Big Ears 2024

Thu Mar 28 2024

After two straight years of John Zorn takeovers of Big Ears, the 2024 lineup drop was a bit underwhelming—unless you happen to be an obsessive fan of Secret Chiefs 3. The festival would mark the band’s first public concerts in over five years, and as there are no other events on their calendar at this point, I personally required no additional stoking, especially when I started adding up all the acts featuring SC3 current/former/future members. There were plenty of other enticing names, but my pleasures were likely to be nerdy and somewhat narrowly-focused, and STILL there was barely an hour’s space in the four-day schedule for checking out some new mystery act. Big Ears knows me too well, laying out these irresistible paths for people with my particular tastes. One of these years I’ll have more freedom to roam! But this year, once again, there were too many unmissable sets.

In a sense, the big names were the wild cards this year. Herbie Hancock and Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet for the old old guard; could they still captivate? Were sensitive folkies going to fire up jazz aficionados or put them to sleep? The burgeoning pivot-to-flute movement? And a bunch of familiar names in unfamiliar configurations, surely inflating hopes for some while confounding expectations for others. Quite the hodgepodge this year. The only way you can be disappointed by Big Ears, though, is by comparing it to other Big Earses.

Thursday could scarcely be thought of as an ease-in. My evening began with Mary Halvorson’s Amaryllis at the beautiful Tennessee Theatre, kicking off a celebration of the Nonesuch label’s 60th anniversary. The sextet just released its second album, CLOUDWARD, in January, and although I caught Halvorson multiple times at last year’s festival, I’d left feeling a little unfulfilled. She seems to eschew the spotlight even in the bands she leads; when taking part in larger ensembles at Big Ears ’23, she’d been all but completely drowned out. I heard her loud and clear throughout this year’s Amaryllis set, although it began in rather low-key fashion and showcased the entire multifaceted group to brilliant effect. However Mary was the star of this particular set, leaning into heavier and weirder approaches late in the performance, yet unlike most modern epic-pedal-board guitarists she never lets her sound get cluttered or muddled no matter how many people and/or loops are playing at once. Noise versus clarity would be a pervading theme at Big Ears this year and Mary struck the first blow for the latter team.

Next up at the Mill & Mine was TOO SOON! my most eagerly anticipated set of the year. Secret Chiefs 3 hadn’t played a show since 2018, except for a one-off mini-set at a conference on the enduring influence of philosopher/theologian Henry Corbin at Harvard Divinity School in 2022. That performance featured an actual trio: mastermind Trey Spruance, Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz, and Eyvind Kang, an original touring member of the group who had only popped in rarely since 2004 or so. The standalone event only heightened fans’ consternation, as there STILL hasn’t been a new Spruance composition released by SC3 since 2017, despite Trey’s claims of volumes of work by the collective’s various satellite bands (not to mention a promised “20th anniversary reissue” of BOOK M that’s now going on three years overdue!!). This is how the man operates: promise tons, rarely deliver, so whenever he DOES unveil anything new we all lose our shit.

This opening-night performance was billed thusly on SC3’s facebook page: “Truth told, these tunes had already been RETIRED but we brought them out of cryogenic slumber for this special BIG EARS event.” So yes! I got my hopes up for some ACTUAL relics. Particularly given the fact that Kang would be here, my head swam with the possibilities; the band’s 1999 live album EYES OF FLESH, EYES OF FLAME was my introduction to their music and it’s a feast of Kang-led goodies that they never play any more. So ‘truth told’, I was just a BIT let down by what was essentially a greatest-hits set. Featuring one of the largest ensembles to perform under the SC3 umbrella (yet no sign of original bassist Trevor Dunn, who was here! but quit SC3 back in 1998 and I don’t think has even sat in with them since), it was a relatively sloppy set, although that may only have been apparent because I’ve seen them play ALL of these songs so many times in the past. (Aside from the encore “Shoel”, the lone representative from John Zorn’s BOOK OF ANGELS series.)

