Solid Sound Festival, June 28-30, 2019In fact, there was a listening party for the new record in one of the exhibit halls in the museum over the weekend, but I didn't make it there. Actually, I didn't make it to most of the engagements at the festival. I admit to becoming jaded about MASS MoCA. Can you blame me? This was my seventh trip to the site. Also, our group of friends had grown more lackadaisical about arrival times, now that we no longer stay in town. But in the end, I was the schmuck who wandered down to the field and grabbed a spot where I could find one at the barrier. Fortunately, the crowds weren't oppressive, and group traded shifts, so we were able to maintain a presence without much stress. We did fine for the main stage, but at least for me, I sacrificed the supplemental festival acts.
On Friday, that meant I finally got to check out Courtney Barnett. It's no secret that (1) I'm a venue snob, (2) I've become incredibly lazy about seeing shows in recent years, and (3) I'm simply not as informed on new acts as before. Thus, despite many friends' recommendations, I've regretfully missed all of Courtney Barnett's shows in the Bay Area, and at this point, she may have grown out of the clubs I prefer. Thankfully, Wilco helped right that wrong.
Not that I can say much new about Courtney at this point. She was fab and fun and cheeky enough to throw a few classic rock poses while playing her indie rock tunes. The crowd near the front seemed sufficiently supportive, and a good singalong broke out to what I think was "Depreston." A tiny part of me hoped that she'd do her cover of Gillian Welch's "Everything Is Free," but a person can hope for only so much at her favorite band's festival. I was overdue to become a fan, and this show clinched it.
On Saturday, I managed to wander off to see Ohmme in one of the courtyards. Of course, I've seen Sima Cunningham on tour with Tweedy, but odds are low that her band will make it to the West Coast soon. I had to take this opportunity while I could. I was pleased to see they're a rocking combo, with both ladies on guitars. Sima's sweet vocals are apparent with Tweedy, but she and Macie Stewart kick out the jams with punk energy. They also covered the B-52's "Give Me Back My Man," which I'm old enough to -- er, never mind. I'd gladly see them play out here, and I hope they can book a date or two in town in the near future.
Saturday also brought both heat and rain. Because of the former, I chose to skip the Minus 5 in Courtyard D, but I've been fortunate enough to have seen various incarnations of the band a jillion times. Still, it would've been nice to see Scott McCaughey in his continuing recovery (though he made an appearance on the main stage on Sunday). Because of the latter, the schedule was slightly trimmed on the main field so that only Cate Le Bon and the Feelies played before Wilco.
Cate Le Bon was a mixed bag for me. About half of her songs were instantly appealing (for what it's worth), while others were perhaps a little too esoteric when you're standing in a field. In a different setting (say, Cafe du Nord), I might've been able to better appreciate the nuances.
However, Jeff did join the band for a couple of songs: "Strangers," the Kinks cover that Jeff occasionally rolls out, and "I Couldn't Say It to Your Face" by Arthur Russell. (I don't actually know the latter, so you can thank Paul for that info.) Jeff and Cate don't seem like a natural pairing, but that's one of the pleasures of self-curated festivals. You get a view into the entirety of a band's interests and influences. It's not so surprising to learn that Jeff enjoys and shares influences with British art folksters.
It goes without saying that the Feelies are American indie rock pioneers, and it was immediately apparent from the first notes of their set. I instantly recognized the guitar style that influenced about half the bands I heard tuning in to KSJS as a teenager. I love masterful production as much as the next person, but that spare, unsullied sound will always get my attention. Jeff also joined the Feelies onstage, this time for Neil Young's "Don't Cry No Tears." (You can thank Paul for that info as well.)
Sunday brought the most emphatic storm warning of the weekend. We didn't arrive at the museum until past noon, so we didn't have to evacuate the open areas and take cover in the museum halls to avoid the thunder. (However, we did end up sheltering and eating BBQ in the car until the festival staff gave everyone the green light.)
Jonathan Richman was the sole opener on the main stage. He too is a Solid Sound repeat performer and a longtime Wilco favorite. Several members of the Wilco entourage took in his set, even singing along to his tunes. Jonathan pulled out his signature moves, tunes, and musings for an appreciative crowd. I think we were more surprised by his trusty drummer Tommy, who sported a more rugged and rockier look than I recall. Their light, breezy set was a nice intro on this closing day.
