LET THE SUNSHINE IN: Wilco’s 2015 Solid Sound Festival

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The annual event at North Adams, Mass., took place June 26-28 featuring Wilco and Jeff Tweedy, of course, along with Speedy Ortiz, Real Estate, Parquet Courts, Sam Amidon, Bill Frisell, Luluc, Ryley Walker, NRBQ, Jessica Pratt and more—not to mention Richard Thompson. The takeaway this year? You don’t fuck with Richard Thompson!

TEXT & PHOTOS BY JENNIFER KELLY

Solid Sound is the nicest, friendliest, least exhausting festival I’ve ever been to — and the bands are pretty good, too.

Set deep in the Berkshires in an old mill town whose factory buildings have been converted into Mass MoCA (or the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), Solid Sound runs on three stages, an auditorium and assorted gallery spaces. The acts are staggered in a leisurely enough fashion to enable catching most of everything you want to see. They’re mostly medium-famous, conventional rock or folk artists, maybe not bleeding-edge hipster fodder, but quality, and they lean noticeably towards bands with really great guitar players. (Jeff Tweedy’s house, Jeff Tweedy’s rules). And every night culminates with some variety of Wilco-ness—Wilco itself on nights one and two, Tweedy’s eponymous project on Sunday.

Moreover everybody is so damned pleasant – arriving on Saturday with a plus one in tow, there is no record of me or my credentials at Will Call (though I’m wearing my wrist band and have yesterday’s photo pass). “Go on in,” says the woman at the desk. “It’s fine.” And fine it is. (But don’t try that at SXSW.)

Inside, too, everything is a little easier and more enjoyable than it needs to be. The food is reasonably priced and slants locavore. Craft brews are $6. Good coffee is available, and there’s a free-standing Kombucha bar. You can buy vinyl or CD of every artist on the schedule at the Euclid Record outlet. Oh, and did I mention that your festival pass gets you in the museum, too? We catch a tiny bit of Ryley Walker and his band playing an all-improv set in front of a vast photographic tapestry that is almost as big as the mountain it represents. But that’s getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with Friday night.

Friday, June 26

I arrive around 6 p.m. after a long, winding two-lane drive over the Green Mountains and drive less than a mile down state road 8 way from the festival when I find a place to park. It’s free. After a bit of walk, I’m there, I’m in and Speedy Ortiz is setting up to play. Sadie Depuis, the singer for this mathy, post-punk-ish, 1990s alternative influenced outfit (think the Breeders, Throwing Muses, Pavement etc.) is wearing what looks like a cross between a running bra and a wedding dress, lacy, off-white, revealing, but abbreviated well above her midriff. She’s tuning. Her band, which includes a last minute bass substitute named Ellen, lurches into play, her sweet, sing-song-y melodies slithering atop a roiling cauldron of detuned guitar feedback. That’s “Raising the Skate,” the prickly, gender-stereotype-destroying single off Speedy Ortiz’s latest, Foil the Deer. Musically, it’s a volatile combination of beckoning, insinuating vocal accessibility, verbal complexity, emotional nuance, all subsumed in hissy, fuzzy rock mayhem. Speedy Ortiz is known for splicing tricky time changes and unlooked for chord progressions into her tunes, and though the band is mostly loosely conjoined as its slinks and rumbles and surges forward, there are intervals of geometrical complexity where it feels like everyone is jutting off in different directions.

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Depuis stops, briefly, to celebrate the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision early that day, noting that her native Massachusetts was ahead of the curve on that issue. Early on, too, with certain kinds of punk-rooted, metal-distorted, grungy hybrids. Speedy Ortiz follows the off-kilter, guitar-wailing precedents of Dinosaur, Sonic Youth and Kristin Hersh.

The next band up is Real Estate on the larger stage at Joe’s Field, and I head there early in the hopes of getting close enough to take pictures. Already, the field is blanket and lawn-chair deep in Wilco fans, a mostly older crowd, many with children in tow, but I worm my way up and then, just when I’ve found a spot, discover that my photo pass qualifies me for restricted access. I have the most ridiculous little camera, an SLR, but I’m there in the pit with the long lens crowd, and I’d be embarrassed except that it is SUCH a good place to be.

Real Estate has always seemed a little bit of a snooze to me, with its lazy looping guitar lines, its dream-hazed romantic lyrics, its mid-tempo, mid-temperature indie rock pleasantries. It’s a nice fit though for the late afternoon with the light turning golden and the rain holding off. After a very pretty run through “Had to Hear,” Martin Courtney ticks off some local connections—Matt Mondanile went to nearby Bennington College, bass player Alex Beeker to Williamstown high school.

