Big Ears 2018 Day 2: Joyous Cacophony, Cries de Coeur, and Gratitude

Bang on a Can All-Stars, extra blurry from the last row of the balcony

Early afternoon in a 15 hour day of dedicated absorption, I was lucky to see one of my all-time hall-of-fame music writers, Ben Ratliff, in conversation with Damon Krukowski. Krukowski I, of course, knew from Damon and Naomi and Galaxie 500. And his book, The New Analog, is part of the current wave of big-picture music books along with books like Ratliff’s Every Song Ever and Jace Clayton’s Uproot.

But my most personal connection with Krukowski came from his publishing company Exact Change. I was in Boston visiting Mike Gamble – as I seemed to be every few months during college – and in the Twisted Village record store I found Exact Change’s edition of Morton Feldman’s writing: Give My Regards to Eighth Street. One of those books that set my hair on fire. I still have that copy almost 20 years later, beat to hell and still providing a light socket to stick my finger in when I’m stuck.

During their ranging, fascinating talk, two particular statements stuck with me. The first was Krukowski, “The thing I hear all the time is ‘overwhelmed,’ and I’ve come to question it. It’s a good, immediate thing to say. But maybe you do have time but the coordinates have changed and you can be grateful.”

In a lot of ways, this festival, full-to-bursting, is about gratitude for that abundance. I ran into a local friend and composer Brian Harnetty who called it the kid-in-a-candy-store effect. Ratliff answered a related question from the audience with, “Whatever choice you make is the right one. Wherever you are, if you commit, you’re in the right place.”

Jenny Scheinman’s Mischief and Mayhem

The overwhelming impression I walked away from Friday with was the power and joy of communication in that space and that time. Specificity.

There was a strong thread within that joy – and I use joy to encompass catharsis – about using music to actively and directly engage the outside world. A resistance to the impulse to withdraw to some easy and lonely hermetic bubble.

That began with my first set, Bang on a Can All-Stars’ selection of their Field Recordings project using commissioned compositions built around found or archival sound. Mark Stewart, the guitarist, introduced every piece by talking about where the writer found its “truth and beauty.” Calculated cacophony broke into sublime warmth. Shimmering textures from Ken Thomson’s clarinet and Ashley Bathgate’s cello shattered and turned on Vicky Chow’s perfectly placed piano depth charges and were borne aloft on David Cossin’s chunky, driving drums. The juxtaposition of the pieces shone new light on them all – Caroline Shaw’s piece, about a quilter reflecting on her craft, placed between David Lang’s ominous abstraction of sharpening knives and Steve Reich’s bitter fable “The Cave of Machpelah,” changed the texture and expanded the resonance of all three.

Dancing to Kristin Andreassen

That sense of playful engagement was neon-bright when I stopped at Boyd’s Jig and Reel. A terrific bar but I learned the first year that “best scotch list in town and rowdy locals” is a touch counterproductive to in-depth grappling with sound. My taste of this year’s “traditional” track came through Becky Hill and Kristen Andreassen’s Old-Time House Party. All I really knew of either artist was Andreassen’s fantastic album The Gondolier and my old pal Dave’s relentless enthusiasm for her band Uncle Earl. To say I was charmed and delighted feels like damning with faint praise – it was a magical supernova of love.

Variety show style, there was clogging (I might have misidentified it, an Appalachian analog to hoofing-style tap), dancing (including an advanced-beginner level square dance), and a flood of guests. My favorite tunes were the Andreassen showcases. “Crayola Doesn’t Make a Color For Your Eyes” featured Scott Miller’s – THE Knoxville ambassador if you grew up where and when I did – bassist Bryn Davies and rhythmic patty cake. “Meet Me Out on the Dancefloor” reassembled the earlier guests for a two-step woven with sweetness: bass, banjo, Celtic cello, ragtime clarinet, rhythm guitar, and harmonies. It was a palate cleanser, a refresh, and something I could see again and again.


