Wilco’s Solid Sound fest returns

The Solid Sound Festival at MASS MoCa features Jeff Tweedy‘s Wilco (pictured), comedian John Hodgman, and the band Low.
Matt Roberts/Getty Images
The Solid Sound Festival at MASS MoCa features Jeff Tweedy‘s Wilco (pictured), comedian John Hodgman, and the band Low.

NORTH ADAMS — Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival quickly earned a reputation as a particularly smooth-running event, but there are always some logistical kinks to work out. Even for the band.

“There’s a practical issue that has been established in my mind and I think will be unwavering, and that is my resolve not to get in the dunk tank ever again,” confides Jeff Tweedy, Wilco’s frontman and guiding spirit.

When his band first created a festival in its own image at MASS MoCA in 2010, Tweedy took a shift sitting atop a carnival-style dunk tank as fans chatted him up and vied for a chance to send him plunging, repeatedly, into cold water. Lesson learned: It made for good sport, but left the singer with a hoarse tickle in his throat for his festival-closing acoustic set.


Other than the hazards of full-body water submersion, the festival treated fans and bands very well its first year and during a repeat act in 2011 (when concertgoers were doused in torrential rains during Wilco’s opening set).

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After taking a year off, Solid Sound returns to North Adams Friday through Sunday, with a hand-picked lineup led by Wilco performances the first two nights.

“Everything on the bill is pretty much stuff that we are either in love with or somebody in the band has a deep affection for,” Tweedy explains, speaking on the phone from a car ride with his family to see the touring production of “The Book of Mormon” in Chicago.

That undercard includes Neko Case, White Denim, Yo La Tengo (playing two sets, including a live, late-night film score), Low, and the only United States tour date currently scheduled for the Dream Syndicate, who recently interrupted a hiatus of 20-plus years.

The hyphen-jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood closes the festival “with special guests,” so an impromptu, valedictory mash-up of festival performers, including members of Wilco, is likely.


John Hodgman, the Brookline native and multi-platform purveyor of dry humor, also hosts a comedy cabaret featuring Al Madrigal, Reggie Watts, and Needham’s own Jen Kirkman.

Hodgman says he and the three comics will take turns performing, and likely cross-pollinate as well. But he’s leaving room for surprises.

“You’re going to be able to see three of the funniest and arguably most exciting solo performers of any medium onstage, before you get to go see a Wilco concert,” Hodgman says, when asked about the format. “Frankly I don’t know why I have to sell this so hard to you.”

Jim Mone/associated press

The festival vibe is decidedly idiosyncratic, with workshops on hot sauce microbrewing and ax restoration, and a bird of prey show-and-tell. (A spot on the festival map is also designated for improv quilting.) Though a clinic on raising backyard chickens may seem of the chic, urban-farmer ethos, partnerships with homegrown Berkshire organizations should ground the proceedings in some earthy cred.

The boundary between rock festival and museum gallery is purposely blurred: Some bands play semi-announced “pop-up” sets amid MoCA’s exhibits; attendees will browse an immersive installation Tweedy designed to evoke Wilco’s recording space, The Loft; and last time, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche wandered through the museum’s gallery of Sol LeWitt wall drawings while leading an improvisational jam on oversized instruments situated throughout.


This year Kotche contributes two new installations. A four-channel sound collage of self-recorded audio snippets will re-create “the din of the sound of touring life,” he explains. And on two sets of “earth drums” — large instruments buried on the festival grounds, with only the drum heads exposed — fans are encouraged to communicate with each other through Morse code.

Brantley Gutierrez
John Hodgman.

“It might sound amazing, it might sound [terrible],” says Kotche, who was inspired by the idea that the earliest drums may have been animal hides stretched across holes dug in the ground, which he remembers reading about, as a teenage drum student, in the work of musician/historian James Blades.

Another occasion-specific twist comes Friday, when Wilco plays an all-request set of songs selected at random from an untold number suggested by fans online. Mimicking a bit from the Johnny Carson-era “Tonight Show,” Hodgman will also host a mid-set “Stump the Band” segment with fans.

Tweedy says the band’s preparation for this may even feed its future work.

“Any time you make yourself sit down and learn a great song that you really love but haven’t figured out exactly how it’s put together, that’s always good for you. Hopefully that’ll have some impact down the road. It always does, when you take the time to do something a little out of your comfort zone.”

But that’s not to say the festival’s quirks are all part of some master plan.

“If there’s comedians, that’s something we feel strongly should be part of the aesthetic. If there’s a falcon, it’s just because that sounds awfully cool to have at your festival,” Tweedy says, laughing.

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.