06/27/11 12:23pm

(All photos by Nadia Chaudhury)

  • (All photos by Nadia Chaudhury)

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.”


Wilco beer.


Posing with Wilco cut-outs.


Musical installation at Mass MoCA.


Pajama Club


Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion


Jamie Lidell


Thurston Moore


Thurston Moore’s very wet crowd.


Poncho rainbow!


Syl Johnson & the Sweet Divines








Sarah Lee Guthrie joined Wilco on stage.





12/09/10 1:29pm


Forgive me for being sacrilegious, but the most exciting element of Yo La Tengo’s Hanukkah residency at Maxwell’s, which wrapped up last night, isn’t the host band; it’s the guests. You know what you’re going to get from a YLT show—not that you won’t be blown away by Ira, Georgia, and James, because you will, but more on that later—but you don’t know who’s going to be joining them on-stage until about an hour before the show. And what’s better than a Hanukkah surprise?

I’ve been cursing myself all week for missing Jeff Tweedy (night three), Mission of Burma (night five) and the Feelies (night two), but I was hopeful the eighth and final night would provide some sort of Hanukkah Miracle. My prayers were answered, in the form of The National.

Brooklyn’s finest just returned to the states from a length European tour, and they were without much of their own equipment. But they were quite content borrowing YLT’s gear during the set; they seemed as happy to be performing during the Hanukkah shows as we were to be watching, even joking that last night was “all about fetishizing Yo La Tengo.”

The set began with two songs from Boxer, “Start a War” and “Slow Show,” which lived up to its name by being performed even slower than the version on the album, but things really took off with “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” “Conversation 16” (which really needs to be on The Walking Dead at some point), and “Apartment Story,” the band’s greatest triumph. Many of the National’s songs feel claustrophobic (“Stay inside ‘til somebody finds us/Do whatever the TV tells us”), making Maxwell’s the perfect location to see them perform. The venue holds roughly 200 people, the stage is fairly low (and in order for groups to get to the stage, they have to walk through crowd, as there’s no backstage), and the entire concert felt more like being in attendance at a recording session than an actual concert. Even lead singer Matt Berninger asked the audience if someone could grab him a Jameson on the rocks from the bar in the back. A few minutes later, there it was.

“Fake Empire” received the largest recognition applause of their set (and it was also the highlight of the two-piece horn section who added something extra to every song), but the real clapping came when the National invited Ira on stage for a performance of “Afraid of Everyone” and “Terrible Love.” Usually, when a band invites someone on stage, the guest usually stands around, looking pretty and passively playing a guitar. Not Ira. Foreshadowing what was to come, he played the guitar like he was mad at it. Ira isn’t on the list of people who immediately come to mind when discussing great stage theatrics, but he should be: he looks like he’s made of rubber, limbs flailing everywhere. I’m not actually sure if I’ve ever seen him up stand up straight when holding a guitar. After a refrain of “It takes an ocean not to break,” the National left the stage and the venue, presumably to sleep for days.

Onto Yo La Tengo. For my money, they’re the most consistent rock group in music today. But it’s the not just the consistency that makes YLT great—it’s the variation in their sets. It’s being able to begin your set with the 13-minute-plus “Night Falls on Hoboken,” with Ira beginning on acoustic guitar and ending on a two-piece drum kit, followed by a cover of “Eight Days with a Week.” Along with The Clean’s Hamish Kilgour, who played percussion and guitar for nearly every song last night, they were all over the musical map, effortlessly switching from noise rock (“Deeper Into Movies”) to pop (“Nothing to Hide”) to 20-minute epics (“Blue Line Swinger”) to gorgeous acoustic ballads (“Our Way to Fall”). Even their covers ranged from forgotten 60s folk songs (Norma Tanega’s “Walkin’ My Dog Named Cat”) to songs from New Zealand indie bands (“Gentle Hour” by Snapper and “Whatever I Do, It’s Right” by the Clean).

But they saved the best for last. After playing the Velvet Underground’s “I Can’t Stand It” and Randy Newman’s “We Belong Together” (from the Toy Story 3 soundtrack!), with some help from Bruce Bennett and Gil Divine, Ira began singing, “Love power, I’m talking ‘bout love power.” Given a million guesses for which song YLT would end their set with, I never would have even considered “Love Power” from The Producers. During the song, Ira asked that we help him crowd surf, and we did. Or, we tried. He made it to the back of the club, but on his return to the stage, as he continued to scream about flowers and Hanukkah, the crowd who tried to gracefully carry him back on stage, myself included, we fucked up and dropped him on the stage. And we dropped him hard. All was quickly forgiven, though, and once the song ended, Georgia grabbed the electric menorah that’s been there for all eight shows, and the band gathered around. They counted off 1, 2, 3, and, with a little assistance from their guitar tech standing by the outlet, “blew out” the flames.

Photo by Nadia Chaudhury

12/01/10 1:19pm


Ultimately, yes, it’s pointless to guess who will be opening for and performing with Yo La Tengo during their Hanukkah residency at Maxwell’s, from tonight through December 8th. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. Below are eight guesses, based on precedents set in previous years, for who will appear with Ira, Georgia, and James during this year’s Festival of Hoboken Lights.

A Jewish Comedian
In the past: David Cross (2002, 2007, 2008), Sarah Silverman (2002), Todd Barry (2002, 2005, 2007, 2008)
In 2010: Jenny Slate
Why? Yo La Tengo has booked SNL cast members in the past (Fred Armisen in 2005 and 2008, for instance), and although she didn’t last very long on the show (sigh), Slate is hilarious and could do a Hanukkah version of Marcel the Shell With Shoes On.

