Teamwork Rules on Day Two of Big Ears Festival: Concert Review

Lambchop with Yo La Tengo - H 2016
Courtesy of Matthew Allen

The name of the game for day two of Knoxville, Tenn.'s Big Ears festival was teamwork, as festgoers on Friday witnessed not just well-oiled communications machines — like that of jazz composer Anthony Braxton, whose colleagues directed each other with coded hand signals — but new and sometimes unexpected collaborations. Even as midnight approached, more were being announced: A tweet about Philip Glass's surprise appearance at a performance of his Music in Similar Motion, or one announcing that Laurie Anderson would stand in for an ailing Tony Conrad at his scheduled collaboration with Krautrockers Faust, tempted those in line at the Bijou Theater to rush over to Old Town to see. But FOMO be damned: What awaited inside the Bijou — an intimate two-man appearance by songwriter Joe Henry and guitarist's guitarist Marc Ribot — was more than worth sticking around for.

As had been the Bijou show preceding it, which paired a still-rising jazz star, pianist Vijay Iyer, with Wadada Leo Smith, an elder statesman of jazz's fringe. The versatile Iyer, who has made music in many idioms, is such an embodiment of this fest's eclecticism that fans might well have expected him to pop up throughout the weekend, as Ribot and Anderson did. But after half a month of recent shows commemorating the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new branch in New York, perhaps he feared spreading himself too thin.

In keeping with this year's introduction of film at Big Ears — today's programming offered a string of daring movies distributed by Factory 25, including the transporting NY Export: Opus Jazz, which adapts West Side Story choreographer Jerome Robbins's forgotten "ballet in sneakers" — the performance by sound artist Ikue Mori found her playing live to accompany experimental short films. The images onscreen veered from puppetry to enchanting abstraction.

The day's most surprising team-up may have been that of chamber ensemble Eighth Blackbird and Will Oldham (see the review here), but the one to inspire the most warm-fuzzy feelings had to be the hybrid of indie-rock stalwarts Yo La Tengo and Nashville's Lambchop. Longtime friends and occasional musical partners, the two groups performed as one in an after-midnight set so crowdpleasing it should have been mandatory listening for any festivalgoer who felt burned by YLT's long improvised show the previous night. (Even cabbies and waiters who weren't attending concerts had heard enough grousing to know lots of people hated that freeform set, however in keeping it was with the themes of Big Ears.) Here, fans not only got to hear songs they loved, they got to experience them in charmingly twisted new ways. As when Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner, a gimme cap hiding his face, sang YLT's "Autumn Sweater" through a reverby audio-effects box.

The groups traded songs all night, taking breaks to enjoy the comic stylings of Ira Kaplan (the 59-year-old marveled at Knoxville bartenders' need to see his ID) and of Lambchop pianist Tony Crow, who had the crowd in stitches as he introduced not only his fellow musicians but stagehands, sound techs and people he appeared to make up as he went. On a day that prioritized musical cooperation over individual virtuosity, Crow was ready to treat anyone and everyone like part of the team.