BY STEVEN ROSEN
Remember this name: Tanya Tagaq.
When she’s at the top of the charts in a year or so, or when she’s the guest musical artist on Saturday Night Live or performing at the White House, she had a breakthrough at this year’s Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, which occurred March 27-29.
She created the biggest buzz of any act there. Nobody had heard or seen anything like her. She’s an Inuk throat singer who cautioned her audience before she started performing to not get upset or alarmed by what they’re about to see or hear – she is not in any danger and is not harming herself. “Don’t be worried. I’m fine,” she said.
And then, boom! Drummer Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubit began their approximately 45-minute set of improvised, avant-garde jazz as the youthful Tagaq slowly gets in the right mood to sing. Or howl, scream, moan and cry…whatever the spirits directing her performance command of her. As her long brownish hair and tight, short blue dress both convey urban modernity, her journey into such outer limits of proper stage conduct is all the wilder.
Unlike, say, Tuvan throat singers of Asia – which is more chant-like – this is like Yoko Ono crossed with The Exorcist’s Linda Blair. Her “throat” voice wrestled with her “lung” voice in a Godzilla-versus-Rodan showdown. After a while, she was moving and dancing around the stage and then she started crawling, rolling, and writhing. The music is ethnographic and experimental, yes, but there was an undeniable erotic dimension – at times, one was reminded of Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby.”
You’re not quite sure how to take her, but you’re so in awe of her energy and her music that you watch stunned. When the set was over, she received an extended standing ovation from the crowd at the stately, turn-of-the-20th-Century Bijou Theatre.
That earlier comment about her rising up the charts is made somewhat in jest, of course. Not that she couldn’t, but how do you capture this on record? How do you edit it down to a hit single? And even if you could, what would she do for a follow-up album? But she is right on the cusp of crossing over from cutting-edge music to something larger. And her Big Ears set sure helped her.
This was the fourth Big Ears Festival that Ashley Capps has produced since 2009 – it took three years off, from 2011-2013, before last year’s revival. If I credit Capps as producer rather than his Knoxville-based AC Entertainment (producer of Bonnaroo, Forecastle and Mountain Oasis festivals), it’s because he seems to have a special affinity for it. He was present at various venues to introduce guests and see shows, always smiling and looking happy.
For that matter, all Knoxville looked good for the event. For a relatively small city – under 200,000 – its Downtown and Old City areas have seen an impressive number of old factories and office buildings converted to apartments, Its Market Square is a lively public space with restaurants like Tupelo Honey and the Tomato Head proving favorites for festival attendees. It’s not as hip as nearby Asheville, N.C., yet – but it’s catching on.
Capps has said he based Big Ears – which is designed to be for fans who are open-minded (and –eared) about their musical tastes – on Cincinnati’s MusicNow, which was created by The National’s Bryce Dessner as a boutique festival that explores where rock, contemporary classical, folk, jazz and international music connect. One community radio host has also suggested a debt to Cropped Out, the Louisville festival that attempts a mash-up between experimental and outsider music.
Dessner, a very busy composer of minimalist-influenced classical pieces in addition to being a rock guitarist, has been a frequent presence at Big Ears, even guest-curating it one year. This year, he was there to, among other things, introduce violinist Yuki Numata Resnick, who played an appealing new Dessner work, “Ornament,” at Knoxville Art Museum.
Because this year’s Artist in Residence was the Kronos Quartet, the festival did seem to have more of a classical focus than ones past. There were a lot of violins and pianos, string quartets and other combinations. There were numerous good ones. Pianist/composer Rachel Grimes, a last-minute replacement for the injured Harold Budd, deserves special praise for her work under pressure, especially.
Kronos did shows with Tagaq, Dessner, Terry Riley, Sam Amidon and Rhiannon Giddens, and – most notably – Laurie Anderson. The latter’s performance of her 2013 Hurricane Sandy-inspired Landfall collaboration with Kronos was probably the festival’s most highly anticipated event.
Occurring in the ornate and historic 1920s-era Tennessee Theatre, it found Anderson in a quiet, reflective mood as she related anecdotes – mostly in her natural mellifluous voice but at times switching to her spacy male vocoder alter ego – that used the hurricane’s destructive power as a central focus for thoughts on dreams, species extinction, the stars and more.
It seemed more scattered both as music and monologues than her past work, and thus less gripping. And the visual component of abstracted, changing numbers and letters wasn’t especially compelling. Still, the part where she confessed how she responded to her own hurricane damage (it was never clear if such damage had really occurred or was poetic license) by thinking, “How beautiful! How magical! How catastrophic!” did resonate. It was the kind of enticingly contradictory insight Anderson excels at. And her acoustic and electric violin work was appealing, while Kronos provided rigorously dedicated and empathetic support.
The Anderson/Kronos appearance also revealed a problem that Big Ears needs to address. Because it is a festival where pass-holders choose among simultaneous shows at multiple venues, people come and go during individual concerts. They also use their smart-phone flashlights to check their schedules, or send messages, in darkened theaters.
That’s OK at shows where performers play a number of songs because there are natural breaks. But in those that instead are long performance pieces or symphony-length classical works, it’s disruptive and annoying as hell.
Especially during Landfall, which needs the mood of a darkened auditorium to be most effective. Big Ears should adopt a policy of having someone make announcements from the stage at a show’s start to not use phones, and then have the ushers at the main venues – the Bijou and the Tennessee – stop people from entering mid-performance.
Visual projections of all sorts are important at Big Ears. This year there was a whole sidebar film program, which took over a Downtown movie screen on Sunday, of movies curated by Jim Jarmusch and Michael Gira of The Swans.
And at the Bijou, Jarmusch’s rock trio Squrl provided a grungy semi-soundtrack to Man Ray’s surrealist short films from the 1920s. (Jarmusch collaborator Jozef van Wissem (above), by the way, had a solo club date where he played Chinese lute while sitting, his arm raised and feet spread in a rock-star way that looked very cool when bathed in the venue’s blue and white lighting.)
But the best video imagery I saw were the ghostly black-and-white apparition that appeared, suspended upside-down, behind The Bad Plus (above) as the trio played Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” on a Bijou stage. The Bad Plus – pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King — was a shot of disciplined, precise but rousingly energetic jazz adrenaline amid the other musical genres featured at this festival. I wish Big Ears would choose a jazz performer as Artist in Residence next year, and bring in some of that music’s aging modernist giants – Ornette Coleman, the Marshall Allen-led Sun Ra Arkestra, Cecil Taylor – to play while they’re still active.
There was rock ‘n’ roll at this year’s Big Ears. The Swans launched forth a tumultuously cathartic set at the Bijou on Sunday night, the band projecting their sublime, rocket-powered playing of those loud repetitive guitar chords until everyone present achieved nirvana on the spot.
I thought I recognized them working on their epic “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Overture” when I arrived at the show, but I could be wrong because the nature of their live music is so different from their recordings. Gira was leading the ensemble magnificently – it really felt like they had been set free of earthly limits.
But there was the volume issue. The Swans’ merchandise booth was doing a brisk business in $2 earplugs – seemingly everyone was wearing them –and the salesperson joked this was the only way to hear them. Should he choose, Gira might be able to have as profitable a sideline in “Swans Earplugs” as Dr. Dre has with his headphones.
Perfume Genius (above) used to primarily be known as the stage name – the conceptual name – for the singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas, whose piano-based songs were beguiling but also introverted. But with the success of a new sound on last year’s Too Bright album, he has started touring with a tight band that prominently brings an alt-rock dimension to his sound. With that, he can tour as a relatively dynamic live act.
At Big Ears, his sound and persona were extroverted to such an extent he seemed to surprise himself. He wore a longish black shirt that stopped below his waist, mesh stockings and platform-heeled shoes and he did odd, bent-knee dancing and sashaying as he moved around the stage while singing. He was a free spirit, but he could also slow things down for an intimate keyboard ballad, however.
Notable at his show was the hard-edged, sparky guitar work, which transformed the Too Bright songs like “Queen” and “My Body” – the latter with its Link Wray-like instrumental rumble – into showstoppers. His compositions are too brief to have maximum effect – you want more out of each song – but nevertheless impactful.
Strangely, he was booked into the 1,600-seat Tennessee Theatre for a 7 p.m. Sunday – closing night – show, when he probably should have had a Friday or Saturday night gig. The turnout wasn’t bad – a couple hundred – but that left a lot of empty seats, which seemed to dissipate his efforts to build energy during his set.
The night before, in a later slot, Merrill Garbus’ Tune-yards played to a substantially larger and more enthusiastic crowd at the Tennessee. Hers is another case of someone who has transformed her presumed nom de plume into a legitimate touring band to back up a breakthrough album (with a semi-hit song to boot, “Water Fountain”) in last year’s Nicki-Nack.
With her on stage was bassist Nate Brenner, who provided some good jaggedly splintery guitar; a potent percussionist in Dani Markham; and two supporting vocalists/dancers– one of whom, Moira Smiley, moved about the stage so engagingly you might have though she was the headliner. Playing drums and ukulele, projecting happiness outward, Garbus was almost unstoppably irresistible.
But to be honest, some of the novelty does wear off during a full show, especially as you focus on the colorful costumes and Pee Wee’s Playhouse-like stage backdrop, the goofy faux-naive charm of the singing and dancing, and all the Bow Wow Wow-redux drumming.
I was fortunate to catch the last half hour of Giddens’ solo show with a crackerjack acoustic ensemble supporting her singing and work on violin. In a long red dress that bared one shoulder, the tall Giddens performed such classy, thoughtful material as a song based on Gaelic “mouth music” and Sister Rosetta Thorpe’s “Up Above My Head.”
As she has a new solo album out, Tomorrow Is My Turn, she was at Big Ears to both emerge from her past as a Carolina Chocolate Drop member and to stay true to that group’s (and her) advocacy for authenticity and roots to be present in contemporary music. So far, so good for her quest.
Not all the rock-oriented acts at Big Ear cared about having an arresting visual presence to accompany their music. My favorite one, guitarist Steve Gunn, was so downright demure and restrained on stage at a club called The Square Room that it prompted concern among some he wasn’t projecting a personality to go with his music.
No need for alarm. The Philadelphia-raised Brooklyn resident, on last year’s outstanding Way Out Weather, moved decisively from his earlier, more experimental and often-instrumental work to recognizably song-based material featuring his earnestly plain but honest voice singing and playing with restrained backing. At Big Ears, he presented those songs – and he has strong, atmospheric material like the album’s title song and “Milly’s Garden” – in a no-nonsense way that highlighted musicality. He was accompanied by Paul Sukeena on guitar, Nathan Bowles on drums and Jason Meagher on bass.
Gunn, who played acoustic and electric guitar, offered a textured, dense, fast-moving often-droning sound that borrows from 1960s folk guitarists like John Fahey and Sandy Bull. But he also can do electric-guitar runs that in their piercingly clear, high-pitched, melancholy melodiousness recall Jerry Garcia. When all systems are churning, the music achieves the same kind of ethereal haziness as The War on Drugs offers. He has recently signed with Matador Records and is opening for Wilco, and the Big Ears show served as an introduction of big things to come.
As did all of Big Ears, for that matter, assuming it continues – and continues to grow and attract national attention – in 2016.