Wilco’s biennial Solid Sound festival returned to the grounds of North Adams’ MASS MoCA this past weekend, proving itself as eclectic and rewarding an experience as ever. Though it’s hosted by a museum renowned in its own right, entering Solid Sound feels like stepping into a universe of Wilco’s own creation. The Chicago stalwarts both headline and curate each edition, assembling diverse lineups you’re unlikely to catch anywhere else and bringing together a good-natured crowd that doesn’t mind trekking to the furthermost reaches of Western Massachusetts for the weekend. It’s a festival centered around community, but willing to challenge its audience, too.
This year, the audience also got to challenge back. Friday’s headlining Wilco set was to feature one of the band’s studio records performed in its entirety, as determined by an online poll of attendees, in a bold move that put an evening’s worth of music in the hands of the fans. Sure, Wilco aren’t rusty on the majority of A Ghost Is Born, but they also could’ve been called upon to recreate its droning 15-minute centerpiece “Less Than You Think” on stage. As it turned out, 1996’s double-LP Being There emerged the victor for a set that demanded a fair bit more twang than a typical modern-day Wilco show. Staples like “Misunderstood” sounded great, but the obscure gems (“The Lonely 1” has always been a personal favorite) were the real treat of the main set. In a surprise twist, and perhaps the most audacious encore of all time, the band followed up by playing their 2001 classic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot front to back as well. Like the 2013 edition’s all-covers opening night set, it felt like a performance that could only happen here at Solid Sound.
Saturday’s headlining Wilco set dug deep into the other sectors of their two-decade catalog, and Sunday featured plenty of side-project action from the likes of frontman Jeff Tweedy and The Autumn Defense, headed by bassist John Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, but there was much to appreciate beyond the Wilco orbit as well. An exceedingly rare performance from The Shaggs was as surreal and confusing as the band’s bizarre backstory would suggest. Art-punk pioneers Television played precisely the sort of set they felt like, split between Marquee Moon crowd-pleasers and extended free-form jams. Up-and-comers in the realm of indie rock were well-represented with strong sets from Big Thief, Kevin Morby, and Andy Shauf, and a strong jazz and experimental selection included late-night sets from Dawn of Midi and Jeff Parker, plus a killer daylight showing from The Robert Glasper Experiment.
As it always does, the weekend at large felt like a whole collection of performances that could only coexist in this place, and that makes Solid Sound a special experience indeed.