May 17-20 Durham, NC
The Modular Marketplace is a free interactive pop-up featuring boutique electronics, experimental effects, and eurorack synthesizers. From instruments that can make any musical sound imaginable to the latest DIY kits, the marketplace showcases the future of electronic music and gives attendees the opportunity to meet instrument designers and play, test-drive, and take home the next generation of musical devices.
This year’s instrument manufacturers, selected for their cult status or game-changing ambition, will showcase their instruments and offer daily demonstrations, sound experiments, exclusive discounts, and other specials. Many of the entrepreneurs and designers behind these products will be in attendance, and many items will be available for purchase.
The Modular Marketplace will take place at Moogfest 2018 at Bay 7 from 10am - 6pm from May 17-20.
Celebrating Instrument Designers: Tony Rolando & Joel Davis
Each year, Moogfest honors some of the world's leading instrument designers. This year they celebrate Buchla's Joel Davel and Make Noise's Tony Rolando, who will be joined by Make Noise co-owner Kelly Kelbel. Both will give daytime presentations, providing insight into their work and processes.
Joel Davel worked with Don Buchla for over 20 years. As an accompanist, the Wall Street Journal wrote, “Percussionist Joel Davel blew everyone away with his virtuosic improvisation on the Marimba Lumina, an electronic invention that...extends the vocabulary of conventional mallet instruments, and the Lightning...” Along with numerous recording and production credits, Joel is now with Buchla USA, working as lead engineer to keep Don’s creative vision alive.
Tony Rolando is a self-taught electronic instrument designer who got started reading amateur radio books at the library, building electronics for artists, and working for Moog Music. After three years isolated on a mountaintop with a modular synthesizer, he founded Make Noise, a company that re-imagines jettisoned analog tech and explores modern digital tech to design and build strange, thoughtful instruments.
I’ve known about Big Ears for a couple years now. Of course I’ve wanted to go every year after seeing the lineup posted, but of course there were reasons not to go. Eddie Garcia, my Pedal Fuzz boss for the weekend, insisted that I go with him last year (2017). There was something else to do, I guess. This year I had no reason not to go. The tickets were in place months before the festival, a plan established even earlier. I said “yes.”
The first musician we saw at the fest was Susan Alcorn. I knew nothing about her, nothing at all. Walking into the room and seeing her pedal steel set up I had no idea what to expect, and that’s part of the fun. During her set, she spoke a lot about her giant realization about the instrument, something I heard more than once during the fest. Often folks would talk about how they became interested in improvised or “out” music. Alcorn heard something on the classical radio station while driving to her gig playing country music in Houston, Texas, and her life was changed. Hearing that piece of music (I don’t remember the name, some modern composer) allowed her to refocus her musical interests. Not that I heard people feeling like they had to defend the often dense and difficult music at Big Ears, but sharing your initial experience seems part of the process. Sometimes context is everything.
The twang of the pedal steel was still in what she created. Widening the perception of the instrument past country scorchers seems to be part of Alcorn’s mission. The music she created was shimmering and atmospheric; it was nice. This “rebranding” seems successful to my untrained ears.
I’ve been to most states in the country, but somehow I've missed the town of Knoxville, Tennessee, even though it’s only four hours west of Winston-Salem, NC, where I live. It’s just right there. I’ve driven by it more than a few times going a little further west like Nashville, or way out west, like driving to California. I distinctly remember driving back from a cross country trip a couple years ago, looking off Interstate 40 into Knoxville and thinking, “I need to go there.” Going to Big Ears 2018 allowed me to cross both of those somewhat easy to accomplish goals off my list at the same time.
From Susan Alcorn we quickly jumped to Marc Ribot and David Hidalgo’s set at The Tennessee Theatre. I can’t imagine walking into that beautiful relic of the past (completely renovated) and not being astonished. The building is spectacular. The further you walk up the slight slope and into the theatre you feel in awe, almost tiny by comparison. Being in that building is the original definition of awesome. A person of faith might compare this to a cathedral, but I won’t, it was bigger and more important than that. After Eddie and I sat down we spent the next ten minutes looking up, and around, and over our shoulders. I took more pictures of that building than I did of any other performer during the fest.
Hidalgo and Ribot seem like an unlikely pairing. Hidalgo is famously from Los Lobos, that legendary group from LA. Like many people of my generation, the first time I heard of them was for the Richie Valens biopic, La Bamba. Not a great introduction, it’s one that sticks with someone, much like seeing The Beach Boys for the first time and they’re on stage with John Stamos. It takes you awhile before you’re able to go back and unpack their discography. A few years back I saw the Los Lobos episode of Austin City Limits and began digging around, finding the good stuff, and my perception of the band changed.
Ribot has always been one of those guys on other guys’ records, namely Tom Waits. I also thought about him in association with all of the craziness surrounding John Zorn’s (more on him later) many musical ideas. Ribot was always a guitar player to me, someone that was versatile but I had no proper handle on.
The music the two made was an odd mix. Each would take the lead on the other’s song, and then they’d switch. Hidalgo played a couple songs in Spanish with a bright guitar tone that worked against Ribot’s attacking style of playing. I thought he was going to break all the strings on his acoustic guitar. Hidalgo was straight forward, centered, and clean, Ribot was erratic, dirty, and haphazard. Later in the night I heard a guy behind me say, “I just wanted to hear Hidalgo’s songs” and I agreed with him.
