Big Ears 2023
Big Ears Festival was the best once again. There’s not going to be any suspense about that as you read. I once again implore you to attend next time. Anything sub-par you may witness at this festival is either due to inexplicable personal preference or simply not stacking up to something else you just saw at Big Ears.
Allow me to deliver the blow-by-blow of the 2023 festival experience, backtracking for just a moment to last fall.
9/12/2022: The 2023 lineup drops. It includes “John Zorn’s 70th Birthday Celebration”!! I hadn’t dared hope Zorn would be back so soon. PAINKILLER?? COBRA?? Talk about things I never thought I’d see…
11/1/2022: The subject line says “Surprise! Surprise!” It’s a round of artist additions, which includes…KAE TEMPEST!!! They are truly the human being on Earth I am most dying to have an in-person musical experience with. In fact I requested them in my post-fest survey response last year! Is this really happening??
3/2/2023: The official Big Ears schedule drops. No sign of Kae Tempest. Tempest hasn’t posted a thing on social media about ever being booked at this festival. One wonders whether anyone ever told them they were added.
also 3/2/2023: “Tennessee’s governor has signed laws banning drag performances in front of children and restricting medical treatment for transgender youth.” (BBC) This damn state is as bad as Wisconsin, always in the news for the most atrocious actions of its worst citizens. Tennessee is not a sovereign nation but it yearns to be. It wants to become a Texas, or a California, or a Florida, a state that transcends United-Statesness, to thrive in its disdain of the faceless American landscape. Who could blame it? It has Nashville, yes, but as an entire STATE…? Unlike the statue of liberty and the U.S. constitution, Bill Lee says ‘actually some of you are NOT welcome’. We used to have a governor like this guy. Things have actually been improving in Wisconsin since we got rid of him.
3/21/2023: The subject line says “Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes…” The body reads: “Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, Edgar Meyer, Carol Robinson, Bill Laswell, and Kae Tempest are unable to perform as planned at Big Ears this year.” That’s taxing, folks. Because I already knew the best part of Zorn’s birthday party was going to be “Painkiller”, or as it was known when I witnessed it in 2014, Bladerunner. I haven’t seen a better band than that in my life. Zorn, Laswell, Lombardo. Now THAT’S out of the picture.
According to this same email: “…Painkiller on Sunday night, April 2, will be replaced by a special performance of John Zorn with Dave Lombardo and Christian McBride.” Did anyone actually believe this? McBride did participate in Zorn’s epic (ongoing?) BOOK OF ANGELS project back in 2015; maybe the connection runs deeper than I know. This is par for the course, anyway; it wouldn’t be a Zorn event without last-minute changes. His cinematic universe is a manifestation of the Big Ears spirit: no matter what you’re excited for, someone or something else just as good is liable to pop up at any point. I should’ve been RELIEVED.
3/29/2023 11:50 p.m. We pull up to the VRBO gate, a horse farm on the outskirts of Knoxville. Feverishly we enter the code. A British robot woman says “Access granted”. It’s the most soothing sound I’ve ever heard. Not unlike Kendal Rae on that latest Beat Index album. The gates open. We find our way inside the cabin. The exhausting day is over.
11 a.m. It’s in the 60s outside and we are soaking in the hot tub. From now on I should make a habit of reviewing the hot tubs at rental cabins, the only criterion of course being ‘didn’t smell funny’. Everyone should start doing this actually. I know you get used to funny hot-tub smell after a while but it’s still gross. This one didn’t smell funny. Email me for the address.
3:35 p.m. We have our wristbands on and we’re looking at the merch. I know there won’t be any CDs of Ceramic Dog’s WHAT I DID ON MY LONG VACATION but I have to look. Marc Ribot does have a book out, though; huh. I glance at the Tzadik discs on the shelves and my head starts tingling. JUST WALK AWAY I tell myself. No good can come of perusing the CDs. We are not here for CD shopping. Jen gets a hoodie and we go looking for the restaurant where we had our best meal last year.
