After Friday night’s contrasting sensations of a torrential downpour followed by an exultant Wilco set, Saturday morning arrived with a sense of optimism. Sunglasses were in full effect through the early part of the day, bolstered by a pleasant set on the smaller porch stage by husband-and-wife duo Sarah Lee Guthrie (granddaughter of Woody) & Johnny Irion. Their lilting country-rock was an appropriate soundtrack to easing into the day with an expertly prepared coffee from Joe, who operated a pop-up shop throughout the fest that was a refreshing antidote to the usual brown water swill on offer.
Senses partially restored by a burst of caffeine, Sic Alps took the stage for a stimulating set. After significant lineup changes a few months ago, the group is now a duo with founding member Mike Donovan on guitar and vocals, and former member Ty Segall (who has his own prolific solo career) returning to the fold on drums and guitar – sometimes both at once. Fellow San Francisco musician Eric Bauer, technically in the lineup, was nowhere to be seen although a mysterious figure joined the group on stage for a couple songs to add a layer of distortion over the proceedings.
Donovan broke a string on his acoustic almost as soon as the set kicked off, but neither that nor the fact that the front man hadn’t slept since the groups’ previous show in New York the night before, deterred the band from delivering a spirited set of sloppily brilliant rock. The loose, charming tunes veered from noisy, amorphous jams to garage-inspired pop songcraft. The Solid Sound crowd, which included the very young and pretty old alike, cheerfully bopped their heads along to new tunes like “Bread Head” (to be released on an upcoming Drag City 7”) and Napa Asylum standout “Do You Want To Give $$?”
Over on the courtyard stage, the matrimonial theme continued with New Mexico’s Handsome Family. The husband-and-wife duo’s low key narrative tunes, most sung in Brett Sparks’ distinctive baritone, and all-black clothing contrasted with the sunny atmosphere. Rennie Sparks’ ukulele bass was arguably the most unique instrument of the weekend, but her rather grating stage shtick obsessionally undermined the group’s modest charms, including a take on “So Much Wine,” a cover of which often figures in Jeff Tweedy solo sets. The band’s understated approach was more suited to a pop up performance later in the afternoon inside one of the Mass MOCA’s galleries. There, the group’s plaintive tunes like “No One Slept Alone” (with xylophone accompaniment) took on a spooky quality missing from their proper set.
The rain continued to hold off during Liam (son of Neil) Finn’s sent. Promoting his just-released LP FOMO (Yep Roc), two drum kits were set up side by side as Finn switched between drums, guitar and vocals, including a spirited run-through of the title track off his 2008 breakthrough I’ll Be Lightning, ad-libbing “There won’t be lightning” to the delight of the crowd, holding out for good weather. With two kits on-stage, it was only a matter of time before Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche joined the band for a muscular percussive workout. Finn isn’t reinventing the wheel with his music, but he’s no slouch, ably outmaneuvering the long shadow of his music business parentage by delivering track after track shot through with a refined compositional sensibility.
A quick trip to the indoor comedy theater, curated by John Hodgman, revealed David Rees (the cult comedian/artist behind Get Your War On, among another projects) performing an Artisanal Pencil Sharpening demonstration. This over the top performance art parody saw Rees describing the quality and origin of his pencil sharpening implements in exacting detail (“This is the El Casco M430, made in the Basque region of Spain”), ridiculing specialist and collector communities. The irony was not lost on the Solid Sound crowd, as the weekend included a Silkscreen Poster demonstration, the sale of a $40.00 limited edition bottle opener, and truckloads of a Solid Sound-exclusive colored vinyl variant of the new Wilco 7”.
