Downtown dirt by Manhole: Big Ears in review

marc ribot

Marc Ribot rawks the Scruffy City, photo by Bill Foster

 

There was truly no greater testament to the success of the Big Ears Festival, v. 3.0, than the sight of Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero cutting a rug to the jazzy Latin-inflected beats of Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos with a handful of other ecstatic festival goers at a beer past one in the A.M. on a Saturday nite/Sunday morning. At our newly beloved Scruffy City Hall, no less.

Which isn’t to imply that the Mayoress was imbibing. Nope, that’s just my little way of marking the time, a system that the rest of you depraved f@#$s will surely understand. The point is, Big Ears came once again to our fair little town on the weathered banks of the Tennessee River, and a good time was had by all. Especially Ms. Rogero, who christened Knoxville’s newest, bestest, and bestest-sounding Pagan/Viking concert hall and future brewpub with her presence on a couple of occasions over the course of a three-day weekend.

The Mayoress also earned props from no less than Rolling Stone magazine for name-checking Captain Beefheart(!!) at her festival-opening address at Knoxville Museum of Art on Friday, March 28. Can’t imagine her predecessor, current gov Bill Haslam ever dropping a way-cool ref like that one during one of his speeches—maybe he’d give props to the Kingston Trio, or Michael Bolton, or some other damned thing. And never-you-even-mind the thought of Brother Bill getting his boogie on to heathen ethnic devil-jazz at some boozy charnel house on the far side of the witching hour. Wouldn’t happen, nope.

All told, the weekend of March 28 was a smashing success, for the city, for the Big Ears festival, and for our newly beloved Scruffy City Hall, which was one of the main hubs of activity for the three-day fest. For those of you who stayed at home all weekend—and you know who you are, you laggard pork-rind-snarfing couch-potato sons of Bacchus’ waterhead third cousin—for those of you who laid on the sofa three days watching “Teen Mom 2” marathons, here’s a taste of what you missed:

Sunn O))) co-founder Stephen O’Malley kicked off Friday’s musical festivities at SCH with a late-afternoon set consisting of… well, consisting primarily of O’Malley thrumming the low E string (which was, in truth, probably detuned to C, or B, or some other subterranean frequency) on his guitar at 15- to 30-second intervals, fronting an intimidating wall of Marshall stacks that set each heavy-handed bombination ringing through the innermost vestibules of the gizzard, as if there were some serious heavy machinery tearing away at the building’s very core and thereby quaking one’s innards into so much well-churned paste.

It was an… interesting performance, and probably not to every taste. Say this for him, though—O’Malley drew a good crowd, and most of them saw the entirety of his 40-minute set.

More engaging was saxophonist Colin Stetson’s set. No one knew much what to expect from Stetson, whose career is most notable for high-profile sideman gigs with the likes of Arcade Fire and Bon Iver. But his show turned out to be a true headf@#$; wild, echo-laden contrapuntal vortexes created by means of various (and variously proportioned) saxophones, a couple of stomp-box pedals, a larynx mike, and some far-out Jedi-mutant breathing techniques.

And I’ll admit, I missed an SCH act or two—couldn’t resist the lure of a legend like John Cale, late of the Velvet Underground, gracing the grand stage of the Tennessee Theatre—but I caught the day’s crown jewel in Ethopian funkmeister Hailu Mergia, fronting New York world-beat act the Low Mentality at SCH somewhere around midnight. A near-capacity crowd bore witness to the jubilant, jazzy, and imminently danceable set, the perfect ending to a day of weird, wonderful music in our fair city.

Saturday the 29th saw more, and less, of the same, with the day’s best surprise coming in the form of SCH performer Bill Orcutt. Orcutt made his bones as leader of the cacophonic scream-rock outfit Harry Pussy out of Miami in the 1990s. A middle-aged gentleman with a frowsy and graying natural tonsure, he’s a little more settled now. And the music he makes is a strange and beautiful sort of raga-blues; angular, hypnotic drones offset by flurries of rough virtuosity on an ancient acoustic guitar.

And a highlight of the entire weekend proved to be the aforementioned Saturday set from Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos. It rapidly turned into the hottest ticket in town, as local VIPs of various stripes approached SCH/Pres Pub Benefactor Scott West about sneaking them into the packed house, sans Big Ears wristband. This was one instance, though, where SW—a renowned pushover—simply couldn’t oblige. The folks at A.C. Entertainment were gatekeeping this one; no freebies allowed.

Sunday was reserved for those with truly eclectic tastes, beginning with an afternoon Scruffy City set from Japanese avant-rock guitarist Kenji Haino. And I am not exaggerating when I say that never in my years of life on this big rock we like to call Earth have I witnessed so many people crowd into a mid-sized venue to listen to so much left-field ruckus.

Haino is a screech artisan; a provocateur; a guitar mangler of the first order. But whether they loved him, hated him, or just plain didn’t know what the hell to think, scarcely a single member of the dual-floor SRO crowd left for the duration of his hour-ish-long show.

The day closed at Scruffy City with doomy veteran post-rock outfit Earth. They drew a sizeable crowd, too, and tho a few in attendance felt the thundering three-piece were a trifle… repetitive, I, for one, appreciated the meditative beauty inherent in their single-minded pursuit of Salvation via the Almighty Riff.

And so we will put this year’s Big Ears Festival to bed, and look forward with bated breath and open… Ears, to next year’s event. In the meantime, there is so much else for us to do here on Market Square. Be ready for a hella good spring season. And take plentiful notes. There will be a test when it is over.

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