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Dispatches from Big Ears, April 1st

Day three of the festival (day two for us), opened with a concert at Mill & Mine by the Malian ngoni virtuoso Bassekou Kouyate and his band Ngoni ba. The group put on a great show and got the crowd into it through extended soloing and call and response vocal and body percussion patterns. It is a testament to the group’s skill and participatory musicking that they were able to energize a crowd that looked to be still piecing themselves together after Caterina Barbieri’s late show in the same venue the night before.

Maude, Luke, and I all agreed that our highlight of the day was a performance by the four-piece Nigerien rock band Etran de L’aïr. The group captivated the audience at the Jackson Terminal with a style of up-tempo, driving North African blues rock reminiscent of groups like Mdou Moctar and Tinariwen. Crowds at Big Ears are full of a lot of middle-aged, artsy , cerebral types and it takes a lot to get them out of their shell and dancing, so it was even more exciting to hear a group like Etran de L’aïr that was capable of doing just that. Even the venue setups at Big Ears often seem to discourage dance parties, especially Jackson Terminal, which set up five rows of chair seating immediately in front of the stage instead of placing the VIP seating off to the side like many other venues. But none of it mattered for this show -- maybe it has to do with Jackson Terminal being one of the free, open to the public stages. Throughout the weekend I noticed that it was the unticketed shows that had the best vibes. Something about these venues, whether it was a more egalitarian ethos, the lack of a cost barrier, or simply the programming made them consistently feel more intimate, engaging, and fun.

A case in point is the ultra-intimate venue The Pilot Light. Hanging out at this place all Saturday night was one of the highlights of the entire trip. With its divey interior, punk aesthetics, and cheap beer the venue at times felt like an oasis in the middle of the high-minded academic talks and academic performances that demand eagle-eyed attention and contemplative silence. Don’t get me wrong, I love those shows! They’re what I came to Big Ears for! But even still, I found myself drawn back to The Pilot Light again and again, whether it was for Tim Gick’s harsh noise, local chiptune post-punk act Megamoon X, or any of the other great shows that came through over the course of the weekend.

I also want to shout out another venue, Old City Performing Arts Center, that absolutely nailed it all weekend. Again, I think some of this is due to Big Ears’ programming decisions, which put artists in the venue that perfectly complemented its intimate, black box vibe. At just shy of 200-person capacity, Old City PAC was the smallest venue at Big Ears, perfect for experimental artists like Kali Malone and FUJllllllllTA, the two shows that I took in on Saturday night. Despite starting a half hour late, Kali Malone’s electronic set was perfect, sheets of droning, pulsing sound filling up such an intimate venue made for a special experience. After hearing her Living Torch performance on Friday, it was interesting to hear another side of her performance style the next night. She treats the mixer as if it was an organ, pulling reedy timbres out of her boards and mixing and manipulating them. It created a fun sense of continuity with the next show, the Japanese organist and electronic artist FUJllllllllTA. It was fascinating to hear his homemade pipe organ performed live. The instrument requires the performer to manually pump a baffle next to the pipes, which creates its own motoric clicking noises that the artist tracked and manipulated alongside the organ sounds. I was also blown away when, about fifteen minutes in, FUJllllllllTA removed a pipe, flipped it around, and began playing it like a shakuhachi. I left the show blown away at the sheer diversity of sounds that could be created by this one instrument in the hands of such a creative performer.


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