Michael Hurley Credit: David Simchock

Last weekend I made the trek down to Knoxville, Tennessee, to take in some of the abundant offerings presented at the Big Ears Festival, arguably the most eclectic and interesting large-scale music fest in the U.S. Few other events juggle such a wide range of approaches—folk, contemporary classical, international, experimental, noise, rock, jazz, electronic, and any number of hybrids. I’ve attended the event three years running, and the sprawl tends to be overwhelming, with concerts stacked up against one another. A listener either needs to bounce around, catching parts of a given set, or settle in to catch a full performance, which means missing others. My natural preference is for the latter, which means there were plenty of things I missed because I was busy elsewhere. And since I needed to get back to Chicago on Sunday, I also missed a bunch of stuff happening then, including Henry Threadgill’s Zooid, Rangda, Deathprod (aka Supersilent’s Helge Sten), and Gavin Bryars’s The Sinking of the Titanic, among others.

Still, I took in enough between Thursday and Saturday to last a long while. Little did I know that after catching a good chunk of a solo set by former Chicagoan Matana Roberts that was marred by some technical problems—a common by-product of the short sound checks required by the loaded schedule—I would catch my favorite performer all weekend: Michael Hurley. It had been about 14 years since I’d last seen the scraggly, singular 75-year old folk singer perform, but his set at the Standard was as good or better than anything I’ve ever heard from him. Hurley isn’t the most dynamic performer—he settles into a chair and plucks at his guitar with a kind of nonchalant crispness that masterfully underlines his melodies. He requires the listener to adapt to his gentle pacing and wry sensibility, and his music-making rarely rises above a conversational tone.

Hurley’s always been taciturn, which makes his occasional comments even sharper. At one point he asked, “Are you all here for the festival?” He then went on to tell us that he was staying in a very nice hotel that wasn’t like his own home at all: “It doesn’t have a can opener. It doesn’t have a butter knife either. But the roof doesn’t leak.”

Since making his first album for Folkways back in 1964, he’s carved out a world all his own, tapping into vintage country and blues leavened by a lovely lyrical quality worthy of Tin Pan Alley. He performs at a droll remove, letting the terseness of his words do their trick. His hour-plus set drew from songs spanning his entire career, and much to my surprise it included his classic “The Slurf Song,” from his fantastic collaborative album with the Holy Modal Rounders, Have Moicy! But the song that lodged its way into my brain for much of the weekend was “Jocko and Boone,” an old gem that had never appeared on record until it turned up on last year’s wonderful Bad Mr. Mike (Mississippi). The tune is named for a pair of dogs Hurley once owned (Jocko and Boone were also the names of two wolves in a long-running cartoon he made), but the song’s subjects seem altogether different. From the start the narrator admonishes, “Jocko, you jack off too much / You wear the bone to a frazzle,” the first in a seriously amusing series of short verses that consistently drop an expected rhyme at the end of the second couplet, veering into a wonderful chorus that includes a wordless melody and words that change with each cycle. You can check out the version from the album below.
[audio-1]Over the next two nights I also heard music by Meredith Monk, Laetitia Sadier, Yuki Numata Resnick, MEV, Sir Richard Bishop, Jeff Tweedy with Chikamorachi (Darin Gray and Chris Corsano), and Xylouris White, but the sets that resonated most were an afternoon performance at a local Episcopalian church by Nils Økland, the remarkable Norwegian master of the Hardanger fiddle, and his exquisite quintet (which also gave a fantastic performance last week at Constellation) and a Saturday-night set by saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman with his hard-hitting band Sélébéyone—the rare fusion of jazz and hip-hop that works. MCs HPrizm (ne High Priest of Anti-Pop Consortium) and Senegalese rapper Gaston Bandinic were electric, delivering thrillingly consonant, polyrhythmic lines that complemented the tricky grooves shaped by a mixture of samples, programming, and live drumming by Damion Reid. Bassist Chris Tordini, keyboardist Carlos Homs, and French soprano saxophonist Maciek Lasserre operated like a tightly coiled ensemble, loosening up when the MCs were busy, interacting beautifully when the stage was theirs, and unleashing a series of strong solos. Although the band’s fantastic eponymous debut album on Pi dropped last year, the group’s only now beginning to perform live, and it showed—the pauses between pieces, with Lehman opening up new digital files on a laptop, were awkward and sapped an amazing energy time and time again. But once Lehman figures out how to make one piece flow into the next, watch out.

Today’s playlist:

Paul Lewis, Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition/Schumann: Fantasie op. 17 (Harmonia Mundi)
Zur Schönen Aussicht, Willkommen Zuhause (Why Play Jazz)
Matt Mayhall, Tropes (Skirl)
Rob Haskins, Marc Chan: My Wounded Head 3 (Mode)
Annette Peacock & Paul Bley, Dual Unity (Bamboo/Freedom)