Solid Sound Festival 2017

As promised, Wilco performed its 1996 album Being There from beginning to end on Friday, June 23. Being There had won an online poll asking Wilco fans which of the band’s records it should perform on the opening night of Solid Sound, a festival Wilco curates every other year at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. After playing the 24 Americana songs on that beloved double album — without ever pausing for any of frontman Jeff Tweedy’s usual stage banter — Wilco came back onstage for an encore.

Without saying anything, the band launched into “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” the opening track from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, its masterpiece album from 2002. And then the band played “Kamera,” the second song on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. At this point, I wondered: Wait a second — is Wilco going to play the entire Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album, too? Some people standing near me in the crowd voiced the same question. And sure enough, that’s exactly what Tweedy and his band did, delivering all 11 songs from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in sequence, without ever stopping to announce what they were doing.

Wilco played the songs from both albums with the sort of flourishes and sonic layers that are typical of its live performances, but the band seemed to rein in those embellishments a little bit, keeping most of the songs as concise as they are on the original records. For instance, Tweedy has created a tradition of shouting “Nothing!” many, many times at the climax of “Misunderstood,” the opening song on Being There. He skipped that ritual during this performance.

The concert gained intensity during the encore, which showed just how artfully Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was constructed. After the noisy climax of “Poor Places,” Tweedy sang the opening verse of “Reservations” in a practically solo performance on acoustic guitar. A hush fell over the outdoor field where Wilco was playing — on the grounds of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art — as Tweedy quietly sang. The band subtly began filling in the rest of the song behind him. Just as it does on the record, the song drifted into an atmospheric final epilogue. That recording continued to play after the members of Wilco had lifted their hands toward the audience and departed from the stage. It was breathtakingly beautiful. (NYC Taper posted a recording of the show.)

This was the high point of Solid Sound, but it was hardly the only reason that the festival was worth traveling to attend. The weekend also included a rare concert by the Shaggs, the sisters who made the legendarily shambolic record Philosophy of the World in 1969. This performance was actually by two of the sisters — Dot and Betty Wiggin — and they were just singing. As an article in one of the local newspapers, The Manchester Journal, explained, “Arthritis prevents both Dot and Betty from playing instruments.” They were backed up by a younger group that has also played with Dot in recent years, the Dot Wiggin Band. As the Journal noted, “they work hard to master the sisters’ very unique style.” That made for a rather strange spectacle — seemingly talented musicians trying their best to sound as primitive as the Shaggs did when they made that 1969 recording under their father’s tutelage. The audience included adoring members of the Shaggs cult as well as some people who didn’t grasp what was going on. “My God, these people can’t keep the beat,” remarked a beer vendor who was clearly unfamiliar with the story of the Shaggs. “That’s how it’s supposed to sound,” I tried to explain. She shook her head and said, “So, it’s one of those things where it’s supposed to be so bad that it’s good?” It was certainly surreal, and I found it rather endearing to watch these two older women singing the off-kilter ditties they’d recorded when they were young.

Highlights of Solid Sound included a set by Television — even without Richard Lloyd, the group plays terrific guitar duels. And so did Kevin Morby and his band. Joan Shelley’s lilting folk songs sounded as delightful as ever. I was very impressed by the vocals and guitar playing of the Saskatchewan country-folk duo Kacy & Clayton (who have recorded a new album at Wilco’s Loft studio in Chicago). Another Saskatchewan musician, Andy Shauf, performed lovely ballads. Daniel Bachman’s instrumental guitar music was exquisite. And the emotion of Big Thief’s songs was palpable. While I was never a big fan of the J. Geils Band, that group’s vocalist, Peter Wolf, gave an entertaining and energetic performance with his current group, the Midnight Travelers. I also enjoyed the shows on the big stage by Kurt Vile and the Violators and Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin with the Guilty Ones.

In addition to all of the music, there was comedy — led as always by John Hodgman. Sadly, I missed out on all of that because of schedule conflicts with the live music. But I did find time to explore the art exhibits at Mass MoCA, which recently expanded. Chicago artist Nick Cave (not to be confused with the musician of the same name) has a massive installation called Until at the museum through August, which really shows what’s cool about this venue: With big rooms inside 19th-century factory buildings, it gives artist spaces where they try out big ideas. Here’s my video of a quick, three-minute walk-through of Cave’s installation:

Other noteworthy exhibits now on display include Jenny Holzer’s exploration of U.S. government’s torture victims at sites including Abu Ghraib. And there’s an interesting set of artworks by the musician Laurie Anderson, including huge drawings of dogs and some virtual reality environments she created. I spent 15 minutes immersed in one of those three-dimensional realms, and it was an odd and beguiling trip.

Of course, Solid Sound featured even more Wilco. On the second night, Wilco played a more typical concert. After opening with “At Least That’s What You Said,” the first song from the 2004 album A Ghost Is Born, Tweedy joked that, no, the band was not going to play that whole record: “We aren’t going to play any albums in their entirety tonight,” he said. “We’re going to play stuff from all our albums — except Being There and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. If you like those albums, you should have been here last night.” During the song “Via Chicago,” Tweedy abruptly exclaimed, “Holy shit! What the fuck was that?” I was too far away to see what had happened, but other audience members later told me that a bat had swooped down near Tweedy’s face as he was singing. Later in the show, Tweedy joked that he’d been attacked by a falcon or a “predator drone,” and he said it was the most scared he’s ever been onstage. He recovered pretty quickly in that moment, though. (Set list.)

Wilco’s various side projects played during the festival, including the Autumn Defense performing its album Circles and closing with a Love cover. Nels Cline played complex and lyrical jazz guitar with a quartet that included his past collaborator, guitarist Julian Lage. And drummer Glenn Kotche’s group On Fillmore sounded great — from inside the museum, anyway, where I happened to be at the time.

Just as it did in 2015, Solid Sound concluded with a set by Tweedy & Friends. The first part of this performance featured the band called Tweedy. That was followed by a solo acoustic performance by Jeff Tweedy. And then numerous musicians joined in — including two of his sons: drummer Spencer Tweedy (of course) but also Sammy, who sang Graham Nash’s song “Military Madness.” With various members of Wilco and other bands filling the stage, Tweedy and his assembled friends sang “California Stars,” “Give Back the Key to My Heart” and “I Shall Be Released.” (Set list.) It was a fitting way to end this weekend of friendship and creativity.

Photos from June 23

Nancy and Beth (Stephanie Hunt and Megan Mullally)
Nancy and Beth (Stephanie Hunt and Megan Mullally)
Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin with the Guilty Ones
Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin with the Guilty Ones
Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin with the Guilty Ones
Nick Offerman introduces Wilco.

Photos from June 24

Kacy & Clayton
Kacy & Clayton
Kacy & Clayton
Joan Shelley
Joan Shelley
The Shaggs
The Shaggs
The Shaggs
Big Thief
Big Thief
The courtyard during Big Thief’s set
Deep Sea Diver
Max Hatt and Edda Glass
Peter Wolf and the Midnight Travelers
Peter Wolf and the Midnight Travelers
Peter Wolf and the Midnight Travelers
Kevin Morby

Kevin Morby
Television
Television
Television
Television
Television
Television
Television
Joe’s Field during Television’s set
Robert Glasper Experiment
Robert Glasper Experiment
Kurt Vile and the Violators
Kurt Vile and the Violators

Photos from June 25

Daniel Bachman
Daniel Bachman
Andy Shauf
Andy Shauf
The Autumn Defense
The Autumn Defense

The Nels Cline Four
The Nels Cline Four
The Nels Cline Four
Tweedy and Friends

Big Ears: Photos of Wilco

(See more Big Ears Festival coverage)

Wilco

March 24, 2017, at the Tennessee Theatre

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Jeff Tweedy with Chikamorachi

March 25, 2017, at the Mill and Mine — Chikamorachi is Darin Gray (upright bass) and Chris Corsano (drums)

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On Fillmore

March 26, 2017, at the Standard. On Fillmore is Glenn Kotche and Darin Gray.

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Dustan Louque with Nels Cline

March 27, 2017, at Jackson Terminal

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More Big Ears Festival coverage:

Read my main blog post about Big Ears Festival 2017.

Photos from Day 1 (Carla Bley with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, Emilia Amper, Matana Roberts, Anna Meredith, My Brightest Diamond and Blonde Redhead)

Photos from Day 2 (Maya Beiser, Matmos, Robyn Hitchcock, Gyan Riley, Richard Teitelbaum, Ståle Storløkken and Arve Henriksen, Jóhann Johannsson’s Drone Mass, Meredith Monk, Michael Hurley and Tortoise)

Photos from Day 3 (Lisa Moore, Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble, Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, Musica Elettronica Viva, Joan Shelley, Colin Stetson Performs Sorrow, the Magnetic Fields, Henry Grimes, Jem Cohen: Gravity Hill Sound+Image, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Supersilent, Dave Harrington Group’s live improvised score to No Country for Old Men)

Photos from Day 4 (Pauline Oliveros’ “Rock Piece,” Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, Oliver Coates, St. John’s Choral Evensong, Colleen, Henry Threadgill’s Zooid)

Photos of the Gavin Bryars Ensemble

Photos of Nils Økland

Solid Sound Fest: Review

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Musicians thank their audiences all the time, but Jeff Tweedy did it even more than usual over the weekend at Solid Sound.

Time and again, he kept thanking his fans for allowing Solid Sound to happen. “It’s too nice of you guys to be here, to make this happen,” he said at one point. Of course, the same thing could be said of all festivals and concerts: They wouldn’t happen if nobody showed up. But it’s unusual to hear a rock star acknowledge that debt to his audience as explicitly as Tweedy did. He sounded humbled and maybe overwhelmed by the whole thing.

Tweedy’s band Wilco organizes the Solid Sound Festival every other year at Mass MoCA, aka the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, which has taken over the sprawling grounds of a 19th-century factory complex in North Adams, a town in the state’s northwest corner. That setting is one of the event’s key attractions: The surrounding landscape is bucolic, and the museum’s cleverly repurposed industrial spaces are filled with oversized, ambitious, eccentric and playful art.

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Francesco Clemente's Encampment installation
Francesco Clemente’s Encampment installation
Jena Priebe, The Secret Lives of Books, part of the Bibliothecaphilia exhibit.
Jena Priebe, The Secret Lives of Books, part of the Bibliothecaphilia exhibit.
An artwork in Jim Shaw's exhibit "Entertaining Doubts."
An artwork in Jim Shaw’s exhibit “Entertaining Doubts.”

Even though Wilco’s headquarters are in Chicago, North Adams is a second home of sorts for the band and its extended musical family. Solid Sound — which returned to the museum June 26-28 for its fourth edition — isn’t totally and completely about Wilco. It does feature other musicians of various genres, as well as standup comedy, films and assorted artsy happenings. But it all revolves around Wilco, and it’s designed with Wilco’s fans in mind. Would you really go to Solid Sound if you didn’t like Wilco?

