True story – the first time I ever heard about Big Ears and saw the original lineup for the first year (2009), I didn’t even bother looking up where the festival was held, because I knew I’d be disappointed. Living in Tennessee, I’m used to all the best, most innovative events happening far away. Sure, we have Bonnaroo, and I love that. But the smaller, more avant-garde festivals are usually only found in New York or overseas. So imagine my surprise when I found out that Big Ears, a small festival that is more in line with any ATP festival than Bonnaroo, is actually held in Knoxville, Tennessee. I couldn’t believe it. At first I wondered why they would choose Knoxville as a destination for such an adventurous festival – but then I realized the event was the brainchild of Ashley Capps, the creator of Bonnaroo and a Knoxville native. His mission was to bring something unique to the South, similar to the smaller festivals that only happen in New York and other large, cultural centers. His hometown of Knoxville was the perfect place to have it. There’s a stretch of downtown that houses six great venues for music that are all within a short walk – all without the distractions of a big city.
Now in its second year, Capps’ dream has been fully realized. Big Ears proved to be a place where artists could come perform and also enjoy the music of their contemporaries. Many of the artists who played Big Ears stuck around for most of the weekend, either to take in the festival, to play multiple sets, or to add to other artist’s sets in the great spirit of collaboration that ran throughout the entire weekend. Just about every band I saw on stage, I also saw either on the street or in an audience. It was great to see artists and fans co-exist so well all weekend. Whether it was Sufjan Stevens enjoying the Ex, Dirty Projectors enjoying Vampire Weekend, Abe Vigoda enjoying Gang Gang Dance, and just about everyone enjoying Joanna Newsom, you could almost always spot a Big Ears artist in the crowd for just about every set.
The all-encompassing atmosphere was one of the best parts of the festival, from the co-existence of artists and fans to the range of ages found at every show – everywhere from middle schoolers to senior citizens – there was something for everyone there. The great environment started at the Big Ears Hub, where festival-goers went to pick up tickets, which also included a Mooglab where anyone could play with the Theramins and keyboards set up around the area. The staff was friendly and the attendees were all just excited to be a part of Big Ears. In fact, everyone seemed to be grateful to be there. I’ve never attended a festival where more artists thanked those who ran it — both Ashley Capps and co-curator Bryce Dessner (of the National) — and complimented the festival more than they did this weekend. Everyone seemed to love everything about itl – fans and artists – and it’s true; I would be hard pressed to find anything to complain about throughout the whole weekend. The only thing I could think of off the top of my head is the crazy weather – which of course is no fault of the organizers. Friday was dreadfully cold and windy, Saturday was a beautiful, warm day, and Sunday greeted festival-goers with off and on downpours. But aside from that, this festival had the best atmosphere of any event I’ve ever been to and was a huge success. I didn’t want it to ever end.
Buke & Gass:
Big Ears Annex: 8:00-8:30 p.m.
My first Big Ears show was Buke & Gass – a duo who are named after their handcrafted instruments (Buke = Baritone Ukulele and Gass = a fusion of bass & guitar) – and they were a pleasant surprise. I had only heard a few of their songs and I wasn’t sure how they would translate live, but the two of them put on a great show with songs ranging from stompin’ fun to slower, eerie ballads. The “gass” player was not only great at his instrument, but kept the beat on the bass drum with one foot and messed with his pedals with the other. Impressive. The girl had a strong voice, at times sounding like a mix between Karen O and Jemina Pearl, but had a great range and sometimes sounded like no one else out there. It was an excellent kick start to the weekend.
Big Ears Annex: 9:00-10:15 p.m.
Bands that are in their third decade should take note of the Ex. You never quite know what you’re gonna get with bands that have been around for that long, but it looks like the Ex never lost a step. They came out and kicked ass on the first song and didn’t let up throughout the entire show. They were all over the place, musically and on stage. Their punk sound was tight and perfected, but would give way to massive bursts of noise in almost every song. It was a sight to behold. The crowd had a wide range of ages, and it was a beautiful thing to see 70-year-olds and 20-year-olds headbanging in unison. They made their first show south of the Mason-Dixie line in ten years count, and I hope it’s not their last.
Bijou Theatre: 10:30-11:00 p.m.
