Big Ears Was Alright If You Like Saxophones
Every writer gets to use that joke once in their life, right?
It was 80 degrees in Knoxville on Wednesday, a direly-needed respite from this hellish neverending Wisconsin winter. Sure enough, the temps dropped significantly for the entirety of Big Ears Festival, though not quite to frozen-tundra levels. I’d never been here but I’d heard only glowing reports. The lineup was a music-snob paradise; on the other hand, my experience at hipster shows suggested there wouldn’t be much booty-shaking to keep me warm.
You could call me a festival veteran, although I’m probably semi-retired at this point. Sleeping in a tent, overpriced bland cuisine, the heat, the filth, the massive crowds, the corporate banners everywhere you look, the port-o-potties, I’ll mostly leave that scene to younger folks. I was at the first Bonnaroo, I slept in a sleeping bag under a wonky tarp, it was a logistical nightmare and a confused blur of revelry and dancing that felt so much like freedom I don’t think much about the bad aspects of it. Co-produced from day one by AC Productions, Bonnaroo has gone the way of all the big festivals, eschewing its hippie roots in favor of whatever inchoate conglomeration of touring LiveNation stars will sell the most tickets. Back in the day, it felt like a community project, working towards transcendence through improvisational music or whatever other group-energy formula it might require to get us there.
AC Productions founder Ashley Capps maybe never was the hippie type anyway; this is a guy who opened a music club in the ‘80s named after a Captain Beefheart song, after all. So in 2009, taking a cue from South By Southwest, he dreamed up Big Ears, a multi-venue, multi-disciplinary event in downtown Knoxville. On the surface, it’s nothing like Bonnaroo past or present; chilly weather, a fraction of the crowd, actual urban conveniences, very few hippies and almost zero chance of finding yourself in a blinding dust storm or dancing in a literal swamp. That whole idea of transcendence through music, though. Maybe it didn’t have to be a shitshow bacchanalia. Maybe it could be achieved through more sophisticated means?
“We have not created the bulletproof piece of music that will prevent harm from happening”, David Harrington remarks in the beginning of the Kronos Quartet documentary A Thousand Thoughts, “…but I think it’s possible, and I spend every minute of my waking life trying to find that.” The celebrated classical combo kicked off Big Ears 2022 on Thursday afternoon at what could almost be called the ruins of Knoxville’s World Fair Park. The site had been home to a variety of concerts and events until the city shut operations down in 1999; the cancellation of the Hot Summer Nights festival here helped inspire the genesis of Bonnaroo (150 miles to the west in Manchester), and the city has been working on renovations to the site for the past few years. The Tennessee Amphitheater looked a little like a construction zone. Folks ate food-truck chicken and the wind whipped hats every which way and out came Kronos. The gentle set included a rendition of “Strange Fruit”, the civil rights ballad made famous by Billie Holiday (and Harrington’s personal vote for a new USA national anthem), as well as a brief tribute to Ukrainian composer Valentin Vasil’yevich Silvestrov, striking an activist tone early on to the surprise of no one. Joining the group after a half hour or so was Sō Percussion for a set also featuring beatboxer Shodekeh, vocalist Caroline Shaw, and members of a local high-school band. They performed a series of pieces collectively called “Amid The Noise”, an appropriate title for the festival if not necessarily this particular glorified drum solo, exemplifying the cross-genre collaborative spirit that was a prime Bonnaroo tenet once upon a time.
Kronos, like the other named participants in this set, would appear multiple times throughout the weekend. Call them honorary curators; Big Ears tends to center around certain artists or labels or scenes, creating an atmosphere of friendly competition and endless jamming possibilities with its lineups alone. Kronos aside, this year’s gig gathered a huge swath of Chicago’s International Anthem roster, more than enough talent to carry absolutely any festival on its own. The thing that prompted me to impulse-buy an early-bird ticket in the middle of a pandemic surge, however, was this: “A Celebration of John Zorn”. Such things occur very rarely, usually on the coasts or abroad, although there was one in Minneapolis in 2013 to celebrate Zorn’s 60th birthday which I…did not attend. You might say I’d been kicking myself for nine years.