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“Past Lives” rides a soulful groove, lit by shimmery, silvery keyboards and sinuous interlocking guitar parts, while “Municipality” jangles and shambles. The mood is lullingly sweet, wistful, serene, and Mondanile breaks, sometimes, from the strumming to trace out high clear leads. The guitar playing is beautifully distinct and intricate, though not in any particular hurry. The set list tends towards the most recent Atlas, recorded at Jeff Tweedy’s Chicago Studio, with radiant takes of “Talking Backwards,” “Horizon,” and “Crime,” but also some older tunes from Days like “All the Same and “Municipality.”

After a long-ish break, it’s time for Wilco, the sky still clear with a big half moon hung over the hill on Joe’s Field. It’s one of two long sets for the weekend, and the band seems to have opted to highlight the more countrified aspect of its sound. Indeed, there’s a real string band tone to a lot of the songs, as Nels Cline switches between a silver resonator guitar and a tiny mandolin-like instrument and Pat Sansone from banjo to xylophone. Mikael Jorgenson is off on stage left behind a keyboard, and Glenn Kotche invisible (to me) in the back. Tweedy is wearing a western hat and poncho, perhaps against the threat of rain, but as he looks at the still-clear sky mid-way through the set, he says, “This is just about perfect.”

Indeed.

The set ranges in a twangy, jangly, acoustic way across several decades of material, starting with 1996’s “Misunderstood,” touching the breakout Yankee Hotel Foxtrot with “War on War” and, later, “Kamera” recapping through Summerteeth favorites “Always in Love” and “She’s a Jar.” More recent songs from Wilco [the Album] (“Black Bull Nova” “One Wing”), Whole Love (“It Dawned on Me”) and A Ghost Is Born (“Hummingbird,” “Handshake Drugs”) also make the set list, and there is even a rollicking “New Madrid”from back in the Uncle Tupelo days when Jeff Tweedy helped invent alt.country. John Stirratt gets to sing, once, in “Just that Simple.”

Wilco’s experimental, feedback-y, rock-band side pops up from time to time, notablyi n a brief crazed interval of “Misunderstood,” but tonight is mostly a country-tuned sing-along. The crowd knows the words to everything and joins in, not at the chorus, but right from the opening words. (A guy standing next to me is calling out song-titles from the opening chords; he is only wrong once, and then because two different songs use the same structure.) These are serious Wilco fans on blankets and in lawn chairs, older than your average festival crowd, but with less to prove. On the hill in the back of the field, people have set up little pup tents so that their kids can go to sleep when they get tired. I have been to more exciting shows, but never one where the audience and the artist were so perfectly in tune with each other.

Saturday, June 27

We leave early Saturday but park further out and rely on spotty shuttle bus service and nearly miss Ryley Walker. Arriving, finally, Walker and his five-man improv all-star outfit — that’s Brian Sulpizio on guitar, Anton Hatt on acoustic double bass, drummer Ryan Jewell and keyboardist Ben Boye — are midway through “Primrose Rain,” the title track from this year’s album. That album, by the way, is excellent, primarily for the way it blows out Walker’s 12-string folk blues into wildly exciting free-jazz overdrive. He does the same here at Solid Sound, and it’s one of the best sets of the day.

After “Primrose Rain,” the show takes an adventurous turn, with Hatt drawing ominous tones from his bass with the wrong end of the bow, Foye making feedback with his car keys and Walker playing two-handed, with his thumbs, way up on the bridge of the guitar. The sound is eerie, moody, full of hanging overtones, but after a while Jewell sets off a rhythm under the miasma and the piece moves forward in rumbling, thundering style. After the storm, Walker embarks on a calmer, more conventional folk melody called “Funny Thing She Said,” but even here, you can hear the jazz percolating through in Walker’s half-stepping melodic shifts and the plunk of acoustic bass. The song is cool, desolate and gorgeous.

Luluc is setting up in the next courtyard, Zoë Randell with a small acoustic guitar and Steve Hassett with an electric bass. The duo, signed to Sub Pop, is Australia by the way of Brooklyn. Their last, Passerby, was produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner. It was one of 2014’s subtlest, loveliest folk albums.

Luluc’s Passerby, as the name suggests, is about rootlessness and disconnection, about leaving your actual home for a place more receptive to what you want to do. There’s more than a little melancholy in the album, as well as a sense of excitement, as the songs explore new territories, both emotional and geographical. There’s also a great deal of New York in it, especially in the first song of the set “Reverie on Norfolk Street” where Randell croons about cramped city apartments and people left behind.

Luluc’s sound can be startlingly bare, like cold, clear water, but it also has its lusher moments, as in the heady harmonies that erupt from “Without a Face.” Randell’s voice is looped here, so that she is singing the main line and the harmony and a bit of counterpart all at once and coming out of such restraint, it feels like overload (in a good way). The set is entirely drawn from Passerby, and this is no bad thing. We hear, “Little Suitcase,” “Winter is Passing” and “Small Window” in quick succession. There’s a little banter. Both Randell and Hassert are taken with North Adams and Solid Sound, and Randell asks, at one point, if any of the warehouses are still available.