I’m not an expert on the DJ scene, but I certainly do enjoy it. And having never heard Nosaj Thing before tonight, I was very impressed. Not only was the music a lot of fun, but he seemed to be more active than a lot of DJs out there – there’s a fair amount of people who criticize electronic music and say all they do is press buttons, but if they were to watch him I can’t help but think they’d rethink their stance. Yes, he was playing a track on his computer then manipulating it with his soundboard, but damn was he good at that. He played a solid, breakfree 30 minutes of downtempo dance music. Even in the seated theatre at the Bijou, people were standing up and dancing and gave him a warm applause as he left the stage.
Bijou Theatre: 11:00-11:30 p.m.
I don’t think I’ve been to a more awkward show. I wanted to give jj the benefit of the doubt since it was only their fifth U.S. show ever, but it was just… bad. The first song consisted of Elin Kastlander and an acoustic guitar. It was pretty good and she has a great voice, but it was all downhill from there. After that, no instruments were played. The backing track started and Kastlander just sang karaoke to her own songs… as awkwardly as possible. She didn’t move, she didn’t dance, she didn’t do anything. She stood there, drank her beer, and sang when it was her turn. Eventually her partner Joakim Benon came out, but all he did was pick up his guitar and fiddle around with it; he didn’t even actually play anything. His parts were on the backing track. He must have been staying true to their most popular song (“Ecstasy”) because he looked way far gone. He only lasted about two songs on stage, then left Elin out there to keep singing karaoke. Her voice actually did sound nice, but everything else made it a disappointing set. When she awkwardly said “Thanks” and exited the stage, she walked off to mild applause from a confused crowd.
Andrew W.K. & the Calder Quartet:
The Square Room: 12:00-1:30 a.m.
I had heard of Andrew W.K. doing these piano and quartet shows before, but it still seemed strange when he walked out in his classic dirty white clothes and sat behind the piano. It was like seeing a lion in a cage. He seemed so restrained. But, it turns out he’s actually a very proficient pianist. For about half of the show, he was quiet and reserved. But that’s not to say he didn’t have spurts where he acted like… well, Andrew W.K. The songs that he decided to ham it up, he took it to ridiculous levels. But it was hilarious and the crowd loved it. The only downside to this set was the relative lack of collaboration between W.K. and the Calder Quartet. They spent most of the set alternating songs. They did play together at the beginning and the end, but I would have liked to see them collaborate for more of the set. Either way it was a good time, especially when he busted out “I Get Wet” and “Party Hard”. And when he decided to use the last song of his encore to cover John Cage’s 4’33” – the crowd went nuts, in a bad way. They were legitimately pissed by the three minute mark, but the few of us in the crowd who got it were cracking up laughing. But he rewarded them by coming out for a second encore that consisted of W.K. dancing while one of the Calders played Bach’s Cello Suite. Needless to say, the crowd quickly forgot about the four minutes of silence they had to endure to get to his dance and left happy.
Andrew W.K. Motivational Speech:
Knoxville Museum of Art: 12:00-1:00 p.m.
After his performance with the Calder Quartet the night before, Andrew W.K. woke early from what I assume was a great night of partying to give a motivational speech to a crowd at the Knoxville Museum of Art. I wasn’t sure what to expect out of it… but I never thought it would be really sincere. Aside from one outbreak where his chair decided to take control over him in the middle of a sentence (more in line with what I expected) – he spoke from the heart about his ideas and beliefs. Some of it really made sense. The main message was to do what you really want to do, not what you feel like you should – and it left me feeling ready for the rest of the day, doing what I really want to do, which was watch a bunch of great shows.
Tennessee Theatre: 2:00-2:30 p.m.
William Basinski’s opening set for the Dirty Projectors had more in common with a piece in an art gallery than a live music concert. Both are stoic, unique, and open to the interpretation of the viewer. Some won’t understand it, some will think it’s boring, and some will think it’s beautiful. I fall firmly in the latter category for this set. Bakinski manually looped tapes in one solid block for 30 minutes, while a video of a cloud in the slowly played in the background, changing from dusk to night by the end of the set. I heard mixed reviews from the people around me, but just like a great art piece, I was mesmerized.
Tennessee Theatre: 2:45-3:15 p.m.
