The first day of Big Ears 2014 is wrapping up--John Cale is playing to a big crowd right now to a more than half-full Tennessee Theatre, which means about half of the people with passes are there right now--and one highlight, for me, stands out so much that I'm not sure anything is going to top it. Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog, a trio consisting of guitarist/vocalist Ribot, bassist Shahzad Ismaily, and drummer Ches Smith, killed it in their one-hour set earlier tonight at the Bijou Theatre.
On its two records (Party Intellectuals, from 2008, and last year's Your Turn), the band has focused on a jazzy kind of guitar rock; in concert, Ceramic Dog raises that bar as a powerhouse improv trio with prodigious technique, profound and subtle grooves, and searching intelligence. Every moment wasn't a thrill--you could sense the band feeling its way toward the payoff--but the joy of exploration matched the explosive denouements.
Ribot looks and plays like a mad professor, hunched over his Fender guitar and switching between rhythm vamps and blistering solos. Ismaily and Smith made up a ferocious rhythm battery--Smith plays with Bonham-like power, and Ismaily's supple bass lines often supplied the lead melody. A deeply rewarding experience. Ribot plays solo Saturday afternoon at noon at the Bijou, where he'll perform music for Charlie Chaplin's The Kid, and Saturday night at midnight with Cubanos Postizos at Scruffy City Hall.
Stephen O'Malley provided another kind of guitar workout earlier in the evening with a heavy dose of visceral solo drone at Scruffy City Hall. O'Malley, one half of the main duo that makes up Sunn O))) and a third of the guitar-improv trio Nazoranai, which performs tomorrow night, combined his Gibson guitar, a sequencer, and a wall of vintage Orange and Sunn amps for 40 minutes of a single chord that was more engaging than that might sound. The looped riff built on itself for a full hour. After 30 minutes, the legs of my pants were vibrating; after 40 minutes, I could feel the low frequency in the pit of my stomach. For the entirety of the set, except for brief moments to fiddle with some knobs or take a sip of beer, he maintained what looked to be the metal equivalent of mountain pose. O'Malley plays with Nazoranai on Saturday at 12:15 a.m. and at the Bijou Theatre and with Oren Ambarchi at the Knoxville Museum of Art on Sunday at noon.
Elsewhere, Norwegian art-pop singer Susanna won over the audience at the Tennessee Theatre with her covers of Thin Lizzy's "Jailbreak" and Dolly Parton's "Jolene"; she performs again Saturday at the Square Room at 9 p.m.
Photos by David Luttrell.