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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.”
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.
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