Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival at MASS MoCA – June 21 – 23
Words and Photos: S. Balaji Mani
Last month’s Solid Sound Festival, a music and arts engagement curated by Wilco, was the third and largest installment of this summer mainstay at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA). Spanning three days, four stages and multiple galleries, the festival brought something to the table for fans of any genre.
[All Photos by S. Balaji Mani]
A couple hours after fans started pouring in through the gates (and as some were heading into the venue from their campsites), White Denim kicked things off with an energizing one-hour set. A seemingly low-key affair on the smallest stage in an interior courtyard, the show quickly amassed a sizable crowd. Lead singer James Petralli’s vocals echoed off the walls, inviting fans in the museum’s galleries to peer through upper-level windows onto the raucous performance below. Combining incredibly talented guitar work and shifting time signatures with bluesy riffs and pop-inspired vocals, White Denim’s performance nicely foreshadowed the tone the entire weekend: a celebration of a vast array of music and the beginning of summer.
After White Denim on the main concert field, reunited gospel group The Relatives brought a groove that warmed the crowd up as the evening weather cooled down. Most memorably, Tommie West led the crowd into a community-oriented sing-along to the group’s hit Don’t Let Me Fall, urging the crowd to “get low to the floor” and make a connection with a stranger. As the “supermoon” ascended into the sky (a lunar event that would be the butt of many jokes throughout the weekend), Wilco stepped out to roaring applause. Diving into Thin Lizzy’s The Boys are Back in Town, a fitting number for Wilco’s return to Mass MoCa, the band then continued to knock down covers requested by fans in the weeks prior to the festival. Set highlights included Pavement’s Cut Your Hair, the Grateful Dead’s Ripple, Television’s Marquee Moon and Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper.
Comedian John Hodgman appeared throughout the set with a lottery-machine-like contraption under the premise of “randomizing” the setlist. After a pristine version of Neil Young’s Cinammon Girl, three fans were invited on the stage to request a song, with Wilco attempting to play each one. After failed attempts at a Lucinda Williams tune and the Cranberries’ Dreams, the band slowly pieced together the third fan request, Get Lucky by Daft Punk. Closing the night with a nod to the late Levon Helm (The Weight) and The Modern Lovers’ Roadrunner, the band opened the stage up for Dr. Jay Pasachoff, who delivered a short astronomy lecture as fans trickled out to catch Yo La Tengo deliver a live score to the film Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller in a crowded theater.
Saturday was full of surprises and beautiful moments, lending itself to more magic as the only full day of music throughout the weekend. As a departure from the music, John Hodgman emceed six sets of stand-up comedy from Jen Kirkman, Al Madrigal, and Reggie Watts. All comics took the opportunity to poke fun at Western Massachusetts stereotypes and invoked festival humor throughout their sets. The most anticipated comic, Reggie Watts, delivered two impeccable sets, taking digs at the installation art found thoughout Mass MoCa, among other things.
Over in the larger courtyard, the young Brooklyn-based Lucius performed with outstanding precision and converted more than a few skeptical fans with their compact 45-minute set. Performing cuts from their debut EP, Lucius’ unique instrumentation and two female vocal leads brought a contemplative edge as morning transitioned into the afternoon. Just hours later, the band played an impromptu acoustic set in a gallery underneath a suspended sculpture, Xu Bing’s Phoenix. The backdrop was the perfect setting for a reprise of the haunting harmonies of Go Home and Don’t Just Sit There. A seated crowd listened calmly and patiently, filling the entire gallery. Just as Lucius finished their pop-up show, Yo La Tengo went on as scheduled in the courtyard below. They shifted seamlessly from electric to acoustic numbers, their set peaking on a softer side with The Point of It.
Foxygen turned heads as the evening began, both for their music and their on-stage antics. As the group played their ’60s-era anthems, lead singer Sam France danced around the stage jumping off of every surface in sight. At one point, France spoke directly to a child in the audience advising him against smoking cigarettes. The highlight of the set was the catchy In the Darkness, and the more regrettable moment of the set came when France climbed onto a stage support a la Eddie Vedder, only to be plucked off by a festival crew member.
The night closed with Wilco’s final set of the festival, which contained songs ranging from 1995’s A.M. to their most recent effort, The Whole Love. The historic range of Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting prowess was most apparent later in the set, with Passenger Side and Whole Love played side by side. While the upbeat I Got You (At the End of the Century) opened the night, the set pushed through longer stretches of slower, lighter songs. The laid-back She’s a Jar from the Summerteeth album was perfectly paired with Sky Blue Sky’s You Are My Face, whose heavier bridge section picked up the energy.
Tweedy was talkative as usual, referencing Foxygen’s dangerous behavior by mentioning that they were “kicked out” of the festival – nervous laughter from the band indicated some truth to the comment. Nels Cline’s solo in Impossible Germany drew the largest crowd reaction and Heavy Metal Drummer ended with a plea from Tweedy to retire drummer Glenn Kotche’s signature move of standing on his drumkit. As most Wilco shows end, an encore containing California Stars and Dreamer in My Dreams closed the night, with the supermoon still bright despite a few clouds.
Day three of Solid Sound presented an eclectic mix of content as festival-goers began to wind down and trickle out throughout the day. As bloody marys and mimosas exchanged hands at the patio bar just off the museum’s main lobby, the Blisters played songs from their debut release nearby. Tweedy’s son Spencer took the helm at the drums, but the band could sound nothing further from Wilco. The rest of the day was peppered with performances from side projects of Wilco’s members. Keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen and two of his collaborators put on an other-wordly spectacle of synth-heavy, droning pieces. The previous day, the group had demoed their instruments in a live installation within the museum. Nels Cline and collaborator Julian Lage (who joined Wilco during night two for a few songs) put on a classy performance of jazz compositions. Lage’s virtuosic style complemented Cline’s aggressive, edgy approach to the jazz pieces, resulting in an stunning interplay that comprised ample improvisation.
Glenn Kotche’s duo, On Fillmore, backed the hosts of NPR’s Radiolab, who performed a brand new episode discussing the extinction of the dinosaurs. On Fillmore’s live scoring was enhanced by a number of surprise “guests,” including a giant dinosaur puppet that paraded through the audience. With the sun relentlessly beating down on the crowd, fans packed up their belonging and headed out, leaving the main field only half-filled for Medeski, Martin & Wood’s closing set. Their grooves reinforced the summer theme of the entire weekend, and they couldn’t have capped the set in a better way: Nels Cline (who had joined the trio on stage towards the end of their set) and Jeff Tweedy came out to perform Wilco’s Hate It Here. Of course, as Tweedy mentioned on stage, the song’s refrain was no reflection on the festival nor the venue – Wilco has certainly carved out a home at Mass MoCA, cementing the museum as a home-away-from-Chicago for many more festivals to come.