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Big Ears 2015: The Best of the Festival

on March 31, 2015, 12:00am
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Big Ears was good for Knoxville. The city misses Big Ears. The city needs Big Ears. We’re willing to make that happen.”

At the Big Ears 2015 kick-off party on Friday afternoon, Ashley Capps explained why the festival disappeared after its second year in 2010. Basically, the scheduling conflicts were too much to overcome, so 2011 was scrapped, with every intention of bringing it back the next year. Then AC Entertainment got busy. And stayed busy. 2011 and 2012 passed with no word of a return.

Then, in late 2012, Capps got a voicemail from some Knoxville higher-ups. They said they were willing to do whatever they needed to do to help make Big Ears a reality again, no strings attached — their only request was to make it “as fabulous as possible”. Capps said that got the ball rolling and eventually led to the fest’s triumphant return in 2014. This time around, they have no plans to repeat history — he said they’re already hard at work on the 2016 edition. That is excellent news, because not only is Big Ears a good thing for the city of Knoxville, it’s a good thing for adventurous music lovers everywhere.

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Photo by Rachel Wise

It’s rare to find a festival as experimental as Big Ears that also has the size and budget that AC Entertainment (the folks behind Bonnaroo) can bring to it. This leads to dream lineups where you can see Kronos Quartet performing with Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq while the legendary Terry Riley performs in the local art museum. Things like that don’t happen in cities like Knoxville, an unassuming college town in East Tennessee. They happen in big cultural centers like New York and London and Berlin. But once a year, Capps gets the culture to come meet him in his hometown at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains.

This year’s festival was the most well-run yet. Nearly everything started on time and happened as scheduled, and there was a line of communication open via their mobile app and social media for times when that wasn’t the case. They provided a plethora of activities outside of the musical offerings — bike rentals free for passholders, a beer exchange for those of age, a special brunch, a concurrent local music festival run by the Pilot Light venue, panels featuring artists performing at the festival, film screenings, workshops, etc. The city of Knoxville was once again a fantastic host for the event, with all five venues within a 10 minute walk from each other. The Bijou and Tennessee Theatres both remain wonderful places to see a show, while the Knoxville Museum of Art and the Square Room are serviceable mainstays.

After playing around with different places for the fifth venue in previous iterations (“Big Ears Annex” in 2010, Scruffy City Hall last year), I think they’ve found a keeper in the Standard. For an event space that’s just as built for parties and receptions as it is for shows, the sound was pristine and the room was welcoming and spaced out nicely. The weather, while a bit nippy to start, got better with each day, leaving Sunday as a perfect day for strolling between venues. Late March is the perfect time for an indoor festival like this — spring is just starting to bloom so it’s nice to be outside, but still cold enough to not want to stand outside to see music. Plus it’s a nice way to ease into the real festival season, which is just around the corner.

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Photo by Rachel Wise

Capps has gone to great lengths to make sure he not only brings great music to his town, but that he gives back to Knoxville as much as possible. Big Ears has worked closely with the Knoxville-based Joy of Music School and the Community School of the Arts to help support arts education in the city with their “Little Ears” community outreach program. As part of the program, artwork created by their students was on display at the Tomatohead in Market Square, and the students were welcome to participate in workshops and attend rehearsals with the Kronos Quartet. They also got a private show from Silver Apples the day before the festival began at the Joy of Music school, and a couple of special students got to display their incredible talents at the kick-off party on Friday. When speaking of these kids, Capps had to pause as he choked up a bit — it was easy to see he is just as passionate about seeing these kids succeed as he is putting together the best music festival possible. “Big Ears is a chance to dream, a chance to explore,” Capps said. He’s right. And for those with experimental tastes in music and adventurous ears, Big Ears is the best music festival in the country.

–Carson O’Shoney
Contributing Writer

Best Throwback Performance

Ryley Walker

ryley walker Big Ears 2015: The Best of the Festival

Photo by Rachel Wise

Friday, 8:00 p.m., Square Room

If Ryley Walker and his band revealed to the audience that they had just stepped out of a time machine from 1969, I don’t think anyone would have blinked. The 25-year-old Walker and his four-piece band both look and sound like they should be playing the original Woodstock, not Big Ears. But that’s not to say their sound is entirely ripped off — they manage to make it their own, largely thanks to Walker’s tremendous voice and impressive range. His charming stage banter also warmed him to the audience, from wishing his bandmate a “happy motherfucking birthday” to musing about spending time in jail with Terry Riley after telling the crowd to smoke with him later. The band was pitch perfect, extending their hippie psych-folk songs into lengthy jams, and ending the set with a long version of the title track to his new album, “Primrose Green”. Forget about the “pop-folk” revival (looking at you, Mumford and Edward Sharpe). This guy’s the real thing.

