THROUGH THE LENS: Big Ears Festival – A Return to Forever
Kristin Andreassen & Abigail Washburn, Uncle Earl Jam - Big Ears 2019 - Photo by Amos Perrine
“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”
— Gustav Mahler
With the Great Smoky Mountains to the southwest and the Daniel Boone Nation Forest to the northwest, there may never be a more apt use of the term “cradled” than for Knoxville, Tennessee. It’s been immortalized by Del McCoury’s lyric change to Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” and the most horrible of murder ballads, “Knoxville Girl.” Its boundaries have been pushed into the outer-lying valleys, while its historic downtown has been rejuvenated by some of its forward-looking families.
It is against this backdrop that music lovers from all over share a four-day experience like no other at the Big Ears Festival. Being able to hear so much diversity in such a small place, even at a gathering of like-minded folk, is cause for celebration.
The festival has quadrupled in terms of both artists and venues in the past few years, and no two attendees’ perception of Big Ears is the same. I’m sure all of the folks I met and talked with had vastly different experiences than what I had. That said, I attended 23 sets — way short of what I wanted — and here’s the tip of the iceberg of what I found invigorating.
Traditions: Richard Thompson, Rachel Grimes, and Rhiannon Giddens
Not only did I catch the panel that featured these three, I also caught their large scale works: Grimes’ The Way Forth, Thompson’s Killed in Action, and Giddens’ collaborative ballet, Lucy Negro Redux. While the panel’s title was “Song of Our Ancestors,” which certainly delved into just that and their resulting works, a large portion of the the discussion was on tradition.
While no one used these exact words, that gist was tradition is like a river and the river is always different wherever/whenever you step into it. It is an artificial construct, and it’s perhaps even arbitrary for someone, be it a tastemaker, an “originator,” or an archivist, to say that where he or she stepped into that river is where “tradition” began. If it also ends there you have a museum piece, something dead. But neither should we have the dreaded “reinvention” or, even worse, “reimagined for a modern audience.” Rather, tradition is continually filtered through the times and life experiences of folks fearless enough to wade into the shifting waters of those rivers.
Lucy Negro Redux
If there ever was a work that is not merely viewed or heard, but rather experienced, this is it. Based on the book by Caroline Randall Williams, who is also the “narrator,” this ballet features music composed and performed live by Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi and choreography, adaptation, and direction by Paul Vasterling. Its starting point is Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady,” and it explores themes of self and others, identity, self-worth, and the possibilities and constraints of a young black woman moving through time. Rather than pontificating at length, Kelly McCartney’s fine piece for ND is way more worthwhile. Read it here.
Uncle Earl & Friends: Old Time Jam
Those of us who saw Uncle Earl back in the day certainly rejoiced upon hearing that KC Groves, Kristin Andreassen, Abigail Washburn, and Rayna Gellert would once again be a collective force. While they would have a formal set two days later, it was more fitting to experience them up close and informal at the intimate Boyd’s Jig & Reel, which is more akin to a large living room. As with such a room, the setting (just a few inches above the floor) had a coffee table (where a drink or two would be spilled) and chairs all around. While Gellert would not arrive until later, Brittany Haas (Hawktail, Live From Here, Dave Rawlings Machine) filled in on fiddle, along with Bryn Davies on bass.
From the start, it was obvious this going to be an informal affair, with stories, instruments and vocals swapped all ’round, with not all that much mind to an audience that was happy to be the same room with these special people. There was also an adequate amount of beer, and even more laughter. It was without a doubt the most fun I had during my visit.
Record labels matter. Be it Sun, Blue Note, Rounder, or Bloodshot, the best labels are the visionary works of those who created them. Founded 50 years ago in Munich, ECM is the longest running one of all. While ECM is best known for jazz music, the label has released a wide variety of recordings, and its artists often refuse to acknowledge boundaries between genres — ECM stands for Editions of Contemporary Music. To commemorate its anniversary many of its artists played at this year’s festival.
I bought my first ECM record in 1972, just as I was beginning my foray into jazz (whatever that is, was, or will be), my latest one being last week. I have followed and seen many of their artists, from Carla Bley to Wadada Leo Smith to the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It was AEC that closed the festival this year, and it was eagerly awaited by many of us. I was expecting the quartet — also coincidentally celebrating its 50th year — but what we got was an 18-piece ensemble well-versed in structure. Sometimes, almost without warning it seemed, Roscoe Mitchell would rise up from his chair and deliver long, beautiful improvisations that squeaked, squawked, and soared.
Listen to the Quiet: Mountain Man and Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir
These back-to-back sets at the St. John’s venue were enough to reestablish one’s equilibrium amongst the onslaught of other festival sets such as Comet is Coming and Sons of Kemet. Mountain Man’s reputation preceded them, but still I was unprepared for this trio’s wisp-like harmonies that shifted as if a feather on the breath of god. Unadorned, with sometimes just a guitar, it seemed like they were sharing secrets with one another and paid little mind to the SRO audience that was fearful of breaking the spell.
Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir was a surprise of a different magnitude. Co-founder of the influential Icelandic band múm, Valtýsdóttir’s lilting vocals and piano playing vaguely reminded me of early Kate Bush crossed with My Bubba. She played songs from her forthcoming album, I Must Be the Devil (April 5), with her twin sister Gyða on cello sitting in on a couple. While she does not exhibit Bush’s grandiose swings, Valtýsdóttir nonetheless sways within a modest tempo with an undercurrent of tempestuousness. Looking a bit on the frail side, especially on the more gossamer-like tunes, she’d then surprise you with sudden arpeggios that ended in deep-eyed stares into and through the abyss at the end of the hall. While she unnerved some audience members, most of us certainly came away with a once-in-a-lifetime experience.