The final day of Solid Sound served as a showcase for Wilco members’ side and solo project. The crowd arrived early to line up for drummer Glenn Kotche’s solo set in the Hunter theater. A brief opening set from Darin Gray (whom Kotche plays with in On Fillmore) on prepared bass guitar provided a rude awakening for the tightly packed, standing room only crowd. Gray pushed the limits of tolerance for mid-day discord, unleashing a tense set of noisy, high volume experiments that saw him attacking his modified bass with finger cymbals among other implements
Unless you were right on the edge of the stage, it was difficult to catch more than a glimpse of Kotche behind his kit, although the film projections that accompanied some numbers added a bit of visual stimulation. Particularly compelling was the lengthy set centerpiece “Monkey Chant,” an extended piece based on an excerpt of the Ramayana in which Kotche used percussive symbols to represent different characters and opened his signature “cricket boxes” to provide an ambient canvas on which to ply his inimitable drum technique. The piece was accompanied by an animated short by Nathaniel Murphy, resulting in an effective, non-gimmicky pairing of sound and image.
Over on the courtyard stage soul revivalists JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound prepared to “take the audience on a strange journey,” proclaiming “Baltimore is the new Brooklyn.” The Chicago group coasted along on the easy charisma of frontman Brooks and a surprise appearance by Jeff Tweedy. Meanwhile, up in a corner of Mass MOCA’s galleries, Liam Finn was giving a pop-up performance using nothing but a tiny practice amp and guitar, belting out his earnest tunes without the aid of a microphone. The intimate performance showed the strength of his delicate songcraft in a different light from the previous day’s harder rocking presentation.
In the indoor stage, Wilco keyboard maestro Mikael Jorgensen’s group Pronto was kicking off their set. Beginning with a solo slice of electronic pop, before bringing on the rest of the band, Jorgensen’s somber, processed vocals, evoked a wistful future age in which all ballads are sung through a vocoder. With the full band on stage the group worked through recurring technical difficulties and performed a set of competent, Kraftwerk-inspired melancholy synth pop. Of all the Wilco side projects showcased on Sunday, Jorgensen’s was the least predictable and, in some ways, most rewarding.
If Jorgensen’s introspective future pop was a curveball for Wilco fans, then The Autumn Defense was custom-built to appeal to those who appreciate Wilco’s nakedly sentimental classic rock side. Featuring both John Stirratt and Pat Sansone, the groups sunny, pop-folk sound played well to the overflowing courtyard audience, but offered little to get excited about beyond the expert pedal steel playing of guitarist John Pirruccello. The lifeless platitudes of lyrics like “Find out what makes you happy,” delivered irony-free by a cheery Stirratt and Sansone , succeeded in little more than conveying a narcoleptic sense of banality.
Although he has been a full-fledged Wilco member for years now, Nels Cline’s original recruitment to the group came as something of a surprise to those who had closely watched the imposing guitarist’s career as a mainstay of the vibrant Los Angeles underground jazz and improv scene. His penultimate duo performance with fellow statuesque shredder Thurston Moore offered Cline a chance to explore his harsher tendencies. Nels sat behind a shiny silver Fender Jaguar while Thurston beat away at an old black ax. Cline was the busier of the two throughout the set, varying his assault by rapping against his guitar strings with a metal spring and screaming into his pickups through a cheap-looking plastic voice distorter. Utilizing two sets of pedals and delays, one on the floor and one on a small crate behind him, Nels had the more focused and deliberate manner while Thurston recklessly abused his instrument, pushing the neck against the ground, pushing it haphazardly against his amplifier and shoving drumsticks and metal pins up and under his strings.
At times a relative calm would intervene in the set as both jammed on a repeated open riff or chord. Some of the pre-set speculation focused on how long the duo could keep it up for, given that they were allotted a full hour on the schedule. I did see Thurston stealthily check his watch at one point as the set was winding down, but they delivered on their hour long promise (or threat, depending on your attitude to harsh free noise improv), and although not everyone in the crowd stuck it out for the full show, those that did erupted into applause as soon as the feedback gave way to an abrupt silence. Ears ringing, the crowd shouted in appreciation as the two literal and figurative giants of guitar squeal embraced each other after the exhausting but highly rewarding set.
Tweedy’s main gig on the closing day was to introduce the Levon Helm Band for the final set of the weekend. The band, featuring Helm’s very pregnant daughter Amy, played a smattering of typical selections from The Band, Dylan and other tunes that would appeal to “old hippies,” according to the self-identified old hippie sitting next to me. As the concluding act for a surprisingly adventurous and varied weekend of music, the Levon Helm Band were serviceable, but little more, a safe act with a broad appeal. It didn’t help that Helm’s voice is, for all intents and purposes, completely shot. His attempts at singing were admirable but served as a depressing reminder of his bouts with throat cancer.
All eyes were on-stage for the encore, however, as all six Wilco members filed on stage for a rendition of the always moving “I Shall Be Released” followed, inevitably, by “The Weight.” The finale of the Solid Sound Festival was slightly underwhelming but remained true to the familiar, low-key nature of the entire weekend. I entered the rain-threatened grounds on Friday afternoon a skeptic, and left on Sunday evening as a beautiful Berkshire’s sunset was just starting to take shape a believer.