3:50 p.m. We’re on a balcony in the Embassy Suites hotel, which is now the home of KoPita. It was a cool little bistro-type place before. It was a scrappy joint. Now it’s…a hotel restaurant. We order way too much food. It’s not as good as we remember it from last year but we leave satisfied, aside from the lentil soup. We have too many exceptional lentil soup options in Milwaukee.
6:30 p.m. Our festival begins at the Mill & Mine. The last place I’d seen Low. There’s no forgetting that one. I plan on making a lot more memories in this room. Onstage is Lonnie Holley. I’d never heard of him until we listened to the archive of that week’s ‘The Truth About De-Evolution’ WMSE program (https://www.wmse.org/program/the-truth-about-de-evolution/), on which Johnny K previewed the festival and rearranged our priorities a little. Holley’s performances are improvised spoken word and singing stemming from an endless archive of phrases and ideas. The band backing him tonight is called Mourning [A] BLKstar and they’re making transcendent music out of nothing. I can’t believe I’m already getting swept up onto this level, this quintessence of Big Ears. Moor Mother emerges for a not-so-surprising guest appearance. The song is based on the idea of “the fruit that refuses to fall”. “I didn’t say, ‘the fruit that refuses to be HARVESTED’, Holley points out. Moor Mother draws the line from ‘fruit’ to ‘root’; the imagery in my head spreads in many directions. Souls seep in through the walls and fill the room. Nobody wants it to end.
8:15 p.m. We’re inside the walls of St. John’s Cathedral, a GA-wristbander’s most daunting challenge, long lines that can end in disappointment if you don’t get there early enough. The ‘premier’ wristband is all but a guarantee that if you arrive anywhere by showtime you will get in (whereas ‘VIP’ IS a guarantee). It ostensibly relieves the anxiety you might feel in having to rush to the next venue, etc. I wonder why the festival didn’t feel any less hectic to me this year, then. Maybe the downtime of waiting in line is more valuable than I realized. Maybe long lines made for easier choices as a GA peon. Whatever the case, getting in early and having a nice seat for this performance of three Steve Reich string quartets by Mivos Quartet is a true blessing. Moving between hypnotic and jagged, the pieces are hybrid live and pre-recorded; the backing tracks feature ambient and electronic sounds as well as dialogue that drifts in and out of clarity, and even complementary string parts. At times the quartet plays fugues against the audio being pumped in, even alternating between leading and following. The amount of rehearsal it must’ve taken just to be on time with all of the changes…the mind reels.
10:15 p.m. Exploding Star Orchestra doesn’t stand a chance. Between the rather drab environs of the Knoxville Civic Auditorium (its first time hosting Big Ears shows I believe), a flat sound mix, and the peculiar stage presence of Rob Mazurek whilst not playing his horn, I’m having trouble surrendering to this set. My Zorn anticipation is part of it; having seem him conduct jazz, Mazurek’s efforts…I know, it’s not a fair comparison! There are brief moments of atmospheric transcendence but nothing mindblowing. For me, all the highlights develop from Damon Locks’ spoken bits and electronic manipulations (and dancing). Not for the last time this weekend, I just wish Mary Halvorson’s guitar were way louder.
11:35 p.m. Why am I this tired? I should be catching the end of Rich Ruth. I should finally give Liturgy another chance. But tomorrow’s a long day.
11:15 a.m. I’m staring at the Low t-shirt in my suitcase. Nope not today.
12:30 p.m. As much as I prefer to be surprised, it’s a lucky thing I happened to click on the Gatos Do Sul info link; I hadn’t heard of this project before, featuring a host of Zorn MVPs including pianist Brian Marsella, bassist Jorge Roeder, and legendary percussionist Cyro Baptista, in whose honor Marsella created the group in the first place—“music I thought would be fun for Cyro to play”, as he puts it. Here in the Bijou Theatre is where all the Zorn madness went down last year, so I’m feeling all kinds of shivers throughout this set. It’s an absolute feast for the eyes and ears; I can only name a small fraction of the implements at Baptista’s disposal, and any opportunity to watch Marsella at work is pure joy.
