After arriving home on my bicycle, drenched, fatigue setting in and with a disappointing show to end the previous night, I’d had my enthusiasm tempered a bit. I had other business to take care of in the morning, so I didn’t make it out until just after noon when I caught the last few minutes of Sam Amidon’s show at Boyd’s Jig and Reel. I understand the early portion of the show to have been a bit more unusual, but the portion I heard, which included a shaped-note song, and honestly, many of his songs seem to have an element of that sound, offered a very good start to my day.
A couple of tamales shared with a friend at Good Golly Tamale and I started my day two adventure. Zeena Parkins and Tony Buck at the Mill and Mine continued a bit of a drone theme with assorted incursions by the harp. Talent aside, it just wasn’t a performance that captured me.
I walked to the Standard where Lou Reed’s guitars sat on a small stage, leaned against his vintage amplifiers, feeding back their own version of drone experiment curated by his guitar tech. Strangely, this was a drone experiment I enjoyed. The guitars and amps were beautiful, the red-light cast, disco-ball dimly lighted space offered the perfect fit for lying on the bean-bag chairs and blankets strewn on the floor – and many people took advantage to rest, sleep or meditate.
Xylouris White, a duo consisting of percussionist extraordinaire Jim White and Cretan lute player George Xylouris, played one of my favorite sets at the Mill and Mine. The under-appreciated lute revealed itself (to me, at least) to be a force when played by a master. Jim White, equally masterful on drums and even more expressive, firmly established the duo’s driving sound. The end of the festival found this still ranking as one of the most surprising and powerful performances I witnessed.
I ended the day with another excellent show, this at the Tennessee Theatre, with Eighth Blackbird with Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Bryce Dessner. A small contemporary orchestral group combined with indie folk icon and a highly respected composer proved to be a potent combination. At times classical, at times folk and at times very experimental, as with their stunning performance of Rzewski’s “Coming Together,” accompanied by Will Oldham’s (Bonnie “Prince” Billy) recitation of a letter written by an inmate subsequently killed in the riots at Attica Prison in 1971, provided an incredibly powerful moment.
The limitations of my pass revealed themselves at this juncture: I have no photographs of Will Oldham’s portion of the show because it came in the second half, far after photographs were prohibited. This was followed by the end to my plans to see Andrew Bird perform just a little later in the same venue because my media pass also required a ticket for that show, which I hadn’t realized. All ended well when, turned away from the theater doors, I ran into an old friend and we had coffee to end the very good night of music.
I got a late afternoon start for Saturday and took a couple of breaks to pace myself. It turned out to be the best day (and early morning) of music for me, with every single show hitting a good note. I started at the Bijou with The Necks. Very minimalist for the first five minutes – literally two members stock still and the pianist playing with two fingers. So much for interesting photographs. Still, the minimalist sounds grew and morphed into something larger and, yes, it sounded somewhat drone-like by the end, but in a good way.
After a dinner break I saw Sam Amidon, Nico Muhly and Nadia Sirota give a really excellent performance of primarily Nico’s songs, with a small sample of Sam’s. A computer was used to augment the trio, but the talent was so pervasive it was an unnecessary adornment. Beyond the brilliance of the musicians, their obvious connection and admiration for each other contributed to the quality of the sets.
Continuing to pace myself, I took a break for coffee at the French Market where I found the best musical surprise of the night in La Terza Classe, a bluegrass and ragtime jazz band from Naples, Italy. Coincidentally passing through town during the festival, they had no problem attracting a very large crowd. Mayor Rogero, among the crowd that gathered, mugged with the band and accepted their CD as a gift. Fortuitously, Yasameen Hoffman-Shahin of Electric Darling stopped in and provided her ever-present sparkle. (You can see her and the band this upcoming weekend at Rhythm n Blooms.)
I returned to the Bijou for Angel Olsen, my third consecutive Big Ears show, with the intention of leaving after the first half in order to see Haley Fohr at the Standard. I stayed past the half-way mark and struggled with whether to leave. Her excellent set of driving pop/rock/indie music displayed the power of her music to the nearly-full theatre. Definitely a force for the long-haul, the show slowed for ballads, but never lagged.
Still, I left in order to see the Haley Fohr (as a band under the name “Circuit des Yeux”). Her vocals, as surprising as powerful due to the deep registers she can plumb, reminded me of a young Patti Smith. Rarely visible through her hair which fell in front of her face for most of the set, she none-the-less connected with the audience in a visceral manner. If you get a chance to see her live, treat yourself. I’ll anticipate her continued growth as an artist.
I ended the night – and the downtown segment of the festival – where I started it, at the Mill and Mine. And I’d saved my favorite show for last on a night filled with great musical moments. Kamasi Washington and his very large (two drummers, keyboard, bass, trombone, flute and vocals in addition to his saxophone) band played their own version of sometimes trippy and sometimes experimental jazz. Not without the occasional jam quality and more than a little funk influence, the music is simply fun. The show extended until 2:00 AM and I never considered leaving, nor did, it seemed did very many others among the hundreds of fans gathered.
I’ll treat Inuksuit separately as it felt like it stood alone, though composer John Luther Adams provided the strand that connected it all. I’ll also take a look at the people of Big Ears in a final installment before we move on to the other things happening all around town.