Review: Big Ears Festival 2019 Expands Auricles

Big Ears Festival 2019: The Best

by John Diliberto 3/26/2019

Attending the Big Ears Festival is a massive undertaking, with well-over a hundred concerts, events and films to choose from.  The festival embodied everything from folk, with Rhiannon Giddens and Bela Fleck, to jazz with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Jack DeJohnette, to ambient with Harold Budd and the 12-hour Drone, to rock with Mercury Rev and Spiritualized. It’s hard to locate a center because everything is pushing at the edges.

This year, some 18,000 attended the festival, although it didn’t feel that way, with concurrent concerts splitting the audience across 15 venues, from the massive and magnificent Tennessee Theatre to the tiny Pilot Light club, which everyone described as a dive bar.

I tend to go to entire performances and not hop and skip from one to another, leaving in the middle here, arriving in the middle there, so perhaps I saw fewer events, 24 in total, but I soaked them all in, going from 12 noon to after 1am each night. That said, my highlight is a concert of which I only saw about 25 minutes.

Nils Frahm at Big Ears 2019 Photo: Jeff Towne

Nils Frahm
I’d seen Nils Frahm’s show in Philadelphia last fall so I decided to skip it in favor of Harold Budd and ACME Strings. But Frahm was still playig after Budd finished, so I rushed to see the end of his set at the Tennessee Theater. I was immediately swept into his compelling, kinetic and physically agile set of spinning melodies on multiple keyboards. You can read my breathless review about his fall Union Transfer performance here, but just experiencing  his last song and encore, I was affirmed in telling everyone prior to the festival  that this was the one concert not to miss.

Meredith Monk
The veteran new music singer/composer/dancer visionary brought her latest work, Cellular Songs to the Bijou stage and entranced the audience in this ritual work of strange vocalese and ceremonial dancing. Dressed in unmatched white smocks and pants, reminding me a bit of the cigarette-smoking death cult on HBO’s “The Leftovers”, Monk and her four-woman ensemble spoke in alien voices, melted into overtones, and made pleas to the heavens, some of it in complex hocketing. Occasionally humor and poignancy merged in songs like “Happy Woman.” It was breathtaking.

Ben Neill and Mimi Goese
This was the other bowl-me-over show at Big Ears. Mimi Goese was the lead singer of the dream-pop group Hugo Largo, but she has come a long way since then, turning into a charismatic and crazed performer. Wearing a polka dot dress, Wicked Witch of the East striped stockings and flame red hair, she cavorted across the stage pantomiming like she was being pulled on puppet strings. Her voice was a dialogue of cries, whispers and sensual imprecations falling somewhere between chants and stories. She actually reminded me of Meredith Monk, but more joyfully crazed. She sang against the electronic rhythms and mutantrumpet melodies of Ben Neill. His off-center beats matched Goese’s off-center voice and his melodies were like dots and periods on Goese’s melodies.

Ben Neill & Mimi Goese at Big Ears. Photo: John Diliberto

Kayhan Kalhor & Brooklyn Rider
Kayhan Kalhor is an Iranian musician who has been part of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. He plays the kamencheh, a violin ancestor that is played with a bow. Joined by Brooklyn Rider, a string quartet, and a percussionist, he created a swirl of melodies often bouncing from one stringed instrument to the next. Brooklyn Rider was more than adept at keeping up, accenting and expanding this wonderful composer and player’s music.

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin
This was the third time I’d seen the Swiss trio in less than a year, (including an Echoes concert that can be heard here at, and it was the most exhilarating. The ensemble calls their sound Zen-funk and they locked into their minimalist grooves and patterns, finding a way to give individual expression within a tightly woven framework. Bärtsch laced complex piano patterns, often muting the strings or playing inside the piano itself. Everyone is holding the groove including reed player Sha, electric bassist Thomy Jordi and drummer Kaspar Rast. Although they were playing music from their latest ECM release, Awase, it sounded totally different, as the “moduls” of their music (Bärtsch calls all his compositions Modul and a number), were convened in novel ways. They were also helped by smoke and lighting effects that lent their music an even more mysterious atmosphere.

