Big Ears music festival attendees in Knoxville were greeted Thursday (March 31) with an odd but wonderful juxtaposition: two men wearing Dickies coveralls that stood under a tent, one pounding hot iron on an anvil as the other manufactured an electronic soundscape via a hammer and looper/sampler device. The installation, called Workers Strike, exemplified what festival-goers were in for this weekend: musical mixtures of the modern and the old-as-the-hills as well as the familiar and challenging.
Irish/Celtic supergroup The Gloaming coaxed cinematic atmospheres out of traditional instruments, while a few blocks over, an avant-garde collective calling themselves Nief-Norf served up experimental music offerings. Festival-goers may have even dropped in to have their eardrums punished by noise-rock Michigan trio Wolf Eyes.
The Big Ears line-up is as diverse as expected, with the kind of eclecticism fit for the tastes of solo music adventurers, not the calculated, something-for-everybody programming seen at larger festivals. (Produced by Ashley Capps’ AC Entertainment, Big Ears is like the bookish, thoughtful cousin of the company’s hit creation Bonnaroo.) Day 1 gave fans the chance to hear the Knoxville, Tenn., symphony-led arrangements by Philip Glass, The National‘s Bryce Dessner, and John Luther Adams, the Pulitzer prize-winning composer whose electronic work on “Veils and Vesper” was installed in the sanctuary of the nearby First Christian Church. In a first for Big Ears, some venues were transformed into makeshift cinemas. Shambhavi Kaul’s weekend-opening film program Planet proved as thought-provoking as any music on the schedule.
The Mill & Mine served as a large new concert venue, which had finished restorations just in time to host the night’s biggest names, Yo La Tengo and the Sun Ra‘s Arkestra. It was also the obvious place to hunker down for the night given the torrential downpour. In the two decades-plus since Sun Ra’s death, The Arkestra of today is led by the former bandleader’s disciple Marshall Allen.
The sax-playing nonagenarian was in fine form, especially as the charismatic center of the sequin-caped group. Never lacking for energy but sometimes seated, Allen shared the spotlight with Tara Middleton, a buoyant young singer whose spirit matched the cosmic optimism of songs that lay claim not just to planets beyond this one, but to entire new realms of existence on the track “Somebody Else’s World.”
“Somebody else’s idea of somebody else’s world / Is not my idea of things as they are,” she sang. “Somebody else’s idea of things to come / need not be the only way to vision the future.”
As the horn section paraded out into the audience, a shaman-like percussionist prowled the stage with cowbell and chimes as Marshall used a bizarre electronic instrument called an EVI to create Theremin-like squalls, it was clear that Sun Ra’s vision did not leave the planet when he did.
Those who’ve caught Yo La Tengo’s tour for the recent all covers album Stuff Like That There likely expected the band to bring that same melodic living-room-hangout vibe to Knoxville. Instead, fans received, as YLT’s Ira Kaplan put it, “something we’ve never done before.” YLT put on a 90-minute improvisational session in which the band’s three members were joined by the aforementioned Dessner, the Arkestra’s Danny Ray Thompson, harpist Mary Lattimore and Chris Abrahams on organ.
For an uninterrupted half-hour or so, the seven musicians inhabited a spacey zone, very different from the Arkestra’s interplanetary realm. With four stringed instruments plinking and scraping beneath harp, electronics, flute and organ, the room was conducive to eyes-closed meditation. Then Thompson traded his flute for a baritone saxophone, and his skronky contributions bumped the energy level up a notch or two. Dessner began propping his electric guitar up on its headstock, shaking it gently to produce an amplified warble. The organ got louder. Percussion entered the picture. Yo La Tengo fans are no strangers to this sort of freeform creativity but the expanded range of sounds — and the extent to which these musical strangers communicated invisibly with each other while appearing to be holed up in abstract introspection — made this a perfect embodiment of the laid-back adventurousness on tap at Big Ears.