The climate change of the music industry has been well-documented over the last several years, as the old business templates and approaches no longer suit today's increasingly volatile conditions. Wilco has never been a band to sit in one spot. Its battle with Warner Bros. was famously (and serendipitously) chronicled in Sam Jones's I Am Trying To Break Your Heart documentary, about the filming of the now-seminal Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and the band members have not been afraid to try new things on the concert circuit, either. Two summers ago Wilco booked a series of family-friendly shows (kids under 8 were admitted free) at minor league baseball stadiums, and earlier this year their fan base was treated to "An Evening With...," in which the band played three-hour sets comprising a wide swath of material.
The Solid Sound Festival, held Aug. 13-15 at Massachusetts' Museum of Contemporary Art, showcases another foray into tour-date creativity by the band. Nestled in the Berkshire Mountains, Mass MoCA is an ideal place to execute this idea. Far away from any major metropolitan center, the museum is the de facto standard bearer for modern art for the state. It also features a labyrinthine layout, with buildings, amphitheaters and courtyards integrated seamlessly, promoting the spirit Wilco has infused into this event.
The backbone of the lineup was Wilco and their various spin-offs. Everyone in the band has his own side project, including the outre-jazz stylings of the singer-less Nels Cline Singersm, drummer Glenn Kotche's avant sonic experimentation via On Fillmore, the classic early-'70s FM radio pop stylings of Pronto, and the golden afternoon glow of John Stirratt and Pat Sansone's Autumn Defense. Jeff Tweedy's side project Loose Fur couldn't play due to prior commitments from Jim O'Rourke, but he pitched in by closing the festival with an acoustic set. These are not half-hearted dalliances, but fully realized musical statements that can stand on their own, independent of any purported credibility boost by association with the Wilco name.
The festival started on Friday night with performances by Pronto, vintage soul/blues/jazz flavors from Chicago's Deep Blue Organ Trio, and the Books, who hail from North Adams, the festival's host city.The Books, now expanded to a three-piece, do rely on samples for a fair bit of their sound, but it's unmistakeably human in expression. And the visuals accompanying the cello, violin, guitar and irreverent samples are still seamlessly integrated.
Saturday was the first opportunity to realize the extent of the festival and the accompanying spaces. Two outdoor courtyards were turned into performance spaces, and the buildings housed a wide variety of visual art and two special installations just for this festival. Nels Cline looped together various guitar effects pedals and made them available for people to experiment with, and the air howled with squelches, shrieks, and feedback crackles. One building over, Glen Kotche created an exhibit of treated drum heads (with springs, electrical wires, and other bits of hardware attached to the drum, and a contact mic to amplify the noises into the room), which were similarly free to play with. He later gave some insight into what he was trying to do, referencing John Cage's piano treatments, Indonesian music where each drum and its sound signified a specific character, and the ability to add different textures to drums in order to allow the drummer to sympathetically communicate with sax or cello players in a free jazz setting.
The rest of the exhibits were free to roam, including a portrait photography series from Leonard Nimoy, and part of the appeal was exploring through the myriad industrial spaces of the complex. Amenities such as food and beer offered plenty of choices, and for a first-time event it ran very smoothly. The only downsides were the weather-related stage moves on Sunday, and the fact that the two entry/exit doors tended to become pinch points at times, especially with the plethora of strollers around. Two different puppet outfits (Bread and Circus, and Story Pirates) and a couple of mini golf holes entertained the legion of kids that came along with their parents.
But music was the reason to attend. On Saturday, Portland, Maine's Brenda (a trio of guys) didn't venture too far out of the shallow end of indie rock, but there were hooks that suggest they are no stranger to Guided By Voices. Sir Richard Bishop, who played an invigorating set of solo acoustic guitar, was one of the few performers who could stand toe to toe with Nels Cline in terms of expertise and clarity of vision, and he unleashed some sonic darts into the ears of new-found admirers. "Abydos" and "The Vinegar Stroke" represented songs from his previous band, Sun City Girls, a band which Tweedy stated "scared the hell" out of him when he saw them open for hardcore heroes Jody Foster's Army in the mid-'80s. Vetiver played a well-received set of laid-back songs, a smattering of Dylan (sans cynicism) here, some Jackson Browne there. The Baseball Project was without R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, but Mike Mills gamely stepped in to join Scott McCaughey, Linda Pitmon and Steve Wynn as they regaled the crowd with songs about the advent of free agency ("Gratitude (For Curt Flood)") and also tossed in a fantastic Dream Syndicate song penned by Wynn, "That's What You Always Say."