Few if any musician/composers have had a deeper influence on my tastes than Zorn. His cadences and intervals form a web inside me that I can’t fathom on a conscious level; their mathematical and mystical origins are beyond my capacity to explain, and it would take several one-ups before I could achieve a working knowledge of his full catalog and its roots and branches. The Zorn cinematic universe contains a slew of my favorite living musicians; it only remained to be seen who would show up, and which configurations might unfold.
For instance, later on Thursday afternoon, some friends of mine were walking by The Standard, a small, dingy club-type venue, when they heard a strange and glorious sound and wondered who on Earth could be soundchecking. Oh okay, something called Dan Weiss Starebaby, does not ring a bell, hmmm…well what do you know, Trevor Dunn on bass! And you can play degrees of separation with the rest of the band and Mr. Zorn. My friends alerted me, we all settled in, had our faces blown back by several standards in the starebaby genre, and I walked away with a few new favorite musicians. All thanks to a soundcheck eavesdrop. It’s that kind of festival: any tip or advice you hear, follow it.
That’s what happened Friday afternoon as I was en route to Dos Santos, another International Anthem band whose set the night before I’d missed. A text came in from a friend who was just perusing the lineup: “Arooj Aftab (Must See)”. I’d never heard of her but what the heck, I could probably catch Dos Santos closer to home some time. The Tennessee Theatre is a gem, and the perfect setting for Aftab’s spellbinding set. She gave due credit to her incredible band: Maeve Gilchrist on harp, Greg Fox on drums, violinist Darian Donovan Thomas, and bassist Shahzad Ismaily—who just happened to be the lone member of Ceramic Dog who hadn’t officially been listed in the program. As if I weren’t already glowing. Within a few hours, news of the “secret” Dog show was leaked to VIP attendees.
Now, I only had a general admission ticket to this festival, a preposterously good deal for the bounty of music, film, art, poetry, etc., but you do run the risk of gazing longingly at VIP and “premiere” ticketholders waltzing past you into the venue as you wait in a long line and hope for the best. If you’re at this festival solely for the biggest names, you might as well cough up the extra dough or plan on spending a lot of time waiting in lines, but I have to say this goes against the spirit of the fest. The best option is to get a cheap ticket and be flexible. This event is about the destruction of FOMO; if the line is too long or you get shut out, take a five-minute walk and you’ll find something just as good as whatever you’re missing. All the same, on Thursday I’d taken one look at the blocks-long GA line for Patti Smith at the Mill & Mine and abandoned all hope; what was this Old City PAC going to be like for the marquee pop-up event of the weekend?
Not bad, as it turned out. I arrived just a few minutes before showtime to no line at all and a very small room. This might be a good time to point out that despite my obvious esteem for these participants, I sometimes forget that they’re not actually that famous. Marc Ribot is an icon in my world; Ismaily and Ches Smith comprise one of the most ludicrous rhythm sections I’ve ever seen perform, across multiple bands. Seeing these guys riff off each other again, slipping in and out of old and new songs, sometimes even in similar genres to the ones they were recorded in, confirmed that they remain one of the world’s greatest bands. Also, everyone else I know who was there walked out amidst an ungodly digital noise interlude. I get it.
Evidently, so do the organizers of Big Ears, because aside from a handful of obvious high-demand sets, I don’t think many folks were turned away from shows they really wanted to see. Once a venue hit capacity, a one-out, one-in policy went into effect for those still outside, and let me tell you, these staffpeople were efficient; they ushered new people into vacated seats with an almost prescient unobtrusiveness during packed performances. Entry always seemed to be a breeze, and staff never let standing-room venues get to a point of proverbial sardines as far as I saw. Imagine the number of times some of these folks had to explain the system to attendees waiting outside. And this year’s event was the first-ever sellout. I salute you all, Big Ears venue staff.
The festival consisted of 15 performance venues, the largest being the 1,645-seat Tennessee Theatre and the smallest, the endearing hole-in-the-wall Pilot Light. The longest distance between joints was just over a mile, and options for food and drink in between were plentiful. (You might even be strolling down Gay Street near Summit Hill and catch 75 Dollar Bill bashing away on various implements in a little de facto park; that happened Saturday afternoon.) Fitting in meals is the only drawback of festivals like Big Ears; no carry-ins to the venues, of course, which leads to four days of booming service-industry business in downtown Knoxville and all the good and bad that entails. I never encountered anything but friendly service, although for dinner on Sunday, our server at KoPita informed us that she was going to basically bring us the rest of the food they had, then put a note on the door saying they had run out! It was the best meal we ate all weekend, the flavors enhanced every time a sad customer was turned away. So this was what it felt like to be a VIP.