The four hour drive was a cinch. I learned two things. I learned I needed to listen to more Yo La Tengo, and that the best option for a quick meal driving in Tennessee is Hardee’s. On the way there the two of us got a plan together for the next four days. Since I was his employee for the next four days, I was given some chores. I was instructed to take some pictures and keep an eye out for potential stories. It was expected that I’d write what you’re reading now - the boss was very insistent on that point.
Jaga Jazzist was the biggest reason I wanted to come to Big Ears. They’re one of my favorite bands and have been for some time. Since they’re from Norway they aren’t that easy to see, and here they are playing twice, in Knoxville, TN. In the ten or fifteen years (see I’m old and hip…I knew them before you did) I’ve been listening to them, I’ve only had the chance to see them live once. I saw them in Asheville with close friends who were also big fans. That’s a great way to experience music - your friends’ excitement and energy stokes your own.
We arrived at The Bijou Theatre with time to spare. The front few rows were reserved for VIP attendees, but we’d be allowed to sprint for a closer spot as soon as the band hit the stage. Long LED lights adorned Jaga Jazzist’s microphone stands, plentiful and twinkling. The large backdrop was the same black and white geometric design from the cover of their last record, Starfire. The stage was so lousy with wires that it looked like long black spaghetti had been spilled on the stage. It was full of instruments - drums, bass guitars, guitar-guitars, synthesizers, saxophone, bass clarinet, tuba, trombone, a vibraphone, and other small horns that if I took band in high school, I’d be able to identify. I told Eddie that they played “all the sound” right before things got started.
As Jaga came out, we darted up to the front-center row of the VIP section. Along the way I may have stepped on an old man’s foot.
The experience of seeing Jaga Jazzist live is an all-encompassing one. There’s so much going on that you kind of surrender your brain and your heart and let it happen. Giant blocks of sound hit you in a colorful aural assault. For people that haven’t heard the records this could be both exciting and off-putting. Either you respond to the hundreds of ideas coming at you in a visceral way, or you’re caught off guard and become defensive. I could see someone saying that “it’s just too much.” Too much is what I like. Jaga Jazzist is full of rhythm and color, the two things I look for in music.
After the one hour set we made our way through the crowd and onto the street. I didn’t know what to say. It all had just happened, I wasn’t sure of the proper words to describe what I’d just seen. I walked in an afterglow of shimmering excitement. I felt like someone had just told me I had the week off of work, there was a pizza chef ready to make food for me in my kitchen, and there were new episodes of VEEP to watch.
Right at four o’clock we made it to our hotel, a nameless hotel on the outskirts of town. When Eddie was checking in he was told by the front desk guy that the room he was giving us “Was the nicest in the hotel.” I mean Room 201 was fine, clean, and close to a stairwell, but I had nothing to compare it to. If the other rooms were utter shitholes, then I imagine this would be the finest of them all. For eighty dollars a night it was a completely acceptable room, but not the best of anything. It still had that dull musk of mold in the air and looked exactly like the old hotel in Wilmington, North Carolina I used to work at for six dollars an hour.
The last band we saw Thursday night was Godspeed! You Black Emperor. I’ve seen them a couple times and have genuinely enjoyed their records over the years. I even remember the exact location on Trade Street in Winston-Salem, NC where I heard about them for the first time. In my circle of friends they have a certain cache. Punks who normally stay in their musical lane often claim Godspeed! as the one musically ambitious band (outside of Radiohead) that they listen to.
I’ve always been impressed with their ability to be a political band without having a singer. The band has cultivated a persona quite effectively. No pictures, no interviews, no personality, just music. If you know anything about them it’s that they’re political with a capital “P.” This point is hammered home with their many samples, as well as the movies they project during their performances.
When we walked into the venue we saw dive-bombers in freefall on the massive split screens behind the band. The images then moved to a Trump rally where folks were attacking others as they’re wont to do. Canadians are always good at critiquing American politics.
The music is about building a mood while working towards an almost inevitable crescendo. Build, build, build and then topple over. This musical motif works in a similar way to their political message. In the setting of an experimental music fest this technique might seem overwrought and simple. I had an octopus tako (tako-taco…get it?) while listening to them in the background.
Once Eddie and I got our passes for the long weekend he gave me a quick tour around town. He pointed up Gay Street and then back down it. Pretty much everything related to Big Ears is off of Gay or Jackson Street. It’s both a centrally located festival and a small town. Everywhere you looked you could see new construction going up. It was a town that felt like things were ‘happening’ in, after a possible seedy past. While I was waiting one day for Eddie I heard a woman with a large group of well-dressed kids say, “I just can’t believe you can walk down here, now.” Reclaiming downtowns once left to rot in poverty and hopelessness is not a new story, a lot of mid-sized cities are trying to rebound. Knoxville does have one thing going for it though that not many cities can claim - a great storyline for an old episode of The Simpsons. Every time I looked up at the Sunsphere I imagined it was full of wigs.
We got back to the hotel right at two o’clock in the morning. Instead of going directly to bed we started a tradition. For at least thirty minutes before finding sleep, we’d Google everyone we had just seen. We’d figured out who they’d played with and maybe if we’d seen them before. And since it’s the 21st century, we’d add records to our Spotify lists for future listening.