2:10 p.m. When will it sink in that Tennessee is a whiskey state and beer to the general populace is probably looked on as a lesser pursuit. I wish whiskey weren’t so taxing on my body. Nevertheless I order a Midnight In Manhattan at Stock & Barrel and it is delicious my oh my. Great food too. The village salad especially.
3:00 p.m. Back at the Bijou for Mary Halvorson’s AMARYLLIS. I’m still not sure if that’s technically the name of the band or just the song cycle/album. Either way oh my lord I listened to this and BELLADONNA quite a bit last year but I’m still a Halvorson novice and many more sides of her playing emerge in the live setting than on the record. I have this silly goal in the back of my mind: to see Halvorson and Moor Mother at least once per day. It seemed like it should be possible (even though I missed 700 Bliss last night like a dummy). I now feel ravenous for more, but there’ll be lots more opportunities to see Mary, and her BELLADONNA set conflicts with…
-----4:00 p.m. SECRET SHOW ALERT: JOHN ZORN + NED ROTHENBERG @ The Point, 6 p.m.! I’m sure this turns out to be amazing but it’s not in the cards for me. There are only a couple of designated surprise shows left on the schedule and one of ‘em’s got to be Ceramic Dog or the Trio-Convulsant…right…?
4:45 p.m. …Joe Rainey. The Standard should be fuller than this. I’m staring at the blank space where Jaimie Branch should be. She wore a ball cap too. I don’t wanna think about it too much; I thought we were just STARTING the journey. Rainey’s NIINETA was one of my favorite albums of 2022; its producer, Andrew Broder, is also onstage, and that album couldn’t possibly do justice to the power of Joe’s voice in the flesh and these beats pulsing through us here. Rainey is full of gratitude and smartassery in equal measures as he addresses the crowd at the end. He’d love to stick around for the rest of the weekend but he has to get home to watch WrestleMania with his kids.
5:50 p.m. It’s pouring out. Los Lobos are supposed to play the outdoor stage they set up this year at the Southern Railway Station; I’m assuming that didn’t go forward. We’re not hungry but we go to Sweet Pea’s because it’s right next door. Beers and fried pickles. Friends trickle in. The breather is nice; it’s been an intense afternoon already.
7:00 p.m. It’s time for Moor Mother’s solo set back at The Standard. I have no idea what to expect; her recorded output is all over the map. She remains seated for most of the show, manipulating an array of electronics, flanked by two accompanists whose names I’ve been unable as yet to uncover. (This is bad journalism; I assumed this information would be readily available so I didn’t strain my ears to make out what Camae Ayewa was saying when she introduced them. If it would do any good, I’d fire myself.) Glaring black-and-white videos of Ayewa in a prison and various other places light the stage from behind. The material, I don’t think I’ve ever heard but I don’t think it’s ENTIRELY improvised. Either way it is potent.
8:10 p.m. We now join Pino Palladino & Blake Mills, already in progress. We are essentially awash in a type of jazz/rock/funk undulating improv that’s easy for me to submerge into, having been to a great many jamband shows hoping to come across something like it. Only jambands cannot seem to relinquish their burning need to sing words, to say nothing of the way they tend to cling to monotonous happydancegrooves. This isn’t eclectic music on a Zorn level but it’s emotionally dynamic and engaging from the moment we walk in until it ends. I’m still looking for my first mild letdown today.
9:00 p.m. Oh no, I’ve fallen in with an opera crowd! I’ve always hoped this would happen! The thing about Big Ears is, when a friend of a friend says something is worth seeing, it’s almost guaranteed to be at least as good as whatever else I was planning on doing. Thus I find myself in an upstairs loft above a coffee shop on Gay Street watching the sixth of seven intermittent installments of Robert Ashley’s 1983 opera PERFECT LIVES. Local artists Black Atticus and Caroline Whitaker have a dizzying conversation set to music and punctuated by the chorus—experimental theater troupe Varispeed, who are putting on the series—sonorously intoning “he saaaaid” and “she saaaaid” whenever the dialogue switches characters. It’s enthralling, invigorating, unlike any other thing I’ve seen or heard. I have no clue what’s going on but the dialogue and the music and the artistry of the arrangement blow me clean away.
