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The Chicago group’s event, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, offers an all-in-one weekend experience of the band and their side projects

Mark Guarino

Thursday 25 June 2015 09.59 EDT

As more musicians break away from the greater music industry to create their own independent record labels, touring and merchandising operations, Wilco are taking things a step further by creating their own music festival, Solid Sound, which serves as an all-in-one experience for concertgoers enthralled with the band and their many side projects.

While there are obvious rewards for longtime fans of the Chicago band, there are equal benefits for the band themselves: the empowerment that comes from controlling every aspect of the live experience, from the programming to the food and drink choices to granular specifics like crowd flow and sound.

“It’s like a daydream,” says Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, of the festival in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts that opens on Friday and runs through Sunday. This weekend, Solid Sound will enter its fourth year at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA), a sprawling textile mill from early last century in North Adams that for the past decade has been repurposed as a hub of cutting-edge visual and performance art.

Up to 9,000 people are expected to attend Solid Sound, which this year features two headlining sets by Wilco – an acoustic set one night and an electric set the second – plus the many partnerships, side projects and collaborations that have branched from the band over the past 20 years. There’s Autumn Defense featuring multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone and founding bassist John Stirratt; individual sets by drummer Glenn Kotche, guitarist Nels Cline, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, and Tweedy, the band featuring Jeff Tweedy and his son Spencer on drums. Other headliners include British folk-rock mainstay Richard Thompson, guitar experimentalist Bill Frisell, Japanese two-piece Cibo Matto, Brooklyn-based slackers Parquet Courts, and country rock siblings the Felice Brothers.

Tweedy says the festival’s eclectic nature is a reflection of the band itself, which emerged from the alt-country movement of the 1990s and evolved into mastering a juggernaut of genres, including powerpop, roots rock, avant-noise and more.

“For us it’s a broader, more whole picture of what Wilco is as a collective and as an environment beyond being a band,” Tweedy says of Solid Sound. “It seemed like it would be fun to get to show our fans, and especially our really, really devoted fans, the fuller picture of what we all do and have it be in one space.”

Established festivals such as Lollapalooza in Chicago, Coachella outside Los Angeles and Bonnaroo in rural Tennessee dominate the US summer touring market. Attracting up to 100,000 people each per day, their size has also kickstarted a trend of boutique festivals that appeal to concertgoers who want to feel more connected with a community of fans seeking simpler, but integrated, experiences. These are taking place on cruise ships, small farms and other venues where like-minded artists have similarly decided to take control and adopt a curating role themselves. They include Eaux Claires in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, by Bon Iver; the Roots Picnic in Philadelphia by the Roots; Raurfest in Atlanta by Raury; and the upcoming Fold Festival in Long Island, curated by Nile Rodgers of Chic.

At Solid Sound, fans are offered a full music program, but they can also participate in quieter activities such as yoga, hikes along the Hoosac Range, screenings of films by the late folklorist Alan Lomax, or games of catch with a collegiate baseball team from the area.

Tweedy says his own experience with rock festivals, both as a musician and as a young fan growing up outside St Louis, soured him on common problems like price hikes and bad sound. “I hated festivals when I was a kid. I never would have gone to one. I went to punk rock shows and never would have thought to go to Busch stadium. They always felt a little alien to me,” he says.

So when it came time to dictate the rules, he did away with $7 bottles of water, $12 hot dogs and sound-bleeding between stages, and instead constructed a schedule to ensure that there was as little overlap between artists as possible. One element he insisted upon was giving concertgoers quiet places so they can recharge. “It doesn’t feel as musical to me if there is a dull roar the whole time,” he says.

That means finding refuge inside the art installations and exhibitions of Mass MoCA. Making that possible is the fact that Solid Sound takes place amid an art museum, not sprawling farmland or a city park. The museum director, Joseph Thompson, says current exhibitions by large-scale photographer Clifford Ross will become backdrops for courtyard sets of music at night, while other installations like that of Los Angeles pop artist Jim Shaw complement the music audience.

“The lines between the music and the museum itself, the galleries and the art, are porous in the extreme,” he says.

When Solid Sound launched in 2011, he says he had reservations, wondering if a rock festival would get too raucous next to the museum’s collection. The Wilco crowd, he discovered, was far more eclectic than he imagined.

“The crowd is curious,” he says. “Even if they may not have a great depth of familiarity and knowledge of the contemporary art scene, they have something far more important, which is curiosity and respect and interest. They soak it up.”

Solid Sound can be seen as simply an extension of the right turn Wilco took in 2011 when it formed dBpm, its in-house record label located in nearby Easthampton, Massachusetts, and created a cottage industry of touring and side projects, which includes a new book featuring the band’s history of poster art. Cutting out more middlemen to achieve greater autonomy is “what we’ve been working towards having for a long time”, he says.

Wilco is accounting its 20th year with a recent box set of rarities and last year played a marathon run of shows in Chicago where the band played every song in its catalog. Next up: a new album, possibly out late this year.

“In almost every way I can think of, I feel more inspired and energetic and grateful and excited to do my job than I’ve ever felt,” he says. “The band today is what I thought the band was at the beginning. It took a lot for it to get there.”

 

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