Wilco And The Art Of The Music Festival

Wilco | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

Wilco And The Art Of The Music Festival

Wilco | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

Solid Sound '24 delivered an eclectic lineup, immaculate vibes, and everything Wilco

Is “Wilco (The Song)” off of Wilco: The Album a deep cut? Who cares — it was a perfect way for the band to end a fan-friendly Friday night set at Solid Sound 2024, because even when you’re playing nothing but (relative) obscurities and rarities, you still gotta finish with a statement.

And that statement, of course, is “Wilco. Wilco. Wilco will love you baby.”

At the band’s own festival at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, now in its eighth edition since 2010, you feel that love at every turn, whether you’re singing along with Jeff Tweedy and his sons to T. Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer,” watching Ratboys’ Julia Steiner play acoustic in between seeing art by Jason Moran, or witnessing middle-aged folks in Wilco ponchos discover Soul Glo.

Solid Sound has the musical breadth and adventurousness of a Primavera crossed with the communal, low-key vibe of the Newport Folk Festival. Most of the things you hate about a festival — bad-sounding sets that bleed across multiple stages, five-figure crowds (Solid Sound hosts around 8,000 attendees per day), oppressive sponsorship — doesn’t apply here. It feels like a throwback in other ways too, with no video screens flanking the stages, no VIP tiers, and no credit cards accepted by various food vendors. Cell service is basically nonexistent so you might find yourself offline all day, free to enjoy the sights and sounds. There’s even a table full of free sunscreen from the “Wilco EMS” (as the North Berkshire EMS semi-rebrands itself, and yes, they make a fundraising t-shirt).

Scott Lapatine

Even the battle for a good spot in the crowd is decidedly (if not uniformly) well-mannered, which I find myself discussing with Eric Zawada, a 37-year-old fan from Marlborough, MA attending his fifth Solid Sound (and he’s still bummed he missed the first three).

“Obviously I don’t know Wilco personally, but you represent the band as a fan,” he says. “So it just makes sense that you should act respectfully. Because ultimately, it reflects on the band.”

Oh, and the first thing Wilco ever played at the first-ever Solid Sound in 2010? You guessed it: “Wilco (The Song).”

The Deepest Cut Is A Drum Solo

After they finished that one this time, Glenn Kotche went full prog during the Sky Blue Sky banger “Let’s Not Get Carried Away,” complete with his bandmates mock-disinterestedly sipping beverages and — in Jeff Tweedy’s case — sitting down. That kicked off a four-song encore that also included “Kicking Television” and, from The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, “Just A Kid.”

With the promised deep cuts set, Wilco not only met the challenge of delivering impeccable versions of rarely played songs, but put them together in a way that still ebbed and flowed and told a story. There were cheat codes (“Camera,” the rumbling alternate version of “Kamera”) and fan-service lay-ups (“A Magazine Called Sunset,” and “Panthers”), as well as album tracks that got exposure when they first came out (“One Sunday Morning,” “Sonny Feeling,” “Cold Slope”) but not since. Vibe and tempo-wise, certain songs felt like they took the place of other songs in a typical set – “ELT” from Summerteeth instead of the stalwart “Outtasite (Out Of Mind)” from Being There, for instance. And when they played “Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard,” some in the crowd didn’t seem to grok what it was until Tweedy sang the title phrase. Just like at a Dylan show.

Wilco | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

There were also three live debuts. One fan-delighting oldie (the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot outtake “Venus Stopped the Train,” which Tweedy has only previously played solo, rarely), an astonishingly nervy “Quiet Amplifier” (from Ode To Joy) with martial guest percussion from Spencer Tweedy, Horsegirl’s Gigi Reece, and Vivian Kotche, and then an unexpected, almost-forgotten track: “Tell Your Friends,” a song that was first heard in a Zoom-made video for The Colbert Report in May of 2020.

“We stayed away from this song for a long time,” Tweedy said. “‘Cause it seemed like it was from a different time. From a weird time. From a sad time. And it felt like it wasn’t an appropriate song to sing when things weren’t as bad.

“But things are always bad,” he added with a laugh. “We just wanted to sing it for you.”