This year’s festival felt even more Wilco-dominated than the previous fest, in 2013, because a couple of major musical acts, Taj Mahal and King Sunny Ade, canceled their appearances. And yet there were many sterling musical moments that had little or nothing to do with Wilco.

Luluc
Luluc

Luluc, a duo from Australia by way of Brooklyn, entranced with its luminous songs; singer Zoë Randell’s voice was chillingly lovely as it melded with Steve Hassett’s expressive guitar lines. After their regular set, they showed up in the museum for an unamplified “pop-up” performance, casting a spell over a small group of people sitting on the gallery floor.

Richard Thompson played his set in electric-guitar mode, focusing on songs from his new album, Still, which was recorded by Tweedy at the Wilco Loft. Perhaps he would have played more of his classics if he’d had more than an hour; he did return to the stage with his trio for a short encore: a rocking cover of the Otis Blackwell song “Daddy Rolling Stone.”

NRBQ, an old band that sounds rejuvenated with its new lineup, played the most party-inducing set of the weekend. The group’s longtime keyboardist, Terry Adams, was clearly having a blast, and Scott Ligon ripped through an extended guitar solo that was staggeringly great.

Other highlights of the weekend included Jeff Davis’ traditional folk songs; a slightly more modern take on that genre by Sam Amidon and Bill Frisell; the energetic indie rock of Speedy Ortiz and Parquet Courts, perhaps the only band all weekend that prompted anything that resembled moshing; the eloquent guitar instrumentals of William Tyler; and the placid breeziness of Real Estate — which was too mellow for many audience members, but still rather nice. (For the record, I missed the sets by the Felice Brothers, Mac DeMarco, Charles Lloyd and Cibo Matto because of schedule conflicts, and caught only a bit of Shabazz Palaces.)

The brilliant John Hodgman curated the comedy portion of Solid Sound, including hilarious improvisation by the group Superego. When Jessica Williams of The Daily Show and Phoebe Robinson took the stage, the two African-American comedians said they had a bet over how many black audience members there would be. (Robinson predicted five; Williams, seven). They asked any black people in the crowd to say “Woo!” and counted six. (Yes, it should be noted here that Solid Sound attracts an overwhelmingly white audience, though it is diverse in other ways, covering a wide age range but skewing toward middle-aged folks and families with kids.)

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The weekend was filled with Wilco side projects. The band’s virtuoso guitarist, Nels Cline, showed off his art-school side with a solo set of evocative noises and textures, while the big screen behind him in the Hunter Center displayed a picture being painted and rapidly transformed by artist Norton Wisdom on the other side of the stage. Meanwhile, dancers choreographed by Sarah Elgart writhed inside colored fabric like fetuses desperate to escape the womb. This multimedia experience, called “Stained Radiance,” may sound a bit pretentious on paper, but it was an impressive and affecting spectacle.

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Wilco’s remarkable drummer, Glenn Kotche, performed contemporary chamber music with former Kronos Quartet cellist Jeffrey Zeigler. It culminated with “The Immortal Flux,” a percussion piece composed by Kotche using recordings that evoke the history of the Mass MoCA building. Fifty volunteer percussionists played drums specially created for the occasion. Unfortunately, the muffled acoustics in the back of the big gallery space failed to convey all of the music’s nuances.

The Autumn Defense, the soft-rock band led by Wilco members John Stirratt and Pat Sansone, teamed up with the Australian band The Windy Hills for another unusual set. They played music composed and recorded for Spirit of Akasha, a film that celebrates an earlier surf movie with a cult following, Morning of the Earth. But this wasn’t typical surf rock. The Windy Hills’ songs, which dominated the set, were more like Crosby, Stills & Nash. Even when the Autumn Defense guys joined in for an instrumental jam, it had a hippy groove reminiscent of CSN’s “Long Time Gone.”

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There was an also a museum exhibit showing an interactive Wilco timeline, with fans’ memories on Post-It notes. Elsewhere in the museum, a replica of Wilco’s stage setup gave fans a chance to see what it looks like standing by those guitars, keyboards and drums.

But of course, the main attractions were Wilco itself and Jeff Tweedy. Friday night’s headline concert was an all-acoustic show by Wilco — the first time the band has ever done a show that was unplugged from beginning to end. Some of the songs (including a couple from Tweedy’s days with Uncle Tupelo) were acoustic in the first place, but others sounded radically different in this format, with Cline’s lap steel guitar or trilling acoustic strings replacing electric riffs, as xylophone and melodica filled in for synthesizers and other layers from the full rock arrangements. This show came on the same day as the Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriage, and after Wilco played “Hesitating Beauty,” Tweedy commented: “I was thinking it’s so much nicer singing that song now that everyone can get married.”

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SET LIST: Misunderstood / War on War / I’m Always in Love / Company in My Back / Hummingbird / Bull Black Nova / Handshake Drugs / Hesitating Beauty / She’s a Jar / One Wing / Kamera / New Madrid / Forget the Flowers / It’s Just That Simple / Airline to Heaven / Dawned on Me / I Got You (At the End of the Century) / Passenger Side / Outta Mind (Outta Sight) / Whole Love / Jesus, Etc. / Walken / The Thanks I Get / Theologians / A Shot in the Arm / ENCORE: True Love Will Find You in the End (Daniel Johnston cover) / We’ve Been Had / Casino Queen / Hoodoo Voodoo / I’m a Wheel

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Saturday ended with a more typical Wilco concert, which began an hour early because of a rainstorm predicted for later in the night. As it turned out, the rain started falling before Wilco played the first notes of “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” and it kept falling throughout the show — but it never got bad enough to cut off the music. After all of the quiet strumming and banjo plucking on Friday night, Wilco came out ready to rock on Saturday night. The set was heavy on music from the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot era, including some of Wilco’s best obscurities, and it was as solidly entertaining as any Wilco show I’ve ever seen, the rain notwithstanding.

SET LIST: I’m the Man Who Loves You / Kamera / Candyfloss / I Am Trying to Break Your Heart / Art of Almost / At Least That’s What You Said / Either Way / Pot Kettle Black / Panthers / Sunken Treasure / Secret of the Sea / Heavy Metal Drummer / Born Alone / Laminated Cat (aka Not for the Season) / Ashes of American Flags / Hotel Arizona / Box Full of Letters / Impossible Germany / A Magazine Called Sunset / Via Chicago / ENCORE: Let’s Not Get Carried Away / Dark Neon / The Late Greats / Kingpin / Monday / Outtasite (Outta Mind)

On Sunday afternoon, the festival finished up with a set by Tweedy, the band behind 2014’s Sukierae album, which includes Jeff as well as his son Spencer on drums, plus Jim Elkington on guitar, Darin Gray on bass, Liam Cunningham on keyboards, and Sima Cummingham on harmony vocals. The songs from this record aren’t radically different from the style of Jeff Tweedy’s music with Wilco, but there’s a different dynamic among these players. The band stretched out a few moments with fierce krautrock-style repetition. When someone in the crowd called out, “You’re doing a good job, Jeff,” Tweedy thanked him for the vote of confidence. He said he must have the sort of face that prompts people to feel the need to offer words of encouragement. The sky was gray and a light drizzle fell as the band played. “This is the perfect weather for these songs, I think,” Tweedy remarked.

After an hour by Tweedy the band, Jeff Tweedy played a solo acoustic set. “I’m trying to think of the happiest songs I can play, to get you guys going,” he said. Before he played the Golden Smog song “Pecan Pie,” he said, “I don’t think this song has any death in it. I never know until I start singing. There’s just so much death.” Like usual, Tweedy was self-deprecating with his stage banter. Later, when Tweedy made a slight misstep in “Summerteeth,” he commented: “I know the words and the chords. I just wanted to display a little infallibility so the weekend isn’t too perfect.”

Various musicians who’d played during the festival came out and played with Tweedy. When Cibo Matto joined with him, the opening chords on Tweedy’s acoustic guitar sounded like “All Along the Watchtower,” but it turned out to be a cover of Madonna’s “Into the Groove.” When Tweedy played “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” he dedicated it to his wife, Sue, adding: “I always dedicate this song to her, and if I ever don’t dedicate it to her, I want you to know on the record, it is dedicated to her.”

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Tweedy the band returned to the stage for the final segment of the concert, which included a faithful cover of John Lennon’s “God.” “You probably thought that was going to be the last song, didn’t you?” Tweedy said afterward. “It would have made sense … John Lennon mic drop.” But he had a few more songs to go. A big crowd of musicians joined him for “Give Back the Key to My Heart” and “California Stars,” with a grinning Bill Frisell taking a guitar solo on the latter song.

SET LIST — BAND: Hazel / Fake Fur Coat / Diamond Light Pt. 1 / Flowering / World Away / New Moon / Summer Noon / Honey Combed / Desert Bell / High As Hello / Wait For Love / Love Like a Wire (Diane Izzo cover) / Low Key / Nobody Dies Anymore / SOLO: Remember the Mountain Bed / Please Tell My Brother / Summerteeth / Pecan Pie / The Ruling Class / Chinese Apple (with Glenn Kotche and Ryley Walker) / Too Far Apart / Into the Groove (Madonna cover, with Cibo Matto and Nels Cline) / Grandpa Was a Carpenter (John Prine cover, with the Felice Brothers) / Harvest Moon (Neil Young cover, with Luluc) / Be Not So Fearful (Bill Fay cover, with John Stirratt and Pat Sansone) / I’m the Man Who Loves You / BAND: You Are Not Alone / Only the Lord Knows (Mavis Staples cover) / God (John Lennon cover, with Bill Frisell) / Losing End (Neil Young cover) / Give Back the Key to My Heart (Doug Sahm cover) / California Stars

Over the course of the three nights, Wilco and Tweedy repeated only a couple of songs, showing once again how rich their repertoire is. Wilco’s a rare example of a band with the depth, talent and creativity to justify and sustain an event like Solid Sound.

See my photos of Solid Sound Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3.

Solid Sound Festival: Photos of Day 3

Photos from the third day of the 2015 Solid Sound Festival, June 28, 2015, at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Mass. (Also see my review of Solid Sound and my photos of Day 1 and Day 2.)

Glenn Kotche rehearsal

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Wilco signs the band’s poster book

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Jeff Davis

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William Tyler

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Nels Cline & Norton Wisdom’s Stained Radiance

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Glenn Kotche & Jeffrey Zeigler

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The Windy Hills and the Autumn Defense

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Tweedy

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with Sima Cunningham
with Sima Cunningham
with Ryley Walker
with Ryley Walker
with Cibo Matto
with Cibo Matto
with the Felice Brothers
with the Felice Brothers
with Luluc
with Luluc
with various musicians
with various musicians
with various musicians
with various musicians
with various musicians
with various musicians

Solid Sound Festival: Photos of Day 2

Photos from the second day of the 2015 Solid Sound Festival, June 27, 2015, at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Mass. (Also see my review of Solid Sound and my photos of Day 1 and Day 3.)