Algiers painted that engagement with colors of resistance and witness in the foreground at The Standard. I say this with no exaggeration, they put on one of the finest rock shows I’ve ever seen. Setting the tone as they came out to drones, bathed in red light, frontman Franklin James Fisher dedicated their set to bassist Ryan Mahan “In exile in the UK.” Substitute bass player “Gary Indiana” acquitted himself brilliantly, sculpting bass lines out of molten volume, sometimes turning up so loud he just had to shake or strike the bass and layering shiny, sticky tar with synth bass. James Tong’s sensual earthquake drumming conjured Depeche Mode and the Cro-Mags as it wove in and out of loops. Lee Tesche had a similar approach to the guitar: bowing, switching to saxophone Billy Zoom-style, leavening fat riffs with acid dissonance.

Fisher’s voice and presence summed up the eternal righteous fucking of the sacred and profane that serves as the DNA of rock and roll since time immemorial. An implacable swagger and roof-shattering scream with the mix of intense masculinity and abject vulnerability as well as anyone’s executed it since Smokey Robinson and Sinatra. The kind of frontman who draws you into his fire.

The band aren’t precious about style or signifier. They play like the world is ending and there’s no time for your weak-ass conception of authenticity. A transmission sent straight from a doomed planet to the dental filings of an outcast on another doomed planet. Algiers is throwing an apocalypse party worthy of The Stooges and Funkadelic and Public Enemy but drilled and tooled for the here and now.

The Thing

Less directly programmatic music was also in abundance and there was no shortage of the pleasures of “pure” abstraction.

Rocket Science affirmed that Evan Parker still plays like he’s leaning off a cliff, unafraid. Craig Taborn is one of the great improvisers of his, or any generation – shifting his entire body language and attack to echo Parker’s fluttering high-register work; muting the piano strings directly; changing the flow of the group, the eye of the storm and its electricity. Petet Evans’ virtuosic trickster and Sam Pluto’s live electronics and real-time delays and looping set up and distorted frameworks and contexts.

Jenny Scheinman’s Mischief and Mayhem band was wall-to-wall fun and excitement. Her violin jousted with the guitar of her partner in deconstruction Nels Cline over thick, roiling grooves courtesy of Todd Sickafoose and Scott Amendola – a rhythm section born to play together. Great, sticky tunes, especially “A Ride With Polly Jean” and a new untitled number.

Mats Gustafsson was one of my gateway drugs to free jazz, by way of John Corbett’s writing and a first credit card I charged too much to Dusty Groove on. His power trio, The Thing, is the kind of physical force of nature even people who don’t like improvised music can’t deny. But even as much of a fan as I am, I was unprepared for the simultaneous widening of scope for inspiration and laser focus of approach they deployed here. Soulful, even sweet, without sacrificing any intensity or ferocity. This last set wrung me out and sent me into the shining night reeling.


Big Ears 2018 Day 1: Ley Lines, Throughlines, and Blurry Borders

I’m far from the first person to say it but Big Ears Festival is special. After a year off – but je ne regrette Sick Weekend – I returned to this booming, bustling college town to reconnect with deeper listening and jump off the merry-go-round for a minute.

Started slow on Thursday but I needed that easing in. Wandered the downtown, filling my lungs and feeling the vibrations of this place. A couple great meals – Chivo Taqueria and Myrtle’s Chicken and Beer – and reacquainting myself with Old City Java.

Stopped at Public House for an apertif to the sensory feast: Postmodern Spirits release party for their (damn good) first single malt Tennessee Whiskey at a party at Public House. I overheard one of my favorite refrains: a stylish regular who works at another bar (I gathered) said about Big Ears: “I dig the crowd, I get it. It brings people from everywhere. I just want them to know culture happens here too.” I’ve said it; I’ve heard it at Gonerfest and Anime Weekend Atlanta. It’s people like her who make that happen: loving your town so much it’s infectious.

Went straight from there to my first set of the festival: ICE (the International Contemporary Ensemble) playing Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s majestic, luminous “In The Light of The Air.”