The morning started with hotel breakfast. Eddie went and got it for me, what a sweet man. On the plate there were sausage links, “eggs,” and the hardest biscuit known to man. There was also coffee, obviously the most important part of the morning mastication routine. It tasted horrible but it looked kind of right.
The first event of the day wasn’t music, it was a movie. We went to watch Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a movie I had watched a few years ago at home, but this screening was in 3D. I didn’t even think that the movie contained an extra dimension the first time I watched it. Like seeing many of the musicians at Big Ears, this was my only chance to see the movie in this format. Living in a small Southern town means you’re likely not inundated with the legends of Free Jazz and Out Music or the dulcet tones of everyone’s favorite narrator, Werner Herzog.
In a strange way Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a film about the cave paintings in Lascaux, France fits perfectly with Big Ears. The documentary starts with the infamous cave coverings and ends with white, genetically modified alligators. In the course of the movie this switch makes complete sense in the same way going from big synthesizer music, to electro-acoustic music, to nutty singer-songwriters makes sense…you move through things, experiencing them, while not completely understanding how you got there.
From one movie we went to the next, a movie called Brimstone & Glory at the Tennessee Theatre. I would have gladly sat and watched anything playing on that screen. The movie is about a fireworks festival (I’m not sure that description does it justice) in Tultepec, Mexico. The whole town is involved in this thing.
The movie is structurally broken into two parts. The first section deals with the construction of the giant towers that kick off the festival. Men shimmy up and down these ten/fifteen/twenty-story towers. They’re filled with fireworks, both along the structure and sprawling outward in circular shapes. During the movie, one of the towers catches fire when it’s hit by lighting, and guys try to shake the fire out.
After the towers are illuminated, the focus shifts to larger than life bulls that the townspeople make. Small groups gather to create these metal beasts painted in glorious colors. When night comes, there’s a parade of sorts where the bulls are set on fire while their creators run below them. People literally catch fire. The hope is that the bulls stay intact and that their creators only have ember scars to sustain them for the rest of the year. There’s more than one burn victim in the movie, some of the burns are mild while some of them look quite severe. Protective eyewear would have been more than helpful, even if considered an “easy” way out.
While the movie was going, there was a live soundtrack from a Knoxville-based “new music” orchestra called Nief-Norf. The NYC based orchestra Wordless Music collaborated with them. The music rose and fell with the mostly wordless documentary. There wasn’t a voice-over narrator to clutter things. Brimstone & Glory was one of the biggest surprises and most enjoyable experiences I had at the festival. I will watch it again. Maybe I can convince the orchestra to squeeze into my small living room and play the music.
Steve Gunn is one of the up-and-coming guys. He pops up in a lot of contexts. I really like that duo record he did with Truscinski last year on Three Lobed, Bay Head. In my mind, he’s a Jim O’Rourke type, a guy that can play almost anything and seems to, and often. There are a few records out there to get excited about. He’s one of Eddie’s guys. He’s a guitar player and a good one. Although it was just him, his acoustic, and some effects, there was a vocabulary, an intense sophistication with a little emotion slid in there. Music that lives in the head, like much of the music at Big Ears, doesn’t always involve the heart. Things might be a little pretty but when you’re spending much of your time trying to understand the context for the music, you’re not “feeling it.”
But Gunn made me feel it a little bit while I sat on the very back pew of that church. I especially felt it when he talked about his dad’s favorite song, and even shared a small memory of him seeing Steve play in a church and sneaking in a beer, to which the punch line was, “This isn’t my first time.” I left with a warm feeling like I’d just had a nice salad to go with my Satre novel.
Reducing a 76-year-old musician with over 50 years of work to a couple hundred words doesn’t seem fair. To try and tackle Milford Graves’ entire body of work would be impossible. I don’t know where to start? When he came out he was limping slightly. For about 40 minutes he played drums while singing into a microphone. I wouldn’t say he was singing exactly, more like mimicking the sounds of language. Sometimes he’d sing a word in English, sometimes it sounded like Japanese, and other times it sounded like a West African language. He would shriek! He would almost scream. In between songs he’d narrate things about his life, about his family coming from the South and his time as a professor.
The thing with watching certifiable legends like Graves play, is that’s why you’re there. You’re there to “see Graves.” When I walked in the door I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if he’d be playing the drums or a metal folding chair. I did know that he played with Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, and Paul Bley. There was a period early in college where I listened to a lot of free jazz records, a lot of ESP-Disk. I imagine a lot of Big Ears guests and performers went through that period, it’s sort of expected. When I was watching Graves I was engaging with his legacy in a strange way, which is problematic. Instead of being in the moment watching the music unfold in front of me, I had images of Ayler’s body floating in the East River.
After about 30 minutes I got past all of that legacy bullshit, focusing on the movement of Graves’ left hand. His legs might not have been as strong as they once were, but his hands moved back and forth, side to side, rapidly. There was no loss of movement; every gesture in motion seemed to be exercising purpose in a chaos of shrieks and beats.
Alright, so avant-garde music (I don’t know what to call all of this shit) has a heart problem, or at least one that I mentioned above. It also seems to have a joy problem. You don’t see performers enjoying themselves. The crowds are reserved too, lots of well-dressed PHD candidates unwilling to “let loose” because polar bears are drowning or Trump did some stupid fucking thing. Everyone feels a little too serious. No one was having too much fun, at least not outwardly. Performers and attendees could have been doing drunken cartwheels in their brain, but their black coats were synced and the cuffs on their pants perfectly folded. It’s a good looking bunch.