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Superego

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Luluc

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"Pop-up" gallery performance
“Pop-up” gallery performance

Bill Frisell and Sam Amidon

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John Hodgman

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Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson

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NRBQ

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Jessica Pratt

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Wilco stage exhibit

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Wilco Interactive Timeline

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Richard Thompson

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Shabazz Palaces

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Parquet Courts

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DJ Michael Slaboch

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Wilco

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Harmonium Mountain featuring Ciba Matto

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Tweedy on Sound Opinions at Lincoln Hall

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Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy is releasing his first solo album — or rather, an album called Sukierae under the moniker “Tweedy” — on Sept. 23, and he was scheduled to play a headlining concert on July 12 at Taste of Chicago. The city canceled that show after heavy rainstorms earlier in the day, but Tweedy did play a free concert last night (July 17) during a taping of the public radio show “Sound Opinions” at Lincoln Hall.

The evening began with an entertaining interview: “Sound Opinions” co-hosts Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis talking with Jeff Tweedy and his 18-year-old son, Spencer, who plays drums on the new record and on this tour with the Tweedy band. Jeff Tweedy said every Wilco album is created by committee, but this one was different, as he kept things simple in the studio, recording 20 songs with Spencer on drums. “There’s a DNA connection that I’ve never experienced with other musicians,” he said.

But Tweedy plans to convene Wilco soon to begin work on a new album by the whole band — or at least to start the process by “messing around” in the studio. “Six people finding a part on a song — that’s kind of the idea of Wilco,” he said. As far as when to expect that album, he said “probably” next year.

Like his father, Spencer has a great sense of humor, and it was fun to see the two of them joking around during the interview. When the subject of Jeff Tweedy’s acting in recent episodes of “Parks and Recreation” and “Portlandia” came out, Spencer said, “Don’t be surprised if you see him in a major motion picture next year.” Acting surprised, his father asked, “Do you know something I don’t?”

After the interview, Tweedy and his band — Spencer on drums, Darin Gray on bass, Jim Elkington on guitar and Liam Cunningham on keyboards — played a set of songs from the new album. The music wasn’t a radical departure from Tweedy’s songs with Wilco: mostly mellow and midtempo, often with a pensive quality. It will take more listens to become familiar with these songs; I expect that they’ll grow on me, as most of Tweedy’s past music has.

He closed the show with three more recognizable songs: “You Are Not Alone,” which he wrote for Mavis Staples; Doug Sahm’s “Give Back the Key to My Heart,” which Tweedy covered with Uncle Tupelo on the 1993 album Anodyne; and the Wilco-Woody Guthrie anthem “California Stars.”

Portions of last night’s interview and concert will show up on a future episode of “Sound Opinions.” Thanks to the show’s producers for letting me take a few photos.

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Solid Sound, Part 4

My recap of Solid Sound 2013, continued from blog posts 1, 2 and 3

The Solid Sound festival also featured rousing soul music by the Relatives; rootsy jamming by White Denim; harmonic pop by Lucius (who were most impressive when they guested with Wilco); Miracle Legion founder Mark Mulcahy doing solo music, with J. Mascis playing guitar in the back part of the stage; a nice set of solo singer-songwriter music by Sean Rowe; and singer-songwriter Sam Amidon playing quiet songs in the vein of Nick Drake as well as more traditional Appalachian folk, with Beth Orton (his wife) joining in for one song. Marc Ribot and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo played a terrific set of their “Border Music,” and Brazil’s Os Mutantes playing songs from its new album Foot Metal Jack (which I’m not so keen on) but also some of its classic psychedelic tunes. And as mentioned in Part 2, the fest closed with a strong set by Medeski Martin & Wood, supplemented by various guests.

White Denim
White Denim
The Relatives
The Relatives
Mark Mulcahy
Mark Mulcahy
The Solid Sound fest at MASS MoCA
The Solid Sound fest at MASS MoCA
Sean Rowe
Sean Rowe
Lucius
Lucius
J. Mascis plays guitar during Mark Mulchay's set
J. Mascis plays guitar during Mark Mulchay’s set
Os Mutantes
Os Mutantes
Os Mutantes
Os Mutantes
Os Mutantes
Os Mutantes
Os Mutantes
Os Mutantes
Os Mutantes
Os Mutantes
Os Mutantes
Os Mutantes
Marc Ribot and David Hidalgo
Marc Ribot and David Hidalgo
Marc Ribot
Marc Ribot
David Hidalgo
David Hidalgo
John Medeski
John Medeski
Billy Martin
Billy Martin
Chris Wood
Chris Wood
Chris Wood
Chris Wood
Medeski Martin & Wood
Medeski Martin & Wood
John Medeski
John Medeski

Watching all of the music, I missed most of the comedy cabaret hosted by Hodgman, though the portion I caught — featuring Hodgman and Jen Kirkman — was hilarious and eccentric.

In between the concerts, I stopped into MASS MoCA’s galleries and saw a few of the most striking and memorable artworks I’ve experienced in a while. The Chinese artist Xu Bing’s Phoenix, a pair of hundred-foot-long mythical birds constructed out of debris, is hanging from the ceiling in a room the size of an airport hangar. (And Xu Bing’s remarkable super-wide-screen animated film The Character of Characters was screening in another room.) Another gallery displayed a thousand or so miniature paintings that Tom Phillips created on the pages of an obscure Victorian-era novel, W.H. Mallock’s A Human Document. I could have spent many more hours examining these fascinating pictures. And then there was an entire building devoted to the paintings of minimalist Sol LeWitt. Now, I must confess here that I am unenthusiastic and generally bored by most minimalist art. When I see a big canvas covered in one color of paint, my typical response is, “Big deal.” So I wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of seeing all those LeWitt paintings. But there was something damn impressive about seeing all of them assembled in the three floors of this building. Taken as a whole, they became more like a weird piece of architecture.

Xu Bing's Phoenix at MASS MoCA
Xu Bing’s Phoenix at MASS MoCA
The Sol LeWitt exhibit at MASS MoCA
The Sol LeWitt exhibit at MASS MoCA
MASS MoCA's exhibit of art by Jason Middlebrook
MASS MoCA’s exhibit of art by Jason Middlebrook
A detail from inside artist Mark Dion's installation "The Octagon Room" at MASS MoCA
A detail from inside artist Mark Dion’s installation “The Octagon Room” at MASS MoCA
Tom Phillips' "A Humument," on display at MASS MoCA
Tom Phillips’ “A Humument,” on display at MASS MoCA

All in all, Solid Sound lived up to its name. It’s an inspiring model for how to run an arts festival — although it’ll be hard to emulate elsewhere, because how many other places are there like MASS MoCA?

Artist Mark Remec's piece "Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear (Circle Totem)" in the foreground, with the main Solid Sound stage in the background, following the end of the festival of Sunday evening
Artist Mark Remec’s piece “Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear (Circle Totem)” in the foreground, with the main Solid Sound stage in the background, following the end of the festival of Sunday evening
Artist Marko Remec's installation "Can't Hear You (Fat Totem)" — acrylic dome safety mirrors strung up on an old water tank — on the Solid Sound festival grounds at MASS MoCA
Artist Marko Remec’s installation “Can’t Hear You (Fat Totem)” — acrylic dome safety mirrors strung up on an old water tank — on the Solid Sound festival grounds at MASS MoCA
A courtyard at MASS MoCA
A courtyard at MASS MoCA

IMG_9810

Read more about Solid Sound and see more photos in Parts 1, 2 and 3

Solid Sound, Part 3

Read more about Solid Sound and see more photos in Parts 1, 2 and 4

My last two blog posts about Solid Sound were about what the members of Wilco were up to during this festival. But like any decent fest, this one wasn’t entirely about one band. In brief, the other highlights included a high-energy show on Saturday afternoon by The Dream Syndicate, who were cult favorites in the 1980s California indie-rock scene. This was their first North American gig in more than two decades, but as it felt like they’d never stopped playing.

The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate

Yo La Tengo played not one, but two shows during Solid Sound. Alas, I arrived too late on Friday night to get a set at the screening of the film The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, featuring a live score performed by Yo La Tengo. On Saturday afternoon, the group played a typically excellent set of its songs, both old and new, with the most drastic shift in dynamics I heard all weekend. After blasting a couple of noisy songs to open their concert, Yo La Tengo took the volume way, way down for a couple of its hushed, whispery ballads, “The Point of It” and “Decora” — and it seemed like everyone in the crowd stopped making any sound so they could listen in. (At least, that’s what it was like by the stage, where I was standing.) By the end of the set, the band back at full volume.

Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo
The MASS MoCA courtyard during Yo La Tengo's set
The MASS MoCA courtyard during Yo La Tengo’s set

Out of all the artists playing at Solid Sound, the one that seemed to represent younger, hyped bands was Foxygen. Just as they acted goofy during their recent in-store at Chicago’s Saki, Foxygen’s members seemed loopy at Solid Sound as they cavorted on the stage, playing their quirky, catchy songs. Perhaps they cavorted a bit too much. I heard most of Foxygen’s set, but I was away from the stage when lead singer Sam France reportedly tried to climb the scaffolding and got pulled down by security. Later in the day, I noticed three security guards surrounding Foxygen’s tambourine player, who looked intoxicated, and escorting him away from a tree. During Wilco’s show that night, Jeff Tweedy told the audience that the members of Foxygen had been “kicked out” of the festival. “They’re awesome. A little too awesome, I think,” he said. Later, he apologized, saying he hadn’t meant to disparage the band. But he dedicated the song “Passenger Side,” a song about drunk driving, to Foxygen. And then Tweedy brought up Foxygen one more time, suggesting that they might want to try drinking water onstage. The Reverse Direction blog has more about the Foxygen story. Whatever happened, I was charmed by what I saw of Foxygen’s set.

Foxygen
Foxygen
Foxygen
Foxygen
Foxygen
Foxygen

Although Low got some flack for playing one long droning song at the recent Rock the Garden festival in Minneapolis, the band played a standard set of its songs at Solid Sound on Saturday. And with Low, standard means beautiful.

Low
Low
Low
Low
Low
Low
Low
Low
Low
Low

Neko Case is another artist who nearly always delivers a good to great performance, and her show on Saturday night included a few songs from her forthcoming album The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, which comes out Sept. 3 on Anti. On first impression, the new songs sounded like a strong continuation of the singular style of music Case has been shaping over her last few records. For me, the highlight of the set was a heart-stopping performance of her 2002 song “I Wish I Was the Moon,” with Case’s voice plaintively calling out across the park in the opening verse. “We’re kind of a weird band for a festival because all of songs are bummers,” Case remarked at one point. Her stalwart harmony singer, Kelly Hogan, pointed out: “Low played earlier.” At the end of her set, Case said, “Every single song in our set is dedicated to that girl playing drums on her dad’s head.”

