The first night of the Three Million Tongues Festival, Nov. 17 at the Empty Bottle, was a truly weird lineup. Most of it falls under that misnomer of a rubric, “Freak Folk,” and some of it actually was freaky. Up first was Nick Schillace, doing some very nice instrumental fingerstyle guitar. The next main-stage act was Spires That in the Sunset Rise, a trio of women playing slow, experimental dirges on autoharp, banjo, thumb piano and assorted other contraptions. The overall effect was like listening to a silverware drawer being dumped onto the floor, accompanied by unearthly wails and moans. As bad as that might sound to some people, I rather liked it, though the slow tempos did get to me after a while.
The least folky act of the night, Steve Mackay & the Radon Ensemble, played some intense avant-garde jazz, including a fantastic, frenetic drum solo. (Actually, it was two drummers, so I guess that’s a drum duo?) The horn players left the stage at one point to march through the club, returning for a final flourish that saw Mackay squirming on his back. In between these acts, the Empty Bottle presented other performers on a “stage” located near the sound board, so the music was pretty much continuous — though you couldn’t always see what was happening over there if you were near the main stage.
The headliner for the night was English folk-rock legend Bert Jansch, once a member of Pentagle. It’s interesting that this guy is suddenly getting buzz and indie-rock cred, all because a new generation of musicians including Devendra Banhardt have cited him as an influence — and because his new album, “The Black Swan,” has been issued by one of those really cool record label, Chicago-based Drag City. I dare say that Jansch would have been playing in front of a much different crowd a few years ago if he had ventured to Chicago then. I picture him playing at some coffeeshop and getting barely any publicity. Well, in any case, he deserves the attention he’s getting now. He played in front of an audience that included a few older folk fans but looked prety much like the Empty Bottle crowd on any other night — a lot of people in their 20s who are into diverse music and tolerant of experimental sounds that might clear another room. There’s something cool about watching young people reverentially listening to an older guy playing an acoustic guitar.
I’m a latecomer myself to Jansch, so I wasn’t familiar with too many of the songs, other than the ones I’ve begun listening to lately on “The Black Swan.” He played some old solo and Pentagle songs, tunes by other artists including a couple by Jackson C. Frank. Jansch was a calm presence onstage, seeming a bit bemused by the attention he was getting, including the overly enthusiastic excalamations of one passionate fan standing near the stage. (When Jansch insisted he would be coming back to Chicago, this guy said he didn’t believe it, pointing out that Jansch is playing only three U.S. cities on this tour. “You don’t love us, man.”) Jansch complained about the Bottle’s typically dim lighting, but the venue seemed incapable of turning the lights up any higher. There was one brief series of bursts as they lights went up and down in brightness. Wow, such sophisticated technology. “The lights are buggered,” Jansch remarked.
Jansch’s guitar playing is very impressive, even though it doesn’t feel like he’s showing off. His picking patterns serve the songs, and it’s only when he does a fast flourish at the end that his full virtuosity becomes apparent. He was coaxed back onstage for a two-song encore, including the wonderful title song from his new album.