In the round, most of the audience seated on the floor, the ensemble lit Thorvaldsdottir’s piece from within, shaping and shifting. Motifs rise and repeat, changing their DNA while remaining recognizable. Percussion plays an omnipresent, mercurial role here: clattering and clicking like ash in the air around the bubbling lava of piano; slashing transition color from a bowed marimba; growling propulsion not only moving the piece forward but in every direction.

Glacial accumulation of detail and material dances with the light installation, effectively underlining as when the bulbs surge bright with deep bass throbs. As delicate and dramatic as life. The music is so engaged with the world it absorbed and played with the setting sun, the howl of passing trains, and omnipresent redevelopment.

The pedal steel guitar is one of the most evocative, purely American sounds I’ve run across. No one fuses that unmistakable sound to as pure and personal a language as Susan Alcorn. Alcorn’s vocabulary isn’t the result of eschewing history – she knows her Speedy West, her Leon McAuliffe, her Don Helms, and her Aubrey Ghent. That sound comes from a burning desire to see what else she can say with that vocabulary and unerring taste across the spectrum of music.

The first time I came across Susan Alcorn was her 2006 album And I Await The Resurrection of the Pedal Steel Guitar. In the sleek dance club environs of The Standard, Alcorn dazzled a rapt crowd with that title track and a story about its genesis: trying to arrange Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (a World War Ii elegy for wind orchestra) for steel. In those limitations, she found something that vibrates with history but is no one else’s.

Throughout her rapturous set, Alcorn made that guitar snarl and cry, turned it into a barrelhouse piano, a seductive dancer, nature painting, and a chorus of bells. She nodded to Giacinto Scelsi and tango. A profoundly American artist with the simultaneous thirst for the new and love of everything that got us here, Susan Alcorn exemplified Big Ears.

The icing on this delicious Thursday was two guitarists I’ve loved for as long as I’ve loved music. The minute you hear Marc Ribot’s Chuck-Berry-wrapped-in-barbed-wire guitar you never forget it. You hear it everywhere. David Hidalgo’s guitar, accordion, deceptively easy mastery of what seems like every other instrument, plus his spicy honey voice, make every record he guests on that much better – before we even get into his work as the cornerstone of one of the premier American rock bands, Los Lobos, co-writing most of their best songs. So as word trickled out these two titans were playing together it shot to the top of my list to check out. Thursday night at the Tennessee Theater was my chance.

The two men in chairs turned that cavernous stage and massive theater into a living room or a back porch. With the easy charm of old friends who don’t have a goddam thing to prove except to themselves, they lit up the history of American music. Lefty Frizzell’s “I Never Go Around Mirrors” was gifted a gorgeous high-lonesome voice and finger picking from Hidalgo punctuated with hot knives from Ribot. “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” got a dry vocal wringing all the hurt out of irony from Ribot as the two painted an expansive, devastated landscape with their guitars, deconstructing and rebuilding. Wilson Pickett and Paquita Del La Barrio and Los Cuatreros were the framework for hard-won and deeply personal voices forged from experience and love. Looks at permeable borders and the way we let each other down.

My favorite moment came with their revitalized take on “A Matter of Time,” the Los Lobos classic from their breakthrough Will The Wolf Survive record written by Hidalgo with Louie Perez. Stripped of horns and thirty plus years since it’s first appearance, the story and Hidalgo’s Sam Cooke-recalling vocal shine just as brightly as ever. The way we want to be better and keep reaching even when we know that “better world” might never be ib in our reach. They dedicated a note-perfect Ventures tune to Nokie Edwards with Hidalgo saying, “When we were kids, that Ventures stuff turned us all on. It was the shit.” Chuckling, he caught himself, “I guess it still is.”

May it always be. Day 2 awaits.

Bounteous Beauty This Week in Columbus

Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days – photo courtesy of Wexner Center

I hope the handful of you reading this got the three-day weekend to rest up because there’s enough unmissable stuff this week to kill the weaker of constitution.