I say “let down”; at the same time, seeing SC3 with Eyvind was something I had previously considered an unattainable fantasy, and it wasn’t lost on me. This illustrates another dichotomy that’s especially prominent at Big Ears: reputation versus reality. As a fan nerding out I was bursting at the seams—not only about Kang, but in addition to The Gnarliest Rhythm Section Currently Going (Ches Smith/Shahzad Ismaily), Kenny Grohowski (The Sickest Drummer In Chiefs History), and my first time seeing the band with Blumenkranz aboard. It was basically the lineup that made the Zorn-birthday-celebration rounds in 2018, except in place of Jason Schimmel on guitar it was Matt Hollenberg from Cleric! This might make one expect the heaviest possible versions of songs like “Tistrya” and “Saptarshi”, but they actually weren’t; the increasingly metal trajectory of the core band seems to have reached its apex pre-pandemic, or maybe Trey, appearing at Big Ears hot on the heels of Mr. Bungle’s Japan/Australia tour, is getting his fill of metal altogether with his OTHER band. No love lost! I’m sure we’ll get that Holy Vehm album/tour SOME day.

It was keyboardist Matt Lebofsky who took some of these songs to new levels and aside from Kang provided the freshness to the victory-lap set. Oldies “Vajra” and “Ship Of Fools (Stone Of Exile)” burst to new life with Lebofsky’s embellishments, and potentially stale surf-rock tunes “Drive” and “Labyrinth Of Light” swelled with new warmth and vitality. Only to be, ostensibly, retired forever?

I somewhat failed to appreciate the magnitude of this until a while afterwards. The idea that this might’ve been the last time I’ll ever see, for instance, “Dolorous Stroke” or “Brazen Serpent” live is still hard for me to wrap my head around. Meanwhile my dumb brain is going ‘Eyvind Kang is right there onstage and you don’t play “Combat For The Angel”???’. The other strange part was how many songs they played that have traditionally been associated with Ishraqiyun, the satellite band that would be playing its own full set on Saturday. When you could be pulling out “Jãbalqã/Jãbarsã” or “Assassin’s Blade”!! Still, a little sloppiness aside, a proper sendoff for these beloved tunes, although fans are screaming AN ACTUAL TOUR WOULD’VE BEEN EVEN MORE PROPER.

I’d already missed most of Adrianne Lenker and all of Jlin, and since I’d seen Unwound last year in Chicago (, I opted for something called Fred Frith: Drawing Sound. Everyone’s heard some Frith at some point whether they know it or not; he’s impossible to pin down and I’d never seen him live before so I had no idea what this set would consist of. As it turned out, it was pure creepy minimalism, mostly conventional instruments emitting mostly noises with which they’re not traditionally associated. My day had started with some memorable trumpeting courtesy of Amaryllis’ Adam O’Farrill; that had done nothing to prepare me for the avant-garde stylings of Susana Santos Silva. The quartet (Frith on guitar and various implements, Jason Hoopes on bass and Jordan Glenn on drums) never got particularly loud; they transported the audience into the furthest reaches of music’s potential through pure obscurity in what was for me an unprecedented sonic experience. I’d say I was in a trance for much of it—half spiritual transcendence, half befuddlement.

Big Ears knows how to get folks downtown early. My Friday began at noon sharp at the Bijou Theatre with Trevor Dunn’s Trio-Convulsant avec Folie à Quatre. Yes folks, Ches WITHOUT Shahzad. Here was another showcase for Halvorson, whose earliest recorded work was with this trio (2004’s SISTER PHANTOM OWL FISH). With the addition of a string/horn quartet, this project has become for me a new height in Dunn’s career as a composer as well as an improvisational triumph at this particular show. When Mr. Bungle dove headlong into proto-hyperpop, its jazzy tendencies suffered; this Friday afternoon set felt like a recapturing or a continuation of the fierce experimentation of mid-‘90s Bungle, more structured yet equally unpredictable. My only point of contention is that these seven musicians are all so busy with other projects, the prospect of a tour is virtually impossible. They’ve performed publicly together now three times, I think. How they could be this good is beyond me.

Next up was a solo set by John Paul Jones. I’d never been in a room with him before and had no idea what to expect. Luckily for us all, the Tennessee Theatre has a big shiny Wurlitzer that can rise slowly right up out of the floor, an especially cool thing to have happen while the guy from Led Zeppelin is sitting at it playing “Your Time Is Gonna Come”. I recommend this experience to anybody. Jones then went to the piano for a nice meandering rendition of “No Quarter”, also bucket-list material I won’t try to deny. There was no singing during this set, just John and a bunch of instruments and mostly Zeppelin tunes. The exceptions were “Down To The River To Pray”, played on the triple-neck mandolin, and a brief piano improvisation toward the end of the set that featured layered, manipulated loops and proved to be a bit of foreshadowing. It was a satisfying though markedly disjointed performance. In between songs, Jones joked and putzed around with technology like a 78-year-old bloke; during songs, Jones was pure elegance.