By then there were 13 people on the stage, including most of Tweedy’s solo band (including Finom’s Macie Stewart on violin) and other members of the Wilco family, for a truly emotional coda. It wouldn’t be the last one of the weekend.

It was also not the last surprise. On Saturday Wilco started out with what seemed to be a normal touring set, plus the addition of a few tracks from the brand new Hot Sun Cool Shroud EP. (Festivalgoers who bough the vinyl onsite could decorate it with stickers by Kathleen Ryan.) Then they did “At Least That’s What You Said” and “Hell Is Chrome” back-to-back. Once that was followed by “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” everybody knew it — we were getting a 20th Anniversary set of A Ghost Is Born in full.

Wilco Is Everywhere

If you were in North Adams a day early, you could’ve seen Tweedy kick off the weekend with an ostensibly locals-only show at the city’s public library. Then, on Thursday night at Tourists, the boutique roadside motel co-owned by Wilco’s John Stirratt, Chicago duo Big Sadie turned into a five-piece band, with Stirratt, Pat Sansone, and Glenn Kotche.

Such cameos are part of the joy of Solid Sound, as Wilco not only book bands they want to see and hear but people with whom they might want to play. Since there was no way “You And I” would be in Wilco’s deep cuts set, Tweedy joined Courtney Marie Andrews for it during her set instead. (It was not the first time that they’d played it together, not to mention that Andrews was also in Jimmy Eat World when they covered it.) A few hours earlier Tweedy took the stage to talk to Song Exploder podcaster Hrishikesh Hirway about his book World Within A Song

On Saturday, Nels Cline joined Dry Cleaning for “Conversation” just before Wilco’s headline set, while Stirratt stayed up late afterwards to play Neil Young’s “Down By The River” with Mikaela Davis (as well as Massachusetts’ own Mary Lou Lord). On Sunday, Sansone augmented Miracle Legion for multiple songs, before a magical ending that brought the entire Young@Heart choir onto the tiny Courtyard C stage. One member of the all-senior citizen group even had a better beard than Miracle Legion’s Mark Mulcahy.

Miracle Legion | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

Solid Sound’s Biggest Non-Wilco Headliner Yet

With all due respect to Levon Helm and Mavis Staples, Jason Isbell takes that title, which made for a particularly packed and happy Friday night. (The last three Friday night slots went to Sylvan Esso (who DJ’d this year), Courtney Barnett, and Kurt Vile.)

Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

Fans hoping for a crossover were out of luck, as “California Stars” was not going to be played tonight (or even by Wilco at all). “I can’t see some of you well under the big floppy hats but I am sure you’re beautiful,” Isbell said. “It’s the little red hats you gotta watch out for.” That got a shouted “fuck you” from one person in the crowd, who was probably not a Philadelphia Phillies fan (though they were all over the place too, present company included).

Along with such highlights as “King Of Oklahoma,” Strawberry Woman,” and “Speed Trap Town,” Isbell And The 400 Unit broke out their cover of R.E.M.’s “The One I Love,” during which a friend texted me “I have never seen so many happy 55 year-olds in my life.”

And So It Goes

Even at a festival like Solid Sound, when you’re an opening act, “you really are a sort of a jukebox,” Nick Lowe explained to Stereogum, and he just happens to be one. Lowe and Los Straitjackets opened with his 1976 solo debut single “So It Goes,” but also played four songs from Indoor Safari, his upcoming first new album in 11 years, before turning it over to the lucha-masked band for a trio of crowd-pleasing instrumentals, and then returning for a handful of hits including “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding” with Sansone and Stirratt. It’s a song that has been performed and covered so many times that Lowe figures it belongs to the world now. “‘Peace, Love, And Understanding,’ it really does feel like I didn’t have anything to do with it,” Lowe told us. “The hippie in me looks forward to a time when it’s going to be redundant. But the professional self-employed musician thinks, well, it’s pretty cool that the song’s been around for a long time.”

