Big Ears 2023 wrapped up with John Zorn’s Cobra, Algiers, Oneohtrix Point Never, more (review)

John Zorn has been leading "Cobra," one of his most famous improvisational "game piece" performances, for upwards of 40 years, and as part of his 70th birthday celebration at Knoxville's Big Ears, he presented a massive version of it to close out the festival. Thirteen musicians took part, with four drummers, three guitarists, piano, organ, two bassists, a vibraphonist and a cellist, including Dave Lombardo, Trevor Dunn, Mary Halvorson, John Medeski, Wendy Eisenberg, Ches Smith, and Kenny Wollesen. Zorn leads/conducts with cue cards, hand gestures, and hats, and the musicians themselves play little side games during it with more hand gestures, headbands and looks.

I had no idea what the rules of "Cobra" are (they've never been officially published) but I tried to make sense of the utter thrilling insanity it was watching this baker's dozen of extremely talented musicians go apeshit playing the game. I'm sure it's much more fun to actually play "Cobra" than be a spectator, but it was a blast, both heady and visceral, like the musical equivalent of Twister and a dice-led role playing game. At the festival after-party I asked Wollenson about how it worked, saying I didn't know the rules and he replied "Neither do I!" I don't think that's true -- there's too much control in this chaos -- but it does seem like only Zorn 100% gets it

Big Ears 2023 Sunday

Lonnie Hollie @ Big Ears 4/2/2023


"Cobra" was a true crescendo on Sunday and for Big Ears 2023. I didn't make it to as many shows on Sunday as the three previous days -- I crashed from festival fatigue for a few hours in the afternoon, but I still caught a bunch of cool stuff. Outsider artist Lonnie Hollie, who had already played a few surprise pop-ups at the Downtown Gallery that has hosted an exhibit of his paintings, performed at Mill & Mine with an all-star band that included Brendan Canty, Ben Sollee, James Brandon Lewis, Shahzad Ismaily, and Christopher Paul Stelling. Even the official shows feel improvised with Hollie's stream-of-conscious songs. He is on his own plane of existence but magnetic and charming all the same.

I went to Knoxville Civic Auditorium to check out Oneohtrix Point Never, who was presenting a new live show titled "Rebuilds" that featured extremely trippy visuals by long-time collaborator Nate Boyce. For this, he developed a real-time animation system that "updates the graphical themes dating back to their earliest collaborations from over a decade ago." It was loud as hell -- I could hear it walking up to the Civic Auditorium -- and a generally overwhelming audio-visual psychedelic experience that I wasn't quite in the right headspace for at 6 PM on a Sunday.

I also caught two other John Zorn events at The Tennessee Theater: Part 3 of Bagatelles series, this time featuring The Brian Marsella Trio (Marsella, Trevor Dunn, Kenny Wollesen) and the John Medeski Trio (Medeski, David Fiuczynski, G. Calvin Weston), and then one of Zorn's few actual performances, playing sax with Dunn and Dave Lombardo, which was loud, frenetic and a lot to take in as you might expect with Mr Bungle's current rhythm section.

Big Ears 2023 Sunday

Algiers @ Big Ears 4/2/2023


I then headed to The Standard for Atlanta's Algiers, whose blend of soul, gothy rock, and hip hop was a potent hit of muscle and message. The show was packed and the crowd were very into it.

From there I hit Mill & Mine for Marc Ribot Y Los Cubanos Postizos, which was a real party. Marc and the band came out in wigs to protest Tennessee's Drag Ban, and he noted that even though it had been temporarily blocked by a federal judge they wore them anyway. Along with Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul the night before, this was one of the most purely joyful sets I caught at Big Ears.

This was my first Big Ears and I don't think it will be my last visit to the very unique festival. Check out a few more iPhone pics from Sunday below and read recaps from the rest of Big Ears here.