Eyes on the prize--I feel like an ass comparing concert attendance to a society-altering humanitarian campaign, but the phrase has been on my mind throughout this summer of frugality. I'd be an even bigger idiot to claim to have made any great sacrifices during this interim, so I'll cut to the chase instead: After a somewhat protracted journey, I arrived at Wilco's inaugural Solid Sound Festival--but honestly, was there ever any doubt I'd miss out on a Wilco nerd's dream come true?
Solid Sound Festival, August 13-15, 2010: I'll say it again: I hate festivals, but Solid Sound was no ordinary three-ring circus. This was, by any yardstick, the ultimate show for a Wilco geek, with each and every attraction bearing some mark of the band. Considering the other extremes I've traversed to see this band, I'd have been a fool to skip it.
Instead, the gang factored in extra time--ostensibly for travel, since there's no easy way to get to North Adams, but it also allowed us a luxuriously languid pace for at least a couple of days. We arrived a day before the fest's official opening, so we got to wander around the museum for a bit before the masses descended. In truth, even Friday saw a somewhat thin crowd, so in those two days, we traipsed around the grounds, investigated the nooks and crannies, followed detours, and even caught some entertainment. Oh, and there was also a random meeting with a fledgling cyclist, who offered a sweet welcome to the area.
This relative respite turned out to be a blessing; we had a blast punching away at Nels Cline's pedals and Glenn Kotche's treated drums, as well as drinking in Mass MOCA's other exhibits, especially the Petah Coyne installation and the Sol Lewitt display. Music was already flowing on Friday, in the form of Pronto, the Books, and the Deep Blue Organ Trio. Truth be told, I didn't catch much of the Deep Blue Organ Trio, and we got in for only the end of the Books' set, but we were stationed for Pronto.
It was my first time seeing Mikael Jorgensen with the whole band--I mean, his whole band, not that other band--so of course I was interested in hearing what they could do with the tunes. There was some joshing on our end about hearing the "hits"--that is, "Monster" and the lack of vocals in tonight's performance of the song. Overall, the four-piece made good on that deceptively bygone sound featured so prominently on their album. But it wasn't all corduroy and electric piano; for the closer, Mike hovered over his sequencer (I think?) for a digitized call-and-response segment spelling out Pronto and Mass MOCA's names. It almost felt like a Chemical Brothers show for a few minutes!
I know I've stated my general strategies for festivals before, so I won't repeat it now, but as it turned out, these habits were discouraged at Solid Sound--at least to a greater extent than normal. If nothing else, Solid Sound forced me to be zen (to a point) and let me enjoy other acts. On Saturday, this meant I got to see Hannibal Burress in the comedy room and the other band sitting solidly on my radar: On Fillmore, who--despite their name--will in all likelihood never play the hallowed Fillmore of my hometown.
Having seen Glenn solo and the duo playing as part of Loose Fur, I knew that they'd go for an nontraditional sound. I was, however, surprised by some of their nontraditional staging. Of course, I have to note Darin's all-white outfit, Glenn's percussive necklace, and the blue monkey perched atop the piano. Then Darin wandered among the audience for the opening track, the two of them directed what appeared to be duck calls at one another, and later, Glenn communed with the crowd too. They both even played the piano! Alas, I couldn't tell you for sure if Glenn cracked that woman's skull, but whatever happened, you couldn't miss that sound, despite the din coming from the dunk tank, where Jeff Tweedy was sinking like a stone (according to reports).
I remain fascinated by Glenn's work with and without Wilco, so I appreciated this display of his talents outside of the typical pop or rock song structure. And who knows? Those bangs and booms may yet show up on a Wilco record.
Saturday's other musical milestone was the Mavis Staples set, the first use of Joe's Field out in Mass MOCA's backyard. Mavis's energy and joy brought the crowd together in a way that we hadn't yet seen at the festival's more intimate venues and performances. The fact that Jeff joined her for a few numbers was icing on the cake, but she was the center of attention--and for good reason. She proved without a doubt that "The Weight" and "I'll Take You There" are meant to be sung in unison with a gathering of mostly strangers, but it doesn't hurt when you have one of the most resonant voices in music leading the way.
