a previous Solid Sound but the logistics didn’t work out. Happily, they were able to make it to this year’s event and took the stage after the first Wilco set, late Friday night. The band uses guitars that have micro-tonal fret spacing, creating a unique sound that sometimes has two people drumming and other times Andrew Bernstein moves over from drums to saxophone. The Belew-era of King Crimson is woven into their sound, with each musician doing something that on the surfaces sounds completely removed from each other, but they neatly integrate these components into a formidable way.

Wilco famously worked with noted composer/drone master Jim O’Rourke on a couple of records before he absconded to Japan, and one of the signature efforts on A Ghost Is Born is the long drone piece “Less Than You Think.” About ten songs into Wilco’s second set, “At Least That’s What You Said” picked up the pace, and after a few more songs Tweedy asked “How many of you have figured out what song we’re going to play next?” I was a bit slow on the uptake to realize that they were indeed playing that record in full, and of course that meant a 14 minute drone piece was on the agenda. Starting out as a quiet folk song, the band gradually builds a buzz that turns into an amorphous howl, and they left their respective stations for a while as it kept building in intensity. Returning to the stage to close it down, the band reminded their fans that the skip button isn’t an option in a live performance. Even as a fan with plenty of noise and drone records in my collection, i do find myself occasionally skipping that song if I stream it, but hearing the whole thing was revelatory.

You have to remember that the rose comes with fragrant petals as well as prickly thorns. Remember – Wilco does and will always love you, baby.

A side note on thoughtful details: To coincide with the festival, Wilco released a six song EP that was available for purchase at the excellent pop-up record stores hosted by Belltower and Autumn, and once you received your copy it was housed in a plain cardboard sleeve. Upstairs, there were tables of art supplies to create your own unique cover art, and the band will review emailed photos of submissions and choose one to be the official artwork of the reissue. That’s pretty fucking cool.

There was also a small vending machine near the entry, advertising souvenirs. I didn’t take a closer look but I learned later that on offer were cassettes recorded from the three extremely intimate shows that Wilco played at the tiny Carol’s Pub a couple of years ago. Just another tiny but well-placed effort the band makes to ensure this weekend is always a unique and special experience.

More photos of the festival:

Young Fresh Fellows:

Solid Sound Comedy stage hosted by John Hodgman, featuring Jean Grae, Dave Hill and Eugene Mirman among others:



Festival atmosphere


Jeff Tweedy and Friends:

Mikael Jorgensen:

Etran de L’Aïr



Miracle Legion: