August 18, 2010

Proof of Wilco's Solid Sound

An Exhaustive Review of the Solid Sound Festival: 
North Adams is a quintessential mountain town: home to the highest (Mt. Greylock) and quirkiest (MASS MoCA) points in the state; popular, but not populated; filled with friendly people who like art but dislike disorder; bisected by sleepy streets lined with stores with short hours.  The three-day, Wilco curated Solid Sound Festival at MASS MoCA both celebrated these qualities, and shook them, by bringing a dynamic piece of performance to the quiet Western Mass town.  

The best part?  We at soundproofblog became bonafide.  Yes... we were granted press passes.

But how do you solve a problem like Maria: how do you put words to a whirlwind of art, culture, music and Magic Hat, in a space so awesome (in scope and size) that maps confuse even museum employees?  Hopefully, we can navigate through narration.

Press Conference
We hadn't been to a press conference before, but even we knew that opening with a question about Jeff Buckley would raise a few eyebrows.  Even so, Wilco let little more loose than what surfaced in our interview with Glenn Kotche: Nels proclaimed the festival, "all about illumination"; Jeff, "some sort of hootenanny," and more specifically, "some sort of collective--what our band is about."  The most poignant quote, however, goes to John: "it takes the pressure off when you have your festival at a world class destination."

Off topic: Jeff's work with Mavis Staples arose "organically." The last tour was more shows "strung together," than since the band's inception.  And they discovered the band Brenda via a Portland record store.

This festival, in no uncertain terms, was a music festival first.  A band formed the idea; a band curated the stages and shows; a band broke into four different bands to play individual side-project shows; and a band drew 5,000 people to Mass MoCA.  The space was unbelievable, and the other contributors added flavor and diversity, but in the end, this was about music - about Wilco.  So let's talk about the music, shall we?  The layout and timing of the musical portion was rather refreshing.  Unlike most rock festivals, only one musical act playing at any given time; you could see 50 minutes of a band, and then make it to the next stage with time to spare.  We had our cake and ate it too all weekend, cramming in at least a small portion of most of the acts (with the exception of The Books and Avi Buffalo, people were crazy about seeing you guys and sorry, we're not really line-standers).

Side Projects

FYI: Wilco band members don't just do Wilco.  Mikael gets out from behind his keys to play a tele and a Mac in Pronto, who played the Hunter Theatre on Friday night to open the festival.  Their sound was rich and layered, and the indoor venue suited them well.  They have a diverse sound, with elements of rock, folk, electronica, and blues.  Overall, the crowd really responded to the band, and while they are a little too varied for my taste, the set was great.

Glenn played with On Fillmore on Saturday afternoon.  He and fellow Fillmorian Darin Gray brought a unique percussive environment to the courtyard.  I was only able to hear a couple of songs, but before I got carnival-called to the dunk tank, I heard the unmistakable sounds of musicianship and creativity.

With the Nels Cline singers, Nels takes his god-like guitar riffs and slows them down for some avant-garde jazz.  NCS took the largest courtyard stage on Sunday, and they needed it.  I'm not sure if there was a small army of jazz enthusiasts or if people were just curious, but it was the largest non-Tweedy turnout of the weekend.  Nels looked serene and angelic on stage, and his fellow band members took great liberties to create unique soundscapes.  The sound on the stage was a bit overpowering, however, and after snapping up a few up-close photos, we retreated to the back to avoid ear-drum damage.  The use of volume as expression is a large part of experimental jazz, and the over-amplification obscured the subtleties of the band's music.  Nonetheless, the performance was great, and the crowd ate it up.

John and Pat team up in the Autumn Defense, kicking out rich harmonies in the form of Americana roots and folk.  Originally scheduled for a courtyard stage, the threat of rain forced the show inside on Sunday afternoon.  This was probably better, as an indoor venue allowed them to really concentrate their sound and get a balanced mix.  This however severely limited the number of people who could see the show - many lined the hallways trying to get in, in a one out, one in situation, but most got to hear at least a piece of the band's work.  The musicianship on stage was palpable: diverse instrumentation, tight and winding harmonies, and just a great vibe as a band.  Some of the songs were a bit cheesey, but hey, there's nothing wrong with a clear message (stop rolling your eyes hipsters).  If they come to DC, I know I'll be there.

