We arrived in Knoxville in plenty of time to grab front-row seats in the beautiful Tennessee Theatre. It certainly helped that attendance for Wareham’s set was light (the venue filled in pretty well as the performance got under way). A relatively low-key performance free of any sort of visual effects, Wareham’s set included songs from his new (and first) solo album, titled Dean Wareham
(“I couldn’t think of anything else to call it,” he deadpanned).
The set also included some numbers from his Luna
and Galaxie 500
days; the crowd helped the relatively uninformed among us (myself included) know when one of these was beginning by helpfully applauding a bar or two into the tunes. Wareham’s spouse and musical collaborator Britta Phillips
held down a nimble bottom end on her p-bass, while the second lead guitarist added plenty of tone color via understated but highly effective lines on his SG, and some lovely slide work.
Wareham’s tunes hit the sweet spot between indie-rock and catchy, hooky pop, providing a surprisingly accessible opener for what I had assumed would be a rather avant garde festival.
Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog
That assumption was confirmed, however, with the second set we witnessed this evening. At the Bijou (conveniently located mere steps form the Tennessee Theatre; Big Ears is nothing if not an intelligently laid out festival), thanks in part to the later start time, a relatively larger (adjusted for venue size) crowd turned up.
In general, I often equate seated musicians with low energy, laconic performances (see: Grateful Dead, 1987). But Ribot and his band mates – drummer Ches Smith and Shahzad Ismaily on bass, percussion and electronics – put the lie to that assumption. Tearing through a set of mostly original material, the trio served up what will stand in my memory as one of the most musically unclassifiable performances I’ve ever witnessed. There was punk-skronk, avant-jazz, and even a sort of weird rethink of heavy 70s rock done in some bizarre time signature that would threaten to break the ankle of anyone who dared try to tap their foot along in time.
While Ribot’s original material was fascinating – especially his acerbic “Masters of the Internet” – for me the highlight was a heavily rearranged take of Dave Brubeck
‘s “Take Five.” The basic structure of the tune was there, but the band headed off into myriad exploratory directions, making the chestnut truly their own.
Most assuredly not the easiest of listening, Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog brought together the experimental and accessible in a way that was at least intriguing, and at best thrilling.
The Norwegian thrush is possessed of a crystalline voice and stately, regal manner. Seated at her grand piano on the dimly lit stage of the Tennessee Theatre, she delivered her icy-cool yet emotionally wrought songs with the subtle aid of a drummer who as often as not played mallets and provided splashes of percussive color rather than a beat) and a guitarist who was equal parts understatement and finesse.
Susanna’s songs conjured strong images in my imagination: cold, grey, desolate landscapes that are somehow beautiful in their own way…that kind of thing. Her songs about death and whatnot are designed to produce just such a reaction, I suspect. Early on in her set, Susanna explained to the crowd that “I am Susanna, and,” gesturing to her bandmates, “we
are Susanna.” She further explained that she has released many albums in the last decade, under her own name and other guises as well, and that she has something of a reputation for doing unusual covers (reinterpretations is a better word) of other artists’ material.
She proved this last point by performing an elegaic rendering of Thin Lizzy‘s “Jailbreak.” Slowed to the breaking point, and punctuated with simple yet lovely piano melodic lines, she offered a wholly original concept of the hard rock classic.
More Big Ears 2014 coverage throughout the next several days.
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