Neko Case
Neko Case
Neko Case and Kelly Hogan
Neko Case and Kelly Hogan
Neko Case
Neko Case
Neko Case
Neko Case
Neko Case
Neko Case
Neko Case
Neko Case
Neko Case
Neko Case
Jon Rauhouse plays during Neko Case's set
Jon Rauhouse plays during Neko Case’s set
Neko Case
Neko Case

Read more about Solid Sound and see more photos in Parts 1, 2 and 4

Solid Sound, Part 2

Read more about Solid Sound and see more photos in Parts 1, 3 and 4

Given the fact that Solid Sound was a festival organized by Wilco, it’s not surprising that it also featured side projects by the band’s various members on Sunday (June 23). The most impressive of these may have been Wilco member Nels Cline’s eloquent, virtuosic guitar duets with Julian Lage. Cline later showed up as one of the guests during the festival-closing set on Sunday night by the jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood, and he ended up playing for about half of their set, bending and twisting the notes on his guitar in a frenetic style reminiscent of John McLaughlin’s legendary work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. (Tweedy, Hidalgo and Ribot also sat in on that set at various points.)

Nels Cline and Billy Martin
Nels Cline and Billy Martin during the set by Medeski Martin & Wood

Mikael Jorgensen — the keyboardist and electronics whiz who generally sits at the back of the stage during Wilco shows, making himself the least showy member of the band — had a couple of chances at Solid Sound to show off what he does. On Saturday, he generated live electronic analog synth music in a dark museum room, accompanied by longtime Wilco techs Nathaniel Murphy, Travis Thatcher and Josh Goldsmith. I dipped into the performance for a short sample, and it felt like I’d stepped out of the summer festival and into a … well, not a rave, exactly, since no one was dancing. A laboratory?

Mikael Jorgensen in the "Oscillator Fumes" room
Mikael Jorgensen in the “Oscillator Fumes” room

And then, the following afternoon, Jorgensen took his pulsing electronic music out into the broad daylight, playing a set with Greg O’Keeffe and Oliver Chapoy. I’m not sure if Wilco’s more traditional-music-loving fans knew what to make of it, but the droning noise settled over the museum courtyard like an invasion of cicadas — but with a danceable rhythm.

Mikael Jorgensen, Greg O'Keeffe and Oliver Chapoy
Mikael Jorgensen, Greg O’Keeffe and Oliver Chapoy
Mikael Jorgensen
Mikael Jorgensen
Oliver Chapoy
Oliver Chapoy
Greg O'Keeffe
Greg O’Keeffe

Another member of Wilco with avant-garde tendencies outside of the band, drummer Glenn Kotche, played as part of the duo On Fillmore, which also includes bassist Darin Gray. But it wasn’t a straightforward concert of their music. Rather, they provided accompaniment for an entertaining live version of the public radio show “Radio Lab,” which featured Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich reading from scripts and playing short clips from interviews as Kotche and Gray made sounds to evoke the story of the dinosaurs’ extinction.

The crowd gathered in a MASS MoCA courtyard for a live performance of "Radio Lab"
The crowd gathered in a MASS MoCA courtyard for a live performance of “Radio Lab”
Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich of "Radio Lab," with Darin Gray of On Fillmore
Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich of “Radio Lab,” with Darin Gray of On Fillmore
Glenn Kotche plays with On Fillmore
Glenn Kotche plays with On Fillmore
Glenn Kotche plays with On Fillmore
Glenn Kotche plays with On Fillmore
Darin Gray makes dinosaur noises with On Fillmore
Darin Gray makes dinosaur noises with On Fillmore
The key mammal that survived the meteor explosion that killed off the dinosaurs — the shrewdinger — appears during "Radio Lab," with Jad Abumrad, right.
The key mammal that survived the meteor explosion that killed off the dinosaurs — the shrewdinger — appears during “Radio Lab,” with Jad Abumrad, right.

While some members of Wilco contribute elements of jazz, electronic and avant-garde music to the mix, John Stirratt and Pat Sansone bring a power pop, classic rock and soft rock sensibility, and that was on full display when they performed as the Autumn Defense. After playing pretty pop songs from their own albums, they closed with a perfect cover of Bob Welch’s 1977 radio hit “Sentimental Lady.”

The Autumn Defense
The Autumn Defense
Pat Sansone plays with the Autumn Defense
Pat Sansone plays with the Autumn Defense
John Stirratt plays with the Autumn Defense
John Stirratt plays with the Autumn Defense

Meanwhile, the Blisters — a band featuring Jeff Tweedy’s son, Spencer, on drums — also played at Solid Sound. The youngsters got plenty of adults dancing as they rocked out near the end of their noontime Sunday set.

The Blisters
The Blisters
The Blisters
The Blisters
The Blisters
The Blisters

Read more about Solid Sound and see more photos in Parts 1, 3 and 4

Solid Sound, Part 1

The MASS MoCA grounds
The MASS MoCA grounds

Read more about Solid Sound and see more photos in the rest of my report: Parts 23 and 4

Wilco’s home base is Chicago, but the band’s vacation home seems to be MASS MoCA — the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Mass.  Wilco held its Solid Sound festival of music and arts June 21-23 on the museum’s sprawling grounds, the third time in four years that it has brought this event to this spot in the Berkshires. (The previous two Solid Sound fests were in 2010 and 2011, and then the event took the year off in 2012.) This past weekend was my first visit to Solid Sound and MASS MoCA.

IMG_6758

What a cool place to hold a festival. The maze-like museum has been open only since 1999, but most of the 26 brick buildings on the 13-acre site have been standing there since the 19th century, when 3,200 people worked there, making printed textiles for Arnold Print Works. During World War II, the industrial complex was transformed into the Sprague Electric Co.’s factory.

The Wilco strongman carnival game
The Wilco strongman carnival game

Now, it’s a place for putting up works of modern and contemporary art, with enough space to hang up some truly massive sculptures and paintings. And for three days in June, it was also a place to make music — and to explore. During his performance on Sunday with David Hidalgo, guitarist Marc Ribot marveled at the sight of music fans gathered in one of the old factory courtyards. “If they took all of the factories and turned them into art museums, everyone would have fun,” he remarked. (Not exactly a sound idea in economic terms, but let’s not quibble too much.)

Like many other music festivals, this one had a bunch of bands playing on a few stages, with their performances taking place over a few days. That’s one of the main reasons people attend festivals: to see a whole lot of bands in one fell swoop. The pace was more leisurely at Solid Sound than it is at, say, Lollapalooza or Pitchfork, with only a little bit of overlap in the performances. There was plenty of room for people to move around, anywhere other than the clusters right in front of the stages for the most popular musical artists.

There was a lot more than live music at Solid Sound. John Hodgman, who emceed the comedy portion of the festival, called it “a nexus of fantastic things coming together in an amazing space.” Of course, Hodgman was emceeing, so you’d expect him to hype up the festival a bit, but his description wasn’t far off from the truth.

Naturally, art was on display in and around the art museum — as well as displays created specifically for Solid Sound. “Jeff Tweedy’s Loft” exhibited pieces of Wilco memorabilia.

"Jeff Tweedy's Loft" exhibit at MASS MoCA
“Jeff Tweedy’s Loft” exhibit at MASS MoCA
1962 Silvertone 1482 tube amp used during the "A.M." sessions, on display in "Jefff Tweedy's Loft" at MASS MoCA
1962 Silvertone 1482 tube amp used during the “A.M.” sessions, on display in “Jefff Tweedy’s Loft” at MASS MoCA
A Nudie jacket on display in the "Jeff Tweedy's Loft" exhibit at MASS MoCa
A Nudie jacket on display in the “Jeff Tweedy’s Loft” exhibit at MASS MoCa

One of the museum’s galleries filled with Sol LeWitt paintings featured Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche’s sonic soundscapes playing over the speakers. Kotche also created some “earth drums,” which were embedded in the ground, with signs encouraging festival attendees to tap out messages in Morse code to one another. (I got the impression that most people were just playing random rhythms.) Wilco bassist John Stirratt and Chicago artist Chad Gerth created the “Rickshaw of Forward Motion,” a mobile sound installation. (I failed to catch a ride on it.)

Jeff Tweedy, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Jeff Tweedy, during the June 21 Wilco concert

And of course, Wilco performed on the concert stage — an all-request show on Friday night, followed by a more standard Wilco show on Saturday night. Saturday’s concert was fine, as far as Wilco concerts go. Just another night starring an outstanding band playing a wide range of songs from throughout its career. If you’ve seen a Wilco concert in the last few years, you’ve seen a show like this one. But the one on Friday was something else entirely.

John Hodgman, "randomizing" during the June 21 Wilco concert
John Hodgman, “randomizing” during the June 21 Wilco concert

The band asked for fans to request songs, and boy did they ever — apparently dozens of pages listing songs. Pulling from that list, the songs that Wilco chose to play were almost entirely covers. Hodgman came out onto the stage several times to “randomize” the concert, pulling out ping-pong balls with numbers assigned to songs on the huge master list and challenging the band to play them. This resulted in a few of the less-rehearsed and sloppier tunes of the night (Grateful Dead’s “Ripple” and Yo La Tengo’s “Tom Courtenay,” which was rescued by the participation of Yo La Tengo itself). Just to prove that all of his choices weren’t rigged, Hodgman also brought up three audience members to play “stump the band.” It turned out that Wilco couldn’t really play two of these audience requests (Lucinda Williams’ “Atonement” and the Cranberries’ “Dream”) without learning and rehearsing them, but the band delighted much of the crowd when it succeeded at playing the third audience member’s unlikely request: Daft Punk’s current hit, “Get Lucky.”

Jeff Tweedy, Pat Sansone and James McNew of Yo La Tengo, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Jeff Tweedy, Pat Sansone and James McNew of Yo La Tengo, during the June 21 Wilco concert

The members of Wilco were clearly having a blast as they played covers of some terrific tunes, ranging from the delicate, wistful beauty of the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” to a goose-bump-raising guitar solo by Nels Cline during Television’s epic “Marquee Moon.” And Replacements guitarist Tommy Stinson made a surprise appearance when Wilco played the Mats classic “Color Me Impressed.” Stinson (who will play with the reunited Replacements — er, Westerberg and Stinson — at Riot Fest in September) had a big grin on his face the entire time, and Tweedy seemed to relish sharing the stage with him.

Jeff Tweedy and Tommy Stinson, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Jeff Tweedy and Tommy Stinson, during the June 21 Wilco concert

At a couple of points during the night, a fan or two shouted, “Play some Wilco songs!” If you had never seen Wilco before, this concert would’ve served as a rather unusual introduction to the band’s live act. But for longtime fans, this was a night to treasure, filled with delightful musical nuggets. (NYC Taper captured the whole thing on audio.)