Matador Records Labelmate
In the past: Times New Viking (2007)
In 2010: Kurt Vilc
Why? Presumably, Vile and YLT hung out and played Craps together during their recent gig in Las Vegas. Or, if not Vile, what about Fucked Up? We already know Pink Eyes can sing some Christmas carols; how about some Hanukkah love?

A Member of Superchunk
In the past: Mac McCaughan (2007), Jon Wurster (2007, 2008)
In 2010: We’ll say Jon Wurster, but really it could be any of them.
Why? If YLT had a Facebook page, they’d be in a relationship with Superchunk

Critically Loved, Commercially Unsuccessful Band
In the past: The Clean (2005, 2007), the dB’s (2007)
In 2010: The Feelies
Why? One word: Jersey. Speaking of which…

Another Jersey Band
In the past: Marc Ribot (2008)
In 2010: Titus Andronicus
Why? We’re still upset about their short set during October’s Brooklyn Vegan Showcase at Public Assembly—upset not because it stunk, but because they were only allowed to play 15 minutes, roughly half the time of other bands. Titus has had a great year, and playing with YLT would be a fantastic finish to 2010

Frontman From a Great Band
In the past: Ray Davies (2002), David Byrne (2002), Alex Chilton (2007)
In 2010: Ted Leo
Why? He’ll be in town, as the Pharmacists are opening for the New Pornographers on December 6, and they’ve got a day off the night before. Also? Jersey.

Band Yo La Tengo Has Covered on WMFU
In the past: Ronnie Spector (2002)
In 2010: Mission of Burma
Why? Earlier this year, YLT and WMFU teamed up for the annual WMFU Marathon, during which the band played cover song requests from listeners. Sadly, it’s not online anymore (although you can see the set list here), but one of the best performances was their version of Mission of Burma’s “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver.” Another good cover: Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock ‘N’ Roll,” but I don’t think they can get him. Which brings us to…

The “It’s Never Gonna Happen, But It’d Be Awesome If It Did” Selection
Richard Hell has essentially retired from music; the former-Voidoid now spends his time writing the forewords for books about “

11/24/10 11:23am


When you think about it, there are actually a lot of similarities between Kanye West and Joanna Newsom. Both are ridiculously talented; both released critically acclaimed albums in 2010, and both are artists that people have extremely strong and vocal opinions on. You either love them or you hate them. Apropos of nothing, a Facebook friend had his status on Monday evening say, “joanna newsom is performing at carnegie tomorrow. too bad she SUCKS.” There’s really no in-between.

Oh, and in case you haven’t heard, they both performed last night in New York—in very different venues.

No matter your opinion of them, though, you have to admit that both Kanye and Joanna are musical geniuses. He can make a 34-minute music video for a nine-minute song, while she can somehow chart a triple-disc album that lasts over two hours (and have one of her songs, “Sprout and the Bean,” in a Victoria’s Secret commercial). And you must also admit that if Joanna’s going to perform anywhere, it should be at the legendary Carnegie Hall (which she described last night as having “acoustic properties that are magic”), where people could comfortably sit and listen to her Joanna’s medieval lullabies instead of awkwardly stand around.

After instantly forgettable opening sets from Neal Morgan and Ryan Francesconi, Joanna’s drummer and guitarist/banjo player/composer/etc., and a seemingly 30-minute harp tuning session, Joanna took the stage around 9:15 p.m., beginning with “Bridges and Balloons.” Instead of sounding like the version on The Milk-Eyed Mender, though, this rendition was livelier, raspier, sexier. This was partially because she had a full band, complete with two violin players, trombonist, guitarist and drummer, but also because Joanna’s voice has changed so much in the past six years. She no longer sounds squeaky and girly, but confident and womanly. It suits her songs well, even if she does increasingly sound like Joni Mitchell.

That doesn’t mean she can’t do whimsical anymore, though. That’s still what she does best, with songs like “Peach, Plum, Pear” and “In California” sounding wonderfully identical to the versions on the album. Thing is, as much as I enjoy Joanna, I don’t think I ever make it more than 20 seconds following her lyrics. It’s easy to fall into her songs, the same way you might a Baz Luhrmann film; you may have no idea what’s going on (for a fun time, check out Joanna’s page on, but you know it’s gorgeous, and moments like that happened with nearly every song during last night’s show, especially on the longer cuts like “Have One on Me” and “Emily.”

Which is why “Inflammatory Writ” and “Good Intentions Paving Company” were so well received by the audience. Probably the most “joyful” of any of Joanna’s songs, these two were bouncy and fun, the latter featuring a trombone solo by Andrew Strain. Joanna looked like she was having fun, which is something people don’t give her enough credit for: she’s actually quite funny on stage, with excellent comic timing, and during another harp tuning timeout, she asked the crowd if they had any questions for anyone onstage. After someone yelled, “What’s it like to be a goddess?” the session quickly ended.

You get the feeling that Joanna could make up lyrics on the fly, on the same level as a jam band guitarist soloing or a rapper, say Kanye West, freestyling. But even he couldn’t come up with something like, “And everything with wings is restless, aimless, drunk, and dour/The butterflies and birds collide at hot, ungodly hours.”

Photo by Nadia Chaudhury