Other Bands

As mentioned previously, we were unable to attend the Books or Avi Buffalo, as the Hunter Theatre was a really bad place to try and get in.  However, we did catch the Deep Blue Organ Trio, the Baseball Project, Sir Richard Bishop, and of course, the captivating and charismatic Mavis Staples.  The DBOT opened up the courtyards on Friday night, and delivered toe-tapping blues and jazz.  Sir Richard Bishop played the same stage Saturday afternoon, and he delivered his own brand of eclectic guitar stylings.  With influences from eastern to African, Bishop has a beautiful range of sounds and pickings.  And the Baseball Project - a supergroup to say the least.  Peter Buck (REM), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Minus 5, REM), and Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate) and his wife Linda Pitmon.  These guys pretty much launched modern rock as we know it; now they're blowing off steam and having fun writing songs about baseball.  Love it - with songs like "Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays" and "Ted Fucking Williams", who wouldn't?  They absolutely brought it too.  But none of the acts could hold a candle to Mavis.  She came in hot and never cooled off.  "The Staples Singers have been taking you there for 30 years," she exclaimed, side-stepping and clapping along to the intro to her most recognized song.  The heart and soul of her performance on Saturday night was incredible - the pictures don't do it justice.  Tweedy came out and played guitar on a couple of songs, but even he couldn't hold the stage with Mavis.  She's still got it, and I don't know that she'll ever lose it.

Wilco/Tweedy Plus

As we mentioned previously, this was a Wilco-centric festival.  And as such, Wilco was the headliner Saturday night, and Jeff Tweedy was the headliner Sunday evening.  Its rare that a festival puts the primary headliner on Saturday, but it worked splendidly, as the weather was spot-on perfect for a late night show Saturday, and the drizzly afternoon rain added to the ambiance of the solo Tweedy set.  But I digress.

Wilco opened Saturday with their signature introduction: Price is Right theme into Wilco (the song).  They then weaved in and out of old and new tracks, giving almost equal weighting across their body of work.  Highlights include the stretch of Bull Black Nova into YAMF into Hell is Chrome.  Also on the list is I Must Be High (my request for the weekend) which was introduced by Tweedy, "Is Mavis still here?  I don't want to play a song about drugs if she is.  Eh, its not really about drugs."  Needless to say, the 30-song setlist gets high marks.

The band's stage presence was incredible as always.  Jeff has good energy and banter; Nels moves so quickly only his essence is captured on film; John is the band's Gibraltar; and Glenn, Pat, and Mikael all provide the base from which the band can launch.  The staging was the same as their spring tour (see epic review here), and that's a good thing.

My one complaint, and I'm starting to shake my fist old-man-like, was the overpowering sound.  Ear plugs were a must - although I saw very few attendees wearing them (don't get me started on a-holes who bring kids to shows with no protection).  And depending on where you were in the crowd, strong echoes pounded sound right back at you.  I'm actually incredibly impressed that the band was able to play through them, as the echoes were strongest at the stagefront.

All tolled, it was truly an experience: the stars out, the temperature cool, the band on fire.  We're not posting a scorecard for the festival, but I would score this show at a 9.2, with the only deficiencies coming in the sound category.

On top of the 30 Wilco songs performed Saturday night, Jeff added 25 more songs on Sunday during his solo set at the Field (see Joe, we don't call it Joe's Field).  Not all were Wilco songs - covers included Tennessee Porch Swing with Sir Richard Bishop, Ingrid Berman by Guthrie with Books frontman Nick Zammuto, Look Out for My Love by Neil Young with Avi Buffalo, The Family Gardener by the Minus 5 with Scott McCaughey, So Much Wine by the Handsome Family, and Simple Twist of Fate by Bob Dylan.  Man o man.  Tweedy was in great spirits, calling out the front row fans for their lack of help during some of the more obscure songs.  "You know you see people singing along," says Jeff, "But when you forget the words and you look at them for help, they just shrug, 'I unno'.  Yes, I'm looking at you Paul.  Where have you been?  Oh, did you leave us for the National?"  He was humble and humorous for the duration, and it was noticed and appreciated by the entire crowd.  A tip of the cap to you good sir.  My only regret is that the dunking booth may have cut his set short - a commenter over at Sound Check reports that the official setlist included an encore of Casino Queen, Thank You Friends, and Fake Plastic Trees.  Le sigh.  Still, I give the show a 9.4 as the sound was vastly improved from Saturday.

