Wilco contains multitudes.
That much is clear just from a survey of the band’s mood-hopping catalog, from the post-alt-country of its 1995 debut to stylistic stopovers in literate pop-rock, off-kilter acoustic balladry, dense electronic textures, and the occasional bar-band barnburner.
Based on album output, Wilco comes off as a creatively hungry enigma, changing shapes as it continually redefines itself. Its catholic mix of influences and interests is easier to tease out when you survey the range of Wilco band-member side projects that will be aired at its Solid Sound Festival this weekend at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.
There’s the Autumn Defense, featuring Wilco cofounder/bassist John Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, playing an acoustic set backed by a string section. There’s CUP, guitarist Nels Cline’s moody noise duo with keyboardist Yuka C. Honda.
And what summer rock festival would be complete without booking a multi-disciplinary dance performance scored by the headlining band’s drummer? (That would be “Fishing,” a collaboration among Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, Hollywood A-lister Jon Hamm, and choreographer Danielle Agami, which sadly was canceled last week when Hamm was called to a film set elsewhere.)
“One of the great things about this band is that we all are encouraged to have a lot of other outlets where we explore and grow and bring those things we learn, and sounds we get, and attitudes, and bring them back to the band,” Kotche says. “Solid Sound showcases all of those different sides of us as individuals, which gives audience members a much better picture of what Wilco is all about.”
Bandleader Jeff Tweedy calls the event “the most full-frequency depiction of how we think of ourselves.”
This extended self-portrait extends to the rest of the festival bill — all the participating bands are hand-picked, we’re told, by the Wilco gang. This year that group includes Courtney Barnett, the Feelies, Jonathan Richman, Tortoise (playing two sets, including a late-night live score to the 1962 French film “La Jetée”), and Cate Le Bon. Wilco plays Friday and Saturday night, and a Jeff Tweedy and Friends slot to close on Sunday afternoon typically becomes an all-hands-on-deck sing-along.
“It’s a labor of love. Everybody participates, and it’s not just a festival with our name on it. It’s pretty much an extended idea of what we feel like our creative environment is like,” Tweedy says.
Like the last few Solid Sound festivals, this year’s was sold out in advance. Mass MoCA expects its largest-ever festival attendance this weekend, with a peak of more than 8,000 concertgoers per day.
The music is complemented with a comedy program curated by John Hodgman (Aparna Nancherla and Jean Grae are among the participants) and an author-in-conversation series.
Hodgman acknowledges that Hunter Center, the museum’s large indoor performance space, isn’t an ideal location for comedy. But he says the level of audience engagement compensates for a lack of intimacy.
“They bring such a positive energy that the laughter is audible and, I think, genuine,” he says. “[Comedians] walk out of there and say that the audience is really alive, they’re tuned in. There may be people in the back seats who are taking a nap, and I applaud them for that, but for the most part everyone is really there and it’s exciting.”
There are quieter touches that mark the festival as something unique, like in-gallery pop-up sets and temporary museum installations such as “Glenn’s Sensory Seat,” a sound-and-video triggering mechanism built out of one of Kotche’s drum kits.
Another tradition is a special theme for Wilco’s Friday set. Past years have featured an all-requests set of covers and a complete performance of their 1996 record “Being There,” with an unannounced, encore performance of 2002 breakthrough “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” thrown in for good measure. This year will see some lucky fans join the band onstage for “Wilco karaoke.”
Solid Sound first bowed in 2010, after Wilco had performed down the road two years earlier at Tanglewood, and was intrigued by the possibility of staging a self-styled festival far from its home base of Chicago, in the culture-filled environs of the Berkshires. After 2011, it became an every-other-year affair.
That schedule has cued up festivals at interesting times in the band’s history, totally separate from album-promotion cycles. The 2011 event felt like a declaration of independence for the band, which put out its first self-released single (“I Might”) in the festival’s pop-up record shop, and wryly performed the B-side, a cover of Nick Lowe’s sarcastic paean to major-label life, “I Love My Label.”
This year’s event comes after the band had been on public hiatus since November 2017, only returning to the road this month. There’s been no official announcement of an upcoming Wilco album, but both Tweedy and Kotche reference having worked on new material with the band this winter.
“There’s just a great overall general atmosphere within the band that we’re still up for it,” Tweedy says with a chuckle. “We’re still making things that surprise us and still hoping to push for more things to surprise us. Not feeling like we’re some sort of nostalgia act that’s able to just kind of coast along. I don’t think any of us are that interested in that type of career just yet.”