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Wilco — 27 May 2022, North Adams, MA (Mass MoCA) [Solid Sound Festival; Day 1 of 3]


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After the requisite Berkshires downpour/lightning event that always seems to happen at Mass MoCA at some point no matter when the Solid Sound Festival is held, and of course the accompanying schedule juggling, Wilco managed to pull off its planned celebration of the release of its latest studio (double) album, Cruel Country, with what Jeff said would almost certainly be the only front-to-back performance of it before a receptive crowd at Joe's Field — and who knows how many more watching at home via live stream.

 

Fortunately, de facto support act Sylvan Esso's anticipated hour-long set preceding Wilco's only had to be abridged by about 15 minutes and when the headlining set was moved up by 15 minutes, that gave the Wilcos enough time to play nearly all of the songs they had apparently planned to. Also fortunately, the weather cooperated beautifully for the remainder of the evening. All of it seemed to leave Jeff a bit emotional as he departed the stage following Cruel Country's final song, The Plains.

 

"Thank you so much," Jeff said earnestly when he returned to the stage for an extended encore. "Not many audiences would let you play your new double album (in its entirety) like that."

 

Obviously there's plenty to discuss — and will be plenty to discuss moving forward — regarding Cruel Country and I'll get to some initial impressions of the live performance in a bit. But getting to see that encore made up of a couple old favorites and some specially selected country songs to finish (with Jeff remarking that country, both as it applies to Cruel Country and these songs, was "whatever we want it to be").

 

As if to draw a through line from his personal musical upbringing to the present that would make just that point, Jeff introduced the first cover — Climbing by Meat Puppets, from their II record — as being by "the first country band that made me feel like I wanted to be a part of." That was followed by the rather interesting choice of the traditional Wild Mountain Thyme that the Byrds adapted on their Fifth Dimension album (which most would probably regard as more of a psych-folk homage than straight-up country, but anyway). Then came the true 60s-70s country influences: Jeff invited Neko Case, who had played a secret, but not-so-secret set earlier in the afternoon, and her bandmate Nora O'Connor up to the stage to sing the Connie Smith classic Once A Day with its sentiment of "I'm only crying once a day." And that was followed by She's My Rock, which Jeff said he just wanted to sing because it's "a badass song" that was written by Ronnie Millsap's wife (Sharon K. Dobbins) and popularized by Stoney Edwards. Finally, the show came to a fitting end with Roger Miller's Reincarnation (which of course was the closing theme of nearly every episode of The Tweedy Show), a tune about which Jeff simply said, "This song means a lot."

 

Of note, the printed setlist contained what looked like a brief second encore with a couple more country-tinged covers that weren't played: "Omaha" (presumably the Skip Spence-penned Moby Grape song) and "I'm So Lonesome" (presumably I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry by Hank Williams). Whether that was meant as an actual second encore or just a couple of other songs that the band had rehearsed and could add in or swap out for something else I can't say.

 

Anyway, prior to all of that of course, came the Cruel Country (cowpunk?) celebration. Yeehaw...or not. I guess it's up for debate just how "country" a record CC truly is, and with his aforementioned comments, it's clear that Jeff believes the country tag can be wide-ranging. Fair enough. To me, it doesn't really matter. On first listen to the live versions, some songs sound twangier to me than others, especially the ones with Pat finally getting to show off his Telecaster prowess, but ultimately it's another case of Jeff's songwriting being augmented by his talented bandmates.

 

I'll stop short of saying it has a Jeff solo album feel to it in some places, but there's definitely some of that — as evidenced by songs such as Ambulance (where the rest of the band departed the stage) and The Plains (on which only Nels and Pat played with Jeff) — and it makes sense knowing how a lot of these songs developed over the course of the pandemic. Jeff has been performing some of the songs that ended up on Cruel Country in his solo shows —  not to mention The Tweedy Show — for the better part of a yer now.

 

But of course there are other songs that we haven't heard at all until now and with the addition of Wilco, some of the tunes definitely shape up as live favorites. For instance, the audience at Mass MoCA first seemed to really respond, about 10 songs in, to the peculiar song Bird Without A Tail/Base Of My Skull. Not because of the interlaced couplet lyrics in what presumably is the Bird Without A Tail portion of the song, but to the guitar duel/jam between Nels and Pat on what I assume is the Base Of My Skull part. As I mentioned, Pat really gets his Tele workout in on this album and I hope that a lot of those songs wind up staying in the set when the band heads out on tour this summer and fall.

 

Surely, some of the more explicitly political/thematic songs will remain in the set for a long while. I'm thinking of song such as Hints (with its lyric about "There is no middle when the other side/would rather kill than compromise...") and, of course, the title track ("I love my country stupid and cruel"). There will be plenty more chances to discuss/debate/deride/demand/etc., so I'll leave it there for now, but if I could make just one request...please let there be at least one time before Wilco calls it quits that it plays The Empty Condor and An Empty Corner back to back. The Universe>Many Moons>You Satellite, anyone? Ah, it'll probably never happen.

