I have a love/hate relationship when it comes to music festivals. Ever since my first semi-festival – Rites of Spring back in 2008 – I’ve developed a personal point of contention of musical bliss versus social and physical subjugation from standing for hour upon hour waiting for the ultra reclusive artist “X” to take the stage. As far as the festival rites of passage are concerned, I’ve always enjoy supercilious socialization over music and the arts, but literally rubbing elbows with the same glitter laden rave-star gets old – and gross – fast. I’ll partake in the occasional overindulgent gush session amongst fan boys and girls, but I don’t really care for an oral history of an artist’s career to date.
Granted, most people at festivals are regular music loving folk – not caricatures and gross over exaggerations of fandom – but at times the cultural platitudes of a festival can grow tiresome. As if social burnout wasn’t enough, there’s the ever-present prospect of physical fatigue while “hypothetically” waiting for over an hour and a half at 1:45AM for Mos Def’s delayed helicopter to arrive on The Farm; “hypothetically,” of course. Understand this, I consider myself to be a fairly athletic – and neurotic (no surprise there) – person, so I admit my concern over proper hydration and nourishment might be a bit over blown, but at the same time, festivals like Bonnaroo and Hangout make for the musical equivalent of an ultra marathon through the Amazon rainforest.
Personal neurosis aside, for all the festivals I’ve attended, I have never once left with anything even remotely close to a regret for having attended in the first place – every festival experience brings new discoveries and enduring memories of the performances within (wait a second, I thought he said he didn’t like platitudes?) – and this year’s Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN was no exception. I had eyed snagging a ticket to Big Ears for a few months, but rested on my laurels for too long.
For the uninitiated, Big Ears is the premier avant garde music festival in – at the least – the Southeast, bringing a variety of musical creeds together in Rocky Top. The artists fall across all points of the musical spectrum, from neo classical stalwarts to conceptual acts that would cause even the most cultured of NPR hosts to scratch their heads; no judgment on wherever you fall upon the spectrum.
When I showed up at the Knoxville Entrepreneurship Center on Thursday for festival check in, the uniquity of the festival’s attendees became glaringly apparent. The Big Ears crowd is certainly an older set -there were none of the wannabee beach bum undergrads sneaking alcohol in sun tan lotion bottles of Hangout Fest, or the four-day burgeoning boho-chic hippies of Bonnaroo. Instead, the folks who comprised the impeccably single file check-in line seemed more likely to inform you of your imposition on their personal space than to tell you to “spread the love.”
As I waited, I began to feel that Big Ears was going to be totally devoid of the typical corporatized festival experience – looking at you, Live Nation – and for the most part it was. Realistically, when your festival headliners are Laurie Anderson and Phillip Glass, Yo La Tengo, and Kamasi Washington, its probably difficult to entice Snapchat or Four Loko to come join the subdued festivities.
By the time I had gotten out of the Knoxville Entrepreneurship Center, I grabbed a coffee and walked toward the Bijou Theatre to catch folk singer Olivia Chaney’s set. I was joined by a vibrantly dressed clothing designer – naturally – who inexplicably chose me as his walking companion and began to opine about his views on Big Ears – “The most exceptional amalgam of music and learned persons in the world” – before he leaving me to attend the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s performance at the Tennessee Theatre.
I only had a nominal knowledge of Olivia Chaney’s songbook, but she created a tempest of pensive and existential baroque piano pop, and the utter silence in the theatre was proof enough that a deep dive is in order. Thanks to the festival scheduling, I had to dip out of Chaney prematurely to catch the Sun Ra Arkestra at the newly minted Mill and Mine space – think Knoxville’s answer to Marathon Music Works – and was over come with afrofuturism and modal jazz thanks to the exceptional direction of one Mr. Marshall Allen. As I exited my space jazz exploration with The Arkestra, a trend began to materialize – there was going to be a lot of running back and forth on Gay St. in downtown Knoxville to catch as many acts as possible at Big Ears – but I was absolutely fine with it. I headed back to The Bijou to catch some of The Gloaming’s set full of agonizingly beautiful Irish odes along with rapier wit and playful degradation in between songs. It was truly remarkable that a group whose music is so thematically heavy could take the audience to the edge of bereavement and instantly shift into clever banter. To this point, the first three sets were a nice mix of baroque pop, afrofuturism, and world music, but I had yet to check out any “real” avant-garde artists on the first night. To remedy such an absence, I ran over to The Standard near the Old Town and caught some of the Sub Pop aligned Wolf Eyes. Needless to say, this was true blue avant-garde, at least in terms of post-industrial music.
In order to kill time before Yo La Tengo’s late set, I popped into the Square Room to check arguably the best named at all of Big Ears, Nief-Norf, and then headed out to Mill and Mine to see the Hoboken shoegazers. Thanks to the collaborative nature and relative seclusion of the Smokies, Yo La Tengo brought on a variety of artists to perform with them, including Bryce Dessner (of the National), Chris Abraham, and Marshall Allen. By the end of Yo La Tengo’s set, I was feeling weary and ragged from the there-and-back-again nature of going from venue to venue, but I popped in briefly for Andy Stott’s late night set. It was solid techno-dub set, but the real highlight was the guy who stood in front of the full stacks and PA’s opening and closing his fists, as if to imply how tough he was while expediting the hearing loss process.
With a hole in one of my socks and an evening of Big Ears shows under my belt, I approached day two with a little less physical zeal than the day before – taking time to enjoy the downtown Knoxville cafes and such. The convergence of Big Ears upon the city made for some entertaining observations whilst walking to and from shows – the likes of Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner going totally unrecognized as Knoxville’s nouveau riche gathering at local watering holes.