I also knew the feeling of being the sad customer by then. Well sort of. I allowed it to happen. Because even though I had been a little underwhelmed by the welcoming set, everything else I saw on Thursday was at least whelming, culminating in a set by LOW at the M&M that was very over. LOW, whose latest album I can’t stand, who have only a couple recorded songs that have ever grabbed me, yet whose every live show I’ve seen has floored me. I don’t think I ever heard Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker sing so perfectly before. I don’t think I ever heard Sparhawk’s guitar in such pain. I thought about guitar gods and how none of them ever loved anything this much. When it was over I thought ‘Well fuck. It’s only the first night and nothing is going to top that.’
I wasn’t even ready for Sons Of Kemet. Maybe it’s not possible to be. I’d seen saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings before with The Comet Is Coming, and based on albums alone I preferred that band, too. The Kemet set on Friday didn’t start out great; I think you have to truly hand it to these sound engineers who are dealing with every instrument known to man with little continuity between sets, and yes there were some mishaps. What I tell myself about this performance is that the early frustrations, minor as they may have been, fueled the band (Hutchings, tubaist Theon Cross and drummers Tom Skinner & Eddie Hick) as they quickly churned up a furious energy once everything was dialed in and scarcely let up other than for the most outrageous tuba solo I have ever heard. Bodies were moving in a frenzy otherwise unseen at this festival, which is to say, they were moving. There’s no way for a record to capture the raw sonic filth Hutchings conjures with that sax; the cumulative effect requires all five senses and then some to fully appreciate. This much is clear to me now.
In some sense, Kemet is a political band; particularly coming on the heels of Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble, though, this performance carried on themes that run deeper than any cause, the oneness and connectivity that we were all experiencing here, and the power that music has in this regard that no other medium has. It’s not often so palpable at these sorts of critical-darling festivals; some clichés are true, attendees do tend to be immobile and demure and worst of all inattentive. You can catch tons of good music at Pitchfork but it rarely rises above the quality of the songs themselves. It was becoming apparent that this festival wasn’t like the other ones. The vibes spoke volumes about everybody involved in every step of the process.
This was a festival that had something going on practically every minute that I wanted to see, but wandering into unanticipated alternates never disappointed. How could it matter what I was missing when I had this right in front of me? My friend turned to me during Animal Collective on Friday night in a state of satisfaction-exhaustion that I was beginning to understand. “Everything here is so good, how am I supposed to go back to just seeing shows?” Indeed, by the time I made it to Mdou Moctar to close out the night, I was experiencing instrument-solo overload and couldn’t take any more. There he was, one of the most renowned guitarists in the world, and I’d spent all of my enjoyment capital. My Saturday began with the first official Zorn showcase. Due to the unexpected absence of Gyan Riley, this was a last-minute replacement band: pianist Brian Marsella’s trio featuring Dunn on double bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums, performing selections from their 2021 album Meditations On The Tarot. How convenient that they all happened to be here! Zorn himself only appeared as hype man before and after, leaving the trio to provide a perfect introduction to the classic Zorn formula of simple, infinitely adaptable tunes contorting to the whims and improvisational stylings of whatever musicians are wielding them. These three took a feral approach; tight yet animalistic playing by all. Whether or not you believe this was a thrown-together set, there’s an undeniable zone that Zorn disciples are able to drop into, where they’re somehow hyper-attentive to each other and the parameters of the song while allowing themselves flights of inspired improv. You can always feel free to be amazed by any individual, but it’s all in service of crafting the next closest realization of the essence of the song. No matter how chaotic it may get, these guys always stick the landing.
