RANDOM PATTER #1: “Thanks for letting us take over your town…” – Jeff Tweedy, taking a break from Wilco’s monstrous closing set
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: MASS MoCA’s no stranger to long-form musical happenings – witness the annual weirdness that is Bang on a Can Marathon. But rather than put the brilliant weirdness that was Solid Sound in one suffocating space, Wilco (officially known as the festival’s “curators”) split most of the acts between two stages in the museum’s interior courtyards with a larger third stage for the headliners in nearby “Joe’s Field.” This arrangement meant the afternoon entertainment was almost non-stop, with a splendid level of variation that stretched from the nouveau punk of all-boy-band Brenda to the Old School political theater of Vermont’s legendary Bread & Puppet Theater.
RANDOM PATTER #2: “We made that happen. It’s part of our installation.” – Tweedy, taking credit for the passing freight train that contributed a really dark harmonic to “Deeper Down.”
TAKING A BREAK: With events both inside and outside the museum, the 5000-plus attendees stayed busy all afternoon. An all-day Comedy Cabaret in the Hunter Center turned out to be a stunning standing-room-only success, and not just because of the air conditioning and the comfy chairs; all four comics brought their A game to the Berkshires. Festival-goers also had the run of the museum’s thought-challenging exhibits, some of which were creations of Wilco: Glenn Kotche’s interactive drum-head installation made Sol Levitt’s maze-like wall-painting retrospective even more surreal, and Nels Cline’s collection of “stomp boxes” allowed people to see how ear-shattering feedback might be seen as art. (The critical word in that last sentence is “might.”)
RANDOM PATTER #3: “There’s no overlap between the Wilco fan base and the Insane Clown Posse fan base… and if there is, those people don’t admit it!” – Hannibal Buress, during Solid Sound’s Comedy Cabaret.
WATCHING THE CLOCK: While the indoor attractions had much to offer, getting too caught up meant you might miss something good. I got so locked into Buress’ world that I missed all but the last three pieces of Sir Richard Bishop’s solo-acoustic set in Courtyard C. (Curse you, Buress! Curse you and your comic hilarity!) Bishop – who counts Nels Cline as a major fan – plays improvisational guitar that attends both Eastern and Western schools. Bishop turned eastward to close his set, conjuring a sitar drone from his effects box and devastating us with a complex long-form raga worthy of Ravi Shankar.
RANDOM PATTER #4: “I don’t know if animals have money, but possums look broke, and they haven’t looked at the Want Ads in a while. I look at them and think, ‘Get a job!’’ – John Mulaney, during his Comic Cabaret stint
TOSSED IN TRANSITION: Bishop’s acoustic dynamism made an excellent bridge to Vetiver’s alt-folk brilliance. “We live in different parts of the country,” frontman Andy Cabic warned us, “so this is the first time we’ve seen each other in three months!” Maybe the band hadn’t played together in a while, but their performance was as seamless as it was enjoyable. Cabic’s wonderfully layered “Rolling Sea” had me jogging to the music tent in search of their CDs. Contrarywise, I’m not sure anyone could have built a bridge to Glenn Kotche’s vanity project On Fillmore, a collection of percussion interludes and piercing noises that culminated with Wilco’s drummer accidentally clocking an unsuspecting woman with a wind instrument Kotche had been swinging over the audience’s heads. The Baseball Project’s exultant, no-nonsense rock would have been welcome even without On Fillmore’s pretensions. Any group that uses Oscar Gamble’s afro and Jack McDowell’s unfortunate nickname for lyrical fodder is definitely on my “To Do” list. Scott McCaughey’s new tune “Panda and the Freak” was definitely the play of the day, and bassist Mike Mills pinch-hit for fellow R.E.M.er Peter Buck, who was apparently on the DL.
RANDOM PATTER #5: “Don’t make me come out there!” – Mavis Staples’ tongue-in-cheek admonishment to crowd members who were trying to opt out of audience participation.