Jack DeJohnette/Ravi Coltrane/Matt Garrison
Jack DeJohnette is a jazz legend who drummed with Miles Davis, Jackie McLean, Charles Lloyd, Bill Evans and dozens of others as well as leading his own adventurous ensembles. His new trio includes John Coltrane’s son, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, and bassist Jimmy Garrison’s son, Matt Garrison, on electric bass. Their set was a modern jazz foray with powerful soloing from Coltrane. He may never reach the point where his name isn’t mentioned alongside his iconic father’s, but musically, he’s there. You can hear the Coltrane DNA, but Ravi is a virtuoso in his own right. Garrison is a prodigious bassist, but seemed lost at times. I must admit a bias against electric bass in an acoustic jazz context. It never seems organic to the setting. DeJohnette, now 76, showed no signs on letting up on his shimmering approach to drums, notable for his cascades of cymbals and almost river-like wash of rhythm. Their set included a dark, searing version of John Coltrane’s “Alabama.”

Comet is Coming: Betamax-Danalogue-Shabaka-Photo: Jeff Towne

The Comet Is Coming/The Sons of Kemet
These are two different bands led by English tenor saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings. Both trade in heavy grooves and gutbucket, R&B stylings. The Comet is Coming is a power trio, but with synth and sax. Dan Leavers aka Danalogue, played bass heavy grooves and swooping solos on a pair of keyboards while Maxwell Hallett, aka Betamax, laid down hip shaking beats somewhere between rock, R&B and jazz. Hutchings, King Shabaka in this context, spun out solos that were more rhythm than melody, honking out notes like he was bar-walking in space. The band’s mix of dub, drama and drops was exhilarating, until it wore a little thin.
The Sons of Kemet are acoustic, with Betamax teaming up with drummer Eddie Hicks, while Shabaka sparred with tuba player Theon Cross. Cross took on the bassist’s role while also playing rhythm-driven solos. The two horn players faced-off like they were dueling. The Sons’ rhythms were were more varied than The Comet’s, moving from jazz to Caribbean to New Orleans second line stomps. Despite the rhythmic variety, Shabaka’s playing was almost exactly the same as with the Comet: fierce, reverbed, honking and rhythm fueled. This wasn’t the melodic invention of a John or Ravi Coltrane. While I yearned for Shabaka to break out into a more expressive, melodically searing solo, these were nevertheless great, day-ending stomps that drew the youngest audience of the festival by far.

Roscoe Mitchell of AEC. Photo: Jeff Towne

The Art Ensemble of Chicago
This was a total surprise. I came in a little late and as I opened the door to the Tennessee Theater I heard strings and an operatic tenor. This is the Art Ensemble? Entering the venue, I saw 16 musicians on stage including the six Art Ensemble members augmented by a string trio, two additional upright bassists, a singer/laptop musician, percussionist, trombonist, flutist, poet, operatic tenor and a conductor. What? When the conductor was there, it was classical, stiff and tepid. When he left, the entire group, including the opera singer, Rodolfo Cordova-Lebron, drove into heavy grooves with some inventive playing by the strings, which included AEC and Artifacts Trio cellist Tomeka Reid. The highlight was a piece featuring a long solo by founding member, Roscoe Mitchell. He looked like he was dressed for a funeral and seemed lost into another world for most of the concert, but when he started playing, he elevated the entire ensemble with a wild, squirrelly soprano saxophone solo, his cheeks puffed out for circular breathing, creating his own inner dialog. It wasn’t the AEC I expected, including a New Age passage with babbling brook and chirping bird sound effects, but it did take us somewhere.