Most “Magical” Performance

Kronos Quartet & Wu Man play Terry Riley’s The Cusp of Magic

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Friday, 9:00 p.m., Tennessee Theatre

The Cusp of Magic is a later-career work for Terry Riley, released when he was already in his 70s, but it’s full of childlike wonder. Kronos Quartet and Wu Man — his collaborators on the project — brought that sense of wonder to the Tennessee Theatre for the opening night of Big Ears and performed the album in its full six movements. Seeing the legendary and always classy Kronos Quartet surrounded by children’s toys on stage was a strange juxtaposition, but it would all make sense as the show progressed. The third movement, “The Nursery”, uses all kinds of old toys and noisemakers to contribute to the feeling that the title conjures — rubber chickens, squeaky toys, stuffed animals, toy violins, See ‘n’ Say toys, etc. It’s rare to see an audience laugh at a classical music performance, but it was entirely appropriate while watching these world-class musicians play with toys. Couple that with the precise brilliance of each member of the quartet throughout the performance plus Wu Man pulling double duty with singing and playing pipa – it made for quite a magical performance.

Best Dance Party

Clark/Omar Souleyman

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Photo by Nick LeTellier

Friday/Saturday, 10:15 p.m./11:45 p.m., The Standard

This year’s Big Ears lineup was filled with experimental sounds, ranging from subtle ambiance to extreme noise, but sometimes even the most nuanced music listener just wants to dance. There weren’t many options to boogie down, but there were a couple that really got people moving late at night. Friday night saw Clark take the stage at the Standard, while Saturday brought Syria’s favorite wedding DJ to Knoxville — Omar Souleyman. While they have wildly different styles, they both put on crowd-pleasing performances to packed rooms. Clark put on a high energy set that weaved in and out of sections of songs from throughout his discography. From “Growl’s Garden” to “Unfurla”, he played all the crowd-pleasers with his outlined head from the cover of Clark providing a constant backdrop to the ever-changing landscapes on the big screen behind him. The venue provided the perfect club-like atmosphere: a chic event space with a perfect sound system and light show.

The next night, Omar Souleyman lit up that same room with the best Syrian techno party Knoxville has ever seen (one assumes). Omar came out dressed in his usual garb and pulled all his usual moves: pumping the crowd up with a simple wave of his hand, clapping along to the beats, and doing his rising voice “hhheeeeeeEEEYYYYYYYY!” chant. If you’ve seen him live before, you’ll know all his moves before they even happen, but it doesn’t even matter. It’s all about dancing along — and about his amazing keyboard player, Rizan Sa’id. Souleyman gets all the glory, but Sa’id is the secret MVP of his live shows. The speed and skill required to play their version of dabke music is mindblowing, and he makes it look like a breeze. The two of them combine to put on one of the more fun live shows you’ll ever see, which makes it nearly impossible not to dance like a maniac.

Creepiest Performance

Demdike Stare: Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages Re-Scored

Friday, 11:30 p.m., Bijou Theatre

Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, a Swedish film from 1922, is a creepy enough experience on its own. While the film is a documentary study on (you guessed it) witchcraft through the ages, it contains dramatized sequences that were so graphic for the 1920s that the film was banned in the US. The original score was lost, which left it ripe for interpretation. Many different artists have created new scores for the film over the years, but none were as perfect for the job as Demdike Stare. Named after a 17th-century witch, the duo also create the perfect music for a task like this: dark and minimal atmospheric drone/techno. Placed side stage in total darkness, they let the score — and the film — speak for itself. With few exceptions, the score fit perfectly  — minimal where it needed to be, overpowering when appropriate, and always unsettling. As I write this it’s only Saturday morning, but I’m fully confident there won’t be a creepier performance this weekend. Or maybe ever.

Best Homecoming

Holly Herndon/Silver Apples

Nick LeTellier_Holly Herndon

Photo by Nick LeTellier

Saturday, 5:45 p.m./7:00 p.m., The Standard

Two of Big Ears’ best electronic acts hail from the festival’s home state of Tennessee: Silver Apples and Holly Herndon. Both Silver Apples founder Simeon Coxe and his newest drummer Toby Dammit were born in Knoxville, while Herndon was born in Johnson City, just over an hour away. Neither are based anywhere near there now, but their shows still felt like a homecoming all the same. Before Herndon’s blazing set, she explained to the audience (via a text app on her computer) that it was a hometown show for her and her family was in the audience. She then calmly proceeded to perform possibly the most mind-bending set of the weekend, in both sound and sight. The music was jarring and disjointed; as soon as she found a groove, she would take a left turn, always keeping the audience on their heels.