Arto Lindsay was a joy to watch. During songs, in between songs, after songs, the man would smile at everyone in his band. He especially liked to smile at the drummer, “With a new haircut.” I found myself smiling along with him. His outward joy made it feel like he was discovering the greatness of his own band right in front us. It was so strange that that’s all I can remember about his performance. He sang some songs in Portuguese…I got that. He smiled.
I’ll skip fawning about Jaga Jazzist live for a second time, in favor of fawning in front of them (keep reading). Getting to see them twice was the highlight of the fest.
Eddie and I broke off later in the evening. There was an obvious distinction between the things we seemed interested in seeing. I like the jazz. I like bands. I like drummers. Most of the music I was really excited about fell into one of those categories. Eddie seemed more interested in guitar players, namely because he is one. If they were a good guitar player then we were there to see them on Eddie’s behest. Sometimes I’d look over and I’d see the wheels of inspiration spinning.
The only time I asked him about gear was while Arto Lindsay was playing. “That guitar looks rare,” I said directly to him. “Yes,” he tersely responded. No need to go further. (ed. note it was a 12 string Danelectro Hawk, likely from the late 60s)
Since Eddie was off seeing Nels Cline (a LOT more on him later) and Yuka Honda play a “secret” but announced show in a small venue, I went to see Tal National by myself.
If Arto Lindsay seemed like he was having a good time, the five guys from Tal National seemed fucking elated to be there. I’ve never seen that much energy and excitement out of a guitarist. That man was all over the stage, smiling, singing, and making faces at the guys in front of me. Every once in a while he’d pull out a small drum on a string that he kept on his back and wail away at it. He was hard not to fix your eyes on. The other guitar player seemed to be the bandleader, or at least the guy with enough English to engage the crowd in between songs. No one else spoke. He kept saying “one more” like each song was their last song when I think he was looking for the phrase “next song.”
The music was as high energy as the men playing it. Rock and roll for sure, done in the very syncopated way we associate with music form that region. No electronics, no musical affect, just a well-rehearsed band singing about…well, I have no idea what they’re singing about. There was choreography too, just a little bit, just a slight touch. Basically they swayed in unison to the beat. I kept looking at the bright eyed guitarists painfully white shoes. I wondered if their performance would have been any different in their home country, Niger. I guess I’ll have to get a guidebook now.
When I left the Tal National show the soul was full. I walked in front of newly constructed condos sandwiched in between a busy train station with renewed vigor. I felt good. I paused at the top of the bridge to look down at the tracks and texted Eddie about his show. Nels and Yuka had technical difficulties. They had a late start, and Eddie had to get to the next show. (ed. note I did snap a sweet pic of Nels guitar-to-mouth though).
Walking down the sidewalk, I could see the drummer and trombone player in Jaga Jazzist walking towards us on the left. Well, they weren’t walking towards us, they were moving in our general direction…not to make it about us. I don’t think our legends have roamed as far as Oslo, Norway. I felt my guts tighten a bit. “Fuck it,” I thought to myself and started to grab their attention. With a few beers in my belly I have no hesitation about talking with folks.
“Hey” I said in a slightly drunken and enthusiastic tone. I guess it wasn’t obnoxious enough for them to exit immediately. Martin and Erik walked over. “I have seen you guys three times…” I trailed off within seconds of making my boring statement, I realized I was a little drunker than I thought I was. “Twice here, just this week, excellent stuff.” Erik kind of looked off as soon as I started talking. Martin asked “Where else have you seen us?” I told him “Asheville, a few years ago.” With an energy that was quite genuinely they both said, “We love Ashville.” If I were a smart person the lovefest would have been over. Instead I pressed a little bit, mentioning the short intro I had done for Pedal Fuzz right before Big Ears started. “You know the start to the Live With Britten Sinfonia album where the song builds and falls? Every time I listen to that version I start to cry a little bit, it gets me every time. When the bass clarinet comes in, I’m done.” Erik perked up and without any reservation said, “Oh, I wrote that part.” I moved my drunken gaze to Erik. “You’re here for Mats right, he played the studio part to that song.” Out of the blue Martin chimed in with “Let’s get a beer” and he rushed towards the door breaking up the lovefest.
When I got inside I looked at Eddie and asked him if I had embarrassed myself. He seemed to think I wasn’t too uncool. He had been drinking most of the afternoon with me, maybe his decision making skills were slightly off. I’m still not sure if I embarrassed myself. Had I surrounded myself with an unreliable partner in crime? When he said my hair “looked fine” earlier in the day, was he lying? (ed. note - yes).
The Thing was fucking frightening! The moderately intellectual twee vibe of the festival was shattered as soon as Mats Gustafsson started blowing his horn. The drummer Paal Nilssen-Love was intimidating to say the least. I imagined he ate human hearts to stay warm in Scandinavian winters. Ingebrigt Håker Flaten barely looked up from his bass, body doubled over while he attacked the instrument in a violent fury. These guys felt like my kind of guys, dudes who could quote Stooges songs while screeching along to Ornette Coleman tunes. I feel like they’ve proudly wrecked cars and slept on hardwood floors without any blankets. I know they’ve eaten a lot of boxed spaghetti. The Thing is a nice connector between the unpretentious world of punk rock and the institutionally ambitious noise-makers with pressed suits instead of black t-shirts.
