It may be time to begin appending the words “The Great,” in front of the name of Wilco. At least that’s my unvarnished reaction to their headlining performance at the inaugural edition of their own Solid Sound Festival, held last weekend in North Adams Massachusetts. Where in the hell is North Adams you may ask, why across the Mohawk Trail is the answer. I once had a friend, upper crust Brahmin Bostonian he was, and his mother used to rhapsodize about “motoring along the Mohawk Trail. She must have been speaking about the end of the trail (otherwise known as Mass Highway 2), nearer to Boston because getting to N. Adams from Interstate 91 is an exercise in going up one side of a mountain (granted in Massachusetts mountains top out at like 900 feet above sea level so we’re not talking friggin’ K2 here), and down the other. It’s not a road for older ladies for whom cucumber sandwiches with the crusts left on is a big step.
Crazy road in or not, Wilco’s first attempt at a festival was a delight. No major parking problems, a bunch of local food vendors who were thrilled to have the business and did not gouge customers like to was Yankee Stadium, and from what I heard, electric bands and more acoustic duos and trios all putting on great shows. The Baseball Project, a Pete Buck (R.E.M.) /Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate) side project continues to be a lot of fun with “Ted Fucking Williams” as perhaps their most standout tune. Mountain Man, a trio of Bennington College grads whose three part harmonies are a bit precious, still had some pretty moving moments. Let’s not forget three part harmonies, acapella no less, are not easy. Part of the deal with this festival was that the side project of each member of Wilco, would also play. Since I did not make back to North Adams on Sunday, I only saw Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche (Cho-Chee)’s duo with bassist Darin Gray, On Fillmore. I like the duo’s records, Extended Vacation (2009) was the most recent, they’re spacey and atmospheric, not the White Album by any means but fun, but the live thing turned out to have an unexpected element: danger. While swinging a bamboo percussion instrument on a cord in a wide arc around his head, Kotche managed to clock a spectator in her head. Blood and bamboo flew in all directions. Later, during the Wilco performance, Jeff Tweedy made special mention of the mishap saying Glenn had “decapitated” a concertgoer, a remark that drew big laughs from the crowd who’d clearly heard about what had happened.
And then came the main event. Mavis Staples nearly sunk the entire affair with a performance that…well, let’s just say that her whole praise Jesus routine did not go over well. The crowd lounged on blankets in the grass and talked among themselves during her part of the show. She was only on the bill in the first place because Tweedy produced her new record, You Are Not Alone. Had she spiced in some secular material, she might have saved her performance. But she stuck to her religious crusade and her band, tried but failed mightily to raise the kind of froth that her gospel rave-ups so desperately needed. Horns would have helped immensely. I’ve rarely seen a seasoned performer like Staples stiff like this. I wandered off to get something to eat during her set.
But then came Wilco who were a supremely confident, welloiled machine in the extreme from the very first song. Tunes like “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway (Again)” and “Jesus Etc.” which Tweedy let the crowd sing, were triumphant as was two of the encores, “California Stars,” and “Heavy Metal Drummer.” A one’ punch of a roaring version of “Handshake Drugs” followed by a quieter “Impossible Germany” was wondrous. For me I think the highlight was “Hummingbird,” which in my book is easily one of the best tunes, most unusual tunes, as far from his comfort zone tunes, that Jeff Tweedy has ever written. And I saw, interviewed and really dug Uncle Tupelo more than I care to remember. Hey all critics were fanboys at least once! Speaking of fans of Uncle Tupelo, they were not rewarded with any tidbits from those days but the band did reach back to the first Wilco album A.M. for a great easygoing version of “I Must be High.” Looking back over the Wilco shows I’ve seen in the past, a number that is now over 20, this was the best of them all. The energy levels were off the chart all the way through. And Tweedy, who can be curt and snotty, was funny and grateful and totally at ease all night long. It was their festival they almost had to be on.
In a larger sense, this sextet’s success is not hard to figure. They are a band of instrumental virtuosos, each one an absolute killer on his chosen instrument. Pat Sansone, who splits time between guitar and keys, and who I once thought was a possible weak link, showed that on piano and guitar, he is also an absolute monster, a term that could have been invented to describe guitarist Nels Cline who never ceases to amaze. And then there’s that other soul of Wilco (after Tweedy), drummer Glenn Kotche, who is a pleasure to watch. As much hell as drummers have to put up with (for being drummers of course), this is one skin pounder that I really enjoy watching. He is solid as a rock and also quirky as hell. The guy can also laugh at himself as evidenced by his one big rock band momentall the stage lights went out for a moment and then came back on all at once to reveal him standing on top of his kit, sticks in the air, goofy smile on his face (see photo above). It was classic stuff.
This one was such a success, that I’m thinking that next year’s festival is already in the planning stages. Just remember you have to factor in the Mohawk Trail.