The set list almost speaks for itself:

The Boys Are Back in Town (Thin Lizzy) 
/ Cut Your Hair (Pavement)
 / In the Street (Big Star)
 / New Madrid (Uncle Tupelo)
 / Dead Flowers (Rolling Stones)
 / Simple Twist of Fate (Bob Dylan) / Ripple (Grateful Dead)
 / Who Loves the Sun (Velvet Underground)
 / And Your Bird Can Sing (The Beatles)
 / And Your Bird Can Sing (repeat) / Psychotic Reaction (Count Five)
 / Tom Courtenay (Yo La Tengo)
 with Yo La Tengo / James Alley Blues (Richard Rabbit Brown)
 / Waterloo Sunset (Kinks)
 with Lucius / Waterloo (ABBA)
 with Lucius / Peace Love and Understanding (Nick Lowe)
 / Marquee Moon (Television)
 / Happy Birthday (to Pat Sansone) / Don’t Fear The Reaper (Blue Oyster Cult) / Cinnamon Girl (Neil Young) / (Stump the Band) / Get Lucky (Daft Punk)
 / Surrender (Cheap Trick)
 / Color Me Impressed (Replacements)
 with Tommy Stinson
 / Kingpin
 / Thank You Friends (Big Star)
 / ENCORE: The Weight (The Band)
 with Lucius / Roadrunner (The Modern Lovers) with Yo La Tengo

Nels Cline, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Nels Cline, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Nels Cline, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Nels Cline, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Nels Cline, Glenn Kotche and Jeff Tweedy, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Nels Cline, Glenn Kotche and Jeff Tweedy, during the June 21 Wilco concert
John Stirratt, during the June 21 Wilco concert
John Stirratt, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Jeff Tweedy and Lucius, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Jeff Tweedy and Lucius, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Nels Cline, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Nels Cline, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Nels Cline, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Nels Cline, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Tommy Stinson and Jeff Tweedy, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Tommy Stinson and Jeff Tweedy, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Jeff Tweedy, Glenn Kotche and Tommy Stinson, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Jeff Tweedy, Glenn Kotche and Tommy Stinson, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Nels Cline, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Nels Cline, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Mikael Jorgensen, Nels Cline, Jeff Tweedy and  Glenn Kotche, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Mikael Jorgensen, Nels Cline, Jeff Tweedy and Glenn Kotche, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Wilco's June 22 concert
Wilco’s June 22 concert
Pat Sansone, during Wilco's June 22 concert
Pat Sansone, during Wilco’s June 22 concert
Jeff Tweedy, during Wilco's June 22 concert
Jeff Tweedy, during Wilco’s June 22 concert
Glenn Kotche, during Wilco's June 22 concert
Glenn Kotche, during Wilco’s June 22 concert
Glenn Kotche, during Wilco's June 22 concert
Glenn Kotche, during Wilco’s June 22 concert
Jeff Tweedy, during Wilco's June 22 concert
Jeff Tweedy, during Wilco’s June 22 concert
Jeff Tweedy, during Wilco's June 22 concert
Jeff Tweedy, during Wilco’s June 22 concert
John Stirratt, during Wilco's June 22 concert
John Stirratt, during Wilco’s June 22 concert
Nels Cline, during Wilco's June 22 concert
Nels Cline, during Wilco’s June 22 concert

Read more about Solid Sound and see more photos in the rest of my report: Parts 23 and 4

Hideout Block Party & A.V. Fest

Two of the summer’s last big music festivals in Chicago vied for attention this past weekend: the Hideout Block Party, which is always one of the season’s most neighborly musical shindigs, and Riot Fest, which expanded beyond its usual indoor confines to become a truly major event in Humboldt Park. I was at the Hideout on Friday and Saturday, including a two-hour Wilco concert, and then I spent Sunday at Riot Fest, culminating with a stunning show by Iggy & the Stooges.

The Hideout Block Party combined forces this year with the Onion’s A.V. Club (which held a separate fest last year at the same location). But it largely felt like a typical Hideout Block Party, with a heavy emphasis on the sort of alt-country and roots-rock music that is the club’s mainstay, though hardly the only genre you’ll hear within its friendly confines.

The two best bands of the night on Friday played early: Cave got the crowd moving with tight krautrock grooves, and then the War on Drugs channeled its rootsier songs into similarly cycling rhythms. The biggest names on the bill for that first night were Glen Hansard and Iron & Wine — both of whom played perfectly pleasant and respectable sets that were a tad too mellow for a headlining festival slot.

Cave
Cave

Tim Tuten
Tim Tuten

The War on Drugs
The War on Drugs

Glen Hansard
Glen Hansard

Iron & Wine
Iron & Wine

Iron & Wine
Iron & Wine

It was worth showing up early for Saturday’s Hideout lineup, which started off at noon with a sterling set of old-fashioned country music by the Lawrence Peters Outfit (led by one of the bar’s regular bartenders). The crowd was still sparse at that hour, but some dancing broke out.

Lawrence Peters Outfit
Lawrence Peters Outfit

Lawrence Peters Outfit
Lawrence Peters Outfit

Next up were the Waco Brothers with Paul Burch, all of them wearing red shirts except for Burch, who made up for it by wearing red shoes. Not surprisingly, given Waco Jon Langford’s history of outspoken support for labor unions, the band was showing its colors in support of Chicago’s striking teachers, and the Wacos played the timely song “Plenty Tough and Union Made.” The Wacos kicked out their catchy riffs with their usual sense of reckless merriment.

Waco Brothers
Waco Brothers

Waco Brothers
Waco Brothers

Waco Brothers and Paul Burch
Waco Brothers and Paul Burch

Waco Brothers and Paul Burch
Waco Brothers and Paul Burch

Kelly Hogan’s been on a roll lately, finally releasing a terrific album, I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, after years of keeping her fans waiting for a recording that would match the splendor of her live performances. And she was in top vocal form Saturday afternoon, soulfully singing much of the new album as well as the older song “No Bobby Don’t.”

Kelly Hogan
Kelly Hogan

Kelly Hogan
Kelly Hogan

Kelly Hogan
Kelly Hogan

Kelly Hogan, Jon Langford and Nora O'Connor
Kelly Hogan, Jon Langford and Nora O'Connor

The Corin Tucker Band’s set marked the welcome return of the singer-guitarist who was one-third of Sleater-Kinney. The other two members of that band have been rocking out as part of their excellent new band, Wild Flag, but hearing Tucker’s banshee wails and spiky riffs on songs from her new record, Kill My Blues, was a reaffirming reminder of Tucker’s own riot grrrl credentials.

Corin Tucker Band
Corin Tucker Band

Corin Tucker Band
Corin Tucker Band

Corin Tucker Band
Corin Tucker Band

Performing in the late afternoon, Wild Belle played mellow, reggae-influenced indie pop. More impressive was the solid, driving sounds of the next band, Wye Oak, the Baltimore guitar-and-drums duo. And even better was the act after that, Lee Fields, a soul singer with a sound and songs that evoke the classic tunes of the 1960s. Fields, who released a smartly written and beautifully arranged record this year called Faithful Man, delivered one of the weekend’s best sets with able assistance from his backup band, the Expressions, and a lot of audience members waving their arms.

Wild Belle
Wild Belle

Wild Belle
Wild Belle

Wild Belle
Wild Belle

Wye Oak
Wye Oak

Wye Oak
Wye Oak

Wye Oak
Wye Oak

The Expressions
The Expressions

Lee Fields
Lee Fields

Lee Fields
Lee Fields

Lee Fields
Lee Fields

As darkness fell, Wilco took the stage, which was set up in a city parking lot normally occupied by garbage trucks. “For so many years, they’ve looked past us with the Hideout Block Party,” Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy dryly noted. “What’s up with that? This is one of our favorite places in Chicago. This parking lot. Love the place.”

This Wilco set felt like a bit of a throwback. While the band played the requisite songs you’d expect from its most recent couple of albums, it bookended the show with songs from Being There, and there was plenty from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, too — including moody, tricky songs such as “Poor Places” and “Radio Cure.” The performance ebbed and flowed from dark moments of meditation to intricate prog guitar solos and rousing, foot-stomping rock — the full range of what this remarkable band is capable of. The eight-song encore included one of the Woody Guthrie lyrics that Wilco wrote music for on the Mermaid Avenue records, “Christ for President” — an apt choice in this election season. After dedicating the song to the Hideout impresario Tim Tuten, Tweedy sang Guthrie’s words: “The only way we can ever beat/These crooked politician men/Is to run the money changers out of the temple/Put the Carpenter in.”

Wilco
Wilco

Wilco
Wilco

Wilco
Wilco

Wilco
Wilco

Wilco
Wilco

Wilco
Wilco

Wilco
Wilco

Wilco
Wilco

Wilco
Wilco

Wilco
Wilco

Wilco
Wilco

WILCO SET LIST: Misunderstood / Company in my Back / I Might / Sunken Treasure / Either Way / Hummingbird / Impossible Germany / Born Alone / Radio Cure / Handshake Drugs / Wishful Thinking / Whole Love / Kamera / I Must Be High / Nothingsevergonnastandinmyway(again) / Heavy Metal Drummer / Poor Places / Art of Almost ENCORE: Dawned On Me / A Shot In the Arm / Passenger Side / Christ for President / Walken / I’m the Man Who Loves You / Monday / Outtasite (Outta Mind)

The after show

More on Riot Fest in my next post…

Best concerts of 2011

These are my favorite musical performances that I saw in 2011, with quotes from my original blog posts.

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2. CHARLES BRADLEY (Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements festival Sept. 17). “Some of his soul shouts gave me chills. … His feelings clearly came out of real experience as he belted the chorus, ‘Why is it so hard to make it in America?’ As the curtain closed on the stage, Bradley jumped down and hugged everyone he could.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

3. THEE OH SEES (Nov. 23 at Empty Bottle). “Somehow, Thee Oh Sees manage to make everything sound like it’s turned up and sped up a notch beyond expectations. … The fantastic, charged music of Thee Oh Sees … sent the crowd into a writhing frenzy.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

4. WILD FLAG (Oct. 9 at Empty Bottle). This was the second time I’d seen Wild Flag perform in 2011, following a July 23 set during Wicker Park Fest. That was a great set, but the four members of Wild Flag were really on fire on the second night of their fall return to Chicago, lifting their songs to another level as they jammed out with joyous abandon.

5. GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR (March 26-27 at Metro). “The eight musicians … said barely a word to the audience over the course of the last two nights, concentrating intently on their dark, brooding and apocalyptic music. … The visual accompaniment added to the sense that these ‘songs’ (if that’s even the right word) tell stories, despite the lack of lyrics. And no singing was necessary to convey emotion, either. It was music capable of raising goosebumps.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

6. ELVIS COSTELLO & THE IMPOSTERS (May 15 at Chicago Theatre). “It was truly a ‘show,’ not just a typical concert. Reviving a gimmick he featured in a 1980s tour, Costello gave audience members a chance to come up on stage and spin the big wheel, which had about 40 songs or ‘jackpot’ slots on it … Costello put on a top hat and grabbed a cane … (and) guided Sunday’s audience through a diverse set of songs…” (Original blog post.)