Harold Budd at Big Ears. Photo: Jeff Towne

Harold Budd
Legendary, again that word, pianist and composer Harold Budd had his works highlighted in three separate concerts. I want to emphasize “works” because Budd himself, dressed for the occasion in a white, long-sleeved Henley shirt, was barely present at any of these performances. With Nief-Norf, a percussion group, and harpist Mary Lattimore, Budd debuted new compositions that were so spare they made even his Jane Maru solo piano recordings sound baroque by comparison. These works were delicate pebble drops on a placid pond as notes were doled out sparingly in the lovely Church Street United Methodist Church. His Saturday performance with ACME strings was also spare, as the strings mostly played long, sustained whole notes against keyboards played by either Budd or Tim Story that fell like the very first drops of a summer rain. When it didn’t sound portentous, it sounded like a lament. I told an All About Jazz writer next to me that he was taking more notes than they were playing.  I only caught a little of Budd’s final performance, a two-hour version of “As Long As I Can Hold My Breath” from Avalon Sutra with Tim Story (keyboard & electronics), Terrence Budd (guitars and keyboards), Sean Connors (percussion) Trenton Takaki (piano) and Acme strings. I felt like 10 minutes was just about enough. Budd himself barely performed, his time on stage totaling maybe 30 minutes in all three performances combined, playing barely-there piano and occasional synth pads.

The Artifacts Trio
This ensemble of flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid (from the Art Ensemble of Chicago) and drummer Mike Reed, churned up St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral with beautifully turned solos from Mitchell who extended the sound of her flute with subtle electronics, sometimes looping a sustain while she danced pirouettes of melody on top. At one point she reminded me of avant-garde singer, Joan La Barbara (also at the festival) with her flute sounding like vocalese.

David Torn at Big Ears. Photo: Jeff Towne

David Torn
Some of the most dissonant music of the Festival came from David Torn. He played with Absînt, a quartet of Torn and Bill Frisell on electric guitars, Tim Berne on alto saxophone and Aurora Nealand, vocalizing, playing occasional accordion and making a lot of noise. It was hard to tell what she was doing because she spent the entire set on the floor of the low stage at the SRO venue, The Standard. Torn played like he had ADHD, constantly switching sounds and glitching notes. Frisell looked a bit lost and Berne seemed to be dodging the onslaught. Torn’s own show with his group Sun of Goldfinger was equally dissonant, but a little more coherent, as Ches Smith set up aggressive grooves on drums and Tim Berne sent out spirals of jagged melody on alto, while Torn launched feedback scrawls of sound. Torn is reinventing the sound of guitar.

Mercury Rev
In many ways, this was the most conventional show of the festival that I saw. The long-lived ensemble didn’t play any music off their latest album, Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited, because vocalist Jonathan Donahue doesn’t sing any of the songs on that. Instead they went to their previous album, The Light in You for most of their set, That was a great choice, as they lanced through the symphonic expanse of that album with Grasshopper’s searing, shapeshifting sylvan guitar solos, and Donahue’s plaintive voice.  Donahue looked like a street hawker from a Dickens book wearing newsboy cap, a tie like a cravat, with his eyes bugging out.

Less successful was their midnight performance playing an improvised soundtrack to the 1962 zombie flick, Carnival of Souls. Despite great guests like mutantrumpeter Ben Neill, singer Mimi Goese and saxophonist Tim Berne, it didn’t congeal into anything but a droning wash of dissonance that never connected with the film or each other until the very climax of the movie.

This is a snapshot of Big Ears 2019, technically the 10th anniversary of the festival although they skipped a few years. There were other things happening at the festival including artist panels and films, but I wasn’t about to listen to someone talk about music when I could actually hear music live. There were enough scheduling conflicts just with the concerts. Performances run staggered and concurrent with sometimes up to eight events happening simultaneously. That creates a lot of difficult choices. When I interviewed founder and promoter Ashley Capps for our preview feature on Echoes, I mentioned this issue. He said he was surprised about how few people actually complain about it. I have to say, that is the only complaint I heard at Big Ears and I heard it a lot.

Nevertheless, the Big Ears Festival, once again, lived up to its name. If you had mouse ears going in, you had Dumbo ears coming out.

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