By Nathan Smith
Two weeks ago, a landmark event occurred in Knoxville, TN: the Big Ears festival. A festival which could probably be pitched as a festival for people who don’t normally like festivals, Big Ears brought together the old (John Cale, Television, Steve Reich) and new (Nils Frahm, Son Lux, Julia Holter) in experimental music for an altogether singular experience. Although not without some problems, Big Ears is a tremendous step forward for a city known (musically) mostly for hillbilly pickin’. AC Entertainment, most well-known for its organization of festivals like Bonnaroo, Forecastle, and Mountain Oasis, seems to have saved its most unique and maybe most important festival for its native city. Over the next few days we’ll be rolling out our much-delayed coverage of the festival, so clean out those big ears and get ready.
Editor’s Note: My apologies for the blurry pictures. It seems like everyone else gets better shots on their iPhones than I do.
Friday, March 28th:
- So Percussion with Glenn Kotche and Buke & Gase
A solid start to the weekend. I managed to see quite a few of So Percussion’s performances throughout the festival, leaving me with no doubt that they are excellent musicians who take their craft very seriously. But So Percussion kicked off Friday night’s show with a little humor, incorporating field recordings and disposable cameras into the performance before a blast of their full percussive power. I only caught a moment of the Buke & Gase show, but I’m intrigued enough to check out their work.
- Dean Wareham
Probably my favorite performance of Friday night. Although a fan of Galaxie 500, I was almost completely unfamiliar with Wareham’s solo work before his show. Additionally, I felt a little unsure as to whether I’d stay for the whole thing. Despite being in the 1500-plus seat Tennessee Theatre, Wareham embued songs like “Holding Pattern” with an intimacy and quiet majesty most performers could only achieve in a much smaller venue. I’m not sure how many musicians could make a song about Monday Night Football transcendent and deeply moving, but Wareham did, and it blew me away.
- Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog
I hadn’t planned on seeing this, but I’m glad I did. The house was absolutely packed for Colin Stetson’s show, so I headed for the jazz/funk/metal trio headed by Ribot, who I only later found out has been a long-time collaborator with one of my favorite musicians, Tom Waits. Although I didn’t quite feel Ribot’s occasional shouted lyrics, I dug how easily the group could transition between genres. The music started off heavy when I walked in, but soon loosened up into something more atmospheric, before a transformation into rock and yet another into jazz, with a performance of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” I don’t know if I’d enjoy it as much in recorded form, because these guys were a marvel to see live.
The new noise project of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon was interesting to see, if mostly because of Kim Gordon. Not to say that the duo (which also consists of guitarist Bill Nace) wasn’t good; the two have a remarkable talent for playing off of one another. But Body/Head definitely wasn’t the best improvisation I saw over the weekend. I had been warned before that it’s the kind of thing that wears on you after about twenty minutes and coincidentally, I only ended up staying about that long (but also because things at the Bijou were running slow for almost the entire festival and I had to rush to John Cale). It’s an intriguing project, with slow but beautiful visual accompaniment, and Gordon has a powerful stage presence. But after awhile, it just started to feel like navel-gazing.
- John Cale
In preparation for Big Ears, I listened to last year’s Marc Maron interview with John Cale. In the interview, Cale touched upon the influence of “Dirty South” hip-hop on his most recent work. I’m fairly unfamiliar with Cale’s solo work (outside of his production for artists like Patti Smith and The Modern Lovers), but this made his performance one of my most anticipated at Big Ears. I don’t think anyone else picked up on it, but I can see what Cale meant when he talked about Dirty South, what with his show’s pre-programmed backbeats and all. Cale’s set might have dragged on a little too long and given too much time to weird re-interpretations of classic songs, but it touched on a wide variety of emotions that definitely cements Cale’s place in the canon. As I’ll touch on later, Lou Reed’s presence seemed to hang over much of the festival, so John Cale’s performance felt fittingly poignant.
- Tim Hecker
(no picture because it was wayyyy too dark to see anything)
I feel asleep during Tim Hecker; not because I didn’t like it, but because I had to. With hardly any opportunities to let loose, Big Ears wore me out by the end of each day and Hecker’s surprisingly bass-heavy drone created the perfect atmosphere for a much-needed nap. I might sound a little facetious in saying so, but I’m being sincere- few artists can soundtrack sleep as well as Mr. Hecker. That’s probably one of the truest compliment anyone could ever give. Afterwards, I caught a little bit of local synth-rock band Yung Life at Hello City, one of two local alternatives to Big Ears that weekend, which had me feeling tired again, but after Hecker, I woke up refreshed and ready for day two.