7. MY BRIGHTEST DIAMOND WITH THE CHICAGO YOUTH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (Aug. 8 at Millennium Park). “How beautiful it was to hear the concert begin with the opening notes of ‘Dragonfly’ from My Brightest Diamond’s 2006 debut album, Bring Me the Workhorse — those swooping, sweeping violins. The concert was filled with terrific moments like that…” (Original blog post and more photos.)

8. SKULL DEFEKTS (March 31 at Hideout). “With his gray beard, (Daniel) Higgs resembled an Old Testament character or a crew member of an old whaling vessel as he commanded the stage Thursday with his unrestrained vocals. The rest of Skull Defekts — two drummers and two guitarists — never let up with their jagged punk-garage riffs.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

9. WILCO (Dec. 13 at Riviera). “This is one exceptional group of musicians, seemingly capable of playing anything. … It felt like the band could play until morning…” (Original blog post.)

10. RICHARD THOMPSON (Sept. 12 at Evanston Space). “As always, Thompson made his guitar sing, often sounding like an entire band — or two or three guitars, anyway. … The dark, quiet songs were especially haunting…” (Original blog post.)

Honorable mentions:
Bill Callahan (Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements Sept. 16)
The Flaming Lips (July 7 at Aragon)
Le Butcherettes (Nov. 4 at Subterranean)
Neil Young and Bert Hansch (May 6 at the Chicago Theatre)
M. Ward (Dec. 4 at Schubas)
NRBQ (Aug. 27 at FitzGerald’s)
Drive-By Truckers (Feb. 26 at Vic)
Gillian Welch (July 22 at the Vic)
Tune-Yards (Pitchfork Music Festival July 15 at Union Park)
Mavis Staples (Hideout Block Party Sept. 24 at Hideout)
Screaming Females (Tomorrow Never Knows festival Jan. 14 at Lincoln Hall)
Soul Train 40th anniversary concert with the Chi-Lites, the Emotions, the Impressions, Jerry “The Iceman” Butler (Sept. 5 at Millennium Park)

Wilco at the Riviera

Although I missed Wilco’s concert Monday at the Civic Opera House, the band’s website helpfully provides not just a set list, but also a pie chart showing how many songs Wilco played that night from each of its albums. From all reports, it was a pretty epic concert, and I sure wish I’d seen that encore with Nick Lowe and Mavis Staples teaming up with Wilco. The pie chart reveals that Wilco played songs from each of its albums except for the two Mermaid Avenue records, Wilco (The Album) and one of my favorites, A Ghost Is Born. One of my favorites, you may say with shock and amazement? Yes, although some folks slag that 2004 record, I insist it’s one of Wilco’s pinnacle achievements. The three studio albums since then have all been fine, with several great songs scattered across them, but they pale in comparison to Ghost and the few albums preceding it.

I did see Wilco’s second show in its five-concert Chicago run, Tuesday night’s (Dec. 13) gig at the Riveria, a venue that almost feels like home for Jeff Tweedy and his band. And this time, the band was in more of a Ghost Is Born mood. Shockingly, Wilco opened the show with “Less Than You Think” — the much-criticized Ghost track that meanders off into seemingly endless and tuneless electronic hum. (All that hum has never bothered me, but like everyone else I often skip past it; I think that was part of the idea.) In concert, the song began quietly, and the crowd hushed to hear Tweedy whispering the words into his microphone. The song dissolved into a drone that simulated the buzzing on the album, but with an actual beat pulsing through it. This was not a crowd-pleasing choice for an opening song, but Tweedy and his bandmates know just how fervent and devoted their fans are — and that some fans would appreciate or at least tolerate seeing the show begin with an unusual song.

The concert turned out to be an interesting and frequently surprising mix of songs from throughout Wilco’s huge and excellent catalogue. Wilco repeated only seven of the songs from the previous night’s show. Some regular concert favorites were omitted, such as “Jesus etc.” Some of the mellower recent songs weren’t all that exciting, but the band did a beautiful job of rendering them. This is one exceptional group of musicians, seemingly capable of playing anything. Is Wilco almost too good? At times, the band’s proficiency starts to sound like self-indulgent wankery, but just when I’m about to scoff at a guitar solo that goes slightly over the top, the band pulls off some subtle musical turn of phrase and I find myself surrendering to the experience.

Wilco continues to tinker with its old songs. Jarring outbursts of dissonance and drumming were layered on top of “Via Chicago,” somewhat awkwardly. “Reservations,” which started off the second encore, was more beautiful than ever, a lovely blend of Tweedy’s original acoustic version with the moody, atmospheric arrangement on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Just when it seemed like the concert was about to end, Wilco launched into its epic-length Ghost track, “Spiders (kidsmoke),” giving it a jazzier, funkier groove than past renditions, and giving Tweedy a chance to scrape out skronky solos on the electric guitar. (Nels Cline is Wilco’s resident guitar whiz, but I’d like to hear more of Tweedy’s rough-hewn solos.) Improbably, the song featured an audience clap-along before finally returning to its signature power chord riff. And then Wilco extended its marathon with one more track, not shown on the set list, “I’m a Wheel.” It felt like the band could play until morning, but Tweedy and the guys finally called it a night.

The evening started off with a strong opening set by Eleventh Dream Day, who have added Jim Elkington of the Zincs as a second guitarist. The five-piece lineup gave Rick Rizzo more space to play, and it bodes well for the future of this band with a long and illustrious past.

WILCO SET LIST: Less Than You Think / Art of Almost / I Might / Black Moon / Bull Black Nova / Side With the Seeds / Red-Eyed and Blue / I Got You (At the End of the Century) / Born Alone / You Are My Face / Open Mind / Kamera / I Must Be High / Always in Love / Capitol City / Handshake Drugs / Can’t Stand It / Dawned on Me / Hummingbird / ENCORE 1: Via Chicago / Whole Love / Late Greats / Walken / Just a Kid / Monday / Outta Mind (Outta Sight) / ENCORE 2: Reservations / Spiders (kidsmoke) / I’m a Wheel

Jay Bennett Tribute at the Hideout

Sunday (Nov. 15) was the birthday of Jay Bennett, the talented musician who died earlier this year. His friends celebrated his life and music with a show Sunday night at the Hideout. It’s been months since Jay died, but the sorrow still feels fresh. Hearing folks like Edward Burch, LeRoy Bach, Steve Frisbie, the Dolly Varden band, Brad Elvis, John Peacock and Quartet Parapluie playing songs written by Bennett — or in some cases, songs by other people that he loved — it was hard for me not to get choked up.

I regret missing the first part of the show (I was at the opening night of House Theatre’s delightfully surreal Mark Guarino play with Jon Langford songs, All the Fame of Lofty Deeds), but I showed up in time to hear Quartet Parapluie’s exquisite string arrangements of “Songs That Weren’t Finished” and “Venus Stopped the Train.”

Burch was half of the Bennett and Burch duo that recorded The Palace at 4am (Part I), my favorite post-Wilco Bennett record, so it seemed appropriate that Burch was the focal point of this show, organizing it and functioning as emcee. Many of the performers shared stories about their experiences with Bennett, which added an element of humor to an evening that might otherwise have been unbearably sad.

A bunch of the musicians came together onstage at the end of the night, playing really nice, spirited versions of some of the best songs off Palace, including “Puzzle Heart,” “Talk to Me,” “Whispers or Screams,” “Shakin’ Sugar,” “Drinking on Your Dime” and “My Darlin’,” which slid into a cover of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity,” with everyone singing along. The last song of the night was one of the best-known tunes Bennett co-wrote with Jeff Tweedy, using lyrics by Woody Guthrie, the classic “California Stars.” Hearing this string of great songs, it became painfully clear what a great talent we’ve lost.

Photos from the Jay Bennett tribute.

Wilco does the arena-rock thing

After years and years of seeing concerts in Chicago, I had never actually gone to a show at UIC Pavilion until Sunday night, when Wilco played the first of two nights at the arena. I would so much rather see concerts at a small venue than some big concrete dome designed for sports events. But, alas, there are times when the bands you like become popular — wait, that’s a good thing, right? And then it no longer becomes possible to see the bands inside little rooms the size of Schubas. So you end up in a crowd of thousands of people inside a big concrete dome where the music echoes off the walls like the noise of passing airplanes. But then there can be moments when you feel a sense of awe that all these people around you like that music that you like, too. Maybe you even get a feeling of community.

This week, Wilco moved up to its biggest venue yet in Chicago (unless you count their two Lollapalooza performances). I’d prefer seeing Wilco in one of the big downtown theaters like the Chicago or Auditorium, but this time, they were in the less cozy confines of UIC. And, well, they put on a pretty great show Sunday night, despite the lackluster surroundings. Of course, I never doubted that Wilco was capable of putting on a great arena show, since this versatile, virtuoso band seems to be capable of doing just about anything leader Jeff Tweedy asks of it, from straight-ahead roots rock to stranger and more experimental art rock.

This lineup of Wilco, which has been steady for a few years now, sounded as good as I’ve ever heard them Sunday night. As these six musicians played songs from throughout the Wilco catalogue — including many songs originally played by different Wilco lineups — they made it all sound like one coherent body of work. The clattering curiosities in “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” were still there, but the noise that guitarist Nels Cline was making during that song made it sound more like something that today’s Wilco would record rather than a remnant from a previous Wilco era.

Cline was on fire Sunday night. Within seconds after the band came onstage and began playing the first song of the night, “Wilco (The Song),” Cline was flailing around wildly with his guitar like a maniac. And he kept it up during the second song, “A Shot in the Arm.” It seemed more like the frenzied climax of a concert than the opening. What got into this guy? It’s been clear that Cline is a very talented guitarist, who can run rings around most people, since he joined Wilco, but on Sunday night, he combined that virtuosity with a high level of passion and energy.

The rest of the band sounded great, too, of course. Wilco is, if nothing else, a true ensemble of six musicians who know how to blend their sounds together into a brilliant whole. As usual, Wilco played a sample of songs from throughout its albums. It was nice to see John Stirratt taking over lead vocals for the rarely played A.M. song “It’s Just That Simple,” and I was glad to hear a few songs from the album I love that a lot of other people dismiss, A Ghost Is Born. Wilco even dug out one obscurity, the bouncy ditty “Just a Kid,” from the soundtrack to The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.

Tweedy asked the crowd to sing the lyrics to “Jesus etc.” and stepped away from the mike for virutally the entire song, and the crowd happily complied. The encore included a surprisingly long string of songs from Being There: “Kingpin,” “Monday,” “Outtasite (Outta Mind),” “Hoodoo Voodoo.” And then, just when it seemed like the show had ended after some 2 hours and 15 minutes, the band launched into one more song, the lively, absurd “I’m a Wheel.”

