Wilco & Tortoise Lead Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival Early On (Day 1 & 2 FESTIVAL RECAP)

Jazz composer and pianist Carla Bley acknowledged a standing ovation following a stirring performance of her composition Anthem, as one of the opening shows at this year’s Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee. Bley’s piece, supported by the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, provided multiple metaphors for America past and present as snippets from patriotic songs emerged, instruments vied for attention, and dissonance ultimately resolved into harmony (one can only hope!).

Bley’s appearance at Big Ears, an annual celebration of musical risk-taking, was an ideal choice given her more than five decades of musical exploration, and her show was just one of more than a hundred performances scheduled over four days in historic venues strung along downtown Knoxville’s main thoroughfare.

Prior to Bley’s show and a few blocks away at The Mill and Mine, a rehabbed industrial space, festival founder and organizer Ashley Capps praised the artists and volunteers who made everything possible. Some performers came from nearby: members of the Knoxville Symphony, the aforementioned Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, and other established Knoxville-based groups. Other artists had traveled from as far away as Norway—a particular geographic focus for this year’s festival—as well as from Ukraine and Scotland.

Anna Meredith

Later in the evening at The Mill and Mine, international artist Anna Meredith provided a stirring set full powerful rhythms and flowing synth patterns. Meredith, whose debut 2016 album Varmints garnered extensive critical praise, exemplifies a new generation’s approach to the minimalism pioneered by Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley in the 1960’s, 70’s,  setting melodic and rhythmic patterns in motion then modifying them in different ways. In Meredith’s case those modifications were in the form of strong bass octaves from tuba and cello on the opener “Nautilus,” angelic vocal harmonies, processed clarinet, and martial percussion. The cumulative effect was to make the listener want to march somewhere, with or without a cause. Missing at Meredith’s Big Ears’ performance were the lighting effects she often employs to emphasize the rhythms, but the absence of visual stimulation allowed listeners to focus on the sound and on the performers themselves.

Like Anna Meredith, the quartet Dahkabrakha employed powerful percussion in their set at The Standard. Unlike the Scottish artist however the Ukrainian performers used traditional folk music to give their music—which brings together modern styles like soul with traditional folk—for its power. The three female singers, wearing the towering furry traditional headwear that westerners may associate with Cossack horsemen (doesn’t the group get hot in those during the band’s physically demanding set?) combined their voices in a unison powerful enough to knock down brick walls. Individually the vocals summoned grief as well as determination. One of the members called for “a free Ukraine” near the set’s beginning. Dakhabrakha is an excellent example of Big Ears’ penchant for blending traditional folk styles with the contemporary, unique cultures and global trends in music, blurring boundaries in the process.

Blonde Redhead brought the first Big Ears 2017 evening to a close with their 2004 release Misery is a Butterfly. In keeping with the cooperative spirit of the festival Kazu Makino (keyboards/ guitar/vocals), Amedeo Pace (guitar/vocals), and Simone Pace (drums), were backed by the live strings of American Contemporary Music Ensemble. The album’s minor key was offset by the powerful instrumental arrangements and the live strings emphasized the group’s chamber rock approach. A large and devoted audience made its pleasure known after each song.

Big Ears has been purchased by Live Nation in the past year and it will be interesting to see if a mega-enterprise like Live Nation, by its nature risk-averse, can effectively direct and support a festival celebrating risk-takers going forward. But for now it’s enough to celebrate and enjoy Big Ears and the fruits of musical risk-taking over these four days.

 

Friday

One of Big Ears Festival’s enduring aspects is bringing together musicians who are formally trained with those who are self-trained. The common ground is an art that is respectful of the past while constantly reaching toward the future.

Flautist Claire Chase is an outstanding example of the trained musician. A performer with the San Diego Symphony by age 14, Chase went on to study music at Oberlin College. During her performance at Big Ears on Day Two, she proved that formally trained musicians can be every bit as adventurous as those receiving less guidance. Employing loop technology—perfectly suited to the minimalist technique of repetition pioneered by Steve Reich; Chase performed compositions by Reich, herself, and others. During one she played a contrabass flute as tall as she was, growling into the instrument, pounding it on the floor, and creating a variety of effects. Introducing a composition inspired by the sound of black metal bands, she joked that it was “the closest I can get to shredding on guitar.” A champion of new music by others, Chase demonstrated that she has all the chops and training, but doesn’t let that stand in the way of innovation.

Tortoise

During a performance at The Bijou Theatre vocalist Meredith Monk showed how the human voice, especially when it is set free from lyrics, can become an instrument for pure expression. Following studies at institutions and with various teachers, Monk founded the legendary and influential Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble in 1978. During the solo section of her set, Monk employed swoops, cries, and single tones that shifted in their intonation, creating music that was personal in a way that only the human voice can be. Songs performed with her Vocal Ensemble were often playful, and the interaction between the voices seemed natural as an integral part of our social nature.

Folk guitarist/vocalist Michael Hurley is possessed of an intensely personal vision which he communicated well while sitting alone on the huge stage of the Tennessee Theatre with Wilco’s equipment set up behind him. A veteran of the Greenwich Village folk clubs of the early 1960’ and a one-time member of the Holy Modal Rounders, Hurley has remained an outsider to any particular scene, creating a musical niche for himself. Accompanying himself comfortably with electric guitar, Hurley’s songs were more about personality and overall feel than narrative, his stories more implied than described. Over the course of his set he created his own space, making the big theatre seem intimate and friendly.

Wilco

Successful bands face many challenges: meeting their fans’ expectations, forging new ground, all the while keeping their older material fresh to themselves. It’s impossible to know without asking Wilco if they achieved the latter during their two-hour show at the Tennessee Theatre, but the band did do an artful job of displaying the range of what they do, mixing new songs and old. At times the band came across as bipolar, offering calm reflection in one song and a noisy rocker in the next. Sometimes the mood swing took place all in one song, as in “Via Chicago.” The contrast worked well most of the time, but was mildly distracting at others. On an individual level Nels Cline’s guitar brought an excitement and edge that the mid-tempo Americana arrangements needed, but at others he seems isolated and “playing in his own band,” as the person in the next seat commented. Though the crowd knew many of the songs, singing along, and shouting out requests, the set selection seemed to reflect Jeff Tweedy’s personal vision. After a rowdy version of “I’m the Man Who Loves You” had left much of the crowd on its feet and wanting more of the same, the band instead performed “Hummingbird,” an almost dainty Brit Pop number.

Tortoise brought Day Two of Big Ears to a close with a groove-laden set at The Mill and Mine, showing they haven’t lost a step since establishing themselves as a premier instrumental band in the mid-1990’s. Largely eschewing electric guitar and often relying for melody on a mallet-triggered midi board, the band’s compositions clearly connect with the minimalist tradition prevalent in many of Big Ears offerings this year. The strong percussive base established by Tortoise’s solo and duo drummers kept the audience’s attention, allowing the group to make only subtle and strategic changes on top. As a result, Tortoise’s music was more felt than “thought,” a real pleasure in a festival that can often be heady.

Big Ears Day Two proved that musical training by itself is irrelevant. It’s how you use what you know.

Photos by Becca Moore

Wilco Setlist Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, TN, USA 2017, Schmilco World Tour

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