Speaking of elegance, my lone trip to St. John’s Cathedral was for a duo set by Eyvind Kang and Jessika Kenney. As expected it was complete minimalism, primarily Kang playing viola in unison with Kenney’s oblique vocal melodies. I’ve listened to most of the albums they’ve recorded together and it’s not the sort of music that will grab you easily; even in this setting it was somewhat of an endurance test, but this was the only setting in which I was ever likely to be able to appreciate what they do. It was worth a shot.

By this point a pick-me-up was needed and based on NEW BLUE SUN I admit I was SLIGHTLY concerned going into the André 3000 performance at the Bijou. Fortunately the music was significantly more dynamic at this show than on the record. Kind of amazing that a superstar like André could still be so self-conscious about his new musical direction; he felt the need to explain the move to the crowd, but the music was already doing the talking. Led by drummer Carlos Niño, who also spearheaded the creation of the album, the group created a handful of purely improvised swells of sound steeped in African rhythms and, yes, flutes, at least 30 of ‘em onstage for André to choose from at will while the band churned behind him. A state-of-the-art visual production benefited the proceedings as well, in contrast to the generally sparse lighting favored in jazz. This band has only been playing together for a few months; get a couple tours under their belts and these guys could quickly become a musical force on a level with any touring group. Big Ears may have somewhat overestimated demand for these extra-ticketed performances; the place wasn’t even sold out for this second of five shows André would be playing this weekend, and yet no one I talked to who witnessed one of ‘em was anything less than blown away.

We squeezed in dinner prior to Chocolate Genius, Inc.; this Marc Anthony Thompson-led combo had heretofore escaped my notice despite featuring Marc Ribot and John Medeski as core members of the band. Do these guys EVER stop for a second? Apparently a lot of folks consider the group’s 1998 debut BLACK MUSIC a classic, and that’s what they played, even helped out at one point by Thompson’s daughter, Zsela, whom I mention just in case there are any young people reading this so there’ll be ONE name you recognize. This was a charming and fun set but we left early for the Knoxville Civic Auditorium, where Laurie Anderson was performing with Sexmob.

This turned out to be the set of the day. In contrast to JPJ’s doddering old fart routine (whether affected or not), Anderson was vibrant and eager to get her messages across, presenting enduring classics from her catalog in a fresh context with the four members of Sexmob spread out across the long stage behind her, probably not playing as forcefully as they’re accustomed yet taking plenty of liberties within the already jazz-ready compositions. Anderson’s influence extends so far beyond music; so much of the deceptively simplistic wisdom from her ‘80s ‘pop breakthrough’ period still resonates deeply, and her shamanistic presence onstage was both otherworldly and firmly grounded in harsh reality. Any type of tribute to her late husband Lou Reed would’ve brought big lumps to throats, but repurposing his vocal from “Junior Dad”, off his somewhat justly-maligned 2011 Metallica collab LULU, revealed a poignant message underneath that I never would’ve gleaned otherwise. What a moment that was. And how about for the encore, Anderson comes out and leads us all in a tai chi routine. We were all so full of heartbreak and joy at that point, maybe exercise was the only option.

There was a superb blacktronica showcase going on at the Mill & Mine throughout this, from what I’ve been told, which continued into the wee hours, lest anyone suspect this sort of option wasn’t available at Big Ears. There’s always at least one late-night party-people option. I didn’t really NEED anything more, yet I was compelled to The Standard for a dose of jazz-metal with Titan To Tachyons. Kenny Grohowski had only drummed on a handful of tunes at the SC3 show, mostly relegated to percussion; here he was in his element, not unlike with Imperial Triumphant, maxed out on math and metal and improv to boot. Having never before witnessed the guitar sorcery of Sally Gates, my face was plastered to the rear wall of the venue almost from the get-go. After a few oldies by the original trio (none other than Hollenberg handling the bass VI), out came Dunn, who’d joined the group for their 2022 sophomore album VONALS (after guesting on one song on their debut), and, well, it got even heavier. Gates’ compositions fit nicely into the Tzadik catalog where Tachyons currently reside; they encompass a vast swath of moods and genres yet are never frivolous, although there was obvious fun being had onstage. It was happening again, music that simply can’t get any better than it is.