At the other courtyard was Kotche's free exploration On Fillmore, paired with bassist Darin Gray. This was about as far from Wilco's songbook as one could go, and a Wilco fan who waited out the set so that Kotche could sign his vanity plate that read "Wilco" said the set made him wanting less. Much less. However, that's part and parcel of the entire Wilco oeuvre, and I wished I'd seen more of this set, which echoed the imprints of avant record labels like Free Music Productions or ESP-Disk. Alas, the charity dunk tank drew quite a crowd when Tweedy appeared in his red Nudie suit jacket, ready to face a three softballs and hope gravity didn't pull him into the water.
Closing out the courtyard music sets for the day, Vermont's Mountain Man had no men, just three ladies singing a capella with a captivating primitive folk sound. The main event of the evening was the double bill of Mavis Staples (Tweedy's produced her forthcoming LP) and Wilco, held out in the main field of the complex. Staples is best known for her part in Stax/Volt's the Staples Singers, and she's not lost the gospel-flecked soul mojo that first put her on the map. Following her stirring cover of the Band's "The Weight," as she sang on The Last Waltz, Tweedy joined her on stage for a couple of songs from the forthcoming record.
Wilco's performance was clearly the centerpiece of the weekend, and the queue to get into the field snaked all through out the courtyards. The set started out in typical fashion. The theme song from "The Price Is Right" went straight into "Wilco (The Song)," and the brooding "Bull Black Nova" brought a rough edge along with it, thanks to the lyrical content and dramatic stage lighting. The rest of the set was what you would expect from a Wilco set (ie, strong playing, great songs to pick from) aside from two points. Tweedy did toss out a few hidden gems to the faithful, at one point asking if there were any casual Wilco fans in attendance, and warning them that this is the part of the show where they could start to drift off. Then he played über-rarities "Cars Can't Escape" and "A Magazine Called Sunset." The band oddly played no songs from 1996's Being There, certainly one of their most-loved records. But with 30 songs played, I have no quibbles. And if anyone is wondering about Wilco's relation with the derogatory "Dad rock" term, that myth was shattered to pieces during "Handshake Drugs," when Tweedy traded his acoustic for a Gibson SG and locked into perfect electric fury with Cline and Sansone. It was akin to the scene in Ghostbusters when the energy streams of the proton packs crossed and unleashed a terrifying amount of power.
The final day was more sedate, and the blazing sun of the previous day retreated to make way for a persistent cloud bank. After a yoga session, the Deep Blue Organ Trio revved up again just as people were sipping their coffees or Bloody Marys. The Autumn Defense had that breezy Laurel Canyon sound down pat, and there were traces of Joe Pernice in a couple of the songs I caught. Avi Buffalo played the same stage later. His guitar playing is clearly informed by the sort of pedal trickery that Cline lays down, whereas his vocals are an off-kilter querulous match for a male Joanna Newsom. The Nels Cline Singers played another highlight set for me, that alternated between careful drones, pure percussive frenzy, and outright skronk rock that wouldn't sound out of place on a Sonic Youth record from the early '90s. Cline has mastery of his chosen instrument and can coax many different sounds and textures from it, sometimes violently. Pure energy.
The show wrapped up with Tweedy on the main stage, just an acoustic guitar in hand and sometimes a harmonica around his neck. Without the band behind him, Tweedy can exercise a bit more choice in the songs he wishes to play, and he pulled out "New Madrid" from his Uncle Tupelo days as a treat. "Bob Dylan's 49th Beard" preceded his version of Dylan's "Simple Twist of Fate," and Tweedy showed appreciation for his fellow artists by inviting many of them on stage for a song, starting with Bishop's "Tennessee Porch Swing," the two men playing dueling acoustics for the John Fahey-esque song. The best of the guest appearances was a cover of Neil Young's "Look Out For My Love" with Avi Buffalo, with Tweedy moving over to bass. By the end, most of Wilco was on stage. They fittingly closed with "Outta Mind (Outta Site)." The line "Look out, here I come again/ And I'm bringing my friends" captured the spirit of the weekend most appropriately.