At one point during the show, Tweedy asked, “Having a good time? Enjoying the arena rock?” The answer was: Yes. But I’d still rather see Wilco somewhere other than an arena.

Set list:
Wilco (the Song) / A Shot in the Arm / Bull Black Nova / You Are My Face / I Am Trying to Break Your Heart / One Wing / Misunderstood / At Least That’s What You Said / Deeper Down / Impossible Germany / It’s Just That Simple / I’ll Fight / Handshake Drugs / Sunny Feeling / Jesus etc. / Theologians / I’m Always in Love / Hate It Here / Walken / I’m the Man Who Loves You / ENCORE: You Never Know / Heavy Metal Drummer / Just a Kid / Kingpin / Monday / Outtasite (Outta Mind) / Hoodoo Voodoo / I’m a Wheel

Remembering Jay Bennett

I happened to be in Champaign-Urbana this weekend when a sad news story broke: the death of Jay Bennett, a remarkably talented musician I had interviewed several times over the past eight years. Bennett was best known for his role as lead guitarist, keyboardist, all-around studio whiz and occasional songwriter in Wilco, making an indelible mark on much of the band’s best records, including Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Summerteeth. He also recorded several solo records and one in collaboration with Edward Burch, the excellent The Palace at 4am (Part I).

But I first encountered Bennett back in the 1980s, when he was the lively guitarist for Titanic Love Affair, a hard-rock band on the University of Illinois campus. Here are some photos by David Ghent showing him in action, which I ran when I was an editor at the Daily Illini in 1988. Bennett’s fluid guitar playing impressed me at the time, and I was already hearing that he was talented at recording music.

In June 2001, when Wilco was finishing up Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, I interviewed him for the first time. We sat on the back porch of his house in Arlington Heights, Illinois, with birds singing in the background. Click here for an extended version of the article I wrote, including a Q&A. I had no inkling that Jeff Tweedy would ask Bennett to leave the band a few months later, but that is in fact what happened. I was stunned at the time. Bennett had contributed so much to Wilco’s music, it seemed impossible he would be fired. You can read all about what happened from multiple angles in Greg Kot’s book Learning How to Die. I later came to realize that Bennett was a genius whose obsessive work habits might just drive some people a little crazy. But I never lost faith in his musical abilities.

At that first interview, I was struck by how much Bennett seemed like a combination of rock-star dude, philosophical intellectual and VCR repairman. In April 2002, as Bennett and Burch released Palace, I interviewed him again. The Q&A is so long it’s in two parts: Part 1 is mostly about The Palace at 4am (Part I). Part 2 is mostly about Bennett leaving Wilco.

A year after that, I spent a couple of hours at Bennett’s recording studio in Chicago, focusing more on his production techniques and gear for a story in Tape Op magazine.

I’m posting a 13-minute podcast here with selections from those three interviews. What you hear is a few minutes of Jay talking in 2001 about collaborating with Tweedy in Wilco; Jay explaining what happened when he left the band; Jay in his Pieholden Suite studio, where the great young musician David Vandervelde was hanging out at the time; and then some additional thoughts from that 2002 interview. Click here to download my podcast featuring Jay Bennett in his own words. (My apologies for the spotty audio quality in some segments.)

The last time I wrote about Bennett was at the end of 2004, when he was releasing a solo album called The Beloved Enemy. He had also seemed upbeat whenever I’d interviewed him, but lately, I’d been hearing alarming reports that he seemed depressed or intoxicated at some live performances. One fan was concerned enough to post a question on the message board of Bennett’s record label, Undertow Music: “Is Jay OK? Seriously.”

“The answer to ‘Am I OK?’ is a resounding ‘Yes,'” Bennett said when I asked him about this. “I am going through a divorce. … I certainly had my issues with drinking.” He also acknowledged having used drugs, though he said he didn’t currently have a problem with substance abuse.

“Most of my adult life, I’ve been a drinker. And I’ve dabbled in everything else that most rockers have done. Was it to the point that it interfered with my life? I don’t think so,” he said. “I’ve had my share of rock ‘n’ roll excess, where it was impeding my judgment here and there … I had friends express concern about me. At various times in my life, I was self-medicating. I have an anxiety disorder. I’ve been though seven therapists in five or six years. I’ve finally found one who clicks. It works.”

When he first answered his phone that time, Bennett was in the middle of a therapy session. He said he also viewed his latest records as a kind of therapy. “This record is a way to get rid of some of that pain by expressing it,” he said. “Drugs and alcohol were a way to deal with that same pain.”

Bennett, who had moved to Urbana, made news just a few weeks ago when he filed a lawsuit seeking royalties from Wilco. He’d also posted a note on myspace saying he was in need of a hip replacement. It sounded like he was facing some serious health problems.

Strangely enough, the reason I was in Champaign this weekend was for the Play or Pose reunion event featuring local rock bands of the 1980s: the Outnumbered, Lonely Trailer, Cowboy X and the Poster Children. (I’ll blog more about that later.) At an open-mike event on Saturday, a number of people asked, “Where’s Jay?” — hoping he would attend, even if he did not perform. His former bandmates from Titanic Love Affair were there in the bar, and one of his ex-Wilco mates, Leroy Bach, performed a beautiful set of three songs. But Jay was nowhere to be found.

The next day, the word came via Twitter and Facebook messages from Undertow Music that he had died in his sleep the night before. Sunday night’s concert at the Highdive went on, and it had some of those great moments when you feel the triumphant power of music, but the evening also had a shadow hanging over it. At a few points, the musicians on stage asked audience members to lift their drinks to Bennett’s memory. Steve Tyska of Cowboy X said, “Champaign was a very important place to him, and he was very important to Champaign.”

Back when I interviewed Jay in 2002 about leaving Wilco and recording Palace, we spoke for more than two hours, and my mini-Disc recorder ran out of space just minutes before we concluded. And so, alas, I failed to get a recording of his final remarks that evening. I scribbled them down as quickly as I could. Here is what he said:

“There’s a basic human urge to be understood. I could be accused of trying too hard to be understood… When in reality, only the people closest to you understand you… I do like the idea of putting the whole transcript [of this interview] on the Internet, right down to my last words, which are: Peace, love and understanding to the world, including my ex-bandmates.”

First impressions of new Wilco CD

When bands put out self-titled records in the middle of their careers, what exactly does it mean? Is the band saying that this is the record that defines them more than any other? Or have they just run out of titles? The new Wilco album, coming out June 30, is called Wilco (The Album), which makes it almost seem like a joke. And with that cover photo of a camel, you have to wonder: What exactly is Wilco up to with this record?

It’s streaming now at http://wilcoworld.net/discs/thealbum/, and I just listened to it for the first time. Here are my snap impressions of the songs. My opinions are bound to change as I listen more. I’ve been a fan of Wilco since the beginning, but I was disappointed with the group’s previous record, Sky Blue Sky — not a bad record, but one that simply failed to excite me the way previous releases had. So far, Wilco (The Album) sounds like a stronger effort.

Track 1: “Wilco (the song)” — The record opens with a nice blast of the rollicking pop sound that Wilco used to have, back in the days of Summerteeth and Being There. The whole idea of doing a song called “Wilco (the song)” seems a little silly, but the track makes a good first impression.

Track 2: “Deeper Down” — This is one of those quiet Wilco songs where Jeff Tweedy sings in a gentle, sensitive tone. The song has some ornate touches, including strings and a harpsichord-like keyboards, but the arrangement feels spare, and the tempo is surprisingly quick.

Track 3: “One Wing” — Some cool guitar work by Nels Cline, a lulling chorus. The blend of Tweedy’s songwriting and the guitar flourishes here feel like a perfected version of what the band was trying to do on the last album, Sky Blue Sky.

Track 4: “Bull Black Nova” — The song starts out all staccato, with Tweedy singing about a car as a piano ticks off repeatedly. There’s something about this that sounds like the 1970s, but then the track veers into some strong guitar soloing — is that a guitar duet between Kline and Tweedy? The song builds into a stranger piece than it seemed at first, like a simple little ditty that’s become an art-rock epic.

Track 5: “You and I” — A classic-sounding Tweedy acoustic ballad. Just a touch of guitar wankery at the end, as the track fades out.

Track 6: “You Never Know” — More of that 1970s feeling, a pop song with a chorus that sounds like something Harry Nilsson might have done, with a touch of George Harrison slide guitar at one point.

Track 7: “Disappeared” — Tweedy softly singing high notes over a subtle arrangement with piano as the lead instrument. The chorus has a wistful air that reminds me of “Jesus Etc.”

Track 8: “Solitaire” Acoustic guitar and space-rock keyboard sounds blend together in a beautiful opening. Tweedy sings an instantly catchy melody with lyrics that are probably going to stick in my mind as well: “Once I thought the world was crazy…”

Track 9: “I’ll Fight” — Starts off like a solo acoustic folk song, but then the band kicks in and Tweedy chants an insistent, simple melody. Feels a bit like an anthem, but it’s tamped down, without the fist-pumping chorus it could have had.

Track 10: “Sonny Feeling” — An upbeat track, with the sort of shifting instrumentation that Wilco’s big ensemble of musicians can pull off like few other bands.

Track 11: “Everlasting Everything” — Tweedy sings, “Everything alive must die…” Touches of George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass”? This has the feel of a big album-closing ballad. The record ends with just a little bit of psychedelic guitar with that backwards-sounding sound.

Overall, a good first impression. But I doubt if Wilco (The Album) will become the Wilco album that defines the band for me.

Jeff Tweedy at the Vic

As much as I like Wilco and everything that band does to flesh out Jeff Tweedy’s songs, there’s still something special and extraordinary about seeing Tweedy perform a solo concert. It’s strange how his music flows along these two parallel paths: acoustic music, usually heard only in concert, and band arrangements of the same songs, heard in studio recordings and Wilco concerts.

Tweedy played two solo gigs for a variety of charities over the weekend at Chicago’s Vic Theatre, and I caught the second of these shows, on Saturday (Feb. 14). Tweedy mostly played a set of songs requested by the first 30 people who were standing in line outside the theater. And as he noted, those people tend to be the geekiest of fans, so their requests skewed strongly toward obscure Tweedy songs not found on the main Wilco albums. It was a B-side sort of concert, which was fine with me. It’s cool to hear some of these rarely played tunes.

Tweedy’s guitar playing and singing were in fine form. I especially enjoyed “Spiders (kidsmoke),” which Tweedy played in a streamlined arrangement much shorter and more direct than the epic krautrock version that ended up on the album A Ghost Is Born. I love this song in all its incarnations, but hearing it again in its acoustic form was a vivid reminder of the song’s roots.

We heard a couple of new songs, which will apparently be on the Wilco album coming out this summer. Tweedy joked that the band is thinking of calling the record either Diver Down or Van Halen II.