I camped out right under Gustafsson’s horn, less than five feet from the saxophone player. It was loud and furious and I was still a little drunk. The blast of noise woke me up! It was the perfect mix of booze, tiredness, and glorious sound. The folks around me were head banging like we were at a metal show. To the right of me an older gentlemen with dyed black hair who I called “Hipster Abraham Lincoln,” leaned against one of the stage monitors. This was rock and roll.
Eddie left a little early to catch his friends Spectral Habitat (Meg Mulhearn and Elisa Faires) at The Pilot Light. I like that place a lot. The Pilot Light is a dingy rock club with a bunch of old shit on the walls and years of dust accumulating in the corners. It’s the type of place where your shoes are dirtier after you leave. Bars like The Pilot Light are the types of places I make a beeline for.
Here things get super hazy. High off of The Thing set, I decide to celebrate by buying two Tecates at once. After all, I walked about a quarter of a mile to get there, so I deserved a nice double-beer treat. Whenever I get to this point, I realize much later, that I should have only gotten one beer at a time. Eddie was seated right by the board so I joined him. Someone played bass maybe…with a slide? Maybe a guy sang cowboy songs?
Intermittently Eddie and I talked about music and food, about how people should try all the flavors. It’s one of those late at night conversations that sound really smart while you’re in them but if you overhear them from a stranger, you hate whoever is having them.
Nest Egg played, that’s who we were there to see. Up front they had someone solely dedicated to the fog machine. She had the thing on stage blowing right into a guy sitting against the back wall of the club. He somehow didn’t seem to mind, like not at all. His indifference was mildly alarming. I took pictures of their “fog-person” instead of the band. I couldn’t see the band…too much fog. Fog works well in a small club. The band’s hypnotic sound was perfect for late in the evening I’m kind of with you music. It’s much easier to bob your head to a constant beat at one o’clock in the morning. I shot video of a sink directly behind the stage, the sound seeping from the too thin walls.
Eddie called the Uber. I sat in the back. For the second night in a row we had an elderly driver. Both of these guys were deep into their 70s. It’s not a big deal, and I don’t have that much interesting stuff to say about it, but I wondered if Knoxville was taking care of their older citizens. The first guy pulled out in front of a car within seconds of picking us up. The oncoming car had to swerve.
JON FOSTER IS A MAIL-ARTIST, TEACHER, AND PASSIONATE DEFENDER OF MATH ROCK.
Saturday March 24th
Eddie and I decided to drive ourselves for Saturday. We were going to get out, see a little of the town, and look for parking. It was also raining. Our first stop was the Waffle House near our hotel. The place was completely full. The two of us had to sit at the counter. I was the guy right beside the cash register, so I got to know a few of the other patron’s elbows quite well.
For the second day in a row we started with a movie, this time Jean-Luc Godard’s 3-D movie, Goodbye to Language. The fact that a Godard movie is in 3-D makes it worthwhile, even though most of Godard’s movies for the past forty years are barely watchable - and I like Godard. Like most people who dig his mid-1960’s classics, the later ones become tedious at best. The guy introducing the movie said that this “could be his favorite movie of all time.” Hearing this made me cringe. While I’m one who enjoys a good avant-garde turn from time to time, there needs to be something there. Goodbye to Language was fine; there were portions that made it worth watching, but not worth watching again. It’s a great movie to “get through.” A dog was on fire at one point, and one drowned…the title cards were there as well as the playful approach to sound. Thankfully I never have to watch it again. Even more thankfully I know no one in my friend-circle that will make me talk about it. I’ll stick with Masculin Féminin.
We went from the movie to a large church right on the corner of town to see the Evan Parker Electro Acoustic Ensemble. Well, “see,” wasn’t actually the correct word since we got there after they’d already started playing. Our spot was way in the back of the huge church. If I wasn’t in the south I would have written “cathedral” to describe it. There wasn’t a stage, so all of the performers were on the floor. Eddie walked up to the front and saw that everyone was sitting at a table. I never saw the table. I never saw the top of anyone’s head. He reported back to me.
I sat in the padded pew and zoned out. The bleeps and blops bounced off the high-ceilings and stained glass. The music was loud enough to know that it was being performed live, but not loud enough to disturb my thoughts. I wasn’t impressed or repulsed. It was music I was letting happen as it occurred, no critical commentary at all. I wasn’t sleeping, or at least it didn’t register as sleeping, but it was something like sleeping. It was perfectly enjoyable, nothing else.
I came out of my daze seeing something familiar, Eddie planning the next stop. Sometimes we’d get to a place, sit down, get a feel for the music, and he was already planning the next thing. I wanted to tell him to “enjoy the thing in front of us” but he was the planner. I did very little planning while we were at the festival, I often relied on his expertise unless there was something I felt I had to see. “Sure, let’s go to that” became one of my favorite phrases.
In a slight rain we made it back to the car. Our goal was to go to a record store just outside of town. We crossed a bridge and into an area that looked like it would contain a record store. I could see the sprinkling of new things. Beside some awful brick behemoth would be a stretch of shiny new buildings, I’m sure many of them were “artisanal” or contained “cruelty free bubblegum” or some such shit. It felt like an area where you could buy a $13 sandwich for lunch. We passed a small stand of food trucks. The record store was on the corner of the block.
