I arrived early on Friday, hoping to scope out the museum before the music started in the afternoon. Walking through MASS MoCA, it quickly became apparent why Wilco has made this their home away from home. The sprawling complex of old factory buildings turned art galleries tread the same lines as the band itself--carving surprising new expressions out of the staid and familiar. Sol LeWitt's wall drawings were a sight to behold, each a bold, sometimes colorful statement that impressed both with their intricacy and simplicity. The gargantuan, otherworldly works of Katharina Grosse transformed a cavernous hall into a landscape full of vivid color. Exhibits exclusive to the festival were also present, ranging from a retrospective of Wilco concert posters to a collection of Glenn Kotche's homemade percussion implements. One of the more unique attractions has an installation entitled Fly on the Wall that consisted of looped field recordings of Wilco's sessions for their latest LP. While the snippets were brief, they painted a picture of group in the throes of experimentation and hinted at the sonic diversity of Wilco's upcoming release.
Once the grounds opened, I hightailed it to the pop-up record store, run by Eulid Records of St. Louis—one-time employer of Jeff Tweedy. The reason for my visit was to snatch up a copy of Wilco's latest single, released at the at the festival on Solid Sound exclusive clear vinyl. With single in hand, I made my way over to one of the courtyard stages for a set from Purling Hiss. The Philadelphia trio was the only sidestage act of the day, turning in a set of chunky, riff-filled garage psych that attracted the likes of Jeff Tweedy. During the afternoon, I also managed to make it over to the theatre where I caught a screening of the Beastie Boys' long-form video "Fight For Your Rights Revisited," as well as a few animated shorts.
Down in Joe's Field—the festival's main venue—the night's entertainment started in earnest as a group called Pajama Club featuring Wilco-collaborator Neil Finn and his wife Sharon took the stage. And while were on the subject of the stage, I can't let this review go by without mentioning how beautiful it looked on Friday night. The entirety of it was draped with strings of ghost-like bits of white cloth, which went on to play a somewhat larger roll later in the evening. Pajama Club's synth-heavy pop rock didn't stray far from the Neil Finn-penned tracks on 7 World Collide's The Sun Came Out. The group even dug into a few cuts from the record, most notably "Little By Little" which found Glenn Kotche sitting in on drums. While the songs were predominantly sunny and upbeat, the overall mood was dampened slightly by the weekend's first outbreak of rain.
With rain flooding down and ponchos blanketing the assembled crowd, Wilco's first set of the festival was delayed momentarily in order to give the weather a bit of time to pass. In the downtime, comedy curator and Massachusetts resident John Hodgman took the stage and addressed the crowd. Out of nowhere, Justin Long (in town for the Williamstown Theater Festival) also came out on stage and the two rekindled their Mac and PC rivalry while the heavens continued to pour down on the assembled crowd.
When the band finally did take the stage, they did so to the strains of "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," before quickly launching into their latest single "I Might," a taut, irreverent pop rock tune that tends more towards the group's Summerteeth-era output than anything they've done in recent memory. Those hanging ghost-like clothes acted as a fragmented projection screen of sorts, with specific piece lighting up as videos were laid on top making for the most visually stunning Wilco performance I've ever witnessed. Later in the set, the title track of the band's upcoming release was unveiled—a jangling tune entitled "Whole Love" that finds Tweedy breaking out his falsetto while the rest of the group warmly surrounds his voice. It was my favorite of the new material which debuted at the festival, bringing forth memories of my reaction to the debut of "One Wing." The final premiere of the evening was a guitar-heavy track called "Born Alone" which took Pat Sansone away from his keyboard, giving Nels Cline ample opportunity to flesh out the song with all manner of six string flourishes. Back catalog surprises of the evening included "Hotel Arizona"—the final verse of which Tweedy could not remember—and "Shouldn't Be Ashamed," an A.M. tune that I've always wanted to hear live. After plowing through a raucous encore of "Red-Eyed and Blue" and "I Got You (At the End of the Century)," Neil Finn took to the stage again, remarked that he had written a similar song, and led the group in a rousing cover of Split Enz "I Got You."
Saturday was undeniably the most music-heavy day of the festival, with both sidestages packed full of bands to watch all afternoon long. My day started with a set from Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, who stuck almost exclusively to tracks from their Vetiver-backed release Bright Examples. I was really impressed by Sarah Lee's voice— obviously a far cry from that of her father and grandfather, but still possessing the same kind of warmth and honesty. Next on the docket was a set from San Francisco noisemakers Sic Alps. Upon reaching the stage, I had to do a double take before confirming that none other than Ty Segall was sitting behind the drum kit. With Mike Donovan on vocals and guitar, the duo blazed their way through a set of succinct garage pop tunes, intermittently being joined by Eric Bauer and his distortion box. I managed to catch a little bit of Liam Finn's set—enough to witness him play the wonderfully catchy "Cold Feet" from the newly released FOMO LP.