Following such a slow and steady performance with a set by DJ /rupture seems like a strange pairing, but it worked out perfectly, starting out slow and experimental, then picking up the pace as the set went on. He had a camera set to show his DJ setup, and it was fun to watch him work. He mixed everything from obscure world music to Imogen Heap in his 30 minute set, and it did exactly what it was supposed to do – warm the crowd up for the Dirty Projectors.
Tennessee Theatre: 3:45-5:00 p.m.
The Dirty Projectors have become a very solid and consistent live band over the years. This set was not much different than the set I saw from them last year, but that didn’t make it any less enjoyable. The girls’ voices blow my mind every time. Dave Longstreth plays the hell out of his songs (he broke a guitar string on the very first song). The rest of the band is incredibly tight. They played mostly from Bitte Orca, but threw a few older songs in the mix. The crowd loved it, and the Dirty Projectors seemed to be having a good time, too.
Bijou Theatre: 4:30-5:00 p.m.
Gyan Riley, Terry’s son, is a classically trained gutarist, and opening for Clogs, he played his acoustic like a virtuoso. The room was either very respectful, in awe, or a little bit of both – you could hear a pin drop throughout his whole set. His finger picking guitar skills were a wonder to watch. He picked up the pace for his last couple songs and played some fun ones, finishing with a great reception from the respectful crowd at the Bijou.
Bijou Theatre: 5:00-6:00 p.m.
The Clogs set was one of the most talked about of the weekend. With scheduled guests like Shara Worden, Sufjan Stevens, and Matt Berninger, how could it not be? Clogs kicked things off with the opener to their new album, “Cocodrillo”, with some help from Worden and Stevens. They then proceeded to play their new album, The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton, in its entirety, but not quite in order. After every couple songs from the new album, they’d throw in a couple older, more classical songs. But the highlights were the new tunes, especially the ones featuring Worden’s incredible voice. Halfway through the set, Bryce Dessner invited Stevens out to sing one of his own songs – “Barn Owl, Night Killer” – solo, with Worden singing backup. It was a beautiful moment that fit right in with the rest of the Clogs set, and was the only time Stevens took the lead on any of his appearances over the weekend. The Calder Quartet was also called upon to help out, but one scheduled appearance didn’t end up working out. And in an unfortunate mishap, The National’s singer Matt Berninger ran late and missed his scheduled appearance on the song “Last Song”. Luckily, violinist/singer Padma Newsome stepped up and delivered a still powerful version of the song in his absense. The set ended with a tribute to the real Lady Walton, who Newsome revealed was a real person and had just passed away the week before. Stevens and Worden came back out for the tribute song “We Were Here” and ended the set on a beautiful note.
Tennessee Theatre: 7:30-8:00 p.m.
Buzz bands sometimes carry the reputation of having a bad live show, especially in their early years. So while I like Abe Vigoda on record, I had my doubts about how their songs would translate live, especially when opening for the biggest draw of the festival and playing for a huge crowd at the Tennessee Theatre. However, they pleasantly surprised me. They were fun, catchy, and a great warmup for Vampire Weekend.
Tennessee Theatre: 8:40-10:00 p.m.
I’ll admit it before I start this review – I’m no fan of Vampire Weekend. However, I consciously made a decision to go into this show with an open mind. They were the biggest draw of the weekend, so I had to at least give them a chance. The line for their show started four hours before showtime, and eventually wrapped around the block. So needless to say, the Tennessee Theatre was packed. This was expected – it was a sold out show. What I didn’t expect was their uproarious reception upon walking on stage. The crowd screamed at decibels usually reserved for the likes of Justin Beiber and Miley Cyrus. It sounded like thousands of young teenage girls, which the crowd mostly was – other than some frat guys here and there. The conditions were not ideal. And once they were on their third song, I could tell there was nothing they could do that could win me over in this environment. I just don’t enjoy their music, and the thousands of screaming girls didn’t help their case. As soon as singer Ezra Koenig busted out the auto-tune, I was done. I had to get out of there for my own sanity. I will say this though, they had a ton of energy and that crowd just went nuts for them. So my personal feelings aside, they must be doing something right.
Bijou Theatre: 10:00–10:30 p.m.
