Concert Review: Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival — Satisfaction for All

By Paul Robicheau

Despite several great sets including Jason Isbell and Iris DeMent, Wilco stole its own show at Solid Sound with conceptual aplomb.

Jeff Tweedy with Wilco at Solid Sound. Photo: Paul Robicheau

Swag in a pop-up store proclaimed, “It always rains at Wilco’s Solid Sound.” And on Friday’s clear opening night of the band’s Berkshires festival at MASS MoCA, when Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy piped “This is the best weather we’ve ever had,” his words seemed ironic, given the weekend’s pending forecast.

However, faith and optimism can yield magic for faithful fans of the Chicago group who flock every two years to the factory-framed modern art museum amid the green hills of North Adams. They get two nights of Wilco plus rock, folk, avant-jazz and African music that reflected the band’s diverse curation. And despite Saturday showers and a Sunday thunderstorm that negated a set by alt-rockers Wednesday (singer Karly Hartzman joined Tweedy’s closing set for the dirge “How Hard It Is for a Desert to Die”), the weather proved better than expected — and the same went for the headliner’s infinite surprises.

Florence Shaw of Dry Cleaning at Solid Sound. Photo: Paul Robicheau.

Despite several great sets including Jason Isbell and Iris DeMent, Wilco stole its own show at Solid Sound with conceptual aplomb. That’s to be expected on the first night, when past festivals have featured all covers, whole albums, acoustic versions, and fans as guest singers. Friday astounded with promised “Deep Cuts” for diehards who cast online votes for little-played favorites. Yet the band outdid itself on Saturday with both hits and rarities, centered by a complete 20th-anniversary performance of its classic album A Ghost Is Born, in an emotional, electrifying set that rang perfectly through the still, post-rain air.

It all began Friday when Wilco unfurled the rustic, ruminative spell of an 11-minute “One Sunday Morning” and country-curled “Message from Mid-Bar,” which — like nearly half the “Deep Cuts” set — the band hadn’t played live for a decade. If largely mid-tempo and acoustic-leaning, the night included the live debuts of “Venus Stopped the Train” (sung by Tweedy with sole piano backing by Mikael Jorgensen to pin-drop silence from the packed field of 8,100), “Quiet Amplifier” (with a trio of family and friends’ thumping rattles on tom-toms) and “Tell Your Friends” — an unabashed, heartfelt love song for and to everyone.

“This is the only place we could have ever tried something like this,” Tweedy said before Friday’s encore ignited a raucous “Let’s Not Get Carried Away,” capped with a fierce drum solo from Glenn Kotche (using his hands, sticks, and a gong), and the brash bash “Kicking Television.” Then came garage-rocker “Just a Kid,” a SpongeBob Squarepants soundtrack tune where Tweedy sang “I don’t want to go to school” and band children chanted the chorus.

Saturday evening sprinkles caught up with the intriguing English post-punk group Dry Cleaning, which suffered from a poor sound mix that gave a hefty edge to bassist Lewis Maynard and lost Florence Shaw’s spoken-word vocals. But radar-signaled storms bypassed MASS MoCA when Wilco took the main stage with “Via Chicago.” Tweedy sang “I’m coming home” (a seeming nod to Solid Sound as well) and he and co-founding bassist John Stirratt held a calm center opposite cacophonous bursts from guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Kotche. “Infinite Surprise,” from 2023’s Cousin, followed, with Tweedy singing “It’s good to be alive, it’s good to know we die.” Half of the set’s first 10 songs were both new and touched similar themes, including “Annihilation” and the Beatlesque “Say You Love Me” from the just-released EP Hot Sun, Cool Shroud.

Wilco sounded especially sharp and inspired through that opening stretch and climbed even higher in a 10-minute flight through “Bird Without a Tail / Base of My Skull.” Cline and Pat Sansone dazzled with guitar interplay that spiraled to a peak beyond where that usual highlight leads, then shifted into the tight, playfully irresistible rock groove of “Random Name Generator.”