As we pulled up and parked, Eddie looked at his phone to see that he’d gotten a call from the venerable Nels Cline. To say that Eddie is a Nels Cline super-fan would be an understatement. Hell, he even married a Klein, a misspelled member of the tribe, but one nonetheless. The two of us sat in his car for just a second. He looked at me with his eyes completely open. After trying to interview the man for his blog (this one) for over a year, it seemed like it was finally coming together. “I’m gonna need a second.” I went into the store to let him gather his thoughts.
I milled about for a few minutes before he came in. It was like we were waiting for an idiotic diagnosis. As soon as I saw him I straightened up, waiting for the big news. Eddie’s excitement was transferring to me. I wanted to ask him as he walked in the door, “Eddie…did the cool sixty-two-year-old guitar player let you talk to him?” When he called back the phone went straight to voice message, so no. But by the time I’d looked through the store’s records and movie memorabilia, the two of them had set something up.
The two were supposed to meet before Yuka C. Honda’s show. Honda is Cline’s wife. I have been a big fan of Honda for two decades. Honda is also one of my musical obsessions. I even spent a little time the day before trying to meet her outside of a Cline show. When Eddie and I walked into the venue, someone was already playing. Cline was talking to another dude. I got my drink and took a seat in one of the leather couches. Eddie was just a few feet away from me. While I was sitting there, I kept thinking how much Eddie looked like Riggs in Lethal Weapon; you know when the bad guys thought he was dead? He had that coat on, hair coming out the back of his hat, both men, dangerous. Riggs didn’t have a man-purse, though or questions written on a notepad. On the sly I took a quick couple pictures of Eddie standing with his guy. He gave him a Pedal Fuzz t-shirt and a 1970s Film Stock CD.
“He bought me a drink,” Eddie said when he first came back from the interview. “What kind?” I asked. “Whiskey.” “Did everything go well?” “Oh yeah it was great, not enough time to get to all my questions, but I did ask about the Sonic Youth cover.” I didn’t ask him much about the interview; instead I let him stay in his own thoughts.
Eddie came back from the interview just moments before Yuka was to play. Cline said to Eddie that she, “hadn’t played to that many people by herself in a while. She’s a little nervous.” What a precious thing to say. What a power couple, full of talent! I watched Yuka’s set in the back with Eddie. I stood on the steps to get a good look. The two of us were mesmerized by a small tablet-like music making device in her hands. From our vantage point you could see that she was doing something on her side. On the side facing out to the audience, lights and circles were bouncing all over. It was mesmerizing. I looked down at Eddie and he was Googling what it might be. “This might be it,” he said to me. Not only am I not a “gear-guy,” I’m not a musician. “That could be it,” I said, without knowing what the hell I was talking about.
Unfortunately, we had to leave a little early to catch some of Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog. I don’t know what the hell he was doing up there? At one point he recited a curmudgeonly enjoyable Beat-poet-like rant / poem about the state of our country. The thing was written on a scroll! The band gave some musical accompaniment as he slowly got louder and louder. It was ridiculous, angry, irrelevant, and funny as fuck. That “song” made me realize I needed to dig deeper into his catalog. Ribot played like he was only a couple bad days in a row away from reciting his work on a street corner to adoring and annoyed passersby. It felt slightly dangerous. I laughed. He had a perspective. It was refreshing, a palate cleanser.
When you get further and further away from the mainstream, certain divisive figures appear. This happens in art or music or literature or film. Figures like Duchamp or some mediocre German Expressionist filmmaker become buttons on a well-worn denim jacket. They often come up as references points to prove a certain level of knowledge to an unwilling audience. So often these types of artists are mentioned but it’s rare to find someone that actually would call themselves a knowledgeable fan.
Diamanda Galás is one of those divisive figures. I’ve known about her for years, even listened to a couple records (briefly) but have never met anyone that actually liked her music. You tell people you like Diamanda Galás, you don’t actually listen to her. It’s challenging music, difficult music, and to me…awful music.
The beautiful Tennessee Theatre was full of folks waiting to see her. Eddie and I went to the balcony to get a look. Although I’m not a fan, I still wanted to give her a try. I wanted to see if I was missing something by just listening to the records. It was just her on stage, piano in front of her, and a spotlight illuminating her black outfit. She howled and spent some time talking to the audience about her family. The projection of her voice was impressive if not irritating. The whole vibe, the whole effect, the whole presentation just bothered me. Maybe my The Cure phase didn’t last long enough in high school for me to “get it.” She sounded like a car alarm set to Phantom of the Opera mode. Thankfully we got out of there after a few songs. I even got in a few seconds of sleep during one of the quieter songs.
The two of us went outside and I stated my case. Eddie was a lot kinder, even if she wasn’t his thing. By the time the two of us got to the next cross-street I vowed to give her another try. “I’ll go back and listen to some of the records,” I told him. I will, I just don’t want to. I know she’s important and great and grand and has nice outfits but…I just don’t want to. I don’t like mope. I don’t like goth music. One day I’ll make it right but I’m going to have to do a little studying.
The Rova Saxophone Quartet has been making music together since 1977. The quartet was there was well as at least ten other musicians to play a tribute of sorts, to John Coltrane. Coltrane was the inspiration but their starting point for the man’s work was the later, more “difficult records.” Ascension was the record they were channeling. It was more of homage to Coltrane than them attempting any of his tunes.
