Dean and Britta
I had already seen Dean Wareham and his wife/collaborator Britta Phillips on Day One of Big Ears 2014. But what was advertised for their Sunday performance – this time at the smaller Bijou – was intriguing enough to get my attention. The plan was to project thirteen of Andy Warhol‘s famous “screen test” films while the musicians provided a real-time soundtrack. I figured it would bear a passing similarity to Marc Ribot‘s accompaniment to the Chaplin film from Day Two.
I was wrong. While Ribot was shrouded in total darkness, leaving our auditory senses the only ones to process his real-time work, Dean and Britta (and band) played on a lit stage. They also provided commentary between the films.
The music was good, but there was a definite self-conscious air about it all. As each piece wound its way toward the end, Wareham could be seen intently studying a flat-panel monitor at the foot of the stage. This, I suspect, had the films on it plus a time clock. So while the songs had been rehearsed out to follow the rough run time of each film, Wareham had to signal the band to (in some cases) vamp an ending a bit longer or (other times) end sooner than planned. That’s all well and good, but seeing the wizards’ goings-on behind the curtain did indeed detract from the experience, making it seem a bit stiff.
Britta’s lead vocal turn on Bob Dylan‘s “I’ll Keep it With Mine” (accompanying a Nico screen test) was a highlight. And the sight of Lou Reed onscreen moved some in the audience to give said screen a standing-o.
One other slight off-note: when I saw Wareham on Friday, he made a comment during the second song to the effect of “There are a lot of photographers up here.” It was said with what I took to be equal parts discomfort and distaste. But I decided to forget about it. Until Sunday, when Wareham took the opportunity between songs to approach the front edge of the stage, lean down toward the front row, and scold a photographer (not me) for shining a light in his eyes. (They weren’t using a flash, and were shooting during the proscribed first three-songs period.) Now, Wareham wasn’t pulling a Cat Power, and nobody likes having a light shone in their eyes, but as I say, the episode added an unsettling feel to the show as a whole.
The vibe could not have been more different when Rachel Grimes took the stage for her shortish yet delightful set. Initially it was just her and a grand piano, with highly melodic and expressive instrumental pieces. It was good enough that – had that been all we got – it would have been well worth the time spent.
But then it got better. Grimes, who was clearly thrilled to be onstage at Big Ears, refreshingly seeming as much a fan as a performer, introduced Helen Money (aka Chesley) on cello. We were thrilled, since Money’s earlier solo show was one we hadn’t been able to make. As she sawed expressively on her cello while Grimes played more of her lovely tunes, it was truly a thing of beauty.
And then it got better still. Sax player Jacob Duncan
joined the two women onstage. And – shades of Rashaan Roland Kirk
– he played two saxes at once. It was amazing from a technical point of view, but none of that would have mattered if the music wasn’t breathtaking. It was. As was the entire set.
We then headed over to the tiny Scruffy City Hall for what would be our only show at that venue. The standing-room-only crowd there was – at least in terms of my own Big Ears experience – an anomaly, but we didn’t mind, since we were going to see and hear a buzzworthy band.
About all I can say regarding Earth is that they’re the perfect band for anyone who thinks Black Sabbath plays too fast, or doesn’t drop-tune far enough. The low groan of Earth’s songs offered little in the way of melody or variation. And please understand that I say this as rock fan who’s been to hundreds of concerts, but it was fucking LOUD. And, honestly, pretty boring.
Amusingly, a look around the packed room found countless heads nodding slooowly in time to the music, like a flock of stoner dippy birds. They all reminded me of someone struggling to stay awake but nodding off anyway.
After several samey songs, they announced that the next piece would be “a new one.” We decided to stick around and give it a chance. The piece started off every bit as monotonously slow, uneventful and deafeningly loud as the others, but what we heard felt like an extended intro. So we waited, half-expecting at any moment after an endless droning squall of feedback to hear the drummer count off a quicker one-two-three-four and kick up the tempo.
It never happened. We left.
Coming in the next installment: review of a set of Steve Reich compositions that capped the three-day festival, and some closing thoughts on Big Ears 2014 overall.
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