10:15 p.m. I’m in the middle of the Irreversible Entanglements set and it’s happening again, this thing that only happens at Big Ears. Everything is TOO GOOD. Is all this music purely improvised as well? Moor Mother urges this group to peaks of intensity that my brain is too wiped to process; it shorts out a few times. I’m here, but I’m not here. I’m in but I’m out. I fill up the room, I’m invisible.
11:00 p.m. I had other plans, but nothing could keep me from the final installment of PERFECT LIVES—“The Bar”, being in this case the Jig & Reel. A more straightforward “band” arrangement this time around, featuring lengthy speeches by the narrator (Gelsey Bell) and Buddy, the world’s greatest piano player (Dave Ruder). My brain struggles to put together a few stray puzzle pieces. Someone named Rodney. An obsession with boogie-woogie. Shut up brain you’re not gonna fit this one together. Yet it all comes together, doesn’t it, not in a way that gives me the full picture having missed five of the seven acts, but nobody in this room feels left out, even though at the end only two people in the crowd admit to having attended all seven. It was glorious, wry, obtuse, gleefully confounding and earnestly uplifting. Part of the joy was discovering that this exists. I’m sure I’ll see Makaya McCraven again some day but I’ll probably never experience anything else quite like PERFECT LIVES. (note: If you’re intrigued, you can watch performances of this opera by Varispeed from ten years ago for free right here: http://www.robertashley.org/productions/2013-perfectlivescatskills.htm)
12:40 p.m. The uber driver is absolutely grilling me about my life. I’m more used to being the guy asking the questions; I don’t know what the hell I’m saying. Before long he’s asking me if I believe in objective journalism. A few minutes later he wants my opinion on whether or not he should go to grad school. I’ve only got a bachelor’s; what kind of impression did I just give this stranger? It’s one of the more stimulating car rides I’ve ever paid for.
12:50 p.m. I had to at least stop in at the Pilot Light, where last year we’d seen a triumphant set by Dead Rider. Their drummer Matt Espy happens to be doing a solo set here later this afternoon—alas. Instead, I’m enjoying this New Orleans/Baltimore sax/electronic loop/drone duo known as Green Ribbon. At the end of the set, Will Hicks declares Pilot Light his favorite venue in the country; dang! I suddenly realize that next year I need to be even less strictly attached to hopes and plans at this festival. I need to eschew as many of my known quantities as possible. My preferences are a trap, and it’s better to wander than to be trapped.
1:40 p.m. Just in case it’s REALLY Christian McBride playing bass with Zorn and Lombardo tomorrow night I might as well check out his New Jawn, which turns out to be altogether the most conventional bebop thing I’ve caught…like ever at this festival, but damn, the synergy between McBride and drummer Nasheet Waits is positively thrilling, and spotlighting Marcus Strickland on the bass clarinet is a fabulous idea every time it happens.
2:30 p.m. I’ve finally convinced my friend David to join me for a Zorn thing. It wasn’t until earlier today I realized the SUITE FOR PIANO band—Marsella, Roeder and Ches Smith—could be as good an introduction to the Zorn world as anything. In line I’m thinking about the Brian Marsella Trio performance from last year’s Big Ears and admittedly having my doubts that this newer trio can be as powerful as that. Ha! It’s charitable of them to move the Zorn proceedings into the bigger Tennessee Theatre this year, although the concessions miss a big opportunity in selling popcorn rather than popZORN (this joke used without permission from Andy Grotelueschen; apologies). Somehow the chemistry between Marsella and Smith is even more ridiculous than the Marsella-Kenny Wollesen connection was. These guys are such experts at breathing within the Zorn compositional framework; Marsella’s glasses pop right off at least twice during the performance and retrieving them off the floor is all part of the show. I can’t think of a pianist I’d rather watch play; it’s as if he’s at war with his fingers and the keys are collateral damage. They win over David. I could just go home now, really.