The set crescendos near the end with an electrified version of “Early Night” where Hassert elicits a howl of feedback from bowed electric and close harmonies evoke a Low-like wild beauty. “Tangled Heart,” too, is amped up and blown out in grand dissonant guitar gestures. “Star,” closes the set as it does the album, bringing things back to serene essentials.

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By the time we get back from eating (bratwurst! Lagunitas IPA!), Sam Amidon and Bill Frisell are mid-set, coaxing the eerie overtones from “Short Life of Trouble” in front of a cross-legged crowd. Frisell has collaborated with a lot of artists, across all sorts of genres, but his partnership with Amidon seems particularly fruitful, as the two turn traditional melodies and even one Kinks song inside out in search of epiphany. Amidon’s “Groundhog Variations” is both one of his most traditional sounding songs and the one most open to interpretation. He and Frisell turn it into an improvisatory freak-out. “Tired of Waiting for You” is so ghostly and plaintive that it takes me a minute to recognize it as a Kinks tune. Frisell’s composition, whose name is garbled, sounds remarkably of the same fabric as Amidon’s reimagined reels and ditties, slanting off in angularly, modern ways from a pensive melody.

We catch only a glimpse of NRBQ afterwards, from a window in the museum. Downstairs in one of the main galleries, Ryley Walker’s band is bending sound into strange, free-form shapes in an all-acoustic, all-improvised set. The rooms are warehouse huge, big enough to hang landscape photography several stories high, big enough to stage Francesco Clemente’s installation of painted tents.

Jessica Pratt is just setting up when we emerge from the museum. I’m excited to see her, since her album On Your Own Love Again ranks one or two on my list of favorites so far (arm-wrestling with Meg Baird’s Don’t Weigh Down the Light for the 1 spot). But she looks fragile and tired on this last stop of the tour and is, quite possibly, not comfortable playing outside in broad daylight.

She starts with the shivery minor key picking of “Wrong Hand,” whispering the tune’s lyrics in flute-ish sibilance. She is playing with another guitarist, and neither of them moves much, but Pratt is particularly still, her feet locked together in front of her, her hands barely shifting on the guitar strings. She revisits many of the songs from her gorgeous album — “Greycedes,” “The Game That I Play” and “Back, Baby” — but adds very little to them. Not that people with guitars can’t be mesmerizing, see Angel Olsen, Richard Buckner and others, but Pratt is a little dull. Her set is the only real disappointment of the day.

Clouds are gathering now, and the festival organizers are seriously worried about the weather. They decide to move Richard Thompson’s set up by an hour to 4:30, which is basically now.

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“It will not rain,” he announces as he bounds up to the stage, and it does not, at least not for his set. You don’t fuck with Richard Thompson.

The set, like all the others, leans heavily on the current record, recorded at Tweedy’s Chicago studio. It starts with the roistering “All Buttoned Up,” a primer, if you needed one, of how Richard Thompson winds up Celtic harmonies and melodies like a spring, hitches them to some blues licks and makes them rock. He follows with the equally hard-charging “Sallie B” from 2013’s Electric, then brings on Chicagoan James Elkington (Brokeback, Tweedy, the Zincs) to play guitar on ruminative “Broken Doll.”

Then Thompson introduces a “song from the 1970s”, which turns out to be “I Wish I Were a Fool for you Again (For the Shame of Doing Wrong).” That’s a song he wrote for Sandy Denny after she left Fairport Convention, and which later became a staple of the live Richard and Linda Thompson show. More recent, but still a blast from the past, “Hard on Me” from Mock Tudor is a total blast with both Thompson and his long-time bass player Taras Prodaniuk belting brash harmonies out at the chorus.

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Then it’s another dip into Still, with singer Sima Cunningham coming on stage to harmonize in “Beatnik Walk,” and Elkington back for guitar color on the long, style-hopping “Guitar Heroes” (I had heard that Thompson sometimes mixed up the guitarists he referenced live, but it was the same Django, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, James Burton, Shadows line-up as on the record). “Patty Don’t You Put Me Down” rocks outrageously, and Thompson finishes the song with a Townshend-esque both-feet-in-the-air leap. The main set ends with a rocking “Tear-Stained Letter” from Thompson’s second solo album (back in 1983 if you’re counting), but the encore is the best thing all day. Thompson and his band rip through the R&B classic “Daddy Rolling Stone,” with blazing glee. It hasn’t rained a drop. It wouldn’t dare.

It certainly looks threatening, so after a desultory attempt to see the Parquet Courts (endlessly sound-checking 15 minutes after their set time), we exit the festival. Sure the Parquet Courts will eventually start playing, and Mac DeMarco will go on and Wilco, weather-permitting, will take the stage again. But it feels like anything else would be downhill from here, and Solid Sound is likely just about to become liquid. Why not quit when you’re ahead?

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