Dream Of Horses

Solid Sound Day 1 began with Horsegirl in the sun and ended with Horse Lords after midnight. The young Band To Watch have already toured with fellow Chicagoans Wilco, but clearly attracted plenty of new fans. “They’re like 17 or 18,” I heard someone say (which was true when the band put out its first Matador single in 2021 anyway). The crowd clapped along immediately to the trio’s perfect rush of bubblegummy, post-punk, Flying Nun/Xpressway-style clatter, fueled by triple vocals, double guitars and Reece’s drumming.

Horsegirl | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

Horse Lords are a Baltimore band that feel like they could be from Chicago — a little math rock and a lot of rhythm, avant-jazz, and skronk. “Just one of my favorite bands out there,” Tweedy told Stereogum in advance of the fest. “I’m mesmerized by how impossible their music seems.” Those who managed to rally for another hour after the deep cuts evening got a new favorite band.

It Never Rains At Solid Sound

That’s the ironic bumper sticker you see everywhere around the festival, and Tweedy jinxed it further by mentioning that Solid Sound was having its best weather ever… on Friday. When the rain came on Saturday, Etran de L’Aïr kept everybody dancing, the air becoming warmer and dryer just from the heat of their Saharan guitars, as well as the suggestive visual of their all-white desert garb.

Sunday was less rainy but more stormy, with the threat of lightning forcing an evacuation of the outdoor grounds. Fortunately, there was an entire museum in which to shelter in place. The storm forced Stirratt and Sansone’s band the Autumn Defense to cut their music short, and also canceled Wednesday’s set entirely. But for Mary Halvorson and Tomas Fujiwara, it meant an extra-attentive audience inside The Hunter Center for their extraordinary guitar-and-drum explorations of both their own compositions and songs by Abbey Lincoln, Carla Bley, and Bill Frisell.

Emilio Herce/Stereogum

An Artist At The Art Museum

Wandering the corridors of MASS MoCA looking at art by James Turrell or Louise Bourgeois or Sol LeWitt is also a big part of Solid Sound. (Even if you’re not curious about contemporary art, you’re bound to experience it while trying to locate the fest’s indoor acoustic pop-ups or John Hodgman’s Comedy Cabaret). This year, Wilco also brought “the most prolific artist in history” Steve Keene, who live-painted (and signed copies of The Steve Keene Art Book for three days) amidst a display of his work from The Hirschhorn Collection.

For Keene, being at a music festival — he also did Big Ears in March — felt like something of a homecoming, to the college radio and indie label scene in which he started out. “It’s a big deal for me,” he told Stereogum. “I’ve been to this museum 10 times in the past 25 years. It’s an incredible space, and it’s nice to be here because Wilco asked me. It’s very flattering.”

Keene painted album covers by festival bands like the Young Fresh Fellows and Etran de L’Aïr, and many of Wilco’s, as well as landscapes of North Adams and Wilco on the Joe’s Field stage. Wilco’s albums were already in Keene’s quiver, and he’s partial to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as a painter.

Steve Keene's Wilco paintings | Daniel Efram

“I like Yankee because it’s very hard to do,” he explained. “Every time I do it, it’s like white water rafting. Am I gonna land it?”

Water In Jeff Tweedy’s Voice

After Wednesday’s set got canceled, Tweedy had the band’s Karly Hartzman join him for a song, which was his second act of generosity. The day before, with Water From Your Eyes vocalist Rachel Brown experiencing voice problems, Tweedy stepped in for the band’s “When You’re Around,” bringing out its most Beach Boys/Bacharach qualities.

Water From Your Eyes & Jeff Tweedy | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

“Jeff Tweedy is such a pro and so generous and kind for lending us his voice,” Brown told Stereogum later. “I thought that losing my voice was a bad thing but it turns out it resulted in the coolest thing that possibly could have happened.”

“It was wild to hear him sing a song I wrote and I’ll think about it later,” Nate Amos added (i.e., it’s still too much to process now, which Brown also said onstage).

As a four-piece with Bailey Wollowitz on drums and Al Nardo on second guitar — check out Stereogum’s Band To Watch profile on the duo’s own band fantasy of a broken heart — Water From Your Eyes were still brilliant (and brilliantly noisy), with Brown looking a bit like Joey Ramone with their black hair and sunglasses (they also sported a Chicago Bulls jacket). They also got nothing but cheers for speaking up about Palestine.

