Although Wilco may have gotten short-shrifted on time at their own festival, they certainly didn’t short-shrift the crowd.
The second Solid Sound Festival, curated by indie rock’s favorite roots band, Wilco, at MASS MoCA on Saturday, started out sunny and turned soggy by the evening, with a downpour that delayed R&B heavyweight Syl Johnson’s performance by about a half-hour. As it happened, Wilco couldn’t just keep playing to make up for lost time — as frontman extraordinaire Jeff Tweedy made clear. So the band members put their heads down and got to work, and the thousands that crowded Joe’s Field were given the performance of a lifetime.
Beginning with Nick Lowe’s “I Love My Label,” the band tore into a set that drew from new material as much as old gems. The six-piece band also headlined the festival’s first night on Friday, and according to Tweedy, the band didn’t repeat a song, save one
Highlights included the pounding “Shot in the Arm,” one of many showcases for guitar whiz Nels Cline to rip into, and “It’s Just That Simple,” with bassist John Stirratt switching roles with Tweedy to sing lead. Perhaps best of all was “At Least That’s What You Said,” which began as a moody ballad, with Tweedy sighing into the microphone, and ended in a three-guitar slam fest that got the entire crowd roaring.
Johnson and his group, The Sweet Divines, opened up directly before Wilco with a set that brought the crowd back to the ’60s. Having released his first album in 1959, Johnson was the undeniable elder statesman of the festival, and his performing prowess showed throughout such songs as set opener “That’s Why I Love You So” and the grooving, infectious “Sock it to Me.” Johnson also played some lead guitar and harmonica, taking an extended solo on the latter instrument towards the set’s end.
Before the main attraction of the evening, the masses gathered at MASS MoCA were given plenty to do. The galleries were open to the public and included several Wilco-curated exhibits, similar to last year’s festival, with plenty of music-related activities to keep people busy. The Hand Made Lounge featured hand-made instruments, included a Jell-o and strawberry keyboard. Comics also performed during the afternoon in the Hunter Center — featured performers included Morgan Murphy, Eugene Mirman, Wyatt Cenac and John Hodgman.
But most of the crowd stuck to the two courtyard stages, catching hour-long rotating sets from a hodgepodge of bands, all selected by Wilco. Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion kicked things off in Courtyard C (the smaller area, just outside the museum) promptly at noon. Though descended from folk royalty (Woody and Arlo), Guthrie, alongside her husband, let her inner rocker shine on tunes such as “Hurry Up” and the Bob Dylan-esque “Target on Your Heart.” The Handsome Family, on at 1:30 in Courtyard C, were in a similar folk-rock vein, except they seemed to be channeling Johnny Cash and June Carter, along with a dose of Dylan-esque storytelling. Best of all was a tribute to Mary Sweeney, who, as the band explained, went around smashing windows in a small Wisconsin town in 1913.
The larger stage in Courtyard D hosted the louder bands earlier on in the day. The Sic Alps took the stage as Guthrie and Irion were finishing up, prompting a mass exodus over to the next area that repeated every hour as the stages switched. Although energetic, and emphatically loud, they were underwhelming, with massive amounts of reverb rendering the vocals unintelligible.
Liam Finn and his superb band were up at 2:15. The New Zealand group redefined the term “power trio” for its 45-minute set, tearing through raunchy rockers such as “Cold Feet” and “Roll of the Eye.” Finn punctuated his songs with violent guitar leads, occasionally setting aside his instrument to bang on a second drum kit onstage — he proved equally adept at both instruments. A cameo from Wilco’s Glenn Kotche livened up the proceedings, as well.
One more band, the atmospheric, experimental rockers Here We Go Magic, was able to enjoy the sunshine for an hour-long set. The quintet moved through intricate guitar work and subtle, jazzy rhythms with ease, though the individual songs ended up as one big — yet still enjoyable — blur.
Neo-soul rocker Jamie Lidell wasn’t as lucky, as the skies opened up early on in his set to a downpour that didn’t let up for the rest of the afternoon. But he soldiered on, regardless, roaring through a set that touched on everything from Prince-esque caterwauling and James Brown’s screaming soul, to ’90s R&B.
Back in Courtyard C, Dave Douglas led the Brass Ecstasy, featuring trumpet, trombone, tuba and French horn, through a lively set of originals and unlikely covers, including a version of the Tweedy-composed Mavis Staples song “You Are Not Alone,” through the rain.
Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, with his solo backing band, closed out the music at Courtyard D with a set reminiscent of a mellower and — dare I say it — older version of his main band’s work. The songs, mostly from his new album, “Demolished Thoughts,” were all of a piece, creating textures more than actual tunes over the span of an hour. Solid Sound concludes today with Levon Helm and His Rambling Band headlining, along with performances from The Autumn Defense, Glenn Kotche solo, Pillow Wand, Pronto and others. Visit www.solidsoundfestival.com for more information.