“WE AIN’T TIRED YET”: I’d heard Mavis Staples wasn’t at her best during her last Capital Region visit; that show at Proctors must have been an outlier, though, because the matriarch of the Staples Family was literally filled with the spirit as she joined Donny Gerrard and the other background singers for the a cappella opener “Wonderful Savior.” She followed that with “Only the Lord Knows” – a Jeff Tweedy composition from Staples’ upcoming release, “You’re Not Alone” – and it was hot gospel blues from that moment on. Staples’ range may not have the high end any more, but the woman can still roar like a mama lion, and that she did on material ranging from John Fogerty’s “I Wrote a Song for Everyone” to the Band’s signature tune “The Weight.” The Staple Singers classic “I’ll Take You There” had a tasty reggae skank to it, and Staples seemed to fly even higher as the crowd happily sang the song’s title over and over again.
RANDOM PATTER #6: “I don’t want to go on after Mavis Staples that much…” – A grinning Tweedy, who produced “You’re Not Alone” and who’d joined Staples onstage for part of her set.
“EVERYTHING’S SO PRECISE… TOWERING”: It’s kind of stunning that Wilco’s breakout disc, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” dropped over eight years ago. Nonetheless, the computer-controlled light show and the arena-rock stage smoke were stark reminders that the Chicago sextet had long since graduated from the indie scene. Happily, Tweedy and his partners haven’t let success mess with their game: The band came out to the bubbly theme from “Match Game” and lit into “Wilco (The Song)” without fanfare. Music from the group’s latest disc, “Wilco (The Album),” was interspersed throughout their titanic two hours-plus set, and the new material meshed perfectly with early stuff like “Handshake Drugs”, “Hell is Chrome” and “Wishful Thinking.” If you can name anyone who plays guitar like Nels Cline, I’ll tell you you’re wrong, because Cline’s towering talent for construction, deconstruction, and outright musical demolition comes from another universe. The band’s overall power accentuates Tweedy’s unadorned vocal style: A lot of singers would clobber dynamite lyrics like “What was I thinking when I said it didn’t hurt.” Tweedy just leaves it out there for the world to digest. The crowd had definitely dined on his stuff before, because they not only sang the first three verses of “Jesus, Etc.” perfectly, they had Tweedy’s delivery down pat. “That was, like, in the Top Two,” Tweedy exulted. Well, this was the best show of the summer, so that was only fair.
Review by J Hunter
Photos by Andrzej Pilarczyk. See more of Andrzej’s photos from the Solid Sound Festival at the Nippertown photo archive.
Eric R. Danton’s review in The Hartford Courant
Christopher Blagg’s review @ The Boston Herald
An excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review in The Daily Gazette: “Wilco took over at sunset. They introduced themselves in a big way with “Wilco (The Song),” went wistful with the breath-catching, breathtaking “Ashes of American Flags” (saddest song until “Hate it Here” two hours later), then powered past the stars with “Bull Black Nova,” toughest tune from “Wilco (The Album).” Tweedy may be the soul of Wilco, but guitarist Nels Cline is its sound. As a band, Wilco is generic as, but far better than, Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, making Midwestern, industrial-strength rock, but Cline’s sonic eloquence delivers great grandeur, sweetness and noise.”
WILCO SET LIST
Wilco (The Song)
Ashes of American Flags
Bull Black Nova
You Are My Face
Hell Is Chrome
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
A Shot in the Arm
Someday, Some Morning, Sometime
Not for the Season
I Must Be High
Nothing’s Ever Gonna Stand in My Way Again
You Never Know
Magazine Called Sunset
Hate It Here
I’m the Man Who Loves You
On and On and On
Heavy Metal Drummer
MAVIS STAPLES SET LIST
Only the Lord Knows
Too Close to Heaven/I’m On My Way to Heaven
You Are Not Alone (with Jeff Tweedy)
Wrote a Song for Everyone (with Jeff Tweedy)
I Belong to the Band
Creep Along, Moses
I’ll Take You There
MOUNTAIN MAN SET LIST
How’m I Doin’
Play it Right
Fair & Tender