After a small taste on Thursday, Friday and Saturday are when things get serious at the Big Ears Festival. The enormity of it all presents itself, fatigue increases, the distance from one venue to another seems to increase. There are inevitable annoyances and glitches: The sound here wasn’t perfect, the lines there were long, these shows got delayed. In the midst of it all, the festival remains an amazing organism, with an army of volunteers, sound engineers, support staff for the artists and many others making it not only possible, but by-and-large a smooth sailing ship. Thanks should be given to all those people.
Friday, for me, started with a series of public interviews and panels, which was a perfect low-key way to start the day. The team from Essential Tremors interviewed William Parker at 10:00 am and it was underway. Speaking extensively of the impact of Duke Ellington in his upbringing, Mr. Parker said no more direction was needed from a band leader to its members that for them to do what they do, saying “it’s not about time or notes, but about sounds.” I loved pairing that interview with the performance later that night at the Bijou at which you could see that ethos at work.
David Byrne discussed his “Reasons to be Cheerful,” telling how he began collecting stories of encouragement, or “islands of hope.” He formed his non-profit to promote efforts that are making the world better, focusing on evidence-based, replicable projects. He introduced two speakers who head such projects, Candy Carver, an artist whose work has reduced traffic fatalities, and Cathy Jennings who operates a non-profit publishing a newspaper and identifying housing for homeless people.
I was able to attend an interview with Son Lux but, unfortunately, missed their performance because of a delay at the Mill and Mine. They discussed working from different cities, feeling it allows each of them to go more deeply into their own work, while easily sharing via shared files. Of their work on the movie, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, they had 100 cues to hit with the music, and most scenes weren’t long enough to establish a melody. They said the first draft of the movie was much longer and so complicated, they wondered if the file they were sent was corrupted.
One of my great pleasures was Anne Powers’ interview with Rickie Lee Jones. She has a new album of classics from the “Great American Songbook,” which she said is a marketing tool. I understood her implication to be there is the era of those classic songs and then the era of Bob Dylan, though my bias may have misconstrued her intent. She feels she’s really found her older voice on the new record and says she’s ready to simply be the singer and not to play. “Every note you sing is you as a human being . . . I’m more alive than I’ve ever been . . . When I sit down and play music, I’m more alive than I’ve ever been.” Her show on Saturday at the Bijou showcased that joy and a voice that may be weathered by the years but was strong and true.
Another delightful thread I was able to follow on Friday was Varispeed Collective’s presentation of Robert Ashley’s modern opera, Perfect Lives. The three-hour, seven-part work was presented at seven locations throughout the day, each matching an element of the setting for that section. I was able to bits of the performance in Krutch Park and Mast General, before watching the complete conclusion that night at Boyd’s Jig and Reel. The performances were superb and the language in the opera is exquisite. The idea of interwoven performances in unusual settings gave a cohesion and fun element to the day.
Along the way Friday I also enjoyed Calexico at the Civic Auditorium offering their blend of California and Mexico in a very pleasant set. I adored a set I heard at Jackson Terminal by the collective known as Mourning [A] BLKstar. Led by “veteran Cleveland poet, composer, and bandleader RA Washington,” the group laid down a series of funk and R&B grooves punctuated by sharp brass and incisive lyrics. The great performance, infused with social conscience, benefited from great stage design, lighting, and perfect sound.
Ken Mujo’s performance at Pilot Light ended my Friday at 1:00 am with wild, feedback-looping guitar, yowling Japanese lyrics, and random volunteer drummers from the audience. The scene was crazy and, as always at Pilot Light, virtually impossible to photograph. I was pleased to be standing above the fray when the inevitable mosh-pit erupted. The performance ended with the Pilot Light’s owner, Jason Boardman taking the drums on a night that could only be described as an ecstatic delight.
Drummers were my theme for Saturday, with three very different drummers serving as highlights in my experience. I started with the performance of Christian McBride’s New Jawn at the Civic Auditorium. I first saw McBride perform at the Village Vanguard in 2021 and became an instant fan of both his bass and his leadership of his band. This new group of musicians includes trumpeter Josh Evans and saxophonist Marcus Strickland, both of whom were wonderful. It was Nasheet Waits on drums, however, who stole the show for me. In river flowing with great artists, he stood out for his incredible touch and control of the instrument.
Later in the day I would enjoy the Bad Plus at Mill and Mine. I fell in love with them at their 2015 Big Ears performance with founder pianist Ethan Iverson along with bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King. Iverson left the group and, after an initial replacement on piano, the remaining original members decided to go in a different musical direction, adding reedist (predominantly saxophone) Chris Speed, and guitarist Ben Monder. The result is a line-up I adore as much as the previous one, if not more. The big, more masculine sound, the great stage performance, and, for me, the high-assault, take-no-prisoners drumming of Dave King put put this set among my very favorites of the festival.
I ended Saturday night with the third drummer, and perhaps my favorite of the three, but I’ll leave that for the next article. The other Saturday performance I’ll mention was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear. Eighty-five-year-old Charles Lloyd performed at the Civic Auditorium with his Chapel Trio lineup that includes the always amazing Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan. Their original set was captured on the Blue Note recording Trios: Chapel. I’m listening as I write this and it’s a reminder of the shimmering beauty of that show. I’d encourage you to give it a listen.
Below you’ll find the remaining edited photographs of Day Three and Day Four. You’ll notice colorful photos of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Unfortunately, I was only there for a few minutes as the show fell so far behind I had to move along. I’ll have my final installment tomorrow and a piece by regular contributor and Big Ears newbie Heather Ryerson, giving you a fresh perspective after my tired ramblings, as we wrap our coverage of Big Ears 2023.