By unfortunate coincidence, another double-header came up on my side of the country this very same weekend, but my tickets had long been booked and arrangements made. I was headed to North Adams and Mass MOCA for Wilco and friends at the second annual Solid Sound Festival--the right decision through and through.
Solid Sound Festival, June 24-26, 2011: I've scoffed and recoiled at many images of filthy festival goers wallowing in the mud and rain, so the irony wasn't lost on me that, after Solid Sound, I qualified as one of them. Well, not exactly--you'll never find me soaking my cares away in an E. coli bath, no matter the greatness of the gig or the drug intake, but I voluntarily spent way more time in the driving rain and gathering silt over the weekend than ever before. Obviously, I survived, and we even dodged the thunderstorms, ignoring the staff warnings to take cover. Truth is, I'd probably do it again if I had a good reason.
We can debate what constitutes "good reason" at some other juncture, but here's how I saw it: (1) Wilco; (2) Wilco on the cusp of a new album; (3) a good mix of acts to fill out the bill, most notably Liam Finn and Pajama Club, featuring Neil and Sharon Finn, not to mention a sterling comedy lineup; and (4) a full roster of Wilco's side projects.
This expanded roster translated into more acute scheduling conflicts this year than last, so I ended up missing certain acts altogether or catching only snippets of other performers. For example, Liam Finn's full-band set was a no-go, as were many of the band's extracurricular endeavors.
Comedy took a huge hit too; I missed Eugene Mirman and Wyatt Cenac and caught only a portion of Morgan Murphy's and John Hodgman's sets. Fortunately, my visit to the comedy hall coincided with two fantastic bits from Morgan, including a sexting scenario I first heard on the Comedy Death Ray podcast and that had me crying from laughter on the bus ride from work. John Hodgman's set veered from the traditional standup routine, but then again, he's hardly the traditional entertainer. I wish we had done a better job on the ukelele-led sing-along that closed out his set, but we really tried, despite the jumble of unfamiliar words.
However, it's much more fun to talk about the bands who made the weekend. On Friday, the big draw apart from the headliner was Pajama Club, Neil Finn's new project with wife Sharon and a couple more players, among them an awesome girl drummer. Neil remained the frontman, but as with his projects since the initial dissolution of Crowded House, you could detect his ongoing effort to shake up his signature pop sound--then Neil hit one of his patented soaring bridges shortly into the group's first song, and we knew we were in good hands. A bonus: Glenn Kotche joined the band for their last song, "Little by Little" from the 7 Worlds Collide project.
Saturday's encampment at the front of the stage translated into a primo view of Syl Johnson and the Sweet Divines. Even from his short set, you could easily tell he was insane in the best way possible, and he was a fantastic antidote to the thunder and rain that preceded his performance. On the same day, I also checked out the Handsome Family and Thurston Moore (separately). The former brought to mind other folksy couples I've seen in concert, only with a better sense of humor. Thurston turned in a surprising set, delicate and acoustic, at least the part I heard while rambling around the grounds.
The rain subsided on Sunday, and we finally relaxed, letting ourselves sleep in and wander to a greater extent than before. Fortunately, Liam Finn turned up in one of the galleries for a solo electric set, backed with a trusty looper and two of the tiniest, cutest amps you've ever seen. He also brought the enthusiasm and commitment in every performance of his I've ever witnessed. Based on an informal poll of friends, Liam attracted a number of new fans among the throngs--a win-win, as far as I'm concerned.
Pronto's set was beset by technical difficulties, to the band's frustration, but they stuck with it as best as they could. I could be mistaken, but it sounded like they concentrated on new songs; odds are, their mistakes would've been forgiven anyway. The Pillow Wand set was pretty much what you'd expect from a collaboration between Nels Cline and Thurston Moore, though judging by the streams of people leaving the set, not everyone got the memo. Levon Helm and His Rambling Band headlined Sunday night, and at one point during his set, as we stood in the sunshine somewhere toward the back of the field, it felt exactly like my city's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival--not a bad comparison at all.
And then there was Wilco, the headliners, proprietors, curators, and all-around majordomos. As mentioned above, the schedule simply didn't allow for you to attend every known configuration of the band and its members, and the fact that they showed up unannounced to accompany select acts didn't help either. Most of us had to be satisfied with their two headlining slots, but they gave us plenty to be thankful for. Per Wilco style, they played two almost entirely unique sets, save for a couple of new songs that they were clearly excited to debut. "I Might" is the new single, which some of us first heard at the S'n'S in April. "Born Alone" was marked by a great rolling rhythm and an exceedingly Tweedy-esque couplet rhyming "born to die alone" with "loneliness postponed."
In all, the band debuted five new songs and "I Love My Label," the Nick Lowe cover featured on the B-side of "I Might," as well as a nod to the band's new distribution model. I won't bother characterizing the new tunes; I don't trust my judgement, and I have no perspective on this band anymore. You'll have to wait until the album leaks and decide for yourself.
Among setlist surprises, the band presented "Hotel Arizona," even if Jeff sort of disavowed it before they even began. They also broke out "Shouldn't Be Ashamed," which I'm spotlighting because I love it when they take one of their more country-ish classics and inject a measure of Nels's newfangled riffs.
I've been to (more than) enough Wilco shows to know what constitutes a regular portion of the proceedings and what can be chalked up as a real surprise. The crowd sing-along to "Jesus, etc." is almost a given, and I would've been shocked if John Stirratt hadn't stepped up for "It's Just That Simple." Heck, we even expect Jeff to forget the words to any number of songs these days, especially after such a long layoff for the group. But when the audience lustily and impressively picked up "Radio Cure" without hesitation after a power surge cut off the mics and a portion of the electrical current onstage--that was completely spontaneous and entirely stirring.
Guest appearances and cross-pollination are de rigueur for festivals, and Solid Sound was no exception. On Saturday night, Liam Finn dropped in for "You Never Know," while Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion piped up for "California Stars." Wilco took their turn in the support slot with Levon Helm for "I Shall Be Released" and "The Weight" for a gorgeous and uplifting close to the weekend.
But the absolute musical highlight of the entire trip--and possibly in my whole life--was Neil Finn joining in for his "I Got You," which followed Wilco's song by the same name. I'd like to point out that we initially suggested this sequence a couple of years ago and, at the time, were brushed off by one of the songwriters. Granted, I'm sure the double-header has graced a mix tape or two back in the day, but hearing and seeing Neil and Jeff trade off vocals is a dream made real. Those three-odd minutes of screaming along to the song claimed much of my voice for the weekend, but I would've suffered more from trying to keep it in.
Before I wrap up this post, I want to mention my nonmusical highlight of the weekend, which also occurred on the first day of the festival. It was sometime while Pajama Club were still setting up, while dry skies held. The treasure: the simple sight of a great group of friends, decked out in rain gear, gathered on a cheap tarp, and chatting amiably. To borrow a cliche I sometimes like to trot out, music may be the vehicle, but our ties to one another are the payoff.
» trees held us in on all four sides
» above you and beyond me too
» wise man
» the message
» that year