Joe Henry & Marc Ribot (Big Ears Festival, Apr 1): A review by Josh Hurst

{Ed. note: Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival has received widespread praise for its incredibly unique and adventurous lineup.  It should come as no surprise that Joe Henry and guitarist Marc Ribot should team up for such an event.  As luck would have it, our good friend (and JH aficionado), Josh Hurst,  has recently moved back to Knoxville and has kindly offered up this report from the show.  Many thanks to Josh for the contribution – enjoy…}

Knoxville, Tennessee’s much (and deservedly) ballyhooed Big Ears Festival is nothing if not diverse—this year’s lineup included moody jazz and electronics from Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith, druid drone from Sun O))), heady orchestrations from Laurie Anderson, saxophone catharsis from Kamsi Washington, and on and on—but if anything, the relentless parade of sound and color made the starkness of Joe Henry’s set stand out all the more. Joe was something like the troubadour in residence for the weekend revelry, one of the few (only?) performers to try leaving his audience spellbound and enraptured with nothing more than voice, song, and acoustic guitar; yet leave us spellbound and enraptured he did, not only because he performed highlights from all of his albums going back to Trampoline, but also because he was joined by acclaimed guitarist Marc Ribot on all but one song, plus reed man Levon Henry on three of them.

The setlist opened with “Trampoline” and concluded with a couple of songs off Invisible Hour; a stripped-down and spooky “Sold,” much-reworked “Like She Was a Hammer,” and ever-timely “Civil War” were additional highlights. I will take a moment of personal privilege to note the happy inclusion of my own favorite Joe Henry song, “Parker’s Mood.” Joe was in fine voice and good spirits, and Ribot, of course, tore it up, most notably with his frantic pyrotechnics on Blood from Stars’ bluesier numbers like “Bellwether” and “All Blues Hail Mary.” Levon’s highlight was likely “Eyes Out for You,” where his sax work reminded me of no one more than Sonny Rollins, encompassing the full vocabulary of the horn from sound effects/background ambiance to beautiful flights of melody.

Joe has toured just a bit more than usual in recent years, it would seem, and many who have attended these shows comment on the warmth present there, the generosity of spirit; Joe is a conceptual thinker who tends to have big ideas about recordings and performances, but the pleasure of his live shows is in how he just lets the songs and stories work their charms, no further unifying thread needed. The Big Ears performance seemed, from my vantage point up front, like it was well-received by the audience, and just in making my way into the theater I encountered people who’d driven in from Georgia, South Carolina, and even Pennsylvania (!!) for an all-too-rare opportunity to see our man at work. I don’t imagine any left disappointed, and personally, I stand by my conviction that Joe’s set was worth the Big Ears admission price all on its own.

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