Over Memorial Day Weekend, Wilco brought their bi-annual Solid Sound Festival back to North Adams, Massachusetts, for a three-day event that took over the small New England town’s Mass MoCA modern art museum. This was the first time the festival was able to take place since 2019, and to mark the occasion, the band brought along a brand new album, Cruel Country, and one of the best top-to-bottom lineups they have booked since the festival started in 2010.
With three stages—two located in the museum’s courtyards and one main stage located on the giant grassy field known as “Joe’s Field”—the curators and organizers made a conscious effort not to overbook the festival in a way that would allow attendees to meander through the modern art museum’s expansive grounds and see as many of the acts as possible. With the weather rearing its ugly head at different points in the weekend, Mass MoCA proved to be the ultimate venue for a music festival of this size, allowing guests to take shelter in the museum’s large exhibition halls during the rain—or if they needed a little breather from music throughout the weekend’s busy schedule.
While I was unable to catch all of the weekend’s acts, I was able to witness some incredible performances each day. Here are the best acts I caught at this year’s Solid Sound Festival.
To open the festival on the stage in Courtyard D, early bird festival-goers were treated to a humorous roundtable discussion between three prominent Substackers: Jeff Tweedy, Nick Offerman and Neko Case—moderated by the newsletter platform’s very own Dan Stone. The three took rapid-fire questions and shared humorous stories and opinions on subjects like camping, reading recommendations, which essential life skills everyone should have, and Case and Tweedy’s thoughts on being forced to dress a certain way during publication-sponsored photo shoots. While it was a treat to hear these three friends joke around onstage, the real treat came later. There had been a mysterious act booked for after the discussion listed as “Wild Creatures,” which turned out to be a special surprise set from Case. Backed by a stripped-down and drumless band that included Case’s New Pornographers bandmate Carl Newman and singer/bassist Nora O’Connor, they played a handful of favorites including the New Pornos’ “Challengers” and “People Got a Lotta Nerve.” The festival’s first spot of rain came as Case treated the crowd to her Fox Confessor Brings the Flood classic “Hold On, Hold On.” As her larger-than-life voice put the audience into a trance, it was easy not to notice the rain coming down with higher intensity.
As a large thunderstorm forced attendants of the festival indoors—and cut Iceage’s early evening set short—there was a small feeling of uncertainty if the festival would carry on Friday night. But as it passed, things kept rolling for the night’s first headliner. On the Joe’s Field main stage ahead of Wilco’s Cruel Country release party was the Durham, North Carolina, electronic party-starters Sylvan Esso. Singer Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn were all smiles onstage as they tore through a tight set of hits from throughout their career; including “Hey Mami,” “Radio” and “Make it Easy.” With the rain finally subsiding for their performance, Meath brought her best dance moves and encouraged the crowd to move along. After being huddled for so long in galleries or the Mass MoCA gift shop waiting for Friday’s storm to pass, Sylvan Esso’s exuberance helped to bring back the excitement to the crowd that would carry over for the rest of the weekend.
To start Saturday’s packed day of performances, I was able to catch Cut Worms’ early-afternoon set in Courtyard C. Leader Max Clarke’s early-’60s country- and jukebox pop-influenced songs felt like a transportation to another time. Backed by a four-piece band that included keys and a pedal-steel guitar, he treated fans and the uninitiated to a selection of tunes from 2018’s Hollow Ground and 2020’s magnum opus double record Nobody Lives Here Anymore, as well as some new songs that have yet to be released. The best of all was “Veteran’s Day,” with Clarke’s strong Don Everly- and John Lennon-evoking vocals on the song’s chorus drawing swells of cheers from the crowd.
Early in the afternoon on Saturday, thunderstorms and heavy downpours threatened to sideline the festivities. Even though a couple of thundercracks were heard, things calmed down just in time for Chicago musical polymath Nnamdi Ogbonnaya’s set in Courtyard C. After the rain settled into a trickle, fans flooded the blacktop in front of the stage to witness one of the strongest sets of the weekend. Ogbonnaya—who performs as NNAMDï— had opened for Wilco’s 2021 tour with Sleater-Kinney, and he joked about how every show on that tour had been hit hard by inclement weather. But this time the band was able to thunder on, plowing through a masterful set that exposed the audience to NNAMDï’s unique blend of complex Chicago math rock and Frank Ocean-inspired indie R&B. Wearing a white jumpsuit with black painted designs, Ogbonnaya had the crowd in the palm of his hand as he switched from guitar to keyboards while his band nailed parts from his 2020 breakthrough BRAT with ease.
