Begun in 2009 by Bonnaroo’s Ashley Capps, the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, is a kind of surrealist anti-festival, a little bit of everything and a whole lot of everything else. It’s the kind of place where you could picture John Prine having a beer with Elliott Carter as they talked about Thomas Ades’ The Exterminating Angel and what Luis Bunuel might think of his film lambasting the bourgeois being adapted into a respectable opera.
My first visit was in 2015, and it was a rich and full one, everything from Rhiannon Giddens to Swans. I was mesmerized and so looking forward to a full return visit this year. However, like a bunch of folks, including guest Jonathan Demme, we came down with the Tennessee crud. Unlike Demme, who cancelled his whole visit, mine was merely cut in half. I fear will remember it not so much for what I saw but for who I missed: Tortoise, Yasmine Hamdan, Rachel Grimes, and Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic.
Big Ears’ forte is the experimental, the avant garde, performance-based art that has European roots and was quite something in New York of the ’70s. Yes, even though I lived just a few minutes walk from CBGB, I was drawn more to jazz loft scene and the downtown works of Laurie Anderson, Robert Ashley, Diamanda Galas, Art Zoyd, and so many more. But it’s also folk to the core: Roscoe Holcomb would also be here if he were still alive.
Robert Ashley’s Private Lives and Wilco
I did catch one of the more anticipated performances: Robert Ashley’s seminal Perfect Lives performed by the 10-piece group Matmos — narrator, vocalists, string section, and video projection. I had not seen it since its 1979 premiere, and its fractured narrative, everyday mysticism, and existential reflections had lost little of their expanse after all those years. I was not alone in my appreciation. There were just as many people in the audience in the large and beautiful Tennessee Theatre on a Friday at noon as there were later that night for the headliner, Wilco.
Speaking of Wilco, they, like many of the artists that weekend, performed in near darkness, and many of the photos posted with this column reflect that. Wilco’s performance that night seemed less straightforward than usual. I don’t know whether that was under Jeff Tweedy’s direction, or perhaps the influence of other band members, such as Glenn Kotche and Nels Cline, who have explored music worlds outside the band for quite some time, including at Big Ears, where they each had individual and collaborative sets throughout the weekend.
I am also glad the folk icon Michael Hurley opened for Wilco. He played his “normal” low-key set, unswayed by the larger than usual audience. He has his own groove and a 50-year repertoire to choose from to fill it. There were definite fans there, and I hope he picked up some new ones.
Before that I caught one of my longtime faves, Robyn Hitchcock, who did two sets that day. Solo, and in one of his ubiquitous polka dot shirts, he was the essence of cool in a town that likes to think of itself as a Southern chill. He led off songs by his three major influences, artists that he “strived to be like, but missed”: Dylan, the Beatles, and Pink Floyd. He only did one song from the new album, but the midafternoon crowd did not mind. You see, Hitchcock seems to make up his set lists on the spot, veering from one tangent to the next riff, and his fans have learned not just to expect, but to revel in his flights of surreal fancy. Like “My Wife and My Dead Wife” that left the crowd silent.
Also that afternoon was the flautist Claire Chase, who through her playing and commissioning new works drives the instrument in directions unthought-of just a few short years ago. Recepient of a MacArthur Fellowship, and playing numerous flutes, her performance was self-assured and left little doubt that classical music is a far cry from dead.
Michael Weintrob and Phillip Rupp
Earlier that day I had two extraordinary non-musical adventures. First was photographer Michael Weintrob, who was there to promote his new book, Instrumenhead, to be published later this month. Weintrob’s a well-known Nashville-based photographer who over the past few years has been able to coax a who’s who of musicians to sit for their portraits in his studio. But there’s one distinctive difference from the usual studio portraits: Their respective instruments are placed, in highly inventive and distinctive ways, where their heads should be. These photos are nothing short of awe-inspiring. While he had a copy of the Italian-pressed book on display, what took your breath away were the almost large-as-life photographs that were hung around the room. Wow.
Second, was a chance meeting with Phillip Rupp, cowboy extraodinaire and co-proprietor of Pioneer House, full of vintage Western wear and more in the heart of downtown Knoxville. We had a long talks about Hank Williams, his friend Jon Langford, and the many folks who had recently visited the shop, including Margo Price and Nikki Lane. Also on hand was Martha Spencer, from Virginia and the Whitetop Mountain Band, who was in town performing at a small club that weekend.
I closed the day with the Carla Bley Trio, with Steve Swallow on five-string bass and Andy Shepard on saxophones. It had been six or seven years since I had last seen them and I felt right at home.
But the day before I caught Bley in all her glory — leading the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra playing her larger pieces to kick off the festival. For me, there are three giants of composition of the 20th century: Ellington, Mingus, and Bley. She is extraordinary, and by the looks of the players that night, they were mighty happy to be able to express such exquisite sounds from the master herself.
I was also looking forward to the next piece, Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Unremembered, her first composition following Penelope, which looked at the world through the perspective of Odysseus’ wife. With Nathaniel Bellows’ text, and based on a Gothic past, they explore childhood’s fearful fantasies that prepare us —hopefully — for the rigors of adulthood. What I was not expecting were the lead vocals of Shara Nova, who was to take the stage immediately afterwards with My Brightest Diamond. The full crowd at the Bijou roared with its approval.
My Brightest Diamond and Blonde Redhead
There was little downtime before My Brightest Diamond took over, and the crowd that Nova had wowed the year before was ready. With her opera-trained voice and a guitar-bass-drums trio, emotional heft and languorous, swooping guitar work, you can tell why folks such as Laurie Anderson and David Byrne have chosen to feature her in their works.
Closing things down at midnight was the main thing many folks had come for: Blonde Redhead performing Misery Is a Butterfly. I arrived just a bit late, but with a string quintet on stage right, the cinematic shoegaze rock dream was in full flight.
Still, the two days were more than worth it. Where else was I going to see so much in such a short time span?