 

Here was the complete setlist, as played, for Wilco's headlining set on Day 1 of Solid Sound 2022 (see above for second encore listed on the printed setlist but not played):

 

I Am My Mother

Cruel Country

Hints

Ambulance

The Empty Condor

Tonight's The Day

All Across The World

Darkness Is Cheap

Bird Without A Tail/Base Of My Skull

The Universe (started and restarted)

Tired Of Taking It Out On You

Many Worlds

Hearts Hard To Find

Falling Apart (Right Now)

Please Be Wrong

Story To Tell

A Lifetime To Find

Country Song Upside Down

Mystery Binds

Sad Kind Of Way

The Plains

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It's Just That Simple

New Madrid

Climbing [Meat Puppets]

Wild Mountain Thyme [traditional; popularized by The Byrds]

Once A Day [Bill Anderson; popularized by Connie Smith] (Neko Case on lead vocals and Nora O'Connor on backing vocals)

She's My Rock [Sharon K. Dobbins; popularized by Stoney Edwards]

Reincarnation [Roger Miller]

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1 hour ago, bböp said:

 …with what Jeff said would almost certainly be the only front-to-back performance of it…

…at least for the next twenty years? Fingers crossed they have a french horn player on stage with them then…*wink*nudge*

 

Mid way through that BEAUTIFUL show, I came to my senses and realized we weren’t getting rained on, as expected all week. What a gorgeous night and great way to kick off the weekend.

Those guys, and ladies at one point, were sharp as hell. Even when Tweedy did a double take at the start of The Universe, he nor anyone else seemed to flinch. They were confident in these songs and it showed. One of the greats, in my book.

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First off, Glenn’s shirt needs special recognition. Perhaps enshrinement of some kind. 🤠 As for the show, one of my biggest memories will likely be how chilled out and in tune with the music the crowd around us was. No talkers, no flash photographers, no soon-to-be Tik Tok legends and their 15 second videos. Folks just there listening and appreciating what they were hearing (or at least that they were getting to hear it). I’ve connected quickly to the album but know that others, both hardcore and casual fans, haven’t. So getting to enjoy what will almost certainly be the only cover-to-cover spin in such a peaceful setting was such an unexpected bonus. 

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2 hours ago, bböp said:

 ...please let there be at least one time before Wilco calls it quits that it plays The Empty Condor and An Empty Corner back to back. The Universe>Many Moons>You Satellite, anyone? Ah, it'll probably never happen.

 

 

Now this is the sort of content that keeps your readers coming back show after show! (And I'll cosign these requests!)

 

Hope to say Hi today. 

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Ta.

It's one thing to do a review when hanging around at an airport or something. Quite another when you're at a festival with loads of stuff to see and do. Top notch work sir!

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I did wonder if, in the spirit of the Cruel Country release, the band would come out Friday in their Nudie suits.

 

I was browsing some of my old SSF photos and found this one of Glenn's shirt from a 2013 exhibit, which I believe is the same one he wore on Friday! Yee-haw!

 

YduR4y1.jpg

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Thanks for the excellent reportage as always, @bböp. I'll echo that Cruel Country live really gives Pat a chance to shine. We were a few people off the rail directly in front of Pat, and you could feel the joy and affection he was putting into those licks and solos. He just seemed to be basking in the music and the appreciative crowd, and it was lovely to see. And a notable contrast from the last time I'd been able to see Wilco, at the Ode to Joy NYC shows in October of 2019. (Side note: I also caught Pat's conversation about his Noticings exhibit and he was reflective and warm and funny in speaking about his path to photography, his stepping away from it for several years, and his return to it during the pandemic. It was especially resonant to hear how somewhat spur of the moment decisions to go to a retrospective and, later, an Eggleston museum exhibit, had such profound influences on his photography and creative spirit.)

 

In general, I tend to prefer shows where an album isn't played straight through, so I was surprised by how transported I was by the show, just swept away by the rollicking performances, by Wilco's reflective, mournful, complicated take on country and Country. There are probably several reasons for this: I had listened to Cruel Country a few times this past week and had some familiarity with it, and burgeoning love for it, but it was fresh enough so that the sequencing and many of the lyrics and flourishes hadn't imprinted in the way an album does when you live with it for several weeks. So there was a newness to it but also points of familiarity and opportunities for singing along. Also, as Jeff mentioned, this is perhaps the only time they're going to play the whole double album in one show, so it felt special in the way that Friday nights on Joe's Field feel special. Add to that the joy of seeing the whole band for the first time in more than 2.5 years (I caught one of Jeff's solo shows at Brooklyn Made last fall) and the treat of the country-themed encore (especially Neko Case's guest spot) and the overall feeling of floaty happiness that Solid Sound inspires, and it was a very special night.

 

 

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I've seen John sing "It's Just That Simple" a handful of times -- always lovely to see him get that showcase -- but couldn't recall Jeff playing bass those other times. Is that the usual swap for that song?

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2 hours ago, unifiedtheory said:

I've seen John sing "It's Just That Simple" a handful of times -- always lovely to see him get that showcase -- but couldn't recall Jeff playing bass those other times. Is that the usual swap for that song?

 

The times I've seen it in recent years, including 2016 Seattle, Jeff played a 12 string acoustic and John played a 6 string acoustic, no one played bass. 

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