Photo credit: Jonah Zuflacht
Sure, says I a week ago, I’ll write a review of the Wilco-curated Solid Sound for some free tickets. It was easy enough to merge with the crowds of cargo-shorted NPR listeners making pilgrimage to MASS MoCA for a weekend of clear skies and non-threatening tunes. As someone I tagged along with put it on the festival’s first Friday, “We’re all cool dads tonight.” Little did I know my whole worldview was about to be rocked to its very core.
After a truly knee-slappingly, neck-throttlingly hilarious 20-minute misunderstanding concerning the whereabouts of the Will Call tent (“I know ‘Wilco’ but you’ll need to pick up your tickets first sir.” “FFFF–”), I was provided with a faux-Futura-bearing festival “field guide” and a brightly-colored entry lanyard, encouraging us to think of Solid Sound as a twee summer camp, where all together you recite the traditional songs of yore as the counselors ply you with craft beer. There, past the signs beseeching us to tweet with hashtag massmoca, in a surprisingly spacious field behind factory apparati, was lead singer Jeff Tweedy, presiding over his supermoon-risen kingdom, singing The Boys Are Back in Town.
Friday’s Wilco request show took only suggestions from other band’s oeuvres, and, disappointingly, the setlist (“randomly” chosen onstage from “76 pages”) was rather unadventurous—Rolling Stones etc.—submissions reflecting both the tastes of the olderly demographic present and Wilco’s eagerness to appease. Tweedy knew that for his audience (one in which pot smoke drifted above blanket-nested children) the show meant a welcome vacation to the past, and is the reason why even their most contemporary rendition—Daft Punk’s retrolicious Get Lucky—felt fitting.
Things heated up Saturday, with talent like Yo La Tengo, Foxygen, Low, Neko Case, and Lucius taking the stage. Lucius’ performance at the Log has been relayed by Bill Horse, and I can corroborate there was a soaring power and feeling in their live performance that doesn’t come across on their extant overcooked, echoey EP, something the lead singers have admitted was produced before they had even really learnt the songs. Their stage presence contributed to the joy of watching them perform—they arrived to the festival dressed like Irish Secret Service from a 60s B-movie, though the lead singers’ coordinated swaying was more a 50s artifact.
Perhaps due to lack of venue space, the festival’s comedians performed in a concert room that quickly reached capacity. The acts were MC’d by John Hodgman, who can be forgiven for cribbing material from his recent special Ragnarok because he set the precedent of immediately undermining the festival’s “kid-friendly” atmosphere, something the other comedians picked up. Since the line was long I only managed to see one-third of one multi-comedian set—but that set featured musical improviser Mr. Reggie Watts, who should be worshipped as a God, and yea verily was his tongue-in-cheek croon to childhood most mirthful, and indeed righteous his lambastation of “outdoors people,” and his closing anthem to “feeling part of it all” was just a really good song, amen.
Wow there’s been WAY too many words already we’ve got to do something about that. Uh okay Yo La Tengo produced a lulling fog of feedback which rang against the factory windows as soft-spoken lyrics seemed to gurgle up from a deep well to barely disturb the surface. I want to use the word ‘melancholic’ to describe Low but I’m afraid a less subtle one would do the trick: sad—their songs were sad. Neko Case had amusing intersong chatter and the actual songs were occasionally engaging. I saw an Evil Santa-looking man with a baby doll head affixed to his walking stick and, convinced he was a Nightmare Lord, hid under a kinetic sculpture for several hours. Os Mutantes was a bunch of fun even though the songs were forgettable, and lead singer Arnaldo Baptista proved to be the jolliest goblin, the happiest uncle, the most benevolent anthropomorphic Mucinex spokeswad, the boisterous-est descendent of Plumpy and Gloppy. And I don’t have enough musical background to fully appreciate the technical impressiveness of Medeski Martin & Wood’s funky jam session.
Foxygen’s theatrics require special attention. Frontman Sam France, hips a-Jagger, was trying his best to raise the heartbeat of what North Adams police called “the most well-behaved group of individuals,” punctuating the band’s usual lackadaisical breeziness by occasionally morphing into a paisley punk dragon. At points France entered the audience to cheer with his front-row daisy-garlanded acolytes as the rest of the surfer-brah band played on. I was convinced at any moment France would release a phalanx (a murder? a council?) of doves from his sleeve with some mystic flamboyant spasticism. In probably the most dramatic moment of the festival, he was thrown down from a voyage up stage scaffolding by an overzealous staffer. His nervous energy, simultaneously self-deprecating and -aggrandizing, was certainly a refreshing tonic to the day’s other performances, which occasionally seemed in competition to see just how soft “soft rock” could get before turning to vapor.
Speaking of which, Radiolab premiered a live version of their successful podcast on the topic The Day The Dinosaurs Went Extinct, and it certainly was a chilling piece of paleoforensics, though often the sound FX felt a little goofy, like the man waving a tube around to recreate a dying pterosaur. The tale would have been wholly absorbing were it not for the sweltering heat that threatened to turn the audience to ash.
By the time we got to Wilco’s final concert, the arches of my feet were already sore from a day spent calculating how minimally to sway. Here’s the confession: I’ve never really listened to Wilco. For most of the concert, I experienced the isolation one might feel in a cult where one hasn’t read the pamphlets. It’s why the unexpected percussive freakout during Via Chicago was one of the few things I remember. From the outsider perspective, Wilco seems like a band whose traction is in large part based on the disjunction between their easy-listenin’ sound and their holy-shit-wait-what? lyrics… that shock you receive when hearing the last line of “She’s a Jar” or when I realized the concentric circles of light making pleasant figure-eights around the stage’s whimsical wire-cloud set might in fact be toxic waste symbols. Those longtime Wilco fans I accompanied were very satisfied with the concert, and were reminded how no more Wilco-obsessed they were than everyone else there, except for this one gray-haired woman we stood in front of, who was definitely way more obsessed.
All in all, Solid Sound was not just a good place to have a two-fifths-life crisis. It was, dammit, a completely enjoyable way to spend a summer weekend, whether you were the old bald guy with the “I’ve tried Polygamy!” T-shirt or the ex-student finding every excuse to put off work or the local college professor trying to avoid eye contact with the ex-student. Sometimes, being a cool dad is exactly what the doctor ordered.