3:45 p.m. The tacos at Chivo Taqueria amount to the best meal of the weekend for me. Turns out it’s run by the same company as Stock & Barrel; I swear I’m not shilling, feel free to point me in other directions people. Plus they have Schulz Bräu dunkel in bottles? Please sponsor next year’s Big Ears, Schulz Bräu! Oh god that would go over great, they probably don’t even make an IPA.
5:20 I’m a bit late for Zorn’s A CAPELLA VOCAL MUSIC. What can I tell you, this is some gorgeous gothic shit. The performers are Kirsten Sollek, Eliza Bagg, Elizabeth Bates, Sarah Brailey, and Rachel Calloway. The astonishing thing is the way the songs and quirks of delivery fit into the overall Zorn compositional continuity. This music is well beyond my usual scope; the Zorn trademarks pull me into yet another potential rabbithole.
6:40 p.m. We’re sitting on the astroturf soaking up the sun outside the Mill & Mine. We are a hilarious bougie caricature of the Bonnaroovians we once were. It could not be more beautiful out. I don’t even remember Milwaukee. Why aren’t we sipping champagne? Who’s got some champagne?
7:20 p.m. It’s finally time for the Sun Ra Arkestra. There he is, Marshall Allen. He isn’t just up there like a totem, he leads the band! You know, some of the time. This is my first Arkestra experience. In fact, almost every band I see this weekend is my first time! Anyway, I find myself unable to surrender to this ritual. There are highlights but the show all in all is pretty mild. I plan on giving the Arkestra another chance some day, but it’s entirely possible that I’ve missed this particular boat.
-----8:00 p.m. SECRET SHOW ALERTS: AROOJ AFTAB + MAEVE GILCHRIST @ The Point, 9:45 p.m.! Again, sure to be dreamy; there’s no way I’m skipping Bagatelles for this though. JOHN ZORN’S NEW MASADA QUARTET @ Tennessee Theatre, midnight! It was obviously gonna be something Zorny and this is a timely and welcome selection. But, like. There’s no way Trio-Convulsant will be playing in the church. Huh.
9:15 p.m. Jake Xerxes Russell is performing at the Jig & Reel. I like his simple fingerpicking finesse right away. Meanwhile I’m still puzzling about this announcement that I didn’t actually receive about Zorn’s BAGATELLES programs flip-flopping; I can’t remember how many times this has already been changed. One question remains: why did INCERTO have to be canceled? Everybody who’s on that record is at the festival! The SUITE FOR PIANO trio plus Julian Lage??? Ugh well maybe next year. In any case I am totally wrong about who is playing the next Zorn set but I need to get to it.
10:00 p.m. It’s Nova Quartet: John Medeski on piano, Wollesen on vibes, Dunn on bass and Smith on drums. It’s a fun set, particularly watching Kenny bash the shit out of the vibes. Then Trevor puts down the upright and picks up the bass guitar: Asmodeus! I must’ve skimmed that email too quickly; I had no idea this was on the menu. Given the proper setting, Ribot can get as heavy as anybody. Seems like maybe he could get a little further afield if Zorn weren’t right there interf—I mean conducting! Zorn seems to want everything louder and noisier this weekend. This is the trio to do it with; there are Secret Chiefs-esque moments, I can’t lie.
Midnight: For a sublime 25 minutes or so, the New Masada Quartet (Zorn on sax plus Wollesen, Lage and Roeder) melt our faces via the masada genre. It was just getting good and now it’s over. Ah well; such is Mango.
12:55 a.m. “Tipton Station Road—that’s south, right?” says the uber driver. “Um, sure!” I say hopefully. The uber driver has never taken Martin Mill Pike this far outside of the city limits. This was not the way I came in earlier. He says he picked up some Big Ears youngsters earlier and told them The Eagles were in town—THEY’D NEVER HEARD OF ‘EM. My faith in humanity is briefly restored, even though I’m increasingly wondering if I’m being abducted. This road is winding through hill country. IS THAT WHAT A MOONSHINE STILL LOOKS LIKE? We’re both totally freaking out. I’m just kidding, it’s fine. In this instance we worship at the altar of GPS and whatnot.