Jens Hannamenn, aka SNL’s Fred Armisen, is a German drumming expert who travels the world teaching anyone who will listen his “complicated drumming techniques.” I can’t even begin to describe his set; it’s something that must be experienced in person. It was just hilarious. Suffice it to say that he is the best drummer in the world. And when he took a minute to refect on his set (20 minutes into it) – he decided that it was good enough to warrant an A+ (“It’s not egotistical if it’s true!”). I think I would have to agree with him.
Bijou Theatre: 11:00 p.m.-12:45 a.m.
Joanna Newsom was a popular show among artists – she was playing to a veritable who’s-who of the festival. From my seat I could see members of Vampire Weekend, The xx, Dirty Projectors, Abe Vigoda, My Brightest Diamond and the National all sitting among the audience, turning from artist into fan just like the rest of us. Newsom came out and opened with “’81”, then continued to wow the crowd on both piano and harp with mostly songs from her new triple album, Have One on Me. Her voice is a marvelous thing, and it’s an experience to hear it live. She commanded the audiences’ attention for over an hour and a half and put on one of the best sets of the weekend.
Gang Gang Dance:
Big Ears Annex: 1:30-2:30 a.m.
I don’t think there was a bigger, weirder dance party than the Gang Gang Dance show all weekend. They came out on fire with their experimental futuristic tribal sound, waving flags and banging on drums while Liz Bougatsos sang like a woman possessed. Despite some minor sound problems, they killed – and the crowd never stopped dancing.
Tennessee Theatre: 1:00–1:30 p.m.
I walked into the Tennessee Theatre just a few minutes after Tim Hecker began his set, and when the usher opened the doors to the theatre for me, I was immediately met with a wall of darkness and noise. I couldn’t see a thing – the only light in the theatre came from the ambiance lighting on the walls of the theatre, but they didn’t help me in the slightest as I tried to find a seat. I had to feel around to find one, and once I did I looked to the stage to find the only light on Hecker was the glow of his Mac laptop. He played heavy, dark and brooding ambient music – a stark contrast to the beautiful sounds of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports, which he was opening for. I felt the bass all through my body, rattling my bones and destroying my ears – but I loved it. The reaction in the theatre was very mixed, but for those into dark ambient music, it was quite a treat.
Tennessee Theatre: 1:45–3:00 p.m.
The Books sound like no one else out there. Their music seems to be more of a musical accompaniment to visual pieces than stand alone music – which is why it works so well live. They’ve put together videos from tapes they’ve found at thrift stores over the years to play in the background as they play their music – and they sync up perfectly. The music enhances the video, and the video enhances the film. It’s really a live experience like none other.
Bang on a Can All-Stars Performing Brian Eno’s Music For Airports:
Tennessee Theatre: 3:30–4:30 p.m.
Brian Eno’s Music for Airports is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever recorded. And as Bang on a Can mentioned, it was not meant to be focused on, performed live or anything like that. However, it has proved over the years to be such an influential and groundbreaking record that it deserves the honor of being just that – performed live and focused on. Bang on a Can All-Stars did the piece justice. It was a slow, gorgeous performance of a slow, gorgeous piece.
Nico Muhly & Doveman:
Bijou Theatre: 4:00–4:45 p.m.
Nico Muhly and Doveman opened St. Vincent’s show with a fun and beautiful set of piano duos, Colin McPhee songs, their own individual compositions, and for good measure, a medley of songs from the soundtrack of Footloose. They played most of the set together, surrounded by keyboards and pianos on all sides, and played off of each other effortlessly. Doveman’s hushed vocals were a perfect match for the music. They each played a few songs on their own – Nico used that time to play some of his own compositions, while Doveman used it for a song about drinking and his Footloose medley (which he says was originally done for a friend, and he hasn’t even seen the movie). But the duo, who sometimes play by the name Peter Pears (and played a few of their co-written songs together), were best when playing together, particularly when playing McPhee’s (as Nico described them) “homoerotic piano duets.”
Bijou Theatre: 5:00-6:00 p.m.