Tweedy also played several covers, including Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees,” which he has been doing lately. I always associated Wilco and Radiohead for some reason — maybe just because they are two popular bands, one from the U.S. and one from the U.K., that are constantly pushing their music in new directions — and so it felt great to hear Tweedy playing a song normally associated with Thom Yorke. He made it sound like a Tweedy song, hitting those high notes in his own distinctive hoarse falsetto. The other covers included the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” which Uncle Tupelo recorded years back, Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” and that old Tweedy favorite, Bill Fay’s “Be Not So Fearful.”

Like every Tweedy solo concert, this one featured more than its share of shouted song requests and comments from the audience, including one obviously drunken joker who twice bellowed out a request for “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” That prompted some cutting responses from Tweedy, who knows how to handle a heckler. (“Guys who yell out things at rock concerts don’t ever get laid,” he noted.) Still, Tweedy’s replies only seemed to encourage more ridiculous shouts from some parts of the crowd. As much as I enjoy seeing Tweedy banter with his fans, it would be nice to get through at least half of a concert without so much yacking.

According to the amazingly complete and interactive Wilco/Tweedy set-list database at wilcobase.com, Tweedy has been ending all of his recent solo shows by stepping up the front lip of the stage and playing at least one song without the usual amplification. On Saturday, the song that got this treatment was “Dreamer in My Dreams.” Singing without a mike is one way to get the crowd to shut up.

SET LIST:
New song (“You and I…”)
One By One
More Like the Moon
New song (“I Will, I Will…”)
Radio King
A Magazine Called Sunset
Simple Twist of Fate
Spiders (Kidsmoke)
The Long Cut
At My Window Sad and Lonely
So Much Wine (Butterfly)
I’m Always in Love
I’m the Man Who Loves You
New Madrid
Someday Soon
Blasting Fonda
Fake Plastic Trees
[break]
All The Same To Me
Pecan Pie
ELT
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Wilco the Song
The Ruling Class
I Wanna Be Your Dog
Jesus, Etc.
Be Not So Fearful
A Shot in the Arm
[encore]
Hoodoo Voodoo
California Stars
Dreamer in My Dreams

Wilco and Andrew Bird at Summerfest

JULY 5, 2006
SUMMERFEST, MILWAUKEE

This was my first time at Milwaukee’s famous Summerfest. Seems like a nice festival, and they certainly book a lot more music than the typical summer fest. That means the festival invariably has some noteworthy acts, like this night’s double bill of Wilco and Andrew Bird, as well as a fair amount of shlock. How weird that Wilco was playing on one stage tonight, while Nickelback and Foreigner were playing elsewhere in the park.

And the band playing before Andrew Bird and Wilco was an incredibly annoying cover band called Sweet Tarts. Bad enough that I nearly ran from the venue with hands over my ears. Another band playing a short distance away, the Yonder Mountain String Band, would have been a much better fit with the Bird/Wilco lineup. These guys had a big audience dancing to their bluegrass picking, with a nice encore of “Goodbye Blue Sky.” (Now that “The Wall” has been covered in its entirety by Luther Wright & the Wrongs, is Pink Floyd becoming standard fodder for bluegrass bands? How odd.)

First, a note about the venue. While Summerfest is a fine place to hang out and get some beer and carnival food, it’s not exactly the smartest set up for watching a concert. The Miller Lite venue where Andrew Bird and Wilco were playing has long metal bleacher benches set up on the pavement in front of the stage, without any aisles – the only entrances being on either end of the long rows. That made it all but impossible to get close to the stage by the time I tried. And then everyone stood up on the benches as Bird started playing. I don’t know, but standing on a narrow metal bench isn’t my idea of how I want to spend a few hours during a concert, so I moved farther back. I found myself feeling a little misanthropic, an impulse I have to hold in check, as I was surrounded mostly by high school and college-age kids. Actually, it’s rather encouraging that young people are excited and interested in Wilco. I’ve heard a number of teens talk about Wilco as if it were some great musical secret they’d discovered. Still, when you’re standing in the middle of a bunch of teens, it starts to feel like being trapped at a prom, where the girls squeal and point at boys. Not my crowd, I guess…

I did eventually find some good vantage points, standing farther back and contenting myself to watch the concerts on the video screens.

Andrew Bird was as amazing as ever, creating some incredible pop symphonies with his looping pedals. He played a few new songs, which sounded pretty good on first listen – nothing seemed like a radical departure from the music on his last album, The Mysterious Production of Eggs. I always wonder how well Bird’s precious music (and I mean precious in the best sense of the term) will go over with a big festival crowd, but this audience seemed to be appreciative – and I heard a few people shouting out requests for specific songs, so he obviously has a growing fan base.

Wilco put on a good show, not the best Wilco concert I’ve ever seen by a long shot, but probably the right sort of performance for a place like Summerfest. Jeff Tweedy was pretty talkative, trying to get the crowd to chant the names of various band members at different points of the night. And the band offered up a good sample of songs from its last two albums, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, plus a few oldies. Two new songs were played. One of the them sounded just OK to me as Tweedy was singing the first part, but when Nels Cline’s guitar solo came in, the song really picked up. Tweedy mentioned another new song called “Let’s Fight,” which the group was not ready to play in concert yet; he jokingly suggested that this Summerfest audience should reassemble at another time to sing that song’s chorus like a soccer chant. We’d all have to join the musicians union, though, he pointed out. “Misunderstood” sounded great – I counted 56 calls of “Nothing!” this time. I wonder how fans would react if Wilco played this song and just did a couple of “Nothings”?  In the final encore, “A Shot in the Arm” segued into the electronic notes of “Spiders (kidsmoke).” As usual, that song sounded fantastic, with the audience going wild whenever that descending chord progression kicks in.

Jeff Tweedy at the Vic

MARCH 5, 2005
Jeff Tweedy
The Vic, Chicago

Jeff Tweedy’s occasional solo concerts are one reason I feel lucky to live in Chicago. Sometimes Tweedy uses these shows to try out new songs, which end up later on albums by Wilco (or one of his other projects). Tonight’s show was all about nostalgia, though, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. Resurrecting no less than five pre-Wilco songs out of the Uncle Tupelo catalogue, Tweedy seemed to be reconnecting with some moments from his past — and giving the musical equivalent of a big wet kiss to some of his most rabid fans, the ones who scream out requests for oldies like “Gun” at his solo concerts.
In addition to the five Uncle Tupelo songs, Tweedy played a couple by one of his side projects, Golden Smog; two from the Loose Fur album; and one from the Minus Five album that Wilco worked on with Scott McCaughey. He also gave a rare performance of the non-album Wilco song “Blasting Fonda” and played a cover of Mott the Hoople’s “Henry and the H Bombs.”
Few performers can command the attention of a large theater with just a voice and an acoustic guitar, and Tweedy is one of them. Two of his Wilco bandmates, John Stirratt and Pat Sansone, opened in the guise of their group Autumn Defense, playing beautiful, sleepy acoustic pop, most of it from the excellent 2003 album Circles. Stirratt acted as if he were a little daunted about playing these little songs in front of such a big audience. “It’s like Schubas on steroids,” he joked, commenting on how quiet the room was.
Tweedy played several songs before saying anything to the audience, but he was talkative later on, bantering with the crowd about all of the people holding up cell phones. Tweedy momentarily blanked out on the lyrics of “(Was I) In Your Dreams” and flubbed a chord or two in “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway (Again),” which made him seem human. He had some fun at his own expense about this. Those lapses were forgivable, of course, as Tweedy once again showed himself to be an accomplished acoustic guitarist. And his voice? It has become so familiar to me and many other listeners that it’s hard to say much new about it or to rate his vocals on a particular night. It just sounds like the voice of a friend.
Tweedy joked that it seemed like he’d played 10 or 12 Uncle Tupelo songs tonight. Noting that “Gun” was 12 years old, he shook his head and wondered where the years had gone. After a false start in a lower key, he played the song without a capo in the higher key he originally sang it in for Uncle Tupelo. When he polled the crowd afterward, most hands went up for the higher version. Tweedy lamented that it’s harder to sing that way.
With Autumn Defense as the opening act, the odds seemed good for a surprise appearance by Wilco at the end of the concert. But I’d heard no such thing happened on the previous night (I missed that concert). And after two encores and 90 minutes of music, it felt like the show was over. Tweedy played an excellent version of “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” capturing the jaunty vibe that song had in incarnations pre-dating the final studio version on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Tweedy waved to the crowd and walked off stage. Many people (myself included) got ready to leave, but then some roadies appeared.
At the sight of a Persian rug, the crowd went wild. Yes, I know that’s a cliche, but it’s one of the few times in the last year I’d say it was a true description of an audience reaction… the other being the roar of applause when Wilco took the stage at the Vic a year ago. This band certainly has some devoted fans.
Just about everyone knew what the rug meant — Glenn Kotche’s drum set was coming out. The roadies quickly set up the drums, a couple of keyboards and guitars. Beaming like a giddy child, Kotche sat down and began playing the recognizable beat of “Laminated Cat” (aka “Not For the Season”). Tweedy came back out and played the Loose Fur song. Mikael Jorgensen and Pat Sansone joined in for “The Family Gardener.” Then Stirratt came out for the remainder of the mini-Wilco concert. All that was missing was guitarist Nels Cline, and Tweedy joked about that, having Sansone call him up on his cell phone. (He got Cline’s voice mail.)
Without Cline, Wilco’s sound was a little subdued and keyboard-dominated, but it matched the mood of the evening perfectly. The performance had the loose feel of a friendly living-room jam or rehearsal. Tweedy set down his guitar for three of the songs: Randy Newman’s “Political Science” (he even did a couple of leg kicks on the lines, “Boom goes London, boom Par-ee!”), “Hummingbird” and “I Shall Be Released.” After the big-keyboard finish of “Hummingbird,” Tweedy said, “Damn you, Jim O’Rourke! You made us sound like Supertramp!”
Those looking for clues about the direction of the next Wilco album were left clueless after tonight’s show, but it was a great look back at what Tweedy and his pals have accomplished so far.

Here’s the set list:

Someone Else’s Song
Remember the Mountain Bed
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
Airline to Heaven
(Was I) In Your Dreams
Wait Up
Black Eye
Radio King
Chinese Apple
Bob Dylans 49th Beard
Someday Some Morning Sometime
Blasting Fonda
Someday Soon
Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(again)
Summer Teeth
ELT
I Can’t Keep From Talking

Encore 1
Gun
We’ve Been Had
Candyfloss
Henry & The H-Bombs
Acuff Rose
I’m The Man Who Loves You

Encore 2
Misunderstood

Encore 3
Not For The Season (with Glenn Kotche)
The Family Gardener (with Kotche, Mikael Jorgensen and Pat Sansone)
How To Fight Loneliness (with Kotche, Jorgensen, Sansone and John Stirratt for rest of set)
John Wesley Harding
Political Science
Hummingbird
Late Greats

Encore 4
Passenger Side
California Stars
I Shall Be Released