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.