I rode cloud 9 one block north, crossed the street and checked out Ches Smith’s We All Break. Marvelous. A fusion of admittedly Zorn-inflected jazz forms with Haitian rhythms and melodies, the spell was only broken by project co-creator Daniel Brevin’s impassioned plea for help and understanding for his people. Next up was Zorn’s “Songs For Petra”, and I decided to catch up on text messages for a minute during the short walk—d’oh! I ended up maybe a dozen heads back from the entrance when they hit capacity. If I’d waited it out, I would’ve missed a song or two; there were only a few people behind me and no VIPs waiting around yet. Instead, I took a hike. I needed this dose of disappointment badly. Everything up until this point had been so fucking perfect that I was losing my belief in its reality. Some friends were headed to St. John’s Cathedral to see Caroline Shaw & Attacca Quartet; I was three spaces from the entry when they stopped letting people in. I waited about five minutes, watching the premiere/VIP line get longer and longer, and knowing they’d all get in before me, I bailed on this too.
My third choice was Saul Williams at the other end of the map. I got there right before he walked onstage. He sat down with two bottles of water and a couple of books and random sheets of paper on a table to his right. And he talked and joked and read some poems that he’d never read in public before, and just like that I was fighting back tears again. “The Answer to the Questions That Wings Ask” was one that knocked me out but there were others. Plus a couple of epics that he abruptly recited from memory with all the fire of his blistering musical alter-ego, only it was a quieter fire, fueled by the knowledge of all these words still being necessary, all these injustices we still can’t shake. I got a similar feeling at Hanif Abdurraqib’s reading session the next day, a renewed sense of purpose despite the seeming futility of it all. Around us, all this incredible music, lifting us up, not solving anything, but maybe nudging us towards solutions. I needed these reminders that words still have power, too. We have to believe that despite the imperceptibly slow march of history, being here, in this room, wanting the same thing even if we don’t know how to get it, is the best we can do, right now. That whatever gifts we have are the ones we have to use.
I’ll admit that tears were flowing heavily all weekend, and it wasn’t just the music. The heightened emotional awareness of festival life already casts whatever you’ve temporarily escaped from into sharp relief; for a few days you don’t feel so old, or bogged down, and then suddenly you hear the news that Taylor Hawkins has died. He was about four years older than me. He was the drummer of a band I used to love with a passion and nowadays, don’t. Bands change, and that one was always 100% the property of Dave Grohl, but a lot of people don’t realize that before it was The Dave Grohl Show it was an absolutely rippin’ live rock band, completely unfuckwithable for the first several years of its existence. Isn’t it weird that the first time I saw them, that dog. opened? And Petra Hayden just performed up the street? No, I suppose not.
I didn’t even shed a tear over this news, I couldn’t process it at that moment because a minute later I was swept away into more sublime music. The same thing had happened Friday when I learned that a friend’s mother had passed away. And then Sunday, when another friend’s dear furry companion of 18 years took his rest. Each time, I stopped in my tracks, realizing there was simply no way I was going to process this in the amount of time I had to do so. But we’re experts at this now, aren’t we? Every one of us has been doing this constantly for two years or more. Our normal avenues of grief haven’t been open. What else can we do, except be where we are.
I was spending extended time with dear friends, I was making new friends, having dinner and drinks with friends who’d moved away, I had coffee with a friend I hadn’t seen in at least 25 years!! None of this has even been possible for over two years. How am I supposed to appreciate it in real time, I’d need several interns. It must be awfully nice, you’re thinking, to be able to brush any of these things aside, only I wouldn’t say there was any brushing going on. We take it all in, all the love and the pain, and all the violence and suffering we know is going on elsewhere, and between our molecules and our minds they figure out what to do and somehow we carry on. It all works its way in or through eventually. In the meantime, the situation right in front of you is still the only one you can fully commit to, and whether you were at Big Ears for education or emotional therapy through music, you couldn’t help having your eyes opened a little wider, and probably your heart too. For some, peak live music is simply the only way to fully let go; they’ll be better equipped to help their fellow citizens after a trip to Big Ears.
Where was I, Friday? Saturday? Did you come here looking for a concert review?
