Review & Photos | Wilco Solid Sound Festival | North Adams
Read Andrew’s review after the gallery.
The weather didn’t play nice, the venue was awkward and the location itself left a lot to be desired, but if you’re a Wilco fan who didn’t attend their Solid Sound Festival, you should be kicking yourself. Highlights included their first all-acoustic concert, plenty of performances from Wilco side projects, big name comics and even a mock-up of their stage setup that got the gear hounds in attendance a little too excited.
Why a band from Chicago decides to repeatedly host an event in North Adams is a question I kept asking myself. Five miles south of Vermont and less than 10 miles from the New York border, North Adams is about as out-of-the-way as it gets in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts (the largest in the world) has played host to the event since its inception and provides a festival locale that couldn’t be any less like your average festie field.
Mass MOCA took a creepy looking Civil War era printing factory and used what look like converted boxcars or shipping containers to create enclosed catwalks, resulting in an inherently uncomfortable campus presented as a modern museum. It’s debatable whether the person who picked the site deserves a prize or punishment, but one thing’s for sure: Wilco masterfully utilized every space available to them without consideration for convention or audience expectation. In addition to three outdoor stages, the larger galleries hosted performances and activities in a way that gave you a full appreciation of Mass MOCA’s facilities.
In addition to stand-up comedy from John Hodgman and The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams, The Hunter Center hosted a solo set from Nels Cline that was easily the most unique performance of the weekend, although calling it a solo performance might not be accurate. Using loop stations, a second-gen Kaoss Pad and a series of delay/reverb pedals, Cline created a noisy drone (not unlike the score to The Shining) that some less open-minded folks might not consider music. As he worked his dark magic, artist Norton Wisdom effectively stole the show by continuously painting a portrait with erasable paints that allowed his illustrated project to evolve along with Cline’s playing. Throw in a few costumed interpretive dancers and you had a 45-minute performance that stretched into realms of artistic exploration Wilco simply can’t.
Even though frontman Jeff Tweedy regularly straps on an acoustic guitar, Wilco’s all-acoustic performance Friday night required the effects-friendly sextet to travel far outside their comfort zone. It was an experimental set that they clearly put a lot of time and energy into preparing for, and they executed their objective in a way that made it seem like they’d been there many times before. Cline’s paint-stripped Jazzmaster stayed in its case while he leaned heavily on the lap steel and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone played his parts on a banjo and xylophone. In addition to over two dozen songs from throughout their extensive back catalog, the group also peppered the set with material from their collaboration with Billy Bragg, Tweedy’s pre-Wilco act, Uncle Tupelo and a performance of Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You in the End,” a B-side on the single for 1999’s “A Shot in the Arm.”
Saturday saw an early highlight in Shabazz Palaces, an abstract hip-hop duo that sounds like a cross between Animal Collective’s glitchy synthed-out samples with the next-gen soul of Erykah Badu. Over on the main stage, Mac DeMarco served up some Jeff Beck riffs before Wilco plowed through two hours of plugged in, fuzzed-up, hard-hitting Americana.
The sky gave way to the rain gods during DeMarco’s set and didn’t let up for Wilco. While rain and rock ‘n’ roll easily go hand in hand, the weather’s impact on Wilco’s electric set wasn’t a good one. The most significant impact the rain had on the show was the absence of a second encore that would have featured “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” the most beloved jam-vehicle in their repertoire.
Sunday’s schedule wasn’t as exciting as the prior two days, which made things a little anticlimactic, but the festival closing set from Tweedy (Jeff, his son Spencer and a few other cohorts), billed as “feat. Jeff Tweedy & Friends,” gave everyone something to look forward to all day long. In addition to material off their 2014 release, Sukierae, Jeff performed a number of songs solo and welcomed guests including Nels Cline, Pat Sansone and John Stirrat of Wilco, members of Cibo Matto, The Felice Brothers, Luluc and more to sit-in on the set.
Nine thousand Wilco fans drove out to Berkshire County for three days of Wilco curated performances and in that regard, the package was signed for, sealed and delivered. With that in mind, the weekend did face some obstacles that can be worked around in the future. Two of the bigger names on the bill, Taj Mahal and King Sunny Ade. were forced to cancel, leaving the lineup particularly sparse compared to past incarnations. Had the roster been a little deeper, this wouldn’t be a concern. Additionally, while Mass MOCA has been the longtime home of the event, a location with either on-site camping or more hotel rooms needs to be considered. Campers were bused back and forth and folks who didn’t pay to camp were left to get creative after the limited rooms available in the area had been booked.
A new location is unlikely, but at the end of the day, Wilco alone would have drawn this crowd to North Adams. Longtime Wilco fans got to experience something none of them had ever heard before and the family-heavy audience was provided with a safe and unique way to expose their children to the arts. Nobody was calling Solid Sound 2015 “the best one yet,” but Wilco broke new ground and that’s something everyone in attendance will be bragging about for some time to come.