AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Big Ears 2023 Part 1

First, a few brief and random thoughts about Knoxville and the fest in general.

Logistically, the downtown area of Knoxville is small enough to host a festival such as this while comfortably being able to walk to all venues.  Sure, some of the spaces will require you to hoof it over due to the overlapping scheduling (more on this below) but…at least you don’t have to resort to public transportation.

Downtown Knoxville has some awesome eating establishments.  If one place has a long wait go to the next performance…you’re bound to find something you’ll like.

The festival seems to only be getting bigger every year.  I think I saw somewhere that there were 22,000 in attendance last year.  If I was to hazard a guess, there was a lot more this year.

The sheer number of acts performing was insane.  Talk about an embarrassment of riches!  Unfortunately, this…and the previous point… leads to horrendous scheduling conflicts.  This was a minor problem last year, this year it was a MAJOR problem.  If you didn’t miss all, or at least some, of a performance that was on your “A” list…you were extremely lucky.  I see no way around this other than scaling back, and I don’t think that’s going to happen.

Anyway, let’s get to the music!

Day 1-Thursday

Yarn/Wire-St. Johns Cathedral:

Two percussionists (with a veritable forest of percussion Roscoe Mitchell style) and two acoustic pianists (playing the inside and the outside). I dug this big time. Very evocative of some ancient temple ritual. Extremely quiet and contemplative in parts giving way to massive percussive cacophony and piano abuse in others. I’m not a religious person but something about the stained-glass windows with the sun setting through them and the religious iconography of the Cathedral added to the vibe for me. Brilliant show!

Mivos String Quartet playing the music of Steve Reich-St. Johns Cathedral:

They played three long pieces (WTC 9/11, Different Trains, Triple Quartet). The first piece (no, actually all three) was extremely interesting as all 4 members were triggering sounds and voices with their instruments… sometimes bowed, sometimes plucked and sometimes extending the sounds out as they were slowly being bowed. It was an awesome and uncanny effect, and, like Yarn/Wire, the Cathedral iconography fit in very nicely. The Quartet was heavily augmented with tapes so, really, they were more an octet than a quartet. Very full rich sounds and did an incredible job interpreting Reich’s music. Another huge winning performance for me!!

Exploding Star Orchestra-Knoxville Civic Auditorium:

Jeebus what a show!!!! An eight-piece of leader and Cornet player Rob Mazurek, Craig Taborn and Angelica Sanchez on electric Piano, Mary Halvorson on guitar, Tomeka Reid on cello, Chad Taylor and Gerald Cleaver on drums, and Damon Locks on voices and electronics (this dude blew me the fuck away…think dosed out and dancing Jon Anderson and you are getting close). The comparisons to electric Miles are accurate but also throw in Herbie Hancock’s first electric period (Sextant, Mwandishi, etc.). The ensemble was loose, flowing, and groovy (Tomeka was given a bunch of solo space and Mary cranked out a banger early on, same with Taborn and Sanchez!) with phenomenal dynamics going from intense to quiet, spacey and COSMIC!!!!!! They were bloody brilliant and could have easily listened to them for another few hours. Hello Bandcamp!

Day 2-Friday

Wendy Eisenberg-Jig and Reel:

This was a solo performance by Wendy on electric Guitar and vocals. The songs were short, very quirky, and with very oblique lyrics that apparently were very dark (as I was informed by a friend), although I didn’t quite pick up on that. She informed us that she was going for a Eugene Chadbourne vibe. First, her guitar playing is exemplary…and because of the complexity of the songs, I imagine it very difficult to pull off as she was singing…lots of lyrics. Second, gorgeous voice…I immediately thought of Annette Peacock. Overall vibe…while sounding nothing like the following, she sounded very much like the following: Peacock, songs era John Greaves (well certainly not her voice but the songs), Carla Bley, Michael Mantler and, back to Greaves…very Kew Rhonish, even a little Robert Wyatt. Very nice performance and quite personable and funny on stage.

Mary Halvorson performing Amaryllis-Bijou Theater:

Excellent performance, excellent music…unfortunately marred by sub-optimal sound. The acoustic bass was way way WAY over-mixed and overpowered everybody, but especially Mary and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. I really had to dig in and strain to hear her. Thankfully, this was corrected about halfway through the set but still…

Mary Halvorson performing Belladonna-Bijou Theater:

Much better sound wise and thus my enjoyment level was increased because of it. This performance had her backed by the Mivos String Quartet, the same quartet that performed the Reich program the day before. No tapes or anything augmenting them, unlike that previous show…so they sounded like a true quartet, and they sounded exquisite. Mary’s’ playing was brilliant doing some of her patented looping that is immediately recognizable as her. Excellent, excellent show!

Pino Palladino-Tennessee Theater:

Whattttttt??? Is this the same fretless bass playing Pino that played on that great Paul Young album in the 80’s and then did stints with The Who. Why yes, it was!!! I was really looking forward to this show and… I was disappointed. Think late-period Weather Report only, more polished and shinier (ugggh!!). This was borderline fuzak to my ears and, I really hate to say this but, it was the first show at the Big Ears festival for any year that I went that did not grab me in any way, shape, or form.  Even though this performance took the wind out of my sails, the packed theater was visibly digging it.  My baggage I guess.

Ned Rothenbergs Crossings Quartet-St. Johns Chapel:

THE WIND IS BACK BABY!!!!!! This quartet was stellar. Ned on clarinet and sax and I think Japanese shakuhachi (???? not sure on these instruments, my sight line was compromised a bit), Sylvie Courvoisier on piano and inside of piano (she was a total ringer in this band, channeling Keith Tippett…freaking amazing!), Mary Halvorson probably doing her best playing of the four shows I’ve seen her in so far. Speed picking and looping like the trooper she is!!!, Tomas Fujiwara on drums sounding strong strong strong! This unit was in the Muhal zone for much of the set…and when they weren’t navigating the complex arrangements they were improvising like mad. This will rank as one of the best shows of the fest for me…I know it will!

(Postscript-and it was)

Here is Part 2 of my 2023 Big Ears experience.

Mike Eisenberg
Twitter: @bigaudio999

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