The long-threatening rain finally broke through at the tail end of Here We Go Magic’s convincing set which combined traditional indie rock approaches with passages of dissonance and ambience. The spell cast by the group’s slow burning set closer was disrupted as punters fled the rain for the covered shelter of an overhead passageway. Over on the second stage, Jamie Lidell didn’t let the rain dampen his high energy set of neo-soul hits peppered with an extended detour into laptop knob twiddling and live vocal manipulation and beatboxing. As the rain continued to pour, Wilco multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone sat in with the group, providing backing vocals and added flourishes on keyboard and tambourine. Lidell was the perfect cure for the rainy blues, the soaked through crowd sticking close to the front of the stage while he belted out “Another Day” and regaled onlookers with his tale of barely making it to the fest, direct from Cannes, France with a detour through “All-Banee” (a hilariously mangled mispronunciation of Albany).
Back on the porch stage Dave Douglas & Brass Ecstasy were setting up for the final of the daytime festival sets while a few diehards lingered at the front of the stage in the driving rain. The band ran through a competent, soothing late afternoon set including a lovely take on the Billy Strayhorn composition “Lush Life.” The rain abated momentarily as the brass sounds died out, and the crowd migrated toward the big stage on the grass at Joe’s Field for a scheduled opening set from 76 year old soul legend Syl Johnson.
Just before Johnson was set to appear a massive downpour, the biggest of the weekend, erupted. Most of the crowd headed for shelter and a thirty minute delay ensued. Eventually Syl took the stage and played an abbreviated but triumphant set. Introduced by a representative from Numero Group, the archival label responsible for reissuing much of Johnson’s forgotten back catalog, the showbiz veteran commanded the crowd with tunes like “Straight Love, No Chaser.” Taking time out to remark on how his relatively unheard soul sides from the sixties were given new life when discovered by hip-hop producers in the 90s, he treated the crowd to an impromptu bit of rapping courtesy of Wu-Tang Clan, who sampled Johnson’s classic “Different Strokes.” Leaving the stage in his crimson red suit, the septuagenarian legend had the crowd hollering for more.
The threat of another downpour safely past, Wilco emerged to the sound of “I Can’t Stand The Rain.” Tonight’s stage set featured upturned lampshades lining the top of the stage. The Saturday crowd, significantly larger than the previous night, erupted into appreciation as Wilco opened with “I Love My Label,” a cover of the Nick Lowe classic that serves as the B-side to their just released single and as an unofficial slogan for the weekend, adorning a tote bag that was a popular merch table buy.
Wilco’s played much longer and were more far-ranging than their Friday night effort. Incorporating more tunes from their last two relatively lackluster records and more new songs (including reprises of “I Might” and “Born Alone,” the only repeats from Friday’s set), it was also a tacit rebuttal to those who would accuse Wilco of pioneering the staid subgenre of “dad rock.” It’s hard to level accusations of willful banality at a group that can inspire thousands of people to cheerfully sing along to a chorus of “You have to learn how to die,” as the crowd was happy to do during Yankee Hotel Foxtrot standout “War on War.” Elsewhere, Wilco’s exuberant, Big Star-inspired pop bona fides were on display with “Can’t Stand It” and the group’s fan devotion was reinforced during a de facto instrumental version of “Jesus, Etc.” No vocal effort was required from Tweedy until the last chorus and verse, the crowd singing along to every word in time.
It wasn’t a complete victory however, as Sky Blue Sky misfire “Hate It Here,” which marries some of Tweedy’s most banal lyrics to an insistent and cloying keyboard backing slowed the late set momentum. Uptempo Wilco (The Album) single “You Never Know” with Liam Finn joining on guitar followed, but the real action was saved for the lengthy encore. Playing like a miniature greatest hits set, kicking off with “The Late Greats,” “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “Passenger Side” in quick succession before Sara Lee Guthrie came out to sing on “California Stars,” written by her grandfather, in what was the evening’s most affecting moment. Wilco closed the set out with another succession of classics before launching into a fiery rave-up rendition of “Hoodoo Voodoo” from the Mermaid Avenue album. Although lacking the edgier atmosphere of the previous night’s rain-soaked set, Saturday was a crowd pleasing marathon, a demonstration of the band’s irresistible, road-tested chemistry as a live unit.