1 p.m. Theon Cross is playing in the Jackson Terminal, just him on tuba and vocals and pad of gadgetry and guitarist Nikos Ziarkas accompanying. Unsurprisingly it’s fabulous, otherworldly groovy spiritual tuba music. I’m in a mild state of panic because it’s the last day and I haven’t spent enough time with anybody and I’d like an extra week just to relax and there’s still no fix for getting old. Cross gushes about the vibe at Big Ears; this seems significant coming from a Londoner.
-----2:30 p.m. SECRET SHOW ALERT: BÉLA FLECK + BASSEKOU KOUYATE @ St. John’s! Cripes this had to be sublime. Just think about the happy fans in that room. You learn quickly to shake loose your shame about the things you miss at Big Ears. I somehow never saw Bill Frisell OR Shahzad Ismaily ONCE this whole weekend, a masochistic feat in any other context! Still I have to stop taking Béla for granted; he has never failed to wow me and it’s been too long. But he’s gone from being the best musician at every hippie festival to being merely just as good as everyone else at Big Ears. Are the Flecktones still a band? If the Frog Brigade can tour, why not the Flecktones? I’ll stop now.
2:30 p.m. Some more BAGATELLES, why not? I didn’t intend to be quite this Zorn-centric, it was as much timing as anything else. Here’s that vaunted Marsella Trio though, ripping it up as they did last year but with new material. And then another surprise in the John Medeski Trio—not a surprise announcement but in the group’s furious treatment of the material, Medeski now in his element on the organ and guitarist David Fiuczynski in a caustic mode not unlike Matt Hollenberg of Cleric. (I totally forgot that Cleric was initially announced as one of the performers this year; what happened there…?) Drummer G. Calvin Weston is the biggest revelation, though; in the span of these twenty minutes or so I’m imagining so many bands he could elevate, from metal to jazz and beyond, sort of like a Kenny Grohowski but with more bludgeoning.
3:50 p.m. The last meal is at Myrtle’s. I could get addicted to the fried pickles. I’m being a kid, though. I’m eating like I’m in my 20s. My gut has had just about enough. And I’m supposed to be thankful, if I understand correctly, that I’ve at last re-sensitized my innards to the perils of an unhealthy diet. Hahahahaha.
5:25 p.m. Another friend-of-a-friend recommendation, caroline. Why are the best shows in Jackson Terminal? Should’ve hung out here all weekend. A UK freak-folk/jazz/post-rock band. They play in the round, swapping various instruments throughout. Hypnotic, melodic, esoteric, minimalistic, explosive, can’t convince ourselves to leave even though there’s somewhere else we thought we wanted to be.
6:35 p.m. The balcony in the Auditorium is the place to be, at least for Oneohtrix Point Never’s set, complete with mend-bending animation projected behind him. I’m immediately drawn in; I get an impression of the rigors and horrors of raising a child in the batshit insanity of the modern world, at least from the visuals! I think I’m only in the room for fifteen minutes but it’s a full immersion.
7 p.m. Time is starting to blur because I know the weekend is almost over. We’ve already reached the main events. Even the Big Ears app has admitted it: not Christian McBride. Instead, somebody maybe as intimately familiar with Dave Lombardo as Zorn himself: Trevor Dunn. The purely improvised set follows the basic Bladerunner formula, only way more metal-leaning. Lombardo doesn’t seem as loose tonight; he has been playing with like six different metal-adjacent projects simultaneously for the past decade or so, it’s not hard to understand. And Dunn as a player is in no way reminiscent of Laswell so there’s no ear candy, no deep grooves. He’s so stubbornly avant that I think his efforts during the quasi-ballad confound Lombardo a bit. The whole thing is a sonic assault the likes of which I don’t think anyone quite expected tonight. To me, well, it’s two-fifths of Mr. Bungle noise-jamming with John Zorn; you might say I’m happy to be here.