At the beginning of the show, the visuals mirrored Herndon’s computer, on which she pulled up the Big Ears Facebook event page, scrolled through attendees, picked random profiles and displayed their pictures as the backdrop. It was a bit unsettling, especially when you saw your name scroll by and hoped she wouldn’t click it, but an interesting experiment. After that was over, the real visuals began — 3D computer animated rooms with objects that could be manipulated in real time by her sidekick on stage, with a live camera feed from the stage on the “wall” of the room with a pair of Big Ears posters on either side. It was wholly unique, and hard to explain in simple words, but it fit the music to a tee and created an atmosphere like no other.

Nick LeTellier_Holly Herndon 2

Photo by Nick LeTellier

Simeon Coxe was a hugely influential figure in early electronic music; without Silver Apples, half the bands at this year’s festival might not exist. So bringing him back to his place of birth for a show 77 years later marked a significant event for Big Ears. Joining him for the first time was fellow Knoxvillian and current Iggy Pop drummer Toby Dammit, who fit the live show as if he’d been part of the band for years. They were in a groove the whole show that elevated the already wonderful recorded music. The real highlight was Coxe, smiling and cheerful the entire show — in between playing hits like “Oscillations” and “Program”, he was playful with the audience. Watching him work with all his old electronic equipment was another treat; he had a camera set up to show his every movement on the big screen. Coxe even stuck around after the show to greet fans. He really seemed to be having just as good of a time as they were, which was a refreshing sight for someone in their late 70s.

Most Intense show

Ben Frost

Nick LeTellier_Ben Frost

Photo by Nick LeTellier

Saturday, 12:30 a.m., Bijou Theatre

I’ve become accustomed to ambient noise sets being performed by a single person on a laptop/electronic setup, a la Tim Hecker at last year’s festival. So imagine my surprise when I walk into the Bijou Theatre Saturday night to see two drums sets on either side of the electronics centerpiece, plus a guitar and a wall of amps. Ben Frost’s live show replicates the feeling of the title of his 2009 album By the Throat in every sense of the phrase. From the opening moments until the end of the show, the tremendous wall of noise grabs you and never lets you go. Frost’s guitar feedback cut through the noise like a knife, and the live drumming added a an element that is usually lacking from electronic noise shows. It was a raw and exhilarating performance. The sound was brutal yet somehow calming; the low end bass was so intense that it sent waves over my body and almost lulled me into an involuntary sleep, even though the noise was dissonant and loud and I wasn’t tired. Frost kept the tension high throughout, never settling on one sound too long, and throwing the audience for a loop by mixing in sounds you’d never expect, like terrifying wolf growls that made damn sure you were at the edge of your seat if you weren’t already.

Loudest Show

Swans

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Photo by Brock Caldwell

Sunday, 9:00 p.m., Bijou Theatre

Did you really think it would be anyone else? Sure, Ben Frost gave Michael Gira and co. a run for their money, but no one does loud like Swans. One of the few bands that necessitates ear plugs to be sold alongside their merchandise, they lived up to their reputation in the final show of the weekend. Taking over the intimate Bijou Theatre, the band stretched about six songs out over two hours — including To Be Kind highlights “A Little God In My Hands”, “Just a Little Boy”, and “Bring the Sun”. Every member of the band was on the top of their game, and each fascinating to watch. There’s Thor, shirtless as always in the back playing every instrument from chimes to trombone. Then there’s Gira, sulking around on stage like a madman, and timing his jumps and kicks to the next movement or ending of each song. The bass player and slide guitarist played their respective instruments as hard as they can possibly be played. It all came together to form a bone-tingling wall of noise, one that could not be contained by the walls of the theater.

Best Concept

Tyondai Braxton’s HIVE

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Photo by Scott Criss

Sunday, 1:30 p.m., The Standard

Throughout the weekend, to get to the main room of the Standard, you’d have to pass a smaller room with five alien-looking pods glowing green and purple. It was a curious sight, and there was almost always someone there investigating these foreign structures. Once a day for each of the three days of the festival, these pods were used to put on perhaps the most unique show on the lineup: Tyondai Braxton’s HIVE. The project, which began as an installation/performance at the Guggenheim Museum in NYC, features Braxton and four other musicians perched on top of these pod-like structures to perform music made with synthesizers, laptops, and percussion. Braxton and collaborator Ben Vida handled the analog synths, while the other three pods were occupied by drummers and percussionists. Those three percussionists gave the show a tribal feel, which were juxtaposed with the harsh electronics to make a wholly original sound to compliment the non-traditional performance style. Even though each performer was restricted to their own pod, it was still an exciting thing to watch as an audience. The light show kept the sci-fi feel alive, and watching each performer do so many things using only their upper body made the performance that much more impressive. A good concept is only as good as its execution, and Braxton and co. nailed them both.

