The era of the boutique festival is upon us. And what's more boutique than the premiere catalogers of Bush-era yuppie angst curating their own celebration of music and art in an abandoned factory-cum contemporary art destination in Western Massachusetts. And so it is with Solid Sound – Wilco's three day extravaganza, now in its second year at Mass MOCA in North Adams. Just outside the festival entrance there's no doubt whose in charge – all the members of Wilco appear, in caricature. Step inside and over to Joe's Field, the grassy main stage, and you're greeted with an oversize sculpture for all to see: “W-I-L-C-O” spelled out in a tasteful art deco font. So it's clear who's in charge, but what are they offering?
The first night was a truncated festival, kicking off around four with a press conference. The band (mostly Tweedy) fielded questions about the festival and the state of the band. Wilco confirmed that for the time being their dBpm record imprint would serve only as an outlet for their own material, and not sign other acts.
Phliadelphia's Purling Hiss was the inaugural act of the three-day fest, kicking off with a 40 minute set of blazing fried rock, with an emphasis on the grandstanding solos of front man Mike Polizze. At one point, Polizze broke a string and proceeded to deliver what was sure to be the best five string guitar solo of the weekend. The band played on what is the default second stage, nestled in a courtyard between the abandoned buildings and enjoyed a solid reception from the Wilco crowd. For the time being, the guitar pyrotechnics held off the threatening rain clouds above.
Neil & Sharon Finn's Pajama Club serenaded the crowd with a tepid, inoffensive throwback 80s sound that failed to engage the punters waiting for the first of two headlining sets from Wilco. Neil Finn is a legend but his current project fails to connect.
Just as it seemed a disastrous rain out would be avoided, the clouds shifted and a steady rain turned into a legitimate downpour. At Wilco's announced 9:15 set time, none other than John Hodgman (curating the weekend's comedy program, set to begin the following afternoon) appeared, quieting the crowd and giving a weather report in his trademark deadpan style. He was quickly joined by Justin Long, resulting in a re-creation of the “I'm a PC/I'm a Mac” ad campaign that was cute and self-effacing, while serving as a reminder that the affluent Wilco crowd would have no trouble being “in on the joke” with these two personalities. Promising a short delay for the rain to clear, the duo left the stage.
As the crowd waited patiently in ponchos and with umbrellas held high (a controversial choice – as the rather limited sightlines for those on the ground were further obscured), there was no relief from the downpour. Wilco took the stage to the sound of “Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head” pumping out of the P.A. Opening with brand new tune “I Might” – the A-side of a new 7” single on their new label available exclusively at the fest for now – the band launched into an energetic set that included two more new songs alongside staples like “Poor Places” and “Impossible Germany.” Older rarities like “Hotel Arizona” off Being There were greeted with cheers, although Tweedy confessed that he might not remember the last verse. He didn't, but the crowd was no help leading him to remark that “you don't remember this song either.”
Despite the downpour, the stage production for Wilco's set was transfixing. Consisting of varying lengths of hanging pieces of fabric that could be back lit, it was particularly effective during the signature dissonant passages that disrupt some of Wilco's most elegant compositions. On “Via Chicago,” the lights were strobed to simulate a thunderclap while the band unleashed a brief squeal of distortion and Glenn Kotche beat his kit with a primal urgency. Weather simulations were unnecessary later in the set, when a lightning strike briefly shorted the power during “Radio Cure.” With the entire stage lighting rig and PA out, the crowd picked up the slack, belting the refrain of “Distance has no way of making love/Understandable.” It was a beautifully sincere moment from the hardy crowd, by now soaked through and picking up a chill from the evening breeze. It was the kind of magic concert moment that can't be planned, and it seemed to take the occasionally cynical and biting Tweedy genuinely by surprise. “You've got our backs,” he exclaimed.
After a spirited “I'm The Man Who Loves You,” dedicated as always to Tweedy's wife, to close out the main set the band returned for an exemplary encore of “Red-Eyed and Blue” going straight into “I Got You (At The End of the Century).” It would have been a wholly satisfying cap to the nearly two hour set, but Neil Finn appeared on stage to admonish Tweedy that he, too, had “One of those 'I Got You' songs” and the band launched into the Split Enz classic “I Got You.” It was a fitting end to a night that got off to a rough start, Tweedy paying tribute to a musical hero and influence and redeeming the earlier lackluster Pajama Club set.