Saturday's sunshine and heat gave way to Sunday's overcast skies and, eventually, rain. Also, we scarfed down a pancake breakfast at the church across the street. Score! Overall, a more relaxed vibe infused the day as well, though the no-line line waiting for the gates to open to Joe's Field may have led you to believe otherwise. Sunday for me meant a good measure of Outrageous Cherry's infectious set, a visit to the dunk tank (where our own ringer hit the bulls-eye at an enviable 50 percent rate), and a portion of the Nels Cline Singers performance in which they were joined by Yuka Honda (whom I'd previously seen playing with Nels just a few months ago).
I've clocked many gigs by the Nels Cline Singers over the years, but I was pleased to witness the crowds amass for them--and in broad daylight, unlike the small, dark clubs they more frequently headline. Outrageous Cherry was another bonus of this weekend; they're well beloved among power pop aficionados, and it was great to hear their raw, irresistible sound for myself.
So far, you may have noticed two gaping holes in this concert report. Well, I'm getting to them: the headlining sets by Wilco and Jeff Tweedy on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. But before I hit that mark, I want to mention how Solid Sound felt like a natural extension of Wilco's development over the years. I don't think you can pin it to a specific event, but there's a trajectory in my mind that starts with the Chicago residency and the opening of the Wilco songbook; jumps to Jeff's solo shows over the last few years, where those older, rarer ditties were dusted off; detours through New Zealand, where the band got a chance to play and mingle with other musicians for the 7 Worlds Collide project; and then circles back to the six-piece ensemble we know and love and their spring "evening with" gigs, where those musical elements once again coalesced in a manner we hadn't expected.
In my humble opinion, Wilco's set on Saturday was good, though not spectacular, and I especially enjoyed the middle section when they surprised us with the likes of "Someday, Some Morning, Sometime" and "Nothingsevergonnastandinmyway(again)." And do you need me to go bananas once more for the full-band version of "Laminated Cat"? That's what I thought. If nothing else, the band kept the guys in front of me on their toes as they tried to keep a setlist of songs they'd never heard before.
Sunday's closing set, however, was sort of my fantasy gig, and the proceedings bore a suspicious resemblance to shows by a certain musician at a certain venue I love so much on the other side of the country--but I digress. Jeff started on his own with a pretty strong selection of tunes (nothing repeated from the night before, mais oui), but even we veterans were surprised by the inclusion of "Shaking Sugar," which he had claimed to not recall just this past March. Also unexpected: Unfounded accusations jokingly directed at one of the pillars of our tribe, though I understand they cleared up the matter later.
Halfway through the set, the cavalcade of stars arrived, with various musicians drawn from the festival lineup dropping in to play with Jeff, from Sir Richard Bishop to Nick from the Books to Avi Buffalo to Scott McCaughey to other members of Wilco, minus Glenn, who had left to join his very pregnant wife at home. These guests pulled off their own songs, fantastic covers, and deep album cuts from Wilco's back catalog--in other words, the stuff you pray for when you're a hopelessly dedicated fan.
"Ingrid Bergman" with Nick from the Books drew gasps from us, perhaps because some of us are prudes, perhaps because the sexual metaphors are so clunky, or perhaps because they never do it live--take your pick. I didn't know the song that Jeff and Avi Buffalo chose to do together, but it was obviously a Neil Young title. For that reason alone, we were glad to listen. I also love hearing "It's Just That Simple" these days, but the choice of a closer sealed the deal and capped off the weekend perfectly for me.
Granted, I heard "Outta Mind (Outta Sight)" at the last Wilco show I attended, but the Solid Sound rendition staked out new territory with the addition of Outrageous Cherry's Matt Smith on electric guitar. While Matt upped the tune's pop factor, Nels brought the folk with his work on the banjo, forming one of the more apt distillations of Wilco's influences, abilities, and ambitions.
Solid Sound, see you in 2011.
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