I made a trip back inside to check out the comedy stage, where a mustached John Hodgman started by (humorously) interviewing a lexicographer for the Merriam-Webster dictionary. I also witnessed a demonstration of artisanal pencil sharpening by Get Your War On author David Rees. However, the real draw for me was a short set from comedian Eugene Mirman, best known for playing the landlord on Flight of the Conchords. Mirman turned in a fairly standard set, railing against the stupidity of the Tea Party as well as the trials and tribulations of dealing with Time Warner Cable. A welcome and entertaining change of pace from the wall-to-wall music occurring outdoors, but before long I was walking to the next stage.
I braved a bit of rain to see some of the experimental soul music of Jamie Lidell. While I've never been a huge fan of his recorded output, the man is supremely comfortable onstage and that confidence shines through in his performance. At one point, Lidell was all by himself and built a looping, acapela backdrop which he improvised over. Pat Sansone—who played on Lidell's last record—was present for the majority of the set, playing tambourine and shakers. Next up on the stage was Thurston Moore, who brought a band that included a violinist and a harpist in order to play songs from his recent release, Demolished Thoughts. My favorite moments of the set were the group's renditions of "Illuminine" and "Benediction," each notably different that their studio counterparts, but infused with the same essence that makes Thurston's acoustic work so enjoyable.
Back on Joe's Field, the biggest storm of the weekend was breaking out, delaying Syl Johnson's open set. When the soul legend finally took the stage, he was decked out in a bright red suit and was trying his damnedest to mention his Numero boxset whenever he got the chance. On a weekend full of top-notch live acts, Johnson's backing band the Sweet Divines were one of the tightest units in attendance. The highlight of the set was a performance of "Different Strokes," the source of the horn sample on Wu-Tang Clan's "Shame On A Nigga." Johnson even took the liberty of inserting some of the Wu's lyrics along side his own. An entertaining performance to be sure, but ultimately just the lead-in to Wilco's second set of the weekend.
For their second headlining performance, the band opened with the B-side of their newly released 7-inch, a Nick Lowe cover entitled "I Love My Label," and a not-so-subtle nod to the newly formed dBpm Records. This was quickly followed with the live premiere of a new track called "Dawned On Me," a pounding three and a half minute track with a whistling solo and a twinkling refrain that's been stuck in my head all week. The final unveiling of the evening was my least favorite of the new songs performed, a synth-littered track called "Standing O" that find's Tweedy singing in a somewhat low, unusual register. The sole reprisals of the preceding evening were "Born Alone" and "I Might," (Tweedy quipped that his label told him he had to play his single again) with the remainder of the set once again delving into the back catalog. A rendition of "Company in My Back" was a welcome occurrence, as was "War on War," "Can't Stand It" and the Stirratt-fronted "It's Just That Simple." One of the more memorable moments of the evening was the 6,000-strong crowd providing the vocals for "Jesus Etc." with Tweedy joining in on the final verse. Guest spots included Liam Finn providing guitar on "You Never Know" and Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion appropriately showing up to sing "California Stars." Why the group decided to end with "Hoodoo Voodoo" is beyond me, ("Wilco (the song)" would have been far more appropriate) but the climactic guitar solo battle between Cline and Sansone made it all worth it. While not as consistent as Friday night's set, Saturday's performance was a crowd pleaser—a fitting showing of gratitude to the thousands of fans in attendance.
Sunday was side project day, with each member of the band showcasing their work outside of Wilco. I headed straight to the auditorium where frequent Glenn Kotche collaborator Darin Gray opened the day with 20 minutes of solo, prepared bass. Once Kotche got behind his gargantuan drum kit and launched into "Mobile," the assembled crowd could do nothing but marvel. I've seen Kotche solo a couple of times in the past, but this performance added some new wrinkles to his usual set with the addition of video projections to some of the tracks. The most impressive of these was the one that accompanied "Monkey Chant," with some parts of the video corresponding directly to Kotche's precise beats. Next up was a set from Mikael Jorgensen's synth-centric band Pronto— a three-keyboard attack with a drummer to boot. It was easily one of the more challenging sets of the weekend, but wrapped in the sterile sounds and vocoded vocals was the same sort of warmth and soul that lies at the heart of Jorgensen's work as Wilco's keyboardist.
I managed to hear a few songs from the Autumn Defense set, but I wanted to make sure I could secure a good spot for the Pillow Wand set later that day. Nels Cline and Thurston Moore did not disappoint, playing as a duo for the first time in 13 years. The two were constantly adjusting to one another, coaxing all manner of unconventional sounds out of their guitars. It was a solid hour of masterful musicians enjoying each other's presence through improvisation—a journey that was equally fulfilling for those willing to loose themselves in the duo's intricately crafted noise.
Levon Helm and His Rambling Band provided a fitting comedown from an at-times exhausting weekend. The group turned in their masterful Americana compositions, backed by a horn section and featuring Helm's daughter on vocals. Helm took a turn on the mic himself, but his raspy growl mostly served as a reminder of his recent battle with throat cancer. As I began making my way out of the venue, all six members of Wilco took the stage and sang "The Weight" with Levon and his band before ending this year's Solid Sound.
Wilco's festival in Massachusetts proved itself to be one of the more unique music experiences currently in existence, perfectly combining art, location and ambiance. It's a testament to the type of fans that Wilco attracts—people willing to drive halfway across the country to hang out with their favorite band at an art museum in a small town. If the band decides to hold the festival again next year, I'll try my hardest to be there with them.