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One of the most innovative music festivals anywhere is coming to MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts this weekend. And while the lineup might not compete for name recognition with headline acts at Boston Calling (also this weekend), the Solid Sound Festival is the place to see groundbreaking music, comedy, performance art and more.
The festival began in 2009 as a side project of Wilco, a band widely recognized as one of the most pioneering acts of the 21st century. Over the years, Solid Sound has hosted such music legends as Mavis Staples, Levon Helm, NRBQ, Television, and more. The festival has also introduced fans to emerging artists like Courtney Barnett, Big Thief and Kevin Morby.
I spoke to Wilco co-founder and bass player John Stirratt on the eve of the festival. He was already on-site at MASS MoCA, the award-winning modern art museum.
“We came in Tuesday, now we’re just rehearsing and getting ready for the onslaught. It’s all good so far,” Stirratt reported.
This year’s festival features artists from numerous musical genres, with headliners Japanese Breakfast, Sylvan Esso, Comedian John Hodgeman, and of course, the host band Wilco. I wondered to what extent the band oversees operations at the festival.
“In terms of the nuts and bolts, it’s really handled by (Promoter) Alex Crothers and Higher Ground in Burlington.”
Getting the artists on board is a different story. The members of Wilco have a major say in who will play.
‘The curatorial side of it is a ton of work, wrangling the Wilco responsibilities and the side projects … everybody submits a wish list of bands,” Stirratt noted. “We have this kind of family, familiar faces around here like Mike Watt, who Nels played with for years. It’s super fun to be able to see people and gather in this beautiful spot.”
Solid Sound artists perform on the Museum grounds, in the galleries, and in outdoor areas.
“I think what sets this festival apart is the setting, the museum, that kind of interacts with how we proceed,” Stirratt said. “There are a lot of really fun popups that happen. If you keep your ear to the ground, move around a little bit, there are a lot of cool popups in the galleries. It’s a beautiful labyrinth of different courtyards and galleries. It takes the pressure off having a festival when it’s in a world-class museum.”
Wilco will celebrate the release of their new album Cruel Country at the Festival Friday night. The album is a product of the pandemic and features some of the best material the band has put forward in recent years.
“I’ve probably listened to it more than some of the past records which is probably a good sign. It’s the result of this massive outpouring, of prolific songwriting (from Jeff Tweedy), during the pandemic. Jeff was constantly engaged in learning covers and it really kind of opened him up, he got connected to some really great inspiration,” explained Stirratt.
“Jeff started sending us demos right around Christmas right after the pandemic. There was a lot of material and it was all really great quality. There were kind of two threads going on, either from a folk or country aspect. It does sound like Wilco, it’s not overtly country in all places. It has this thread of tone in terms of theme and lyric … it felt like these songs belong together,” he continued.
“We had the opportunity to record as a six-piece in The Loft (Tweedy’s studio in Chicago) once it was safe enough to travel. It was this real outpouring after that, we were pretty un-precious about it, nothing beats an ensemble approach in the studio, especially for a band that’s been together as long as we have. There’s that X factor, so many things that can happen, so many wonderful turns with everyone present and open. That’s the story of the record,” he said.
Stirratt is also co-founder of Wilco offshoot Autumn Defense, with bandmate Pat Sansone. They’re planning a new release and possible tour in 2023.
“We haven’t been able to get together and record, but we have plans to record before the end of the year to try to get a record ready for next year,” he explained. “It’s another great example of people we’ve been able to play with for over 20 years. Whenever we get together to play it’s just such a joy.”
Once considered an “indie” band that has since achieved modest commercial success, Wilco has always championed new artists as well as old friends.
Stirratt has a couple of bands on his “must-see” list to see at this year’s festival. “Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy … I haven’t seen him in quite a few years, we’ve tried to get him here for a long time. I’m such a fan of all his records. Another band he is eager to check out is Hand Habits, a project from LA-based Meg Duffy. “I’ve really enjoyed the last two records from the band, and I’m looking forward to seeing them live again.”
Stirratt joined legendary alt-country band Uncle Tupelo 30 years ago, and hasn’t stopped since. Along with Tweedy, he is the only other founding member of Wilco still playing with the band.
“I feel lucky to be in one musical situation like this but to have two is just incredible. I always knew I would play music on some level, that we would ever be here all these years later, it gets more unbelievable as the years go on,” he acknowledged.
Stay tuned … we’ll have updates from the Solid Sound Festival all weekend. For tickets and the Solid Sound schedule, click here.