By Paul Robicheau
Wilco went all-in this year for a personal bond, inviting internet-culled winners onstage for live-band karaoke with the group.
Wilco goes beyond big-tent philosophy with Solid Sound, its own festival in the bucolic Berkshires every other summer. The Chicago band gets to play two nights and indulge its side projects, but Wilco also curates the event, pulling in fellow mavericks old and new who aren’t festival draws and prefer to ride the edges.
In turn, Wilco holds Solid Sound at MASS MoCA, North Adams’ contemporary art museum whose sprawling mill complex lends perfect infrastructure. Apart from the main stage in a field, the majority of bands play courtyards within the brick-faced edifice as well as in massive galleries that help regarding cases of rain, such as Sunday’s afternoon thunderstorm that moved early performances indoors.
Solid Sound naturally provides a special playground for Wilco fans, especially in themed Friday night kickoffs — and the band went all-in this year for a personal bond, inviting internet-culled winners onstage for live-band karaoke with Wilco. Compared to the past few years — where Wilco served all covers, all acoustic, and whole albums — the idea of having fans sing instead of Jeff Tweedy and company didn’t sound like the best prospect for listeners. Yet Friday’s mid-set gambit was delightful – for a while. The singers acquitted themselves well, even if the guy singing “Heavy Metal Drummer” looked shy enough to shrink under the lights. Some participants played guitar, some only sang, as a mirror ball spun overhead and lyrics rolled on the backdrop to fuel the crowd. One woman departed from Wilco’s catalog for a dulcet delivery of Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You in the End.” But the buzz faded halfway through our exposure to a dozen amateurs – until ringer Courtney Barnett emerged to sing “Handshake Drugs” and face off with Wilco’s Nels Cline for an escalating guitar jag, looking like the set’s most star-struck fan. Flashing rainbow socks, Barnett set the joyous tone for the night – and weekend – with her unabashed opening set, centered by elastic readings of the psych-woozy “Small Poppies” and a stripped-back “Depreston” in her earthy drawl.
Solid Sound 2019 didn’t flash the marquee names of previous editions of the festival, but still clicked by filling out the lineup with under-the-radar legends and underground upstarts. The female-fronted Lithics and OHMME both challenged courtyard audiences with taut, gnarly guitar counterpoint that echoed early ’80s post-punk minimalism. OHMME’s singer/guitarists Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart added a cover of B-52’s nugget “Give Me Back My Man” as punchy as their pajama-like print jumpsuits. Welsh vocalist Cate Le Bon favored a slow burn on the main stage with art-song variations that wove saxes and marimba into her tapestry. The weekend’s biggest star power likely went unnoticed by many in the sold-out crowd of about 8,000 in the presence of both Mike Mills and Peter Buck from R.E.M. in comrade Scott McCaughey’s the Minus 5, which dealt a standard but spirited set of garage-rock (including a take on the Beatles’ “Nowhere Man” but no R.E.M. songs), celebrating McCaughey’s return to action from a stroke.
Legendary eccentric Jonathan Richman built a rain-delayed Sunday serenade around his improvisational whimsy about the summer, the Fenway, and how people are disgusting, complete with dance moves, his nylon-string picking, and longtime associate Tommy Larkins’ conga. And the main-stage talent was rounded out by New Jersey’s influential indie-rock outfit the Feelies, whose surging guitar waves hung on Glenn Mercer’s biting leads and Bill Million’s incessant strum, culminating where it began with 1980’s “Crazy Rhythms.”
The Feelies nicely set the table for Wilco’s triumphant Saturday set. The resident headliners traded Friday’s sing-alongs for a repertoire-stretching jaunt that debuted the new “Empty Corner” (an apparent nod to Tweedy’s past opiate battle with the resolution “You got family out there”) and “White Wooden Cross” between tunes from Wilco’s 1995 debut – and seemed to return to that starker alt-country sound. Yet, after an 18-month hiatus, Wilco still functions as a broadly balanced sextet where all cogs serve their function. After a double-shot of Wilco’s Woody Guthrie project with Billy Bragg, the band cranked it up with a pulverizing jam out of a cover of Loose Fur’s “Laminated Cat” and a final run that included “Impossible Germany” (topped by Cline’s glorious guitar coda) and a rocked-out pairing of “I Got You (at the End of the Century)” and “Outtasite (Outta Mind).”
Solid Sound indeed proved a mecca for guitar fans. Cline also turned in noisy collages with wife and electronics manipulator Yuka Honda as their duo Cup and improvised guitar duets to offbeat films with Julian Lage, who previously laced his jazz trio’s deft interplay with his own barbed runs and slippery chords. Mdou Moctar cast a distorted, trance-like take on North African desert blues very different from the atmospheric folk-rock weave of Foxwarren.
But the weekend wasn’t all about guitars – or rock. “If I could play guitar, I wouldn’t,” Milo told a Saturday courtyard crowd. “Rapping is my bag.” And he dropped a spiky, spontaneous flow, much like Daveed Diggs did with fellow hip-hop entry Clipping in the same courtyard later that night, its more experimental bass-heavy mix and low lighting leaving the “Hamilton” star anonymous to the crowd leaving Wilco. Guitarist Rafiq Bhatia faced the same rough transition on Friday with his underlit and sophisticated but densely electric-toned trio. And Chicago post-rock experimentalists Tortoise mashed up percussion-centered pieces in the courtyard after their restrained Friday late set in the indoor Hunter Center to the unsettling 1962 black-and-white French sci-fi film La Jetée.
After the weekend’s winding stimulation (including eye-popping installations in the MASS MoCa galleries), Solid Sound wound down with a late Sunday afternoon set by Tweedy’s solo band that proved rather sleepy by comparison, yet it was the perfect way to recuperate on the sloping hill of the main field and survey the idyllic setting. And Tweedy, who made cameos with Le Bon and the Feelies, eventually brought out his own guests, including singer Amelia Meath (Sylvan Esso, Mountain Man), OHMME, and members of Wilco. McCaughey joined for Neil Young’s “The Losing End” as a shower suddenly reappeared, cuing up Tweedy’s “Let’s Go Rain.” A timely rainbow appeared opposite the stage and the festival came to a close with all hands on deck for “Give Me Back the Keys to My Heart” by Tweedy’s ex-band Uncle Tupelo and the Bob Dylan standard “I Shall Be Released.” Tweedy’s drummer son Spencer came forward to sing with his dad, then moved over to his brother Sammy with an embrace, a last gesture in a far-reaching family affair.
Paul Robicheau served as the contributing editor for music in The Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone and other publications.