I suppose I could tell you about my favorite concert of the weekend before I go. By Sunday evening I’d already had more peak experiences in four days than I generally have in a year; an impenetrable aura of gratitude insulated me from any potential of being let down. Two Zorn performances remained: New Masada Quartet, a new combo that had just released its first album in November, and Electric New Masada, a group that as far as I knew did not exist prior to this. The surprise announcement had just dropped on Wednesday and the lineup was a wet dream of Zorn ringers, a nerdy thrill regardless of what music might result. Through the years, festivals have taken the much-maligned concept of the supergroup to painful extremes; the Bonnaroo “Superjam”, for instance, usually results in the kind of loose, haphazard, lazy music you’d expect from a bunch of jamband also-rans, but there’ve been at least two instances where these performances were highlights, both featuring surprise appearances by world-class players. The problem is that jamband musicians aren’t generally very good at anything except jambanding. They all bask in this illusion of adaptability when in reality most of them are operating within a single suffocating mode that’s indistinguishable from everyone else who plays their instrument. There’s all kinds of room for emotional dynamic within this limited framework, and the people onstage and in the audience all feel it and it’s lovely, but excepting a handful of outliers, it all sounds the same.
The difference (er, one of many) with Zorn’s clique is that these people are all adept at shifting from one style or motif or rhythm to another on a dime, and they each have their own distinctive sound that’s allowed to shine through. You simply don’t get the opportunity to play Masada unless you are about as good at improvisational music as a person can be. I mean, the fact that a force-of-nature drummer like Kenny Grohowski gets relegated to hand-percussion in this scenario should tell you something. Following Saturday’s Tarot performance, Zorn had walked onstage, beaming—perhaps more explicitly, gawking—in awe as well as pride, having witnessed these wizards performing his songs so voraciously. With Masada, he gets to be onstage with them, shredding with them, conducting them, using cues that only he and they know the meanings of, collaboratively creating the new highest vision of what these little songs can be.
The funny thing is, you’ll hear people dismiss this music as clinical, lacking in emotion. This criticism can only come from someone unable access the necessary emotions within. On top of everything else, Zorn is a performer. He writes music that is clearly so fun to play, and it is also beyond fun to watch. My inclination is to close my eyes during transcendent music; I found myself unable to take my eyes off these players. When it’s a drummer like Wolleson or a keyboardist like Marsella onstage, the spectacle is half the fun. (Okay maybe a quarter.) Here’s the thing: as much as I appreciate the efforts of lighting engineers and bands who adopt elaborate or subtle onstage garb and/or personae, it’s nothing compared to watching the looks on the faces of virtuosos reacting intently to each other while mad scientist Zorn brings his latest monster to life. There’s no glee more infectious than this.
It wouldn’t matter much if the music didn’t stack up. To tell you the truth I couldn’t make out a ton of facial expressions from my vantage point. Glimpses and impressions. The music was far too overwhelming. I feel slightly dizzy when I think about Electric New Masada. The effects of the previous three days and even New Masada Quartet had almost deadened my capacity for expectations. I think the nine-piece ensemble played three songs. The one in the middle contained universes and the last one exploded them. I could read John Zorn’s mind for a few seconds and it said do you SEE now why I have gathered these human beings together, have you EVER heard anything like THAT? I wanted to go to Yves Tumor, I wanted to find all my friends and hug them, only I was too shaken to do anything except slink away to the car. No way that just happened.
Today I’m back at home, listening to Zorn as I try to get this all out before it slips away. Usually after a festival I feel profoundly sad; I’d always attributed this to the void left in returning to normal life. I don’t feel sad this time. I wonder if it was just because those other fests were all so unsatisfying. Or else, the pandemic has changed me in ways I don’t understand yet. I’m torn between wanting to dwell in memories of Big Ears and wanting to file them away somewhere so they’ll be fresher when I need them. Only that’s not how it works, is it? Whether I cling to them or not, the memories are irretrievably fading. They can’t be re-experienced. Yesterday the Summerfest lineup dropped, and that’s when a touch of despair finally hit. Because this, after all, is what we get in Milwaukee. John Zorn will likely never set foot here, and if it weren’t for Ken at Acme Records, we’d probably never even know International Anthem existed. Justin Bieber. Rod Stewart. Backstreet Boys. John Fogerty. Steve Miller. This is our lot in life. How am I supposed to go back to just seeing shows?
what if when you
turn off the music,
your mind starts
to orchestrate the silence
and every creak of wood
the wind through trees
the call of birds
is it enough