Jason Isbell at Solid Sound. Photo: Paul Robicheau

“At Least That’s What You Said” went from a whisper to a wallop as Tweedy cranked up his own electric guitar fit and Kotche locked into machine-gun fills complete with cymbal hits to cue first steps of A Ghost Is Born. Fans grasped that revelation with each song that followed — and likely gasped when Tweedy even jogged in place for “Hummingbird.” Wilco’s current sextet came together after the album’s 2004 release, and it was satisfying to hear that skilled, now-seasoned unit tackle the full album, from common guitar-led buildups like the Krautrock-spun “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and mesmeric “Muzzle of Bees” to somber rarities “Wishful Thinking” and “Less Than You Think.” The latter dissolved into feedback as the musicians left the stage, returning to pick it up for album finale “The Late Greats,” starting an encore with the question of how far Wilco would exceed its expected two-hour slot (answer: 25 minutes).

First came the lovely hit “Jesus, Etc.,” with violin by Chicago’s Macie Stewart. You knew something bolder would close. Just not an “Impossible Germany” where Cline changed his tour-de-force showcase by soloing mostly without picking, fingering banjo-like tones before the song’s stinging signature lines. Oddly placed country bop “Falling Apart (Right Now)” set up the final fan favorite “Shot in the Arm,” the crowd roaring back its chorus in affirmation.

Of course, beyond Wilco playing one of its most impressive sets in eight Solid Sounds (and “Deep Cuts” was right up there as well), plenty of other glorious music went down in the field and courtyards at the festival’s 2024 edition.

Friday was bookended by Horsegirl, a female trio of high school friends from Chicago that laid down taut guitar and bass over punchy drums, and a late-night set by Baltimore’s avant-garde Horse Lords. Their overlapping guitar, bass, drums, sax, and electronics blurred in challenging, cyclical parts that recalled harmolodic jazz, African music, and Krautrock minimalism. Sylvan Esso, which played Solid Sound’s main stage in 2019, offered a crowd-pleasing DJ set as an alternate after-show Friday and Saturday, though it tended to relegate singer Amelia Meath (the duo’s usual focal point) to a supportive dancing role while partner Nick Sanborn manned the decks.

Other Friday sets ranged from rich-voiced singer/songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews (who floated halting phrases in “Break the Spell”) to Yuka Honda (Cline’s wife and Cibo Matto co-founder), who filled a museum room with beats, clicks, and oceanic samples from tapped finger pads and a laptop as Eucademix. But Friday’s biggest draw next to Wilco was Jason Isbell and his 400 Unit, who helped pack the main field — and didn’t stick to deep cuts. The band ranged from a hard-rocking “King of Oklahoma” (where Isbell faced off with Sadler Vaden for lacerating guitar leads) to a reflective “Speed Trap Town” and “If We Were Vampires.” That song about marriage and mortality eerily held a different meaning in such lyrics as “But one day I’ll be gone or one day you’ll be gone” in the wake of Isbell’s recent divorce from musician Amanda Shires.

Ratboys at Solid Sound. Photo by Paul Robicheau

Saturday was the bigger day, with diversity to match. Dressed in white robes and headgear, Saharan desert rockers Etran de L’Air locked guitars and drums in serpentine, repetitive patterns for hypnotic tension and release. Ethiopian keyboardist Hailu Mergia stuck closer to jazz fusion with his trio. After the sweet-voiced English singer Fenne Lily and whimsical Joanna Sternberg warmed up the smaller courtyard stage, Philadelphia’s Soul Glo sonically destroyed it with a volatile mix of hardcore punk, rap, and metal that may have alarmed some folks sipping drinks on the café overlook. One had to wonder if gold-toothed frontman Pierce Jordan’s mic shorted out a few times due to the soggy weather or his raspy screams. Afro’d GG Guera added a few screams when not thrashing his guitar in a blitzkrieg of notes.

