There is often a point, late in the Big Ears Festival schedule, where, in a post-fatigue phase, I slow down. I get more coffee or wine. I watch people. I pare the number of shows I try to rush toward, my pace slows considerably. I search out quieter performances. My soul is full.
Often this happens the final day, but this year it started with final performance I attended on Saturday night. The day was done, Sunday loomed with finishing touches of great music and one of the artists I had anticipated the most, Xylouris White, took the stage at The Standard. I may have first encountered them at Big Ears in 2016, though I’m remembering a performance (they live-scored footages of trains inside the Bijou) that no one else seems to remember and it may have been earlier. In any case, it was love at first sound.
Jim White is the third drummer I alluded to in the previous article, as having drawn me in. His work in the Dirty Three established his career, but he’s worked with Cat Power, PJ Harvey and many others in subsequent years. Since 2013, he has worked with George Xylouris, a Greek singer and laouto player (it’s in the lute family). Xylouris has a resonant, often mournful voice, often singing what sound like ancient Greek folk songs, accompanied by his driving laouto work with an underbed of sometimes delicate, sometimes pound, always pulsing drum work by White. The result is other-worldly and genre defying. The interplay between the two is mesmerizing.
It was a show of pure joy, for me, standing against the rail for the hour, until well after midnight. As a bonus, I purchased my only merch for the weekend: a vinyl copy of their brand new album The Forest in Me, which I’m enjoying as I write these words. I was startled to have Jim White be the person taking my money (Venmo or cash only, so Venmo it was). Shouldn’t they have people at this point in their career?
I went to bed a very happy fan-boy. I awakened early to photograph the chalk walk (more on that coming) but didn’t start the final leg of my Big Ears 2023 experience until 12:30 am when I attended the Lonnie Holley All-Star Band show at the Mill and Mine. It was the perfect way to ease into the day, as Lonnie’s subtle grooves underline his musings on peace, love, and the state of the world. His shows feel like a visit with your kind, very talented, grandfather whose lyrics might just occasionally punch you in the gut.
Wadada Leo Smith’s performance at the Bijou was the most intense I managed for the day. His exacting performance was riveting to watch, as well as hear. After years of accolades, including a Pulitzer nomination and being named “Jazz Artist of the Year” by Downbeat magazine, he continues to innovate with his current band including drums, cello, and piano. At 81, he appears to have no appetite for stagnation.
I’d not seen a show at St. John’s Cathedral and when a “secret” show was announced featuring Bela Fleck and Mali-born ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate. The tiny ngoni is a precursor to the modern banjo with four sets of two strings and, in this case, a tiny base and fretless neck. The two sounded as if they were musical brothers of different mothers, trading beautiful licks back and forth in an exchange that goes beyond language and culture.
I’d heard enough about Peter One to become curious. A country music star from Côte d’Ivorie? He was a star in west Africa in the 1980s, playing to stadiums with his then musical partner Jess Sah Bi. He left home due to unrest there and moved first to New York City, then to Nashville. His musical career upended, he worked as a nurse for the last twenty years, but he’s continued to work quietly on new music. He’s returned to a professional music career, has toured with Jason Isbell, and will soon release his major label solo debut album Come Back To Me on Verve Records.
His delicate, but strong high-pitched voice compels audiences to listen and that was the case at Boyd’s where the entire room was consumed in every note. Unlike many Big Ears performances, hardly anyone left the packed room. His songs were filled with social and environmental content, but never in a strident way. Often intimately personal, each song was delivered with the same earnest delivery. Straddling somewhere between country and folk traditions, his music is compelling art that needs a much wider audience.
As the last shows neared, what better way to end a great festival than with some of Knoxville’s most talented musicians playing in one of our two hallowed theatres? The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra performed back-to-back sets there. The first included Tessa Lark as guest violinist performing Cycle of Life, Michael Schrachter’s (who was also present) work based on Richard Jolley’s monumental work in the Knoxville Museum of Art. The second featured Shara Nova (My Brightest Diamond) performing her co-authored piece The Blue Hour.
Cycle of Life was accompanied by a film projected behind the Orchestra which shifted from realistic to more impressionistic views of Jolley’s work. The Blue Hour featured an interplay between Nova’s stunning vocal instrument and the orchestra. Lyrically filled with images from a woman’s journey through life and death and in between, the whole created a moving montage of a life lived.
Both pieces provided the perfect ending to a great four days.
Later today you’ll hear from two other writers sharing their thoughts and experiences at Big Ears. It was the first festival for each of them. You’ll find my complete photographs from the final day included below. Tomorrow we’ll turn our attention to other things. There’s a lot happening in the city.