Big Ears: The Precise and Playful
Now in its seventh year, Big Ears Festival is a masterclass in how to make the avant-garde and experimental warm and welcoming. From the performers to the patrons, downtown Knoxville, TN was electric with enthusiasm over the entire four days of the festival.
The lineup paid big dividends to music lovers who are not stringently bound to genre affiliation. Most of the performers covered sonic ground beyond their prescribed subsets. But to be broad, the adventurous attendee could take in music rooted in rock, classical, and jazz traditions.
One of the acts who kicked off the festival was Ahleuchatistas. The Asheville, NC based math rock duo of guitarist Shane Parish and drummer Ryan Oslance had a packed audience, and they filled every bit of available air in the room with sound. At once precise and improvisatory, the band’s dizzying use of effects and loops was aided by the nearly psychic link between the players. For his part, Oslance attacked the drums with clinical vigor, while still remaining grounded and connected to “the moment.”
Guitarist Shane Parish would turn up again, the very next morning in fact, for an acoustic solo set. He played songs from his Tzadik Records release “Undertaker Please Drive Slow.” His re-imaginings of traditional song incorporated far-flung techniques, exhibiting classical fluidity, alongside a Derek Bailey-grade knack for racketous free-form.
If guitar was your thing (which it is for Pedal Fuzz, certainly), there was much to choose from in the solo guitar realm. Sir Richard Bishop blessed St. John’s Cathedral with widescreen ragas and spaghetti-western tinged runs, his hollowbody 1961 Gibson ES-330 guitar and responsive amp making good use of the room’s acoustics.
Gyan Riley, son of minimalist composer Terry Riley, is a graceful and intricate player. His contemporary classical take on the guitar was delivered flawlessly. His between song banter about the brevity of his song titles, and whether he saw a marmet scurrying through the Knoxville streets forged a humorous connection with the audience.
Leading the pack of non-traditional composers at the festival was Anna Meredith. She performed with a band consisting of guitar, cello, drums, and tuba. Meredith played keys, mallets, auxiliary percussion, and clarinet as she led her band through much of her 2016 album “Varmints.” Her compositions unravel through repetition and a seemingly limitless use of dynamic range. Whatever lies beyond the nth degree, that is the space that the peaks of her music occupies. Her Big Ears show was the last of a whirlwind first US tour, and in a conversation with Pedal Fuzz, she said she was “gobsmacked at the amount of great music” at the festival. While much of her music is instrumental, some songs were aided by vocals that had the major key psychedelic appeal of a tooth-achingly sweet Elephant 6 song.
Cellist Oliver Coates, who recently collaborated with Mica Levi and Radiohead, played two shows at Big Ears. During his mid-day set, his humble appearance and thoughtful comments on the pieces he performed juxtaposed with the intensity at which he bowed his cello. The darkly-shredding “Music for Losers” by Andrew Hamilton was a set highlight. The subtitle of the piece is “Rage, Rage Against the Dying Light.” It is a personal piece to the composer, one that is seldom performed, and Coates’ played its US debut.
Walking from venue to venue, concert-goers and performers moved as one. You could see eager fans having conversations and taking pictures with visiting artists throughