As The Big Ears Festival approached like a speeding train in my consciousness while occupied by other things, I was happy to see that a month or so out, changes had been made to free up some of the early conflicts that the first schedule release had displayed. I was most chagrined that Faust were cross-sheduled with Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass; the primary reason why we were attending. The Laurie Anderson/Philip Glass show was now scheduled for the afternoon of April 2nd and Faust were on at midnight. No longer a problem to attend the seminal Krautrock band’s performance. As longtime readers of this blog know, I have been finally turning my attention to that genre in a much-belated fashion, but Faust had remained the prize that had still escaped my grasp. Unlike Neu!, Can, or Cluster, I still had not heard of Faust in any form except for reputation. There were none of their releases in my record Cell.
Sadly, the third act I was interested in seeing went from having a show only on Friday, which we were not attending, to also having a show on Saturday out of conflict with Anderson/Glass or Faust – hooray! But that was at the second schedule, a month or so out. When the final schedule was released it transpired that Molly Nilsson was completely off the festival roster. Sigh. At least I caught her sets in Asheville a few years back.
‘HEART OF A DOG’ FILM | Laurie Anderson
To make up for this, The first six hours of the Saturday we were attending were all about Laurie Anderson, and by extension, her husband Lou Reed, who was a ghostly presence at this festival. Anderson’s film, “Heart Of A Dog” was showing as part of the festival film schedule on Saturday morning with a talk with the artist following, so we were there. We had already seen the film in December, but not in a theatre as lovely as The Tennessee Theatre in downtown Knoxville. The film was ostensibly about her deceased rat terrier, Lolabelle, but of course it was about so much more. Surveillance, all loss, her mother, and the elephant in the room, Lou Reed.
Afterward, there was a short period where Ms. Anderson fielded a few questions from the audience, but time was short, since the theatre was needed for a soundcheck for the concert with Glass, which was taking place between 3:30 and 5:00 p.m. that afternoon. Between 1:00 and 1:20 Anderson answered a few questions that took flight to intriguing new locations far different from the launch point of the inquiries. Her tale of being the first [and last] NASA artist-in-residence was particularly illuminating.
DRONES INSTALLATION | Lou Reed [guitars]
After that wrapped up, it was over to experience Lou Reed DRONES, a sound installation set up that was like “Metal Machine Music” without Reed’s actual presence. This was a system that Reed began investigating when he took his Metal Machine Trio out on stage from 2008 until his death in 2013. It involved five or six of Reed’s guitars and amps all configured to feed back and create drone harmonics for hours at a time. Reed’s guitar tech, Stewart Hurwood kept it all humming, in a matter of speaking, for the five hours scheduled this day. He moved silently from guitar to guitar, adjusting knobs and setting levels so that the complex drone was maintained. It was poignant and poetic seeing the artist’s assistant still serving the art in the absence of the artist. The interior of the club space was lit by red bulb clusters and there were beanbags and mats on the floor where visitors were sprawled and absorbing the vibes. This, more than anything, was something that I have only seen at the Big Ears Festival. Last year the same arrangement happened while were were attending the Bing + Ruth performance.
VEILS + VESPER INSTALLATION | John Luther Adams
After this installation, we caught another one by this Big Ears Festival composer-in-residence John Luther Adams. “Veils + Vesper” at The Sanctuary, a former church in Downtown Knoxville. A different chilled out vibe was present here; the vibe was far lighter, with none of the heaviness of drone that the Reed installation had. This made sense in a former church and even though there were a few people on the floor listening, the overall airiness of this drone made one realize that all drones were not created equal. There was a lot of room for movement under the drone umbrella.
CONCERT | Laurie Anderson + Philip Glass
After a bit of time there, it was time to get to the Tennessee Theatre for the Anderson/Glass event. The show began promptly at 3:30 and I was surprised to see that it was not the Philip Glass Ensemble but solely the composer himself who was playing with Ms. Anderson. The show began with an excerpt from the “Heart Of A Dog” soundtrack, and soon moved back and forth between Glass and Anderson compositions. Occasionally, Mr. Glass would set up a performance with anecdotal information; illuminating the origins or gestation details about a piece. Sometimes he would recite poetry to accompany a performance. One memorable piece used the recorded voice of Allan Ginsberg for a performance of Ginsburg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” Reciprocally, the performance also included a Lou Reed spoken word recording that accompanied the music played; neither of which I had ever heard before. The 90 minutes positively flew by as these peers traded off compositions from their storied pasts.
I tried to attend The Necks show that began immediately afterward at the Bijou Theatre, but as the line to enter moved forward, I saw it stop about 30 places in front of me as the show reached capacity. I immediately bolted as I thought that The Necks might be a good way to kill a little time, but had not bought into it or the band in any case. On the way back to home base, I was shocked to see a quarter mile queue stretching out of Festival venue. Intrigued, I had to ask someone standing in it, what artist they were queued for. The Anthony Braxton Trio had caused this impossibly long line.
CONCERT | Marc Ribot
After a dinner of pretty creative vegetarian sushi we went to the same venue I had passed earlier hosting Braxton, where guitarist extraordinaire Marc Ribot was playing one of his three sets this weekend. The small room was soon filled with audience as the guitarist sat down and proceeded to play his set. I hope that it was improvised. It sure sounded like it. The atonal caterwaul of occasionally recognizable snatches of riffs drove us from the room fairly quickly. We were out of there in as much as seven minutes. I have many examples of Marc Ribot’s playing in my Record Cell. He can play any type of music, but for this set, apparently he chose not to. Sigh.
CONCERT | Faust
We went back to home base for a while and tried to watch a movie, but that was not very interesting. By 11:00 p.m., I felt it was high time to head to the Bijou Theatre for Faust’s midnight set. Having seen the Braxton show’s demand, I didn’t want to miss this band for no good reason. We entered the venue while we awaited the opening of the theatre doors. We could hear sound checking going on which was not encouraging. A muffled welter of chaotic noise was more than a little foreboding following the Ribot debacle. Near midnight, the small, vintage theatre let us in. It probably seated up to 700 at most. Stage right held four ladies knitting with a lamp illuminating their work. A roadie brought them out bottled water and presumably wine in classes as well. Strange.
This evening we would hear the Jean-Hervé Péron/Diermaier Faust and it began on the edge of the same chaos that drove us from Ribot, but after they built up a chaotic noise drone over several minutes, they then looped it and the twin drummers began their massive motorik pulse. Then it began really going places! Péron would occasionally recite poetry with the music, or even sing. There were free electronics with no keyboards attached. Maxime Manac’h was manning the electronic devices was also playing hurdy-gurdy and guitars. It quickly transpired that the vibe of the band was comparable to that of Pere Ubu, or early Roxy Music in its fearless embrace of adventure with no thought of compromise.
Here’s a snapshot that paints a vivid picture. About 2/3 through their set, the band left the stage except for main drummer Diermaier. The joined the audience. Then the video background changed to a drawings that panned across the video from left to right for the length of the song. There were abstract sketches, patterns, and geometric shapes as well as figurative images in the scrolling video. Drummer Zappi interpreted these images percussively and then the audience interpreted the images vocally! It was an immersive and communal experience like no other I’ve been a party to. It was an amazing vibe, so unlike every other rock concert I’ve ever attended. It was really inspirational, free, and a little bit life changing.
The performance became more and more delightful as it continued until by the time they ended at 1:30 [technically overtime but no one was following] we were completely enraptured with much smiles and laughter. Their set had actually induced a giddy spirit in me at hours way past my bedtime. I had expected some exciting Krautrock and Faust had by far exceeded my levels of expectation and had delivered thrilling, spirited music. My wife summed it up succinctly afterward with “well that was the peak of Big Ears!” Yes it certainly was. In keeping with the spirit of the festival, it could not have been more perfectly embodied by a single band as well as Faust did. Their set was: chaotic, playful, serious, passionate, fearless, poetic, avant-garde [still!] and even, yes, rocking. Hearing them renewed my faith in the restorative and inspirational power of music. If Faust are coming to your area, you really should make the effort to see them. Faust’s US tour [their fourth ever] wraps up tomorrow night at the Mission Creek Festival in Mission Creek, Iowa.
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