Admittedly, I got a later start than I’d like to admit on Friday, so my first set was at Mill & Mine to see the legendary – I was told – Zeena Parkins and The Necks’ Tony Buck. It was an interesting cross section of improvisational jazz percussion and performance art, as Parkins’ harp work was wholly… distinct. After spending some time watching Parkins’ strain herself as she harped away, I headed over to square room to see another member of The Necks, Chris Abrahams, who had played with Yo La Tengo the night before. In short, the set was a master class exploration of piano theory and altogether soothing, but I felt I needed something a little more lively, so I headed back to the Mill and Mine to see Xylouris White. I had seen Xylouris White earlier in the year when they opened for Kurt Vile at Marathon, and Jim White is easily one of my top five contemporary drummers. The set was raucous and deft at the same time, with White shepherding Girogos Xylouris’ vocals on a cacophonous journey that made for one of the weekend’s best sets.
By the late afternoon, it was time for a brief respite from the show running, and after a small dinner and coffee, I headed to the Tennessee Theatre to watch Eighth Blackbird perform with Bryce Dessner and Bonnie “Prince” Billy. The show ended up being one of my only points of contention from the weekend – the set was apparently a separately ticketed event, so media was only allowed the first five minutes of a near two hour performance, ultimately preventing me from seeing any of Bonnie “Prince” Billy. That was a huge bummer, but luckily, I knew some experimental hip-hop would boost my spirits, so it was back to Mill and Mine to catch Shabazz Palaces. Mill and Mine being on its maiden voyage during Big Ears proved to not be a problem for the most part – outside of some random guy continually complaining on the lack of “tables and benches in this place” – and even though Shabazz Palaces did run into some technical difficulties during sound check, it was nothing but avant-garde gangsta for the evening.
Due to the ticketing policy for the evening’s Tennessee Theatre shows, I was unable to see Andrew Bird, but alas, I didn’t have a distinct interest, having seen him once before. I did, however, get a chance to see a magnificent set between Joe Henry and Marc Ribot that featured some sumptuous guitar. It always astounds me when an artist – in this case, Joe Henry – gets to play with one of their inspirations, which made for an evening of distinct reverence and warmth. It seems like a lot of my Big Ears was spent at either The Bijou or Mill and Mine, but that certainly isn’t a complaint – I hopped back over to Mill and Mine to catch the Tuareg shredders, Bombino before stopping in The Standard to catch the legendary krautrock band, Faust – whose front man, Zappi Diermaier, was rumored to have been diagnosed with cancer. Faust was an interesting percussive experience, but I was under a time crunch to catch Nashville’s own Lambchop share the stage with Yo La Tengo for what was probably the best overall set of Day two. The crowd was with pretense, and absolutely electric while maintaining the omnipresent nature of polite fan regard throughout the weekend. Day two closed with my most anticipated set of the night, Nicolas Jaar. The great thing about Big Ears is that you can go from eclectic shoegaze to deep house without any worry of running into any detractors of the contrast in genre – everyone was conscientious of the great singularity that Big Ears is.
As is typically the case with festivals, Big Ears came and went in an instant, as Day Three had already arrived, but I was still reeling from sets by Nicolas Jaar, Xylouris White, and The Gloaming on Thursday and Friday. Needless to say, for as in shape I thought I was, the constant walking and extended time on my feet had really begun to take (an embarrassing) toll on my body, as I had become sore in just about every muscle fiber of my legs. Nevertheless, one must soldier on as first world problems are no reason to miss the likes of Nico Muhly, Angel Olsen, and Kamasi Washington.
Phantom Orchard mix statuesque stage presence with overwrought harp work, as well as the enthralling work of cellist Maya Beiser at the Bijou.
Side bar – while waiting in line to get into Maya Beiser, the guy behind me started talking about his various “female artist crushes,” ranging from Annie Clark to Joan Jett, but he informed me that his current most “crush” was none other than Nashville’s own Aubrie Sellers; Nashville FTW!
Anyway, after grabbing some food, I headed over to Bijou to catch Nico Muhly, Sam Amidon, and Nadia Sirota. The set was a nice mix of old, old folk tunes from Amidon, contemporary strings from Sirota, and orchestral movements by Muhly. The standout performance – well technically, presence – of the set was from Muhly, who managed to simultaneously skewer and endear the Big Ears crowds while prefacing a song by stating he saw “NPR people upside down smiling at me;” cue rim shot. I popped into Big Brave and Sunn 0)))’s shows at Tennessee Theatre, which were cool, but sometimes drone metal isn’t quite my frequency.
The last two sets of the night were probably my two favorite sets of Big Ears – Angel Olsen and Kamasi Washington. Olsen was in the Bijou Theatre, where she and the Lionlimb dude turned the conformity of the seated room upside down and invited the audience to stand at the stage – not necessarily ground breaking on stage, but for Big Ears, this was huge – and won them over with her adulation for Laurie Anderson. The best set from all of Big Ears was easily Kamasi Washington. The LA based saxaphonist’s show had electricity to it that screamed living legend. The energy of the crowd pulsated throughout Mill and Mine, as Kamasi made playful quips about everyone stopping by the merch table to buy whatever merchandise of his they had yet to own, and brought his father on stage to perform a moving version of “Henrietta Our Hero,” a track dedicated to Washington’s grandmother. All in all the entire set was transcendently funky; or in Washington’s words, the set was “so funky, I’m talking stank funk, I mean some of that real mildew funk.”
It would be easy to say that Big Ears was a “whirlwind of a weekend,” or something like that, but realistically, it was an intermittent stop and go ride of sound exploration and overall artistry. The weekend moved in waves, with polyps of music ranging from the absurdly avant-garde to groove inducing exhibitionism. As far as being the atypical festival experience that I alluded to earlier, it’s not quite as stark a contrast as I referenced, but simply an escapist weekend of consciences to help expand the culture realm of music.