If poor weather presents a potential damper on any summer festival, Solid Sound put everything into perspective this past weekend at North Adams’ MASS MoCA. The fourth year of the Wilco-curated Berkshires festival faced a few hiccups in the forecast and cancellations by King Sunny Ade and Taj Mahal. Yet the event served surprises as pleasant as better-than-expected weather, furthering a mix of artistic disciplines and appealing to younger fans with rockers like Mac DeMarco and Parquet Courts.
“Who was here in the second year?” Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy asked a crowd of close to 9,000 that stuck through Saturday night’s building waves of drizzle to hear glorious renditions of “Art of Almost,” “Impossible Germany” and “Ashes of American Flags,” with its emotive Nels Cline guitar coda. “This is child’s play.”
In turn, Wilco enjoyed perfect conditions in also headlining Friday’s opening night with its first-ever, all-acoustic set. Tweedy and co-founder John Stirratt (above) shared a center microphone with clear vocals, though the music’s tonal palette was more limited with only acoustic guitars, dobro, banjo, piano and drums. Nonetheless, Wilco dipped into two-plus hours of favorites that included “Misunderstood,” “Hummingbird,” “She’s a Jar,” Uncle Tupelo’s “New Madrid,” “Passenger Side,” the Billy Bragg/Mermaid Avenue collaboration “Airline to Heaven” and “I’m a Wheel.”
Friday also flipped to multi-media contrast. Dreamy pop-rockers Real Estate delivered a late-night set in a courtyard ringed by giant screens of artist Clifford Ross’ 3D-ish geometric animations, while guitarist Bill Frisell’s bluesy, atmospheric jazz quartet with cornetist Ron Miles accompanied Bill Morrison’s film The Great Flood (above). That black-and-white (in more than one unsettling way) archival footage of people dealing with the historic Mississippi River flood of 1927 made an ironic entrance to a weekend with comparatively trivial weather concerns.
Frisell seemingly kept pace with Wilco’s Nels Cline in terms of busy scheduling at Solid Sound, playing in a rootsy duo with Sam Amidon, doing a pop-up solo set in one of the museum galleries, and joining saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s quartet for a spiritually emotive courtyard performance (above) as light rain continued Sunday.
For his part, Cline dove into gonzo-style guitar with wife Yoko Honda’s art-punk rockers Cibo Matto (above) and defined the extremes of Solid Sound’s cross-discipline approach with the project Stained Radiance. In that abstract, improvised matchup, Cline tinkered with pedals, delays and effects (including howling into his guitar pickups) while live painter Norton Wisdom morphed haunting figure drawings on an illuminated plastic canvas projected to a larger screen (below). As David Letterman would say, that was something, even if it didn’t seem much in sync beyond pantomime-styled dancers who made sweeping motions in time with Cline’s sonic swipes.
Other Wilco members took advantage of Solid Sound for side projects, from Jeff Tweedy’s Wilco-like side project Tweedy to drummer Glenn Kotche’s gallery duets with cellist Jeffrey Ziegler — including an orchestral piece that gave about 50 pre-registered audience members a role in playing color-coded snare parts (below).
However, while MASS MoCA’s sprawling galleries offered many artistic diversions, most of the musical action took place on outdoor stages. Shabazz Palaces’ lively electro-hip-hop and Ryley Walker’s jazzy full-band psychedelia both fared better on the small courtyard stage than the hushed, melancholy folk of Jessica Pratt (below), lost amid the crowd chatter by that entrance to museum grounds.
The main field stage eventually gave way to damp grass – and earlier set times to dodge heavier rain. But it yielded sure-fire sets by folk-rocker Richard Thompson (below), whose electric trio kicked butt while its leader mimicked predecessors in “Guitar Heroes” from his Tweedy-produced Still, and DeMarco, at least until his psych-pop turned into a shambolic jam of Steely Dan’s “Reeling in the Years.”
The best sets, however, split the middle on the larger courtyard stage, from folk duo Luluc and rollicking roots-rockers NRBQ to Cibo Matto and Lloyd. But the best of the bunch were Parquet Courts, the young Texas-gone-Brooklyn punks who balanced taut drive with noisy, careening guitars and attitude-spiked vocals.
“You guys gonna stick around for Wilco tonight?” Austin Brown, one of Parquet Courts’ twin singer/guitarists, asked fans in a playfully snide tone. “Sometimes people change their minds.” Thankfully, most people stuck it out through a little rain to bask in child’s play at New England’s most broadly unique music fest, set to return again in two summers.