Now for the Wilco content! Friday has always been the looser Wilco set. In previous years, we've enjoyed the all-covers show, and last time, the band did a couple of albums in their entirety. This year, we watched Wilco karaoke. Personally, I'm open to these one-offs, and on the whole, the singers did well, even if a few needed a bit of direction from Jeff. I counted at most two clunkers, and a number of the guests were likely in bar bands or had their own YouTube channels. Our group seemed to agree that Bailey from South Bend, Indiana, took top honors with her plaintive but soulful rendition of "True Love Will Find You in the End."
It was no secret that Wilco would bring in a ringer or two among the karaoke performers. The first one was Yuka Honda and a friend, who did a song off Schmilco. Truth be told, they didn't know all the lyrics, and I suspect their appearance was more to show off a rudimentary dance routine than to perform the song. I appreciated the spirit of their performance, if not the execution.
The second ringer turned out to be Sammy Tweedy for "I'm Always in Love," and he sounded great. Two years ago, we saw him sing with Tweedy on a Graham Nash song, but now he took on one of his father's tunes. I couldn't help but think of previous shows where Jeff told stories of Sammy falling asleep at gigs or asking to go home to play video games. It must be so satisfying for his loved ones to see him make his own path into the family tradition.
Last but not least, Courtney Barnett joined the band for "Handshake Drugs." Much like the other singers, she infused the song with her signature vocal style as opposed to Jeff's familiar tone. Jeff himself seemed delighted, especially when she and Nels faced off for that long guitar coda. It was a barrel of fun all around.
Wilco finished out the set in continuation of the karaoke theme; that is, they continued to project the (sometimes incorrect) lyrics behind the band. Kudos to the designer for pairing "Outta Mind (Outta Sight)" -- aka the version featuring sleigh bells -- with a snowflake pattern, and we got one more professional appearance when the ladies from Ohmme and Liam Kazar (also from the Tweedy band) emerged for "California Stars." You'll have no problem finding complaints about the premise of the set, but I'm more than willing to give Wilco the benefit of the doubt when they're trying something new at their own festival.
Wilco usually reserves its more traditional set for Saturday night, when the crowd is at its fullest. Though the band doesn't exactly have hits, repeat concertgoers recognize the more fan-favorite sets and those featuring deeper cuts. Having not seen the band for two years, I couldn't glibly characterize the set. They didn't repeat any songs from Friday night, and they mixed up the tunes with selections from across the band discography. I'm always happy to hear "Laminated Cat," especially because it feels like Wilco is reclaiming the song and not propping up the silos that sometimes exist between Jeff's many projects and writing credits.
Wilco also did a couple of new songs, and I'm not sure how to feel about them yet. Instead, I'll wait to listen to them more attentively when the new record comes out.
The festival closed on Sunday with Jeff's set. If you want to put a label on it, you might call it an extension of his solo tour from the last couple of years, and it started as such with several songs from Warm. But they soon veered into Tweedy territory, and not long after, I realized the new-sounding tunes were from Warmer, not officially released yet.
The set was billed as "Jeff Tweedy and Friends," and those friends indeed arrived, ranging from Josh Kantor (from the Baseball Project and the Boston Red Sox organist) to Amelia from Sylvan Esso to Ohmme to Scott McCaughey to Sammy Tweedy to, of course, Wilco. One of the surprises of the set was "It Must Be Love," which I mostly know as a Madness cover, but as a matter of fact, its roots go further back. Per Solid Sound tradition, they all joined in for "Give Back the Key to My Heart" and "I Shall Be Released." The two songs together were like an extended group hug.
Solid Sound both goes too fast and comes too slowly, but as long as Wilco is willing to do this, so am I. See you next time!
» Solid Sound 2017: when we came here today
» Solid Sound 2015: the whole love
» Solid Sound 2013: the boys are back in town
» Solid Sound 2011: you can tell that i'm not lying
» Solid Sound 2010: trees held us in on all four sides