St. Vincent’s Annie Clark is a very unassuming-looking person. She’s cute and petite – hardly what you’d expect a guitar-wielding noisemaker to look like. But when she takes the stage, she shows off her incredible talent on guitar – the girl can shred. Playing mostly songs from her newest album Actor, she nearly brought the house down during noisy jams on “Black Rainbow” and “Marrow’. But she also got the crowd dancing with fast-paced “Actor out of Work” and slowed it down for the Nico cover “These Days”. It was all over too soon, but it was another great set from St. Vincent. Oh, and who ever does her lighting deserves a raise. Great work.
Bijou Theatre: 7:45-8:45 p.m.
Terry Riley started his fourth and final set as artist-in-residence at Big Ears with the self-described “long and rambling” composition “Night Music” – which he also claimed was a rarity to perform live. The piano piece was just as he desciribed – long and rambling – but he didn’t mention how beautiful it was. It also showcased his incredible talent on piano – his fingers flew over the keys effortlessly, no small feat for a man celebrating his 75th birthday this year. After the over 30-minute composition was over, an audience member yelled a request for “Dog Talk” – a composition based around a language of talking to and communicating with dogs. Riley played piano and barked off seemingly jibberish words – the piece was a lot more fun that anything else he had done that night. He capped off his final set with an encore of a fantastic rendition of “Keyboard Study 1”. The audience was very respectful throughout the entire performance; he received a standing ovation after every song. It was a wonderful and rare opportunity to see a true living legend.
My Brightest Diamond:
Tennessee Theatre: 9:00–9:45 p.m.
Shara Worden, like Annie Clark, is not who you would expect to see rocking out on guitar, especially while pregnant (Congrats, Shara!). But she rolled out the final show of Big Ears with a rocking set – though, as always, the highlight was her incredible voice. She has amazing range, she can hit the low notes on a blues song and hit the highest of high points I’ve heard anyone do in person. After complimenting the Tennessee Theatre – she claims it’s her favorite place she’s ever played in – she led the crowd in a back-and-forth chorus and sang covers of “Feelin’ Good” and the set-closing “Tainted Love”. She left the stage to a standing ovation and a crowd begging for more. But the show had to go on and Ashley Capps came to the stage to give his closing remarks.
Tennessee Theatre: 10:25 p.m.–12:00 a.m.
After the second day of Big Ears, I doubted that anything on the last day could live up to the sets from Clogs and Joanna Newsom. I should have known better. With The National guitarist Bryce Dessner acting as co-curator for the festival, guests were a guarantee. Just as Ashley Capps talked about the spirit of collaboration that was alive and well at Big Ears, the National took that to heart. When they hit the stage for opening number “Sorrow” – from their new album High Violet – the five-member band was expanded to 10. Joining the National on stage was Doveman, who played keys on roughly half of the songs throughout the set, a horn section that included members of St. Vincent, and Clogs members Rachael Elliott, on bassoon, and Padma Newsome who sat in for the whole set on keys, violin and melodica.
The band kicked off their set with three new songs from High Violet (scheduled for release on May 10) – “Sorrow”, “Anyone’s Ghost” and “Little Faith” – before playing the crowd pleasers “Mistaken for Strangers” and “Secret Meeting”. Sufjan Stevens joined the band for new song “Afraid of Everyone”, playing keyboard and singing backup. The rest of the set mixed new material – they played every song from High Violet during the show – with old, and the band was energetic, in good spirits and nailing every song they played. Ending the set was “Fake Empire” – the climactic end of the song with horns wailing and band in full swing would have been a great end to the festival on it’s own, but the band had even more up their sleeves. After rapturous applause, the band came out for the encore with a few more special guests in tow. They played High Violet closer “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” with the help of Annie Clark (St. Vincent), Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), Doveman and Nico Muhly.
But the real highlight of the set came without any guests: “Mr. November”. This was when the weekend truly peaked. Full of passion and intensity, lead singer Matt Berninger jumped into the crowd and walked down the aisle before making his way back to the stage by stepping over rows of seats (and using me for balance at one point, no less), all while singing his lungs out. You’d think this would have been the rousing finish, but no, the band finally closed their set (and the festival) with new album opener “Terrible Love”. The much-hyped festival finale ended up being exactly what it was meant to be – the best set of the weekend. All of the new songs sounded fantastic, and if you have high hopes for this album, you will not be disappointed. If the studio versions sound anywhere near as good as they sounded live, we’re all in for a treat.