You see a band enough times live and it’s tough to be surprised. I’ve now attended eight Wilco shows, and can you tell exactly when Jeff Tweedy will run in place during “Hummingbird” and that he won’t sing the beginning of “Jesus, Etc.,” instead letting the crowd croon of skyscrapers scraping together. But at Solid Sound Festival, a festival curated by Wilco at MASS MoCA in North Adams, MA, there were enough surprises and relative obscurities to keep even those who have seen them two dozen times happy.
Wilco played two sets, one on Friday and another on Saturday, and only two songs were repeated (both new tracks, which I’ll discuss more later). Otherwise, the shows were completely different, with at least one song from every one of their albums. A.M., which has aged quite well, was surprisingly well represented, from “Passenger Side” to the John Stirratt-sung “It’s Just That Simple” (with Tweedy on bass), as was Being There, including night one closer “I Got You (at the End of the Century).” Even Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II got a song: the folk gospel of “Airline to Heaven.”
The more recent the songs were, the more they featured the spastic playing of Nels Cline, who is given more to do live than he is in the studio. His work on “Bull Black Nova,” one of the few songs from Wilco the Album worth playing consistently, is a highlight, particularly at the track’s culmination, where Cline’s playing befits a tense song about a man trying to hide from his bloody past; it sounds like it’s screaming out for help. In the second show, Cline and Pat Sansone, whose love of theatrical strumming is out of the Pete Townsend playbook, competed in a guitar-off during “Hoodoo Voodoo,” while Tweedy stood behind them, in awe (this, two songs, after Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter, Sarah Lee, sang with the group during “California Stars”). A weekend highlight was a three songs-into-one of “Poor Places” to “Reservations” to the Krautrock stomp of “Spiders (Kidsmoke).”
This current line-up of Wilco, including drummer Glenn Kotche (who someone in the crowd said was “second only to John Bonham”) and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen), has been together since Sky Blue Sky, and is the most harmonious in Wilco’s history—which is actually sort of the problem. Tweedy’s most productive work has always come when he has to something to prove (A.M., to prove Wilco was better than Son Volt; Summerteeth, to prove Wilco could do Brian Wilson-like pop tunes as well as they could alt country); Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, to prove to Reprise Records that the album is, well, the best of the decade) or when he’s in pain (the migraines of A Ghost Is Born), and right now, he’s the happiest he’s ever been. He’s the front man of a critically admired band that’s popular enough that they can start their own label and host their own festival. I’m not suggesting that I want Tweedy to be unhappy again, because that’s a terrible thing to wish upon someone, but I do wish the band would bring some of the edge it still manages to deliver live, like they do during “At Least That’s What You Said” and “Via Chicago,” to the studio.
Speaking of: five new songs were played, including first single “I Might,” which wasn’t as organ-heavy as the single and came across as a pretty straightforward, albeit catchy, pop song; “Dawned on Me”; “Standing O”; “The Whole Love”; and standout “Born Alone,” a noisy power pop track that might be the band’s best song in years (ironically, since “The Late Greats”?) The b-side to “I Might,” a cover of Nick Lowe’s “I Love My Label,” such a perfectly coy and brilliant choice, was performed, too, faithful to the original. First impressions of the song: better than the stuff from Wilco the Album and maybe Sky Blue Sky, but they’re no “I’m Always In Love.” Then again, many of these songs haven’t been fully mastered in the studio and could transform by the time the new album arrives, probably in September. Plus, they didn’t perform the 14-minute “Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend,” which is going to be great, as long as it’s not the sequel to “Less Than You Think” (another reason why we shouldn’t want migraines to return).
As for the rest of Solid Sound: MASS MoCA is a great setting, a pristine and green middle-of-nowhere spot in an extremely accommodating town of North Adams. (In a pre-festival press conference, Tweedy admitted that the Berkshires are as much a base of operation for the band as Chicago. Things are run very smoothly, from the bus shuttles to the number of toilets to the free water, and as someone who attended last year, I can say that things got bigger, too. With more attendees (split evenly between families spreading themselves out on the lawn of Joe’s Field, where Wilco played, and fans who arrived hours earlier to rest on the rails) come more food, more bands, more art exhibitions, more comedians (most notably, Eugene Mirman), and higher profile acts, like Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore (and Moore playing with Nels Cline in their group Pillow Wand), the great Syl Johnson (who name checked the Wu-Tang Clan before playing “Different Strokes,” a song they, and many others, have covered) and his Sweet Divines, and festival closer Levon Helm Band.
(Unfortunately, we were unable to see Levon because on the way from MASS MoCA to where we were staying after night two, our car broke down and were briefly stranded in Petersburg, NY and had no transportation back to Solid Sound the next day. But I hear Wilco joined Helm, along with band mainstay Larry Campbell, for versions of “I Shall Be Released” and, of course, “The Weight.”)
For Wilco fans, Solid Sound is a must; the band is a brand at this point (not a bad thing), and there were kites, cardboard cut-outs, posters, t-shirts, and even beer (Wilco Tango Foxtrot, see below) with the Wilco name on it. And as long as the festival keeps getting bigger and bigger, and I see no reason why it won’t (Sonic Youth was nearly on this bill this year, before scheduling issues arose), it’s worth going to for even those who prefer Straightaways to Summerteeth.
Mass MoCA, with Wilco makeover.
Wilco’s new single, “I Might.”
Posing with Wilco cut-outs.
Musical installation at Mass MoCA.
Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion
Thurston Moore’s very wet crowd.
Syl Johnson & the Sweet Divines
Sarah Lee Guthrie joined Wilco on stage.