8 p.m. There’s no sense slowing down now. I’ve never heard the music of Algiers before; hell of a time slot. My mind is thoroughly blown by this band’s set. I have a flashback to that weird moment in time when we had Faith No More and Living Colour on everybody’s TVs and then that spirit vanished from music: aggressive, feisty guitars, eclectic sounds and moods, freak flags flying, politics, and crucially, the occasional soaring anthemic chorus. Algiers adds punishing noise and irresistible beats to the recipe. I feel like the world’s been waiting for music like this. I feel caught up in something bigger. I despair that the mainstream will never catch on. Just this once okay?
9:20 p.m. Ribot is on at the Mill & Mine, slaying with Los Cubanos Postizos. Until this festival lineup dropped I didn’t even know they were still a band. I don’t want to leave and I know I should stay. I ignore my gut, though. The schedule says 10:00. Zorn: COBRA. I should’ve known he’d wait until Marc’s set was finished. Better to have loved and lost, they say.
10:25 p.m. Years ago I saw a group of local artists calling themselves the Prematurely Air-Conditioned Arts Collective perform a COBRA at Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee. Although it boasted a tiny fraction of the decibels put out by Zorn’s ensemble Sunday night in Knoxville, it was at least as fun and musically rewarding. I pooh-pooh because I love; the point of COBRA is not so much the creation of beautiful music as a chance to marvel at the occasional moments of wonder amidst a chaotic sonic badminton match. I have not brushed up on the rules of this game and this is not the place to explain it anyway; confusion is part of the thrill. However, last year’s finale, New Electric Masada, was so incredible that I was rooting for something more musically satisfying than this. There are FOUR drummers onstage. And one of them is fucking Dave Lombardo. And Zorn’s route out of every conundrum is GET LOUDER AND LOUDER. I just feel bad for Halvorson and Trigger drummer Aaron Edgcomb out on the edges, trying in vain to get Zorn’s attention, seeming at times to be wondering what the point of it is, nobody can hear us anyway. It IS Zorn’s birthday party, though. If he wants to blow the roof off the place with blaring noise, he’s entitled. And it is a total blast. Hats off to Simon Hanes in particular; I don’t know if Zorn was annoyed or delighted but Hanes makes a hilarious spectacle of himself and seems the most interested in making MUSIC as well as having the time of his life.
7:30 a.m. We are on the road back to Milwaukee. I’m wondering how non-Zornheads feel about Zorn commandeering Big Ears two years in a row. How I feel about it. I strive to reject fetishization of icons and I feel a little overloaded. Also I wouldn’t say any of the performances other than maybe COBRA were close to filling up the Tennessee. The festival wasn’t quite a sellout this year, although parking was more challenging than last year for sure (but still only a couple bucks if not free). I wonder if the folks in charge have overestimated Zorn’s appeal just a bit. While the nerd in me would love to see Zorn showcases every year—MOONCHILD would have to show up at some point right????—I sort of hope he takes next year off. For the sake of the festival, yes, but also for my sake. It’s so easy to slip into the headspace of fandom, to revel in how ingrained this weird music is in your bones. Only sometimes it starts to feel too much like nostalgia. I wonder if that’s all fandom actually is, if the ugly extremes of pop culture hives just happen to be comprised of people younger and more adept at digital life than me. How much of the endless nostalgia wave can we blame on the moneymakers? How much have we as fans stifled our creative minds?
(MAGNUM P.I. voice) I KNOW what you’re thinking. ‘So just don’t GO to the Zorn stuff next time!’ Do you have any idea what you’re saying? How much willpower do you think I have? Why would I do such a thing to myself? It’s the best music there is, don’t you understand that by now? Besides, there’s nothing WRONG with embracing the comfort of the familiar! It’s just that ultimately if you don’t continue to seek out new and different things, the familiar will be all that your heart can respond to. That sounds like a lonely road. Maybe next year I won’t even look at the lineup. Maybe I’ll just wander.