Starting off on Wednesday we see one of the early blendings of new Performing Arts Curator Lane Czaplinski and outgoing curator Chuck Helm. Helm booked, in collaboration with CCAD, NYC artist Neil Goldberg for his one-man show Inhibited Bites fresh off two performances around APAP. Czaplinski makes good on his commitment to connecting the Wex beyond its four walls by bringing the show to Franklinton’s Idea Foundry. There have been happy hours related to Wex events before, but this at Land Grant is one of very few we’ve had steps away from the show. I wrote a preview for Columbus Underground.

Neil Goldberg’s Inhibited Bites – photo courtesy of the Wexner Center

Thursday, the Ogún Meji Duo kicks off a six-month residency at Art of Republic. One of our finest composers, Mark Lomax II, and my favorite saxophone player in town, Eddie Bayard, bring their fiery, flexible. Each of these residencies features a special guest and this week’s is very special: visual artist Bryan Christopher Moss. Friend and editor Andrew Patton previewed this for JazzColumbus.

Friday, one of our finest record labels, Heel Turn, celebrate their third anniversary with two showcases of our best rock and roll on the Old North High Street corridor. The appetizer at Dirty Dungarees features Bloody Show – never have better Stooges-style songs graced our town – with Mr. Clit and the Pink Cigarettes and the new Outer Spacist/Terrestrials offshoot Psychotropic. Facebook event. And the main event is headlined by my (and pretty much everybody else’s) favorite Columbus band right now, DANA, with Burning Itch from Knoxville, and Messrs and Raw Pony also from Columbus. Get there early, you don’t want to miss Raw Pony if you know what’s good for you. Facebook event.

Saturday, one of the finest young trumpet players from NYC, Adam O’Farrill brings his quartet Stranger Days to the Wex. I had the privilege of interviewing O’Farrill in advance of this show, and this is the kind of pure jazz that can move people who aren’t necessarily interested in jazz and leave those of us who already drank the Kool-Aid high for days. I previewed this show for JazzColumbus.

Later Saturday, Spacebar brings an unhinged rock extravaganza from near and far. I’ve barely been able to stop listening to London band Shame since they hit my radar before an NYC trip last year. Their first full-length Songs of Praise delivers on all the snotty, gleeful promise of their early singles with ingratiating post-punk grooves and snarled hooks that draw you in at the same time they’re pushing you away. Pittsburgh Sub Pop signees The Gotobeds have a slightly poppier shine to their stiletto sharpness but anyone who saw their Big Room show a year or two ago knows how hard they can rock. Local up-and-comers Kizzy Hall and Roof Dogs open, both of whom I’m looking forward to checking out again. Facebook event.

CU: Kimberly Bartosik and Joanna Kotze at the Wexner Center

Dance might be the art form I love most and understand least. I’m so intrinsically clumsy that it’s like watching a magic trick I fall for every goddam time. “Oh my god, where did that rabbit come from?” I know a little more but I’m still that goofy, grinning mark.

The Wexner Center and Chuck Helm, in particular, shaped that interest from nothing into a real fire. Without that center being so close to me and having turned me onto so much music and film, I’m not sure I would have given modern dance a chance.

As Helm’s final season draws to a close – and don’t misunderstand, I’m very excited to see what Lane Czaplinski brings to the table – I’m trying to talk about what that era, that legacy, that place meant to me.

The modern dance double-bill coming to the Wex starting tomorrow is a prime example of Helm’s eye for the creme of the New York arts scene that a hip Columbus audience can embrace. The preview I wrote is too long but I’m pretty proud of most of it. And I can’t wait to see these two pieces.

Up at Columbus Underground.

CU: Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. By Available Light

I reviewed the most exciting thing on a stage in Columbus right now, Available Light’s production of Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., for Columbus Underground.

I wrote, “Theatre with a message doesn’t get much better than this. This production of Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. is an act of communion between audience and cast. The play works as something both purely entertaining and a reminder that entertainment is never “pure” when it’s worth its salt. Eleni Papaleonardos and Available Light throw the gauntlet down for the rest of their season and the year in Columbus art and I expect the echo of that throwing to ring out from the darkness.

Three more shows starting tomorrow.