Welcome to Big Ears: Be prepared to make a hard choice or two

Just a couple of years ago, Big Ears returned for the first time since Covid had caused a 2 year halt to the festival. Now the festival appears bigger than ever. The festival is now easily double the size it was the last time we attended in 2019. In addition to music, the festival has added authors and cinema to their impressive lineup. This makes it increasingly difficult to make decisions on who and what to attend. Dawn McCarthy from the group Faun Fables asked audience members if they get any sleep and also made a comment on the difficulty she finds to switch emotionally and energetically from one experience to another. I, for one, share this challenge to jump from one experience into another without allowing my mind the time to settle and become ready to shift. It becomes very commonplace to see folks leaving one concert after only seeing a couple of songs to make it to the next show.  Chocolate Genius, Inc. made a comment that it’s something a performer has to get used to. He joked in the past if someone was leaving one of his concerts he would be inclined to follow the person out in the street and ask if everything was ok. This was made entirely in jest, but it does indicate a shift in attitudes about how we think of an audience member walking out during a concert. The comment certainly stems from what now must be an obsolete idea that walking out in the middle of a concert is extremely rude.

Evan Lurie quintet performing at Big Ears

I suppose one grows accustomed to moving along. growing a bit numb to the terrain. One might describe the experience as riding a horse that refused to be tamed. Those of us who grew up in the 90’s can recall a similar experience (at Lollapalooza or similar festivals) when the artists were restricted in how long they were able to perform. You might see an act like P-Funk who normally performed for 3 hours being limited to 45 minutes. If the artist can become accustomed to folks leaving their sets after 3 songs and subsequent departures along the way (with very few new folks entering into the show) it does allow the artist to perform their entire sets without the time constraints. As an audient, the biggest drawback comes when hard choices are needed to be made. Believe it or not, it wasn’t even as to whether or not I could see John Paul Jones or Digable Planets (sadly, I wasn’t able to watch either), it was more so having to choose between 3 acts I dearly wanted to see each of (Kokoroko, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Elliott Sharp with Eric Mingus) The choice at the time never became clear to me to watch 15 minutes of each and scurry to the other set as there would be too much time lost walking from concert to concert of each of the 3 groups. I had to make a more rational choice and view Faun Fables as a consolation for Sleepytime and Void Patrol as a consolation for E# and Eric Mingus. Looking back I think I made the right choice. You simply cannot see everything.

Because each of the aforementioned groups were high on my list of shows I wanted to attend, it just seemed inexcusable to water them down in any way. Another choice that was very difficult was leaving the Herbie Hancock concert early. His group was on fire. We were seated way up in the rafters, but the energy was pure fire. His group included Terrance Blanchard on trumpet and they played excellent versions of Rock-it, Chameleon and the song Footprints in a dedication to the late Wayne Shorter. However, we were on a mission to see Shabaka Hutchings and even though it was at the haunted Bijou theater, we arrived in time to get seats in the lower level and that somehow made the venue a bit more palatable (the balcony is kind of creepy and obviously haunted). Shabaka didn’t disappoint, as his concert turned out to be my favorite of the entire festival. His new group isn’t as danceable as Sons of Kemet were, but what they lacked in the funk, they made up for in technique.

There were 3 concerts that hit hard in nostalgia for me. On opening night, the first concert I saw was the Very Very Circus, a group who’s original leader, Henry Threadgill, was very present at the festival, but was a member of the audience at the concert and not a performer with this group. I enjoyed this greatly along with the other repertory group Air, who were also founded by Threadgill. I did hear some rumblings of discontent from attendees that Threadgill was not in these groups, but I truly enjoyed these two offerings (even though I had to skip out a little early during Air in order to catch Evan Lurie). Both Very Very Circus and Air were spot on in their interpretations of music and it gave me an opportunity to see Brandon Ross (who’s Phantom Station I unfortunately missed). I soaked it up, much like I did when I had the opportunity to see Prime Time a few years back at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival (the 80’s group who backed up the late Ornette Coleman). The Prime Time group was after Mr. Coleman had passed away. Prime Time included Marc Ribot (who performed several times at this year’s Big Ears festival) filling in on guitar duties for the late Bern Nix. Regarding repertory ensembles, it should be noted that there is a certain standard to be met for performing these sets and in the case of Mr. Threadgill, I believe he may have had much to focus on in the concerts he performed in, including his group Zooid and along with Vijay Iyler and Danfis Prieto.

Very Very Circus performing at Big Ears Festival

Also performing was the ensemble of Henry Threadgill’s Make a Move, a show I unfortunately missed due to scheduling conflicts. 

Evan Lurie’s quintet was also very nostalgic for me. So much so, that when they began to perform songs from Selling water by the side of the river I began to cry. I was instantly transported back to the year 1990, when I first started working at The Record Exchange in Raleigh. I recalled a moment when I was telling my co-worker about how much I enjoyed the Lounge Lizards and particularly their recording Voice of Chunk. My co-worker, who has now sadly passed away, said he loved them too and asked if I’d heard the Selling Water record. I hadn’t yet heard that one and when we listened to it together I remember it making a very strong impression. The performance included Marc Ribot on guitar, Jill Jaffe on violin, Greg Cohen on bass and Julien Labro on bandoneon. Mr. Lurie was very entertaining in dialogue. He talked about how the performance came to be by mentioning when Big Ears initially contacted him he was in retirement and mentioned that the bandoneon player used in the music had passed away, thinking that was that. Mr. Lurie said he knew Big Ears was serious when they responded with a list of 5 bandoneon players in the New York area. He then explained how logistically challenging the project was as all of the musicians now live in different states and had the opportunity to rehearse together only one time (the day before the concert). He explained that he wasn’t able to attend this rehearsal as his flight had been delayed several times due to icy conditions in his home state of Massachusetts. Then he mentioned the next song was dedicated to his friend who had recently passed away and performed the song Terraces, this brought even more waterworks for me as I was having trouble holding it together. The only music I can really say that has touched me nearly as much as this recording did in my life was the Bantam  Orchestra’s Citrus, My Love when I witnessed the live rendering in Victoriaville, Quebec back in the 90’s.

