By Dean Essner
The Wilco-curated Solid Sound Festival at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art may pale in size to beasts like Coachella, Bonnaroo and Outside Lands, but it’s communal and close-knit, a weekend of niche bands that bare distinct sonic connections to the group that picked them to play. At the same time, all aspects of the event celebrate that very group. On a bigger bill, maybe Wilco would be the fifth or sixth headliner. But at Solid Sound, their presence is ubiquitous. They are the festival.
As Solid Sound’s site for its third year (out of three), Mass MOCA is wonderfully quirky. It’s an old factory turned art museum edifice, full of retro red brick buildings that jut in and out of an otherwise sprawling rural landscape. Two of the stages were set up on concrete within the complex. The other stage, also the biggest, sat just outside on the grass alongside a set of train tracks. Other festivals try their hardest to manufacture wide-open spaces in fields and parks. Solid Sound, because of Mass MOCA’s architectural layout, revels in fostering a familial, happily cramped atmosphere. The same people keep reappearing throughout the weekend as you swing from show to show. There’s little barrier between artists and attendees.
It turns out that Jeff Tweedy and company are also crafty curators. Many of the bands they picked throughout the weekend functioned like puzzle pieces that connect to construct Wilco’s diverse sound. White Denim, the best discovery of them all, were a bluesy shade away from the band’s more frantic experiments (“Art of Almost” on 2011’s The Whole Love). Yo La Tengo represented Tweedy’s affection for krautrock and squelching guitar. Neko Case exemplified the A.M.-era with her rural, earth-toned country pop. It’s fitting, therefore, that the most obvious outlier, psych-rock outfit Foxygen, gave us the only unbearable performance of the festival.
Wilco’s two sets varied greatly in terms of content and tone, both exemplifying the band’s prolific live presence nonetheless. The first night was an all-request show, hosted by comedian John Hodgman. The band cycled through nearly two-and-a-half hours worth of covers, including Pavement’s “Cut Your Hair,” Big Star’s “In The Street,” Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and The Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner.” Things peaked with a spot-on rendition of Television’s proto-punk classic “Marquee Moon,” with Tweedy and guitar whizz Nels Cline riffing off each other with uncanny resemblance to Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. The second night’s set featured mostly Wilco originals, yet the band seemed determine to steer away from the two records that mark their creative apex: 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and 2004’s A Ghost Is Born. They plowed through Foxtrot’s “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I’m The Man Who Loves You” towards the end of the set, but Ghost wasn’t touched at all. Summerteeth and Being There, instead, were pulled from the most, highlighted by an alternate version of the gorgeous, hushed “Sunken Treasure.”
As I look back on the weekend, it occurred to me that I can’t imagine any band besides Wilco planning and executing this type of event. You could peg Tweedy as a self-obsessed artist, creating a festival that openly celebrates his own accomplishments. It could easily radiate as a masturbatory exercise. And maybe it is. For three days, the word “Wilco” is everywhere in North Adams, Massachusetts: on marquees, neon roadside signs, free pamphlets. But it’s refreshing to see a band that doesn’t shy away from embracing their own image. In the end, Solid Sound is a big, goofy, flamboyant way for the ever-brilliant Wilco to say, without any strains of self-depreciation or sarcasm, that they love you, baby.