Here's how the setlists shake out:

MASS MoCa is a mecca: a textile factory turned electricity plant turned, well, a combination of both of those things; we marveled at the exhibits on display.  Dwarfed by a "Material World," we took in massive installations of toilet paper, wire and weaving that transformed simple rooms into wonderous experiences.  We walked through taxidermy trees hung with dark dyed birds, transporting us back to middle school, to the seat next to the goth who insisted on drawing bloodshot eyeballs in art class.  We did a double take upon reading the artist's name on a life-sized portraiture exhibit of ordinary people with "Secret Selves": Leonard Nimoy.  And we shielded our eyes the numerous times we were blinded by the Sol Lewitt exhibit of ink washed walls.

The incorporation of Wilco's art projects only served to totally solidify the Solid Sound space takeover.  Nels, Glenn and Pat each brought their own brand of band to the gallery. Pat went traditional with Polaroids of vintage America, yet it's truly difficult to believe that they weren't doctored--how else do you get the exact same shades of creme-yellow, rust red and light blue in every shot?  Skeptical. Glenn's custom drum heads hung throughout the Lewitt exhibit, readied for audience participation, though a few times it was unclear just how to make some noise.  And in a similarly loud set-up, Nels installed several series of the band's actual pedals in tandem, which sent a signal through a loop and coerced visitors into manipulating the sounds together.  Sneaky teamwork, Solid Sound Stompbox.

And who could forget the Wilco concert poster exhibit: I want one for every room in my house.  One complaint: a beautiful festival poster we received via email from a promoter was not available for sale as advertised.  Shame!


The festival also featured comedy, films and a scavenger hunt.  Actually, two scavenger hunts: can anyone tell us if they actually FOUND the films?  We asked docent, after volunteer, after employee where these were located, to no avail (similar to our hunt for Pat's Polaroids, except we found those).  And the mobile scavenger hunt was pretty much to keep the kids entertained.

An inside stage hosted four comics all day Saturday: Hannibal Buress, John Mulaney, Kristin Schaal, and Todd Barry.  The coolest thing about the comics?  We saw all of them offstage: shared an elevator with Todd Barry, saw Kristin Schaal exiting our hotel, Hannibal Burress in passing, and John Mulaney... well, where didn't we see him?  We're pretty sure he was following us.  This kept with the theme of the festival: totally down to earth and accessible from artists to administrators.

Of the four comics, however, we only made a real attempt to catch John Mulaney.  Only incidentally did we catch the back half of Hannibal Burress's set, which was hysterical, however, and peppered with clean, food-related comedy (McGriddles?  Always funny).  Mulaney's set was similarly hysterical.  Though he performed bits we'd already heard, his constant disclaimers about the nature of his routine ("folks, this is it." "I'm not introducing anyone." "I do not have a guitar." etc) kept us giggling.  Check out youtube if you haven't, specifically The Best Meal I've Ever Had.

So what else?  The food was great: Harrell's Ice Cream a must-have, too many hot dog options to count, and those Banh Mi's!  Delicious.  A travelling show of storytellers kept everyone entertained with their tomfoolery.  Jeff Tweedy got dunked in the dunk tank, there were art demonstrations such as print and guitar making.  Truly something for everyone.


  1. pat does not doctor his polaroids - the nature (and beauty) of polaroid film is that the color palette is limited. also, you may have seen repeating color schemes as he was probably trying to curate a cohesive exhibition of his work.

    also - how do you doctor a polaroid? the whole point is that it comes out of the camera instantly. no chance to noodle around in the darkroom or on the computer.

    otherwise - great review!

  2. We caught maybe two seconds of Mountain Man, that's a regret.

    I know how Polaroid film works, but I imagined someone could "doctor" (digitally enhance) a photo and put the image back in its original frame. It was an observation, not an accusation, and seemingly a testament to his skill as a photographer! Thanks for setting me straight.

  3. Yes, to set the record straight, we missed a couple other acts as well. Sorry Vetiver, taking in some comedy, but I've heard you live and you're great! Also, Outrageous Cherry, again, I'm sorry but we only caught the first few songs and then went in search of the film series. Oops.

    I failed to mention, but we did catch a good portion of The Numero Group's DJ set, and I danced myself silly Saturday night. Very choice. You too can dance yourselves silly when you stream or download the set here:

  4. Sounds like a great festival. Hope you all didn't get too geeked out!