Best Collaboration

Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet

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Photo by Brock Caldwell

Saturday, 7:00 p.m., Tennessee Theatre

Saturday night’s big collaboration between Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet, titled “Landfall”, was every bit as strange and wonderful as you would expect. Inspired by Hurricane Sandy, the collaboration featured Anderson speaking about everything from floods to stars to Dutch karaoke bars. It ranged from humorous (“please don’t tell me your dreams”) to surreal to profound, but always felt like she was just having a conversation with the audience. They laughed when appropriate, applauded when called for, and stayed perfectly quiet and respectful for the most part. The music combined Anderson’s electronics with Kronos’ traditional strings to create a beautiful sound that kept the whole piece together. Anderson mostly used her real voice, but turned on the vocoder to make her vocals deep and menacing for certain sections. The visuals were comprised of texts that were very much a part of the piece — in fact, they were triggered by the music itself via a special software developed specifically for this collaboration. It was the classiest show of the weekend, a culmination of the work of two legendary acts coming together as one.

Weekend MVPs

Kronos Quartet

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Photo by Brock Caldwell

It might be a bit obvious for the artist-in-residence of the festival to be the MVP, but Kronos Quartet went above and beyond all weekend. They played seven shows in total, in three different venues, with eight different collaborators over the course of three days. If you were at Big Ears and didn’t see Kronos, you have no one to blame but yourself. From their opening set with Wu Man at the Kick-Off Party to the final notes of the festival at their Nels Cline set, no one exuded the Big Ears spirit quite like Kronos. They proved to be as versatile as they are supremely talented, collaborating with legends like Terry Riley and Laurie Anderson to contemporary artists like Rhiannon Giddens and Bryce Dessner. Their sound fit each of their collaborators so well that it’s hard to go back to seeing one without the other. Each of their sets at Big Ears showcased their unparalleled timing and synchronicity with each other. They’re almost more machine than man at this point — such a well oiled machine that it’s easy to take for granted how perfect each note is. There’s a reason they’re one of the most prominent quartets in the world, and the perfect choice for artist-in-residence at this year’s Big Ears Festival.

Honorable Mentions

Most Underappreciated Set: Coupler

coupler Big Ears 2015: The Best of the Festival

Photo by Rachel Wise

The crowd was small, but the performance was outstanding. Fronted by Lambchop’s Ryan Norris, Coupler seamlessly moved from ambient drone to kraut-y electronic dance with ease.

Most Fabulous Performance: Perfume Genius

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Photo by Brock Caldwell

Dressed in fishnets and high heels, Perfume Genius, aka Mike Hadreas, commanded the huge stage at the Tennessee Theatre with his gyrating hips and long legs. His voice was pitch perfect as he played all the highlights from last year’s Too Bright.

Most Beautiful Performance: Max Richter performs The Blue Notebooks

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Photo by Craig Nowicki Barnes

With a string quintet and a Tilda Swinton stand-in along side him, Max Richter wowed the crowd from his piano with a live rendition of his gorgeous Blue Notebooks album.

Best Vocal Performance: Rhiannon Giddens w/ the Kronos Quartet

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Photo by Brock Caldwell

As part of their “Folk Songs” performance, Kronos Quartet brought Carolina Chocolate Drops singer Rhiannon Giddens to the stage for a handful of songs. After she performed an incredible Gaelic “vocal dance” song, the audience all but jumped out of their chairs to give her an immediate standing ovation.

Chillest Set: Loscil

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Photo by Brock Caldwell

Early in the afternoon on Saturday, Loscil invited his crowd at the Knoxville Museum of Art to sit or lay down on the floor as he proceeded to perform the best soundtrack to a nap ever.

Most Colorful Performance: tUnE-yArDs

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Photo by Kara Smarsh

Merrill Garbus and co. took over the Tennessee Theatre Saturday night to a bright pink background donned in bright colorful outfits and performed a super high-energy, tribal singalong with a receptive audience. “Gangsta” brought everyone to their feet and they didn’t sit back down.

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