The Japanese guitarist and singer Keiji Haino delivered a one-two punch of noisy improv on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, first with a late-night performance at the Bijou Theatre with the trio Nazoranai (Haino, Stephen O'Malley, and Oren Ambarchi) and then, 12 hours later, with a solo set at a jam-packed Scruffy City Hall. Haino, along with Marc Ribot and the major Steve Reich works, was one of the clear highlights of the whole festival for me, and perhaps the act I was most looking forward to seeing--he's a legend among improv and noise musicians and fans, and someone I never really expected to get the chance to see live at all, never mind just blocks away from my front door. Twice. In one weekend.
Haino's music is the kind of thing that prompts some listeners to suspect anyone who says they like it of bad faith--this is what people are talking about when they say that music isn't really music. At Big Ears, Haino played various percussion instruments, a flute, and a set-up of electronic devices laid out on a table. But his main instrument is guitar, and he shifts between Derek Bailey-style improv--atonal single-note solo playing--and fuzzed-out, high-volume freakouts. It's cerebral and visceral, provoking thoughts not just about what music is but about art and existence. He punctuates his performance with brief, intense shrieks into a distorted, echo-laden microphone--at one point on Saturday night, he yelled, "I want to keep dreaming! Overthrow it!" It seemed like a call for revolutionary imagination.
(One big question about both performances remains, though--what exactly was on that music stand he periodically consulted?)
Ribot's set with Los Cubanos Postizos at Scruffy City Hall at midnight on Saturday night was altogether different from his show with Ceramic Dog the night before. Cubanos Postizos is Ribot's salsa band, and they provided the one great late-night dance party of the weekend. (The band put Low mentality, the New York African-style jazz combo that backed Hailu Mergia on Friday night, to shame.) This set was less thought-provoking but enthusiastically rump-shaking, and Ribot still managed to throw in some mind-bending jazz licks.
Sunday afternoon was rounded out at Scruffy City Hall by Lonnie Holley (I skipped that, to decompress from Haino), and Seattle drone metal band Earth. It was a lackluster performance by Dylan Carlson's trio, lacking the instrumental complexity and texture of the band's great albums from the last decade. As someone pointed out to me as I was leaving, Bill Frisell was a key player on 2008's The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull, and Bill Frisell was not on stage yesterday.
The night and the festival wrapped up with a block of music by Steve Reich at the Tennessee Theatre, performed by Reich, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, and New York new-music group Ensemble Signal. First up were Reich and Signal conductor Brad Lubman, who performed Reich's Clapping Music, which is exactly what it sounds like--the duo stood in front of a mic and clapped in repeating and shifting rhythm patterns for about five minutes. Greenwood followed with Electric Counterpoint, a piece for solo guitar and laptop. (Together, Reich and Greenwood were on stage this weekend for about an hour total; they were also among the top-billed, and probably the highest-paid, performers at the fest. If anyone was inclined to point fingers at an emperor with no clothes, I would direct them away from Haino and mention that fact.)
Signal's performance of Reich's classic and landmark Music for 18 Musicians was stirring, moving, polished, sometimes breathtaking, and impeccably executed--it came close to sublime. (They did, however, use 20 musicians. I counted.) The very first familiar tones of the piece sent a shock through me.
The Tennessee Theatre was at least two-thirds full for the concert, and the audience members immediately leaped to their feet at its conclusion for a standing ovation. It's a ritual that's become tiresome at performing arts events--if everything gets a standing ovation, how do we acknowledge the truly excellent performances?--but in this case it was deserved, and kind of emotional. It felt like applause not just for Ensemble Signal, though they deserved it on the merits of their show, but for Big Ears itself. The praise heaped on it as soon as it started on Friday afternoon has been extravagant, but it was an extravagant festival, and AC Entertainment pulled it off with very few minor glitches*. It was bigger and in most ways better than either of the previous two editions, and it felt like Ashley Capps has figured it out. And dates for Big Ears 2015 have already been announced--March 27-29.
*Food was a big issue, and something that needs to be addressed before 2015--between the 2,000 or so Big Ears-goers and the 8,000 people who were in town for the Knoxville Marathon, a lot of downtown restaurants were overwhelmed. Food trucks were noticeably absent, and the rush at Market Square's sit-down establishments highlighted just how few quick, cheap, and easy food options there are here (and the limited hours that those few options are available, usually weekdays at lunchtime). You couldn't just grab a slice of pizza, a falafel, or a sandwich to go between shows.