Saturday was gonna be another marathon but I took one precious extra hour before diving in at 1:00 at the M&M: Ishraqiyun. I walked in and saw Grohowski standing in the back of the room—what?? Back in 2013, Secret Chiefs had lavishly spoiled fans by doing two-night stands, two sets each night, four different satellite bands (loosely speaking), so I’d already seen Kenny do a full Ishraqiyun set and it was powerfully mystical, easily my favorite of those four sets in ‘13. However in those days almost everything SC3 did was at least tinged with metal, a perfect concoction combined with Kenny’s intoxicating sense of groove; in some sense, he’d helped move those songs away from their original forms. This Big Ears set, potentially the final one of its kind? featured only Ches, the original drummer when Ishraqiyun began to exist as a separate entity. It wasn’t heavy; in fact it brought me back to the first time I ever heard a lot of these songs, sitting with my friend Sam, probably listening to the SXSW or San Francisco show from ’04, completely flabbergasted. “The 7”, “The 4”, “The 19”, “The 15”, what kind of song titles are these, what is the DEAL with this band? These rhythms, these melodies, steeped in traditional Persian themes, I had nothing to relate them to back then. Decades pass and these are like blood cells, working my body parts without any conscious will being exerted.

They played the first song, which we always used to call “Medieval” but nowadays is apparently called “Medium Aevum”, as a quartet: Spruance, Blumenkranz, Ismaily, Smith. It was pure heaven. During the noisy parts they got extra quiet. It felt like being transported to the song’s birth. My heart leapt at the thought of an entire set in this configuration; it would’ve been cool, but not as cool as having Lebofsky and Kang join in! The first big surprise was “Hagia Sophia”; there are conflicting reports as to when and IF SC3 had even played this song live before. It appears in techno-remix form on BOOK M but I can find no circulating evidence of this haunting arrangement of the song. The second big surprise was…”COMBAT FOR THE ANGEL”!! Sorry but I just never thought of this song as Ishraqiyun; in ’13 they played it as part of the FORMS/Traditionalists set! Anyway first Shanir on the oud (I think!), then Trey on the saz, then Eyvind, I had to get close to take this all in, it was an actual dream come true.

On facebook Trey had encouraged us to “run over to see Kronos Quartet play a couple selections from my new piece for them (the Black Arts Book of St Cyprian the Mage)”! I did hurry over there but it’s a hike; either Kronos played the Spruance bits early or they didn’t play ‘em. I did not regret attending, though. After I sat down, founder Dave Harrington paid tribute to his two longest-standing bandmates, violinist John Sherba and violist Hank Dutt, who will both be retiring in June after putting in over four decades each with Kronos. The group will carry on but this is truly the end of a loooong era for this group.

They didn’t play any Spruance but they played some Steve Reich, they played some Philip Glass, they played some Moondog, they played “Purple Haze”, and then to my absolute amazement, they brought out none other than Tanya Tagaq!! She was not mentioned anywhere on the schedule but if I’d done more research I might’ve seen that she’s been an integral part of this 50th anniversary tour. This is why sometimes doing research is counterproductive to having a maximally great time. It was only two songs, but I never really imagined I’d have an opportunity to see Tagaq perform in person so this had me absolutely beside myself. I might not personally have voted for “Colonizer” as one of the songs for her to perform with Kronos BUT who am I. It was the type of stunning surprise you only get at these now-rare festivals where there’s a community built around a certain musical attitude; the confluence can inspire collaborations beyond your wildest fantasies.

Decisions got more painful after this set; there were basically three things I wanted to see happening at the same time for the entire rest of the night. I caught half of Colin Stetson’s typically mind-warping set before departing for Horse Lords (a whirlwind mathy-motorik jam session), causing me to miss Ka Baird and leaving no time afterwards to catch anything else for fear of missing any of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. I’d just seen them in Chicago thinking I could then skip them at Big Ears; WRONG. Their blend of musical theater and metal and avant-garde is irresistible to me; I just didn’t realize it until recently. Their records don’t prepare you for the sheer brilliance of their live show, a stunning feast for the senses that even featured a giant puppet stalking through the crowd on this night. Most festivals favor quick, generic run-throughs; Big Ears encourages artists to get even crazier than usual, and for SGM that’s a tall order! Yet they succeeded; Ishraqiyun had been my holy-grail moment but SGM was probably the best single set I saw all weekend.