Henry Threadgill’s Air Repertory Trio

I was walking down Gay street on Friday and ran into Henry Threadgill. He was very gracious and nice to speak with. The same can be said about Thurston Moore and his wife Eva, whom I said hello to on Thursday.

On Saturday, we went to see author Hanif Abdurraquib reading and talking about his new book There’s always this year
and to my surprise Henry Threadgill was at a table signing copies of his book Easily slip into another world along with co-author Brent Hayes Edwards. I was able to say hello again to Mr. Threadgill and pick up a signed copy of his book. 

Mr Abdurraquib came out wearing a long-embroidered coat and began reading from his new book. He is a recipient of the McArthur foundation genius grant. I was unfamiliar with his work, but quickly became a fan as his book was about basketball along with life experiences. After reading passages from his new book, he took questions, and I was mesmerized by how he could take a question and essentially turn it into artistic passages with his responses. One question came about his writing process and although I can’t do his response much justice, he basically said he writes when he is inspired to do so and not as an exercise. He felt writing as an exercise would dilute his craft and he is most interested in writing about events when he’s compelled to do so. He also took a question about expired words where he quickly deconstructed the question and spoke about a rock band who had started to write down words they no longer wanted to use in their songs and how he had done something similar after his first few books. Hanif also mentioned that he had conducted a Q&A with Chocolate Genius Inc., aka Marc Anthony Thompson earlier in the day and how much it had meant to him to speak with someone who’s music had meant so much to him. The night before I had been at the Chocolate Genius concert, and it was incredible. I can only imagine what Q&A session would’ve been like with the two of them on stage. 

Hanif Abdurraquib at the Knoxville Art Museum

In something of a contrasting note, when we went to see Faun Fables Dawn McCarthy mentioned it was the earliest show they think they’ve ever performed. Their performance started at 12:45pm. Later in the evening we saw Rhiannon Giddens (at 10pm) who said it was the latest show she had ever performed. The concerts of the two groups juxtaposed different renderings of folk music, with Faun Fables deeply rooted into the English folk style while Rhiannon Giddens is more into southern Appalachian style. For me they were like bookends on the day, neatly containing all of other events within day that we ended up seeing, along with other events we weren’t able to see.  

Something that became apparent to me was that a few of the artists enjoyed performing in bare feet. I’ve seen Fred Frith many times and have known he enjoys having his feet bare during his performances. I noticed Rhiannon Giddens and Chocolate Genius, Inc. like to play barefoot as well. All three of these folks should come together and record a version of Robert Parker’s song barefootin’. It would be a collaboration for the ages.

Chocolate Genius Inc., performing at the Bijou Theater at Big Ears Festival
Rhiannon Giddens performing at the Tennessee Theater at Big Ears Festival


Seeing Fred Frith and Elliott Sharp again brought back memories of Victoriaville from my first visit there in 1992. Back over 30 years ago, it was the place audiences would go to see a festival full of improvisational artists in North America. The Vancouver Jazz Festival (a festival I’ve never attended) held a similarly extensive lineup of artists but really didn’t assemble a grouping as compelling as Victoriaville did for me. I recall one year around 1995 when Kronos Quartet (who also performed at this year’s Big Ears festival but we weren’t able to see) were performing the music of Phillip Glass. I drove to Victoriaville and sowed some cannabis and my pipe  inside of my coat. I stopped at a hotel in New Hampshire right before the border on the way there. Opening the bathroom window, I decided to light up. Maybe I thought I was going to be discreet, but I wasn’t as I could hear the person staying in the adjacent room banging on wall as if to tell me to stop. Fortunately, they seemed to calm down after a while, but this made me very paranoid.

The next day I stitched my coat back up and headed to the Canadian border where my car was searched. I watched as they pulled out my belongings and looked through everything. Even though they looked through my coat, they didn’t seem to notice things being stitched into the lining. Perhaps what they were really searching for was a weapon of some sort and because they didn’t have dogs, I was allowed into Canada. Looking back at that now I see it as reckless, but it did allow for a fun festival at the time. I can remember taking a copy of the new Kronos Quartet record with me to the festival. I recall needing to return the next day after the festival ended to start summer school. The final concert of the festival ended probably around 8pm and I drove straight from Quebec to Raleigh, North Carolina without stopping. I didn’t really have any issues at the border like I did on the way up, so I played the Kronos Quartet recording over and over on the way home, stopping occasionally to fire up the cannabis or buy more coffee. It was around a 14 hour drive and I arrived in the afternoon and promptly went to sleep before Genetics 301 started the following day. It was a time when the hard choices didn’t exclude any events, as the biggest decision was whether or not I could attend a festival (in which I attended every concert in its entirety) and bring along some cannabis and go to summer school all in one springtime.

Fred Frith Drawing Sound featuring Heike Liss
Void Patrol at the Standard

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