Big Ears Day 2: Arooj Aftab / Vijay Iyer / Shahzad Ismaily, Ibeyi, Blake Mills/Pino Palladino, more (review)
"Big Ears is just fun like that," Son Lux's Ryan Lott said, thanking trumpeter Adam O'Farrill for joining them on "Easy" at their set on Friday night at Mill & Mine. This is the biggest Big Ears to date, but it's still a relatively small festival and most artists play a few different shows over the course of the weekend, or at least hop onto other shows, and you just see lots of the performers hanging out, catching music or just walking around Knoxville.
Son Lux's set had a bunch of guests. Shara Nova joined the trio (Lott, guitarist Rafiq Bhatia and Ian Chang) for opening song,"Vacancy," and Bill Frisell came out for a song later in the set and then stuck around for another featuring Arooj Aftab on vocals. A lot of people expected David Byrne, who gave his "Reasons to Be Cheerful" talk earlier in the day and had come out during Terry Allen's set the night before, to join the band for "This is a Life," their Oscar-nominated song from Oscar-winning film Everything Everywhere All at Once, but alas he did not. Son Lux did, however, perform "Unbind" from the film's score to close things out and its glitchy, orchestra drama was undoubtedly the highlight of their set.
Arooj had performed earlier on Friday, as part of one of Big Ears 2023's headline events, a performance of Love in Exile, her collaboration with Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily. It was a packed house at the historic Tennessee Theatre at 5 PM, and the room was hushed and mostly free of aloft cellphones as they mesmerized with their ethereal soundscapes. It's music that benefits from being heard in a big room with pristine sound like the Tennessee where most of the weekend's must-see shows are happening. The serious mood of their performance was only broken when Arooj asked for a sound adjustment...and a glass of wine. Two were delivered to her from different directions simultaneously.
Friday was the first full day of the festival and for me it started at noon with Daniel Ponder at Mill & Mine. She said she was a little under-the-weather -- spring is in bloom in Tennessee and the pollen in the air, not to mention the haze effects at many venues, had people sneezing -- and apologized more than once for not being 100%. But her voice was spectacular as she played a short set of groovy soul with her band as she sipped herbal tea to soothe her vocal chords. She told the crowd that she noticed the tag on her teabag said "the plants have enough spirit to transform our limited vision," which she said she took as a sign to continue to take mushrooms (big applause). That served as an intro to a song that was inspired by a trip she took while out in nature. She closed her set with her incredible cover of Radiohead's "Creep" which she made entirely her own. A great way to start the day.
There is a lot of walking at Big Ears. Like how they say everywhere in L.A. takes 20 minutes to drive to, it seems like it's a 12 minute walk between venues, at least for me, and I logged about nine miles on Friday hopping around. I went from Mille & Mine to the Tennessee Theatre for French twin sisters Ibeyi who are talented and charming and had a line out the door for their early afternoon set. While their show benefited from the theater's great sound and lighting -- they also brought a cool production, with their drummer and keyboardist in glowing cubes -- it would've been better at a standing theater that encouraged dancing. Kaindé and Naomi Diaz had energy to spare, though, and by the end of their set they had the room out of their comfy seats and moving.
Unsure what to see next, I happened upon a surprise performance by the wonderful outsider artist Lonnie Holley at the Downtown Gallery where they've been hosting an exhibition of his paintings for the last month. It was as much a talk -- a secular sermon -- as a concert with Lonnie urging folks to slow down, be present, and do the wrong thing every once and a while, occasionally punctuated by songs backed by a guitarist.
Festivals are hard places to slow down though, and with so much to see at Big Ears it encourages dipping in and out for a just few songs. Though they do a great job of not putting likeminded artists at the same time, there are schedule conflicts. Bonny Light Horseman played at the same time as Ibeyi, and there was a 5PM logjam that had me deciding between Arooj/Vijay/Shahzad, pow wow singer Joe Rainey, and a screening of David Byrne's True Stories. I killed a little time between Lonnie Holley and 'Love in Exile' at the Southern Railway Station, an outdoor venue that is hosting free shows Friday and Saturday where I caught Xylouris/White (aka lutist George Xylouris and Dirty Three drummer Jim White), and later Los Lobos who played a fantastic all-Spanish set which was even better than their show the night before.
From there it was back to the Tennessee Theatre for what I was sure would be one of the highlights of the weekend for me, guitarist Blake Mills and bassist Pino Palladino. Between them they have worked with pretty much everybody and together made 2021's acclaimed left-field jazz album Notes With Attachments. The show had them playing with Notes collaborator Sam Gendell (sax, harmonica) and drummer Abe Round, and all four really cooked the whole time. You could've just watched any of them the whole time and have been entertained -- they all had spotlight moments -- but playing off each other was really something to behold. I'd only planned to stay for a couple songs but watched their whole set.
After a hotel / dinner break, I hit The Standard for Marc Ribot's The Jazz Bins, his fun and funky trio with organist Greg Lewis and Joe Dyson, and also caught rapper Billy Woods who was also suffering from hayfever ("allergies are kicking my fucking ass!").
Friday for me ended back at Mill & Mine for Italian synth virtuoso Caterina Barbieri who twiddled knobs and moved cables around her modular synth's patch bay while lasers beamed through oceans of fog that enveloped her and the audience, much like the swirling arpeggios of her music. It was a transportive experience and a great way to end a very long day of wonderful music.
A few more iPhone pics from Big Ears Day 2 below and read our recap of Day 1 here.