After walking through the front gates of Wilco’s Solid Sound Music and Arts Festival, an all-encompassing weekend of everything (and anything) Wilco, you start to notice something peculiar. Whereas other music festivals are a mish-mosh of whatever promoters can possibly jam into a window of a few days, everything at Wilco’s festival (which began in earnest three years ago and this year boasted its biggest outing yet) is an extension of the band’s sensibility and style. There are of course the musical acts who, besides Wilco themselves, are Wilco-esque. There is also the weekend activity list, made up of everything from ax sharpening to hair-braiding and even bird watching, which, like Wilco, are all both reserved and thoughtful. Even the food and beverages were extensions of the Wilco brand, namely the Lagunitas beer company’s Wilco Tango Foxtrot, which naturally flowed from busy taps all weekend.
Curiously, for a band so ingrained in Chicago lore (frontman Jeff Tweedy got his start in the Windy City and still records and lives there), Solid Sound takes place on the sprawling campus of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (affectionately dubbed the Mass MoCa,) which is housed in a former printing factory where many of the buildings date back to the late 1800s. Every inch of the complex, which seems like it was tailor made for the festival, was put to use; from the year-round art installations that revelers were checking out in spaces which formerly housed machinery, to two central courtyards that conveniently featured what was virtually a string of opening acts for Friday and Saturday night’s headline performances from Wilco themselves, both taking place in a nearby field under the stars.
Unlike other festivals which boast a mix of both currently hot acts and mainstays, Solid Sound’s lineup was chock full of veteran performers (much like Wilco, whose first album came out in 1995). Yo La Tengo, initially formed in 1984, gave a typically dreamy performance to a large crowd, crooning fan-favorite cuts from their new album, Fade, which was released this past January. Neko Case, who is gearing up for the release of her wordy new album The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, also performed for an appreciative crowd, belting out a variety of tracks from her vast catalog which dates back to 1997. Los Angeles based alt rockers The Dream Syndicate performed a 45 minute set midday Saturday; their first performance in North America since 1989 and a precursor to an upcoming reunion tour. Foxygen, perhaps the newest band on the lineup, also gave a rollicking show and one couldn’t help but notice musical influences from Wilco in each of their beats and chords, an observation made quizzical when Tweedy later told an anecdote that Foxygen, upon introducing himself to the band, didn’t have a clue who he was.
The biggest non-Wilco musical surprise of the weekend however, came from Vermont native Sam Amidon, who (with guest Beth Orton), performed a set at Solid Sound in support of his new album Bright Sunny South, which was released last month. Amidon, who drew a respectable crowd, effortlessly plucked his acoustic guitar and sang folky melodies; bringing the point home that he, much like many of the artists at Solid Sound, are of a certain pedigree. Unlike festivals like Governors Ball, which proudly feature a variety of flavor-of-the-month acts (Icona Pop, I’m looking at you), the artists at Solid Sound are aging like a fine wine and as a result know precisely what they’re doing on stage.
All of this brings us to our main act, Wilco, who performed only requested covers for their first set on Friday night, and bizarrely hit each one out of the park – whether it was a ’70s classic like the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple” or the hard rocking “The Boys Are Back In Town,” their opener. The night’s highlight, however, was their pitch perfect version of one of the most popular songs in the country right now, Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” How a band like Wilco can bust out such an on-point Daft Punk is something we’ll never know, but probably can be accounted to the festival’s theme of pedigree. Saturday night, however, was the centerpiece of the entire weekend; a roughly 2 and half hour set of Wilco songs, past and present, under the glowing super moon and on an elaborately decorated stage. The band volleyed between their past hits (like “Passenger Side,” a cut from their 1995 album A.M. which the audience enthusiastically sung along to), and newer cuts (like “Dawned on Me” and “Whole Love” from their most recent record released 21 years later in 2011). Notable moments included cheers erupting during their rendition of “Via Chicago” after wild drum solos that seemingly took place out of nowhere in between Tweedy’s slow acoustic melodies. Another highlight was Tweedy’s plea to the audience to stop expecting drummer (a sweaty Glenn Kotche) to stand on his drums while playing (which was followed by Kotche doing just that).
Wilco’s Saturday set was also filled with a bunch of deep cuts (and a lack of some of their most notable songs, like “Jesus Etc”) custom built for the die-hards who come to Massachusetts every year as a pilgrimage of sorts. Upon scanning the crowd, the wide range in age was unmistakable; from hipsters in their 20s to spectators well into their 60s and everyone in between. Also apparent were the plethora of parents with babies and kids in tow, probably fans of Wilco in their youth who have grown with them and their music throughout the changes in their own lives. For them, most appropriately, Solid Sound is like a Wilco Disneyland, right down to members of the band walking around the crowd like Mickey Mouse or Goofy might. Whatever magic it is that keeps people of all ages linked passionately with Wilco, it was on full display all weekend and will probably find the same group of people, and probably more, in Massachusetts for another round in 2014; another year older and closer to Wilco than ever before.
Rob LeDonne has written numerous pieces for American Songwriter about some of the biggest personalities in the music industry. He also frequently writes for Nylon Guys and Surfer Magazine, and is a contributing writer for Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. Follow him on Twitter: @RobLeDonne.