One Sunday Evening

The crowd at Solid Sound is smaller on the third day for a lot of reasons — no Wilco, general exhaustion, people having kids or jobs or trains and planes to catch. But in some ways Sunday is the essence of the festival, the day for Wilco side-projects and some of the best wild cards (like Young@Heart, Miracle Legion, and Halvorson/Fujiwara), and the comedown of Jeff Tweedy’s final set.

But first, on the big stage, there was Iris DeMent, joined by bassist Liz Draper and guitarist (and singer-songwriter in her own right) Ana Egge. The country folk legend held the then-sunbaked crowd rapt with her impossibly wise and beauteous warble, while telling stories of John Prine and (of course) closing with “Let The Mystery Be.”

DeMent frequently referred to that evening’s Wilco set, not realizing it was actually Jeff Tweedy & Friends on the schedule. But it made more sense for her to open for Tweedy & Friends anyway, since the Wilco frontman’s solo sets are a bit more folk and country. Jeff and Spencer Tweedy have led this working band for years now, and it’s one that also includes Liam Kazar, Finom’s Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham, Sammy Tweedy, and guitarist James Elkington (who stole the show in the same way that Nels Cline does with Wilco, albeit in more of a Clarence White way with this band).

They’ve got a record coming soon, and one of several new songs, the ‘70s-ish “Feel Free,” went over big, especially with an applause line of “Feel free/ Let It Bleed or Let It Be/ John and Paul/ Mick and Keith.” Tweedy also kept apologizing for the fact that so many of his songs were about death — “We were supposed to be playing Glastonbury right now, but then they heard the songs and said maybe you should stick to your own festival” — but they’re also about life and love, and survival as much as mortality. At Solid Sound 2019, Scott McCaughey played the festival with the Minus Five on his first full tour after suffering a stroke, and joined Tweedy for the song that namechecks him, “Let’s Go Rain.” Then it actually rained. Followed by a rainbow. “Stupid rainbow,” Tweedy said at the time.

You’d think there’d be no way to top that, but McCaughey did, popping out of the wings stage left as his old friend sang his name, triumphantly thrusting his arms in the air to great applause, and then reappearing for a post-song hug.

“That’s the best sit-in of all-time,” Tweedy said.

Young Fresh Fellows | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

McCaughey had also already dedicated the Young Fresh Fellows’ set to Tweedy’s wife, Susan Miller Tweedy, who was unable to to attend the festival due to being in a clinical trial for cancer treatment. Jeff and Spencer Tweedy’s first record, 2014’s Sukirae, dates back to her original bout.

“We’re all missing Suki,” Tweedy said onstage. “It hasn’t been the same without my wife Susie, but it’s been a wonderful time being consoled by all of you that she’s not here. And I know she’ll be here for the next one.”

Jeff Tweedy And Friends | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

Tweedy And Friends are really Tweedy And Family, and by the encores — “You Are Not Alone” which Tweedy wrote for Mavis Staples, Pops Staples’ “Friendship,” “California Stars,” and Sammy’s signature lead turn on “Cosmic Dancer” — most of Wilco and several other kids, sisters, girlfriends, and husbands (well, that’s what the Tweedys call McCaughey) were also in the mix, and everyone at Solid Sound was singing all their love back to Chicago.

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Check out more photos from the weekend by Emilio Herce below.

Courney Marie Andrews | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

Horse Lords | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

Mikaela Davis | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

DJs Sylvan Esso | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

Jeff Tweedy & Courtney Marie Andrews | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

Dry Cleaning | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

Nick Lowe | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

Ratboys | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

Fenne Lily | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

Soul Glo | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

Wilco | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

The Autumn Defense | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

Iris DeMent | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

Saccata-Quartet (Feat. Nels Cline, Darin Gray, Chris Corsano, & Glenn-Kotche) | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

Jeff Tweedy & Karly Hartzman | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

Jeff & Spencer Tweedy | Emilio Herce/Stereogum

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