Big Ears Festival 2019

Big Ears Thursday evening: Welcome to Knoxville! Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan at the Standard were superb. I’ve wanted to see Bill for a long time, and getting to stand three feet in front of him and watch his fingers was mesmerizing. Since they play so quietly the sound was excellent. Can’t say the same for Mercury Rev at the Mill & Mine. The music would’ve been nice, but it was overpowered by a booming cloud of muddy bass guitar colliding with oh-so typical howitzer-level body-assaulting kick drum. Obnoxious “rock” drum sound in general. Do sound guys go to asshole school to learn this technique? I’ve seen so many concerts ruined by this kind of drum mix… On the other hand, I loved the Mathias Eick Quintet at the Standard — Norwegian jazz (piano, bass, drums, violin, trumpet) — inventive, dynamic, and soulful — and played at a very comfortable volume, so you could hear every element.

Big Ears Friday: Breakfast at our regular spot, Three Rivers Co-op. Biscuits and home fries! Friday was a great music day — started at the Knoxville Museum of Art with Ron Mann’s sweet documentary Carmine Street Guitars. Then over to the Mill & Mine for Lonnie Holley backed up by the Messthetics, a surprising combination that meshed very well. I stayed at the Mill for one of the day’s highlights: Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl (guitar, bass, drums, trumpet and the soulful vocals of Amirtha Kidambi). Meanwhile, Valerie enjoyed Coupler’s electronic set at the KMA. Ralph Towner was technically dazzling in the beautiful St John’s Cathedral. Evening show at the Standard was ABSINT (Aurora Nealand, Tim Berne, Bill Frisell, and David Torn) — exciting freeform improv. We closed the day at the Tennessee Theatre with Roomful of Teeth’s moving evocation of Robert Mapplethorpe’s life and work.

Big Ears Saturday: Back to Three Rivers for more biscuits (and veggie burritos). Three big festival high points today: first, Columbia Icefield at the Standard. Trumpeter Nate Wooley recruited Mary Halvorson (guitar), Susan Alcorn (pedal steel) and Ryan Sawyer (drums) — all of whom approach their instruments in unusual, imaginative ways — to evoke his experience of the Canadian Rockies.

The Knoxville Museum of Art turned out to be an excellent music venue. In a big bright atrium-like space, we watched Roscoe Mitchell share his many years of experience in a well-attended improvisation workshop. Then into the KMA’s auditorium for an incredible multimedia performance by Mimi Goese and Ben Neill. Against and at times enveloped by moving images and patterns reminiscent of the best sixties light shows, Mimi sang, danced and emoted, meshing with Ben’s mutantrumpet (his invention), a highly expressive instrument with three bells (one normal, one usually muted, and one sliding like a mini-trombone) and two sets of valves. Ben also played synths and triggered beats using a third set of buttons. And all this supporting good, catchy, short SONGS! So much of Big Ears is about improv and abstract music — for a song lover like me, Mimi and Ben were a very welcome treat. A festival highlight for sure.

Would like to have seen Mary Halvorson’s Thumbscrew, but we were hungry, and sometimes to eat during Big Ears involves tough choices… Tomato Head’s luscious Portabella Pesto pizza (and a chance to sit for a while) won out.

We found Messthetics at the Standard disappointing — after their sensitive accompaniment to Lonnie Holley, predictable loud rock guitar improv could only hold us for 10 or 15 minutes. (This Is Not) This Heat’s farewell tour stop at the Mill & Mine was even worse — much worse. Some call it art…. So, on to the beautiful old Tennessee Theatre for Jack de Johnette, Ravi Coltrane and Matt Garrison. Great chemistry, and Matt’s use of loops and effects on his bass was very cool. We’ve seen so many young, “modern” drummers at Big Ears over the last three years, players who tend to use lots of delicate cymbal work, unorthodox stick gripping… I’m no expert on drumming, but the contrast between the young guys and Jack’s more old-school jazz approach (more emphasis on the snare, for one thing) was obvious. Not a bad thing in any way; just something you couldn’t help but notice.

We hung around the Tennessee for one of the acts that, for me, clinched the decision to travel to Big Ears this year: Nils Frahm’s one-man show. I won’t gush about his wall of gear — there’s plenty of info about that on the web — suffice to say, the show was an analog dream. Nils leaped between “workstations,” always tweaking, and playing gorgeous melodies (after all, he did title his recent LP “All Melody”) on piano, Mellotron, harmonium or reed organ (?), Rhodes, Juno 60, analog drum machines, and more. Lots of stuff going through several Roland Space Echoes. Encores aren’t common at Big Ears, but in this case the audience insisted, and Nils provided. We had a happy, musically-satisfied drive back to our Air BnB.

Big Ears Sunday: Yes, that’s right — biscuits at Three Rivers Co-op, again. This was a good food day. For lunch, we discovered French Market Crèperie (yum) on Clinch Avenue, then for dinner an old fave, Not Watson’s in the Market Square. We sampled the tail end of the all-night drone (This Heat’s drummer, Charles Hayward, added some brilliant percussive elements). The “real” music started off with the dual-piano improv of Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer at the Tennessee. I loved every minute, from long meditative passages to exciting crescendos. These guys really listened to each other; they seemed to share a telepathic wavelength. One of the most successful improvs I’ve ever seen.

The Bill Frisell/Petra Haden group Harmony did mostly standards and old-timey stuff at the too-big-for-this-act Mill & Mine. After a supper break we caught Wadada Leo Smith’s original ECM trio at the Tennessee — beautiful. Then across Gay Street to the Bijou for Harold Budd “and Friends” — well, mostly the friends; Harold sat at a keyboard for the first ten minutes, then slipped offstage. It was a nice minimal ambient performance, though, with lots of variety in the instrument sounds.

And that was the end… because one of our most highly anticipated acts, Yves Tumor, had to cancel due to travel problems. And as always, there were the inevitable events we missed: Bill Frisell’s Mesmerists, Alvin Lucier, Sons of Kemet, Thumbscrew, Jlin, the Art Ensemble… There’s always TOO MUCH to see and hear at Big Ears!