The quartet led the musicians, throwing up hand signs to let this person know or simply looking at them and pointing. You’re up Nels Cline! You’re up Okkyung Lee. You’re up Cyro Baptista and play those rubber gloves. The soloist went in a circle. When the bandleader, one of the Rova’s, either Larry Ochs, Jon Raskin, Steve Adams, or Bruce Ackley did a circle around his head, it seemed that was the signal for them all to go at it. When the call went out, 13, people would release throw in their contribution in a fury. Ikue Mori and Yuka Honda were on the laptops. Jenny Scheinman played the violin along with Mazz Swift; the amazingly talented Ches Smith played the drums, and David Hoff was on the bass.
The band started at 12 am and ended well after 1. It was the end of the musical day for everyone and no one left the theater. The intensity of the music and utter quantity of it was like a shot of energy. I took turns focusing on just one player out of the mix, trying to establish exactly what they were doing. I’d then move to the next person and then to the next. The Rova Saxophone Quartet took the audience to another level indeed.
Sunday March 25th
While I was having my morning coffee the next day, I started thinking about some of the patterns I’d seen over the past few days. While waiting for Yuka Honda to play the day before, I noticed a few familiar faces milling about in the crowd. I saw both Arto Lindsay and Ikue Mori within close proximity of one another. Nels Cline was there, obviously. With a little effort, you could connect these four folks to most of the strange and wonderful music made in the United States in the past forty years. I had another strange realization; they’re all closely linked with John Zorn, a figure that almost needed to be there since there were so many connections back to him both as a musician, club impresario, and record label owner. The fest was like a five degrees of John Zorn game.
I was thinking about this as Ikue Mori was standing directly in front of me. She was anonymous in the crowd even if so many attendees had her records or at least knew her vast influence. I was Googling her as I was sitting directly in front of her. It’s a weird experience to look at the bullet points of a stranger’s life as they stand in front of you, unaware of what’s going on. I wonder if her ears were itching?
Once again, where was John Zorn? Also, I couldn’t think of a festival or of a tour that John Zorn had been on. Eddie and I talked about this a lot. Someone I know would have seen him by now if he got out of New York all that much. For my generation he was the first stop in the avant-garde most of us ever had. So many of my hardcore and punk rock friends started with Naked City and very quickly ended up in the outer reaches of music. Zorn was the missing puzzle piece.
At the start of the day Eddie and I decided to leave a little early. A four-hour drive and some chores and a work day…you know the excuses. If I had nothing to do that next Monday I would have stayed as long as possible.
Eddie invited his friend Henry, a Knoxville local, to a late breakfast at a restaurant right beside The Bijou. I can’t remember what I got, but I remember the bathrooms were clean. Although I spent an hour with Eddie and his friend, and I asked them more than once how they knew each other, I never understood it. There was something about a connection with Eddie’s wife, and Greensboro, I don’t fucking know. Seemed like a nice guy.
The first band of our truncated Sunday was Suuns. I’ve heard of that band, but I don’t think I’d ever listened to them. They were at the wrong festival. At a rock and roll centered fest I think I might have enjoyed them a lot more than I did. Being a relatively straightforward rock band, they stood out but not in a good way. They seemed quaint compared to everything we’d heard over the past three days. For some this might have been a nice change of pace, for me I was a little bored. Another one of those bands that I needed to listen to in a different context.
We dashed over to The Bijou Theater to see Abigail Washington and Wu Fei. There was a long line, the second one of any substance we’d been in. One of the most annoying things in life is having to listen to someone else talk about music. So often people have no idea what they’re talking about, have no context, are just passive listeners. I’m pretentious and I know it. I own it. Music is one of the most important things in my life, I don’t take it lightly. I care about the history and I care about mostly getting it right. Directly behind us a few people started talking about music. One of those guys was a dude that we had seen around town, riding a bike, and wearing really bright clothing. Like really bright, like it took some effort to put together his outfit, maybe he made it himself. The colors he chose do not exist in nature. He was around 60 years old. Our ignorance kept us from identifying this man as the musical genius he is. Never before have I heard someone speak about music in the exact same way I did, or think about it in the same way. He had insightful things to say about free jazz and dance music within the same sentence. Both Eddie and I paid attention to everything he said. As he was going through his thoughts about this band or that subgenre, I kept thinking to myself, “Yes. That’s right! I cannot agree more.” What a beautiful surprise.
Abigail Washington and Wu Fei playing together is where we should have started our day. It was kind of the perfect Sunday soundtrack. The two of them took turns telling stories and taking lead on particular songs. Washington would play the American folk songs preceded by a story, and then Wu Fei would tell her story and sing lead on her song. Some of those songs were folktales (there’s your connection) from all over her native China. The more interesting songs were the ones where they both had an active role in the song.
It was a music that needed a little context that they thankfully provided since it didn’t make a lot of sense of paper. With an attentive crowd like the one at Big Ears, that music would work perfectly almost all the time. Washington and Fei were delightful people that truly seemed to respect each other and the music they were playing. And they were great musicians, it worked. When they finished I realized I needed to do some more homework, find out a little more about both women and their stories. Leaving the venue, I felt great, they made me happy.
