NORTH ADAMS — Festivals’ takeover of the 21st century’s live-music landscape has led to a bit of same-old, same-old in the lineup department. But artist-led festivals like Solid Sound, which had its sixth running at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art this weekend, have been bucking that trend, and it’s thrilling to behold for die-hards and casual listeners alike. Wilco’s reputation as a band with sterling musicians who know not just how to craft top-notch rock songs, but the best ways to make them both mind-bending and lyrically devastating, makes them ideal leaders of a three-day festival that navigates the space between “art” and “rock.”
Wilco — who had, until early in June, been on hiatus from live performance since 2017 — were the stars of the weekend, performing two sets on Joe’s Field and previewing new music in the galleries of Mass MoCA. But a few songs into their upbeat set on Friday night, they let others take the spotlight. In the weeks before the festival, the band opened an online contest where the winners would have the chance to perform Wilco songs, complete with full-band backing. The atmosphere was electric, with the crowd joining the rotating cast of singers and offering ovations after each performance; Courtney Barnett, who preceded Wilco’s set that evening with her acerbic rock, also got a shot. Saturday night’s set was more of a slow burn, with the band dropping in a couple of not-yet-released songs amid the spaced-out sonics of “War on War” and the existential longing of “Theologians.” Leader Jeff Tweedy did, however, invite the crowd to sing along before the smoldering “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”
Solid Sound’s full lineup is one of the American festival circuit’s strongest this year, and the performances over the weekend bore out its promise. Guitarist Mdou Moctar’s distortion-shrouded take on Tuareg blues, Wand’s detail-rich psychedelia, and Ohmme’s harmony-heavy spikiness were particular highlights among the newer acts. Clipping, the California trio that combines hyperactive raps by Daveed Diggs (“Blindspotting,” “Hamilton”) with harsh bursts of electronics and sampling, offered a blistering late-night set that felt over in the blink of an eye. Natick-born troubadour Jonathan Richman, appearing with his longtime drummer Tommy Larkins, had been delayed by Sunday’s fast-moving thunderstorms, but that only made his crooning and dancing more joyous. (Only Richman can make a sing-along of “People are so disgusting” so jaunty.) The Feelies’ Saturday evening set had a gentle jitteriness about it that set the table nicely for Wilco. And the power pop all-stars The Minus 5, led by master of hooks Scott McCaughey, had a triumphant set under the hot Saturday sun, with McCaughey’s strong return to action following a 2017 stroke providing one of the weekend’s most potent feel-good moments.
Tweedy closed out the festival on Sunday, backed by a band that included his son, Spencer, on drums, and featured cameos from Ohmme members Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart, McCaughey, and other members of Wilco, among others. As the sun asserted itself and riffs fanned out over the crowd, he marveled at the community in front of him and shouted out World Pride Day before a sweet cover of Labi Siffre’s 1972 confection “It Must Be Love.” When the rain that had forced everyone inside earlier in the day made a brief comeback, the setlist was ready, with two songs — a cover of Neil Young’s “(When You’re On) The Losing End” and his solo track “Let’s Go Rain” — seemingly egging on the weather. But the storm passed quickly and left behind a rainbow, which allowed for an opportunity to marvel at serendipity before the collected finished with a cover of “Give Back the Key to My Heart,” a gem from the catalog of Tweedy’s pre-Wilco band Uncle Tupelo, and a rousing version of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” with the damp (in clothing, but not in spirit) crowd singing along. “Thanks for making this beautiful. Thanks for making this happen,” Tweedy said as the last chords rang out over the lawn.
Solid Sound Festival 2019
Wilco with Courtney Barnett, the Feelies, Jonathan Richman, and others
At MASS MoCA, North Adams, Friday through Sunday
Maura Johnston can be reached at email@example.com.