Rock also dominated the larger courtyard with the gleeful thrash and bash of Chicago indie-rockers Ratboys (with frontwoman Julia Steiner lending a slight Americana twang to the post-pandemic “Go Outside”) and garage-punk vets Young Fresh Fellows, led by Scott McCaughey, who played 2019’s Solid Sound alongside former R.E.M. mates Peter Buck and Mike Mills in the Minus 5.

In addition to Dry Cleaning (which invited Nels Cline to shred tremolo squalls during “Conversation”), Nick Lowe charmed Saturday’s main stage with the wrestling masked Los Straitjackets. He sang a slow, resonant version of his song “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” with backup vocals from Wilco’s Stirratt and Sansone.

Tweedy made his own cameo at the larger courtyard with dark indie-rockers Water From Your Eyes, dueting on “When You’re Around” with Rachel Brown, who sported a Chicago Bulls jacket (as one may gather, Wilco’s a booster of hometown talent). That band proved one of the weekend’s most interesting with his casual mashup of slinky melodies and experimental heaviness in Nate Amos’s guitar fire.

Pierce Jordan of Soul Glo at Solid Sound. Photo: Paul Robicheau

Classically trained Hudson Valley harpist/singer Mikaela Davis graced the same stage for Saturday’s late night with her rootsy, slightly psychedelic rock band, which featured electronically treated steel guitar by Kurt Johnson. They threw in a cover of Neil Young’s “Down by the River” with harmonies from Wilco’s Stirratt and Boston’s Mary Lou Lord and her daughter Annabelle. And while Sylvan Esso served up Bjork’s “Hyperballad” over at the DJ stage, guitar luminary Marc Ribot thoughtfully plucked a spooky live score to the silent Russian sci-fi film Aelita, Queen of Mars in the museum’s Hunter Center.

Sunday was Solid Sound’s wind-down day, opening with Young@Heart, a chorus of senior citizens singing classic rock for those who realized the set was moved indoors. One highlight was a reunion of New Haven band Miracle Legion, which mined its own moody jangle-rock in the ’80s and showed that deep-voiced singer Mark Mulcahy (with graying Santa-sized beard and hair) remains an enigmatic presence. He randomly flicked water into the audience and in one song, clucked like a chicken. “I’m ready to go,” he sang in “Country Boy,” one of a few where Sansone joined on backup vocals or crisp acoustic guitar.

Iris DeMent at Solid Sound. Photo by Paul Robicheau

“You look like a satisfied bunch,” Iris DeMent told the Sunday afternoon crowd on the field, and took them to casual church, sharing the optimism of “There’s a Whole Lot of Heaven” and “Workin’ on a World.” She nodded to inspiration John Prine with “Easy’s Gettin’ Harder Every Day,” her aching, Ozarks-inflected voice paced with back-porch whimsy, and closed with “Let the Mystery Be” before the pending thunderstorm forced evacuation to indoor galleries.

Sunday also delivered the avant-jazz, from the bracing free improvisations of Cline’s Saccata Quartet with Kotche and Chris Corsano on percussion and bassist Darin Gray to the composition-based abstractions of guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. In addition to a few originals, that duo favored female composers Carla Bley, Mary Lou Williams, Melba Liston, and Abbey Lincoln, whose “Throw It Away” could have applied to Halvorson’s approach to solid-body guitar, with her unusual voicings and looped layers. And they benefited from storm refugees who came into the Hunter Center, adding an impromptu improvised encore when the audience didn’t leave.

It came down to Tweedy’s low-key closing solo set, with a mostly young band of family (sons Sammy and drummer Spencer) and friends (including violinist Stewart and OHMME/Finom partner Sima Cunningham). Familial camaraderie was extended to the audience, which got to sing along to “California Stars” and didn’t protest Tweedy’s weekend summation of “Best one ever, right?”

Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at the Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.

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