From Bijou we walked towards our last show of the fest. We were going to see Kieren Hebden (Four Tet) do an improvised set with the saxophone player Mats Gustafsson. It was one of those shows that could only happen at a big fest like Big Ears. They’re both in town so why not put them together? Hebden was opening files and Gustafsson was skronking away. I was into it for the first couple of songs. I kept thinking about how this was a unique experience and then I thought about my classes the next day. In my head I tried to keep those voices at bay but they kept coming back. By fifth song I was miles away from the venue, the worries of the upcoming work week quickly returning. The fest was over for me. I turned to Eddie and said, “I’m ready,” and in almost unison we walked towards the door.
JON FOSTER IS A MAIL-ARTIST, TEACHER, AND PASSIONATE DEFENDER OF MATH ROCK.
Jon Foster picks five must-see acts of Big Ears 2018.
It will be our new correspondent's first time at the sonic candy store for the aurally adventurous. Every highlight on the schedule tells a story.
When I was in middle school I watched MTV pretty religiously. This was the time right before the internet made the world smaller and music much easier to get ahold of. I mixed 120 Minutes, Alternative Nation, and Headbanger’s Ball without thinking too much about it. Outside of these three shows there were a host of smaller, random ones that usually ran for a season or two.
Squirt TV’s run was short, only a handful of shows on MTV after moving from NYC public access. One of the guests was Cibo Matto. This was in 1996. I became a Cibo Matto freak. Right as I got to college and my mind started expanding outside of indie rock and hardcore and into free jazz, new music, and noise, Yuka Honda started putting out solo records on John Zorn’s Tzadik records. I loved those too! In a way, I can trace my musical development through Honda’s records with Cibo Matto as well as her electronic solo records.
Mats Gustafsson fits right in there. He fits right into so many of my interests. His music is often a missing link between heavy rock and roll and free jazz. If I were going to try and hook a friend onto more jazz leaning music, someone who might have spent a lot of time listening to the Stooges, I would suggest them The Thing, or Mats Gustafsson.
I know nothing about Wu Fei. I have no idea what her music sounds and I’m not planning on doing any research. One of the exciting things about Big Ears is that you’re pretty much assured an engaging listening experience. I don’t expect to be bored with another band playing another mindless garage rock song. It’s a festival where stumbling into something with an open mind means you might find music worth staying for.
I do worry that too much variety, too much ‘intense’ listening might spoil things from show to show. You know, like that effect where you go to a new country and everything looks new on the first day, but by the second or third day you start to acclimate to your surroundings? Is that a thing, getting bored with free jazz skronk, bassoon bands, solo trumpet players, acapella ensembles, laptop music, and banjo virtuosos?
It seems that ten years ago I started to take notice of a trend. Whenever I would get around friends that had a deep love for music, they would play a lot of West African rock and soul music. Everyone was playing those Soundway Compilations. You know the label that would take a period of time in Nigeria and highlight the best rock and funk records from that time. Slowly but surely I started to buy those compilations and well. It didn’t take long before I was addicted to The Funkees or those early King Sunny Ade records.
Thankfully the focus has shifted from artists of the 60’s and 70’s and into contemporary musicians. I’ve even noticed a trend of African musicians touring the US. Just this past fall Mdou Moctar played my hometown, Winston-Salem to a decent sized crowd. The last time I was in that room another nameless band from Brooklyn played angular indie rock.
Tal National’s new record Tantabara, is on fire. It’s an energetic record, a colorful record, and a rhythmically complex record. They will be the perfect band to see after a couple days of beard stroking and searching for the right words to describe the music you just saw. Gut punch music!
Jaga Jazzist are the band that I’m looking forward to. I love them so much. When I saw their name on the schedule I knew I had to go. Getting to see them play a full set of their own music as well as one with Ståle Storløkken & Jon Balke is doubly-good.
There’s a moment, just one second, maybe two, on their 2013 Live with the Britten Sinfonia record where I almost loose it every time. I never really loose it but I can feel the tears just on the edge of the eyelids, when they’re warm and flooding their staging area. The song is “One Armed Bandit.” The long intro goes for four minutes before you hear the proper start of the song. The horn meanders, cuts through the bouncing rhythm, the strings slice…it drops out. Marimba comes in…then out. Flutes soar above the mix of the gigantic rhythmic soup. Right before the eight minute mark, four minutes after the melody first appears, the whole band along with the orchestra comes together. It’s so much sound that it’s difficult to properly make sense of, aural overload of the best kind. That version of “One Armed Bandit” lasts over fifteen minutes and I cannot think of a song that makes me happier.
Moogfest 2017: Sudan Archives
Moogfest 2017: Sudan Archives
Sudan Archives’ concert at First Presbyterian Church was a well-timed musical change of pace. After a day of predominantly synth-based music, here was an artist taking the stage clutching a violin. But this was no purist at work, as her violin was amplified and rich with delay, the effect being supplied by the classic Line 6 DL4. She also looped her plucked lines using a Boss RC-300. Beats, backing tracks, and other sound creations were played from a MacBook.
Her vocals were delivered with relatable sincerity, at times with a hypnotic repetition that paired perfectly with the repeating violin textures. She toggled between instrumentally focused and vocally driven tracks, crafting brief ping-ponging violin runs as segues between songs. There was a freshness to her performance - she had complete command of the music, but there was also a touch of endearing shyness. The audience was very receptive to her concert, responding with growing cheers and ending with a standing ovation.
Pedal Fuzz is looking forward to her debut album, to be released on Stones Throw Records later this year. In the meantime, check out some of Sudan Archives’ videos & music below.
Pic courtesy Moogfest/Brian Livingstone