It’s true, Saturday was a little too mapped-out for me, all of that AND Ceramic Dog? Ismaily-Smith bookending the day, this time with Ribot leading the jams. This was one of the least noisy sets of theirs I’ve seen, quite danceable for the most part, vigorous, drawing a lot from their latest album, last year’s CONNECTION, while dipping into the classic primordial Ceramic ooze for a couple relentless post-everything speedgrooves. Ribot hoped the weekend was going well for us and likened it to a fantasy world for the musicians—“the way life SHOULD be”, he gushed. I was certainly feeling it; although I was again approaching greatness overload and couldn’t just keep on like this indefinitely, I was already staving off thoughts of going back to normal life, where sometimes you pay a hundred bucks to go see a bunch of hacks play godawful songs in hopes that they might at some point in the night achieve the sort of incredible spontaneous composition that happens regularly when Big Ears-caliber musicians hop onstage together.

I wanted to see Shabaka yet, though. As the original pivot-to-flute guy it seemed only fitting! Rats, we should’ve left the Dog a little early; the Bijou was at capacity, so we SETTLED for the latter portion of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s set, which was great and I still have “In The Wilderness” kind of stuck in my head and might have it there for life.

Sunday was an unavoidable letdown. Big Ears simply hadn’t booked the kind of marquee act that was likely to end things with a bang. What’s that you say, a John Paul Jones/Thurston Moore duo set? Let me tell you something about that. Jones had played Saturday as half of a duo with Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen called Sons Of Chipotle and reports had been muted; no songs at all from what I’d been told. Given Moore’s proclivity towards noise, “Whole Lotta Love” was starting to seem unlikely. Nevertheless I posted up in the looooong line about 15 minutes before the scheduled start time of this set. And waited. And waited. And could’ve been watching Ahleuchatistas DAMMIT ALL TO HELL. Finally a half hour after it was supposed to start, they began letting us in. Another half hour and the two legends walked onstage. Another half hour after that most of the crowd had left.

Me, I stayed! It was mostly an amorphous sonic battle, yes indeed. Moore battered his guitar with various implements although occasionally he played some more melodic stuff, particularly after JPJ walked away from his bass and array of gadgets and sat down at the piano; those last 10-15 minutes were probably my favorite part, but again, it was all improv, no songs at all, and while I love bathing in the sheer pleasure of Thurston guitar electrons as much as anybody, for the most in-demand event of the day—arguably of the weekend—a little SOMETHING to grab ahold of would’ve been a nice touch, particularly after leaving us all bored and stranded for an hour or more. In this sense, it was the first major dropped ball by Big Ears since I’ve been going. Still…this is Big Ears for chrissakes, not Classic Rock Fest! I’m actually looking forward to hearing this set again, and I’ll always remember it fondly, as I will the Fatoumata Diawara set that preceded it at the M&M (but she needs to find a better backing band, come on), and the Drum Major Instinct and Finom sets at the Regas Building earlier in the day, and the final set of the weekend: Medeski – Russo – Ribot. Another purely improvised set, this was, as I mentioned, an hour and a half or so of the kind of music I hope to hear just a little bit of at shows I go to back in the normal world. Engrossing through and through, anchored by Joe Russo, possibly the most rock-oriented drummer at the festival, “a proper wookparty” as my friend Joel put it.

In the old days of Bonnaroo, this would’ve been the late-night superjam that everybody was talking about the following day. Here at Big Ears, it was almost too exactly like what I thought it would be. After two years in a row of Zorn blowouts to end the fest, this Sunday was more like an extended comedown. M-R-R was certainly an exclamation point on the night, but a soft one; it’s hard to blow minds when people already expect you to be this great. Yet a lot of acts at Big Ears do it. This might’ve just been the first time we were expected to simply ENJOY the final day rather than be in jaw-dropped awe. There was plenty of awe to go around all weekend long; I’m not going to sit here and bitch about having fun.

Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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