Solid Sound Festival curated by Wilco, at Mass MoCA, North Adams, MA June 21-23.
One of the benefits of running your own festival is that you get to make cool choices. The obvious are who gets to play, the site of the event, and the beer that’s served. Now in its third edition from 2010’s inaugural show, the band’s been making some finely tuned adjustments to the formula, and the unusual marketing approach (a Song Pop category with assorted bands playing the festival; a Willy Wonka-esque contest that featured the product of a craft chocolatier) coupled with the word-of-mouth ravings from previous attendees sold out the event, far eclipsing the previous gate receipts.
The increased scale was immediately apparent when White Denim took the stage of Courtyard C, the smallest outdoor space. Finding a good spot was never an issue in the past, but every nook and cranny was filled with people enjoying the jammy improvs of the Texas band. Their psychedelic sound from the records got lost in this particular stage performance, giving me an opportunity to check out the food vendors across the bridge. Local vendors were well chosen, with Samosa Man and Veggie Oasis making return visits, and other options included burritos, dumplings, vegan food and Indian cuisine. Though it’s certainly not a high bar to clear, Solid Sound continues to have the best food of any festival I’ve attended.
Joe’s Field was the location for the main stage, with the gradually sloping lawn a perfect natural amphitheatre, and a couple of installed bleacher sections helped with sightlines as well. The rest of the field looked like a blanket and camp chair tornado dropped its load to the earth, the phantom placeholders waiting for their owners to arrive in time for Wilco to appear on stage. But before that, The Relatives filled the niche that Mavis Staples and Syl Johnson did with prior fests, and while their funk/soul/R&B melange was fun, there wasn’t a lot lasting that would merit their relative obscurity in the annals of music.
The main event was billed as an “all request” show with fans able to vote online with their choices, and about the only band that could pull that off convincingly also happened to be playing this weekend. To Wilco’s credit, they don’t do things half-assed, and what could have been a trainwreck or a boring exercise in kaoraoke turned out to be one of their most memorable shows. Busting right out of the gates with the well-chosen “The Boys Are Back In Town,” the entire night was an exercise in choice selections that could very well have come straight off the iPods of most in attendance. The classic influences (Dylan, Neil, The Dead) were represented, as were some more off-kilter choices (“Psychotic Reaction,” “Cut My Hair”). Pure pop hit for the daily double with the segue from “Waterloo Sunset” to “Waterloo,” and the singers from Lucius took over vocal duties. “Thank you for doing this. We really, really didn’t want to have people hear me sing this song,” Tweedy joked as they pulled off the Swedish pop confection with conviction.
After a tailor-made choice for Nels Cline, a scintillating version of Television’s “Marquee Moon,” a couple of true curveballs were tossed out to the crowd. A left field selection of “Get Lucky” was fun and broke up the classic rock streak, and then the lily was gilded when Tommy Stinson got on stage and helped crush “Color Me Obsessed” into submission. Gah. That’s about all most there could utter after that. Really, what a unique, timeless set list. Thanks to Wilco for delivering a special performance.
The last performance of the evening would be Yo La Tengo delivering a live score to a screening (and reading by creator Sam Green) of “The Love Song Of R. Buckminster Fuller” to a full auditorium, a sublime ending to a great start of the festival.