After Mike Watt + Missingmen finished their Saturday afternoon set on the main stage at Joe’s Field, I overheard a very confused bro complaining about how even though he knew that Watt had been a “huge influence on Bradley Nowell of Sublime,” he just could not get into the punk legend’s unrelenting rock and roll onslaught. While the vibes were not chill enough for him, Watt’s set was a midday revelation for fans of the patron saint of D.I.Y. ethics. Coming onstage in a plaid button-down, jeans and a mop of messy gray hair, Watt announced the set with a hardy proclamation, “We came to play!” The set kicked off with a cover of The Stooges’ “Funhouse”—one of Watt’s biggest influences and a band he did some time playing bass for. From there, he and the Missingmen kept their feet on the gas with a near non-stop set full of Watt originals, Minutemen classics and covers. Before joining Wilco for the tour around A Ghost is Born, Nels Cline had recorded and toured with Watt, and he joined the band on second guitar for a few tunes throughout their set. Highlights of the set were Minutemen classics like “Anxious Mo-fo,” “Working Men Are Pissed” and “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs,” with guitarist Tom Watson filling in wonderfully for Watt’s fallen Minutemen bandmate D. Boon. The set closed with an extended cover of The Pop Group’s “We Are Time,” with Cline and Watson creating gnarled swells of feedback. Once it came to a thundering close, Watt held his beat-to-shit Fender P-bass over his head to give the crowd one final instruction: “Start a band!”
If there was anyone outside of Wilco who put effort into making Solid Sound a unique experience, it was Will Oldham—aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy. For his Saturday evening set on the Courtyard D stage, the Louisville singer/songwriter passed out neon-green lyric sheets for a handful of songs he had specifically written for the handful of shows he and his modest band played leading up to the festival. Each song comprised a single verse and chorus that would be sung over and over for extended periods of time until the crowd and people onstage created a choir effect. Sometimes it worked fabulously, while other times it sounded like a hushed murmur. But by the midpoint of the set, the gospel-tinged batch of songs was nothing but captivating. Best of all the new tunes was the mesmerizing “Tom Hill,” which contained some lyrics that only Oldham could write. “Living in chaos makes you strange,” he sang, “Living in love frees you from striving.” For the final song of the set, Oldham—with an Aladdin Sane-style silver lightning bolt painted on his face—played a song that he had hoped would bring understanding between him and his neighbors in the small rural town where he lives. The song was called “I Am Pro-Choice.” For how divisive that title may seem, the song’s basic sentiment of respecting each other’s decisions and how it was sung by the packed courtyard only brought joy.
One of the weekend’s most anticipated acts was Japanese Breakfast’s Saturday night performance on the Joe’s Field main stage. Fresh from their appearance on Saturday Night Live, Michelle Zauner and her band sounded tight and commanding, more than worthy of their spot on the Solid Sound lineup—and any other festival’s, for that matter. The set leaned heavily on material from the band’s breakthrough 2021 album Jubilee, with songs like “Be Sweet” and “Posing in Bondage” sounding arena-ready. Zauner—a vocal Wilco fan—thanked the band for booking them on the festival, calling them the ultimate “band’s band” and joking that it was “good to be around people who appreciate a mid-tempo rocker.” Late in the set, Zauner introduced the Jubilee slow-burner “Posing For Cars,” which she said was influenced by the Wilco A Ghost is Born opener “At Least That’s What You Said.” Midway through, Wilco shredder Cline joined the band to help the audience see why as he feverishly ripped through the song’s extended solo section in a way only he can do. The set ended with “Driving Woman” from the 2017 album Soft Sounds from Another Planet, with the band exiting the stage one by one as Zauner’s guitar and saxophonist Adam Schatz vamped until the song’s final notes.
It’s tradition at every Solid Sound that Wilco will take the opportunity for their first of two sets to veer into the unexpected. In previous years, they had treated fans to an epic all-covers set and, in 2019, allowed fans to audition for a special “Wilco Karaoke” night where they would front the band as guest lead vocalists. This year, however, the Friday performance fell on the release of the band’s new double album Cruel Country, and to make the occasion, the band chose to play all of its 21 songs in order. While the album had been released that day, ticketholders were sent advance digital copies of the album so they would be familiar with its material. Tweedy had described the material as “Wilco goes country,” and while it was understandable why he would say that, many of the songs on Cruel Country harkened back to the bruised roots-rock band’s first two releases, A.M. and Being There—the second being the band’s first double-album. While it’s still too early to tell where the album sits in the Wilco catalog, songs like “Tired of Taking it Out on You” and “A Lifetime to Find” are some of the most effortlessly tuneful songs Tweedy has written for his main project since 2011’s The Whole Love. The album performance brought out the best in multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, whose b-bender telecaster dual leads with Cline on “Many Worlds” were a jaw-dropping highlight. Throughout the performance, Tweedy thanked the crowd for their willingness to sit through the material, saying it was possibly the only time the album would ever be presented in full that way. In keeping with the album’s theme, the night’s encore pulled from Wilco’s more country-indebted material including the John Stirrat-sung A.M cut “It’s Just That Simple” and Tweedy’s Uncle Tupelo classic “New Madrid.” From there, they ended the night with a few “country” covers, including The Meat Puppets’ “Climbing,” Connie Smith’s “Once A Day,” which featured Case on lead vocals, and Roger Miller’s “Reincarnation” to close it all out.
On Saturday night, the band returned to revisit some of the material from across their varied career. The band had celebrated the 20th anniversary of their classic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot back in April with a handful of performances in New York and Chicago, and it seemed as though they were eager to play selections from their catalog that stayed away from that era’s experimentation. The set was full of rockers, six songs from their 2007 “back to basics” album Sky Blue Sky and seven from Cruel Country. Filling in the cracks, they offered up a fair share of deep cuts and favorites from throughout the years, including “Muzzle of Bees” and “At Least That’s What You Said” from A Ghost is Born, and “She’s a Jar” from Summerteeth. At one point, a beach ball started to get passed around the crowd. Tweedy caught sight of it and laughed to himself. “A beach ball is where we part ways,” he joked. “We’re not going to have that much fun.”
For the encore, the band dusted off the YHF B-side “The Good Part” before bringing out Japanese Breakfast’s Zauner to take the lead vocals on “Jesus, Etc.” When she left the stage, Tweedy remarked that Zauner deserved the Nobel Prize. It was unclear if he meant for her memoir Crying in H Mart or her music, but his enthusiasm was clear. The encore ended with a riotous one-two-three punch of “Red Eyed and Blue,” “I Got You (At The End of the Century)” and “Outtasite (Out of Mind)” from Being There. It was a thrilling set that reminded fans how much Wilco have remained one of the most consistently relevant and rewarding American bands of any era.
Sunday afternoon brought a celebration of sorts to the back Courtyard D. The Sun Ra Arkestra played a transcendent set of interplanetary free-jazz in honor of bandleader Marshall Allen’s 98th birthday, which had fallen on Friday. Even though the sun beat down on the festival-goers trying to find prime positioning in the shadows cast by the halls of the museum, the Arkestra achieved jubilant liftoff riffing on classics like “Space Is The Place” and “Angels and Demons At Play”—which Allen co-wrote with Sun Ra back in 1960. Towards the end of the set, the festival staff brought out a birthday cake to honor Allen’s 98th arrival. At the end of their set, the 13-piece legendary Philly Arkestra left the stage one-by-one in a single-file line, leaving Allen with his saxophone, blowing out skronked notes that ricocheted off the hot blacktop and brick walls of the courtyard with close to a century’s worth of wisdom.
Tweedy closed out the festival on the main stage with a set that took generously from his recent run of solo records. Tweedy assembled a fantastic band, backed by his sons Spencer and Sammy on drums and backing vocals, Liam Kazar on bass, Jim Elkington on lead guitar, and OHMME’s Sima Cunningham and Marcie Stewart on backing vocals and violin, respectively. The early-evening set felt light and breezy, a prime way to ease out of three days jam-packed full of music. Even though a lot of Tweedy’s recent solo records—WARM, WARMER, and Love Is The King—contain their fair share of sunny, Dead-inspired country rockers, like any Tweedy project, there is a considerable amount of emotional weight and discomfort that can seep in. “When we play these songs the beach balls deflate themselves,” Tweedy joked at one point. “They throw themselves on barbed wire.” After closing the main set out with the Warmer cut “Family Ghost,” Tweedy told the audience the band would forgo the pageantry on leaving the stage for an encore and would stay to play a few covers. First was a jubilant rendition of Neil Young’s “Helpless,” with Sammy showcasing his strong pipes on lead vocals. Rick Rizzo and Janet Beveridge Bean of Eleventh Dream Day joined to assist the choir on the song’s chorus. Next, Jeff took over lead vocals for a run-through of Labi Siffre’s 1971 pop nugget “It Must Be Love.” But the final song brought out the weekend’s biggest surprise, as David Byrne came out to join the band for a spirited rendition of Wilco’s “California Stars.” Wilco’s Sansone, Stirrat and Mikael Jorgenson returned to the stage for the occasion, reminding festival-goers why their reimagination of Woody Guthrie’s unused lyrics belong in the top tier of Americana singalongs. Once the song ended, Jeff thanked the crowd and everyone who helped put the festival together. Then the crowded stage assembled for an awkward bow. “We’ll work on our bows for next time,” Tweedy joked.
Pat King is a Philadelphia-based journalist and host of the In Conversation podcast at Ears to Feed. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, which he will not shut up about. You can follow him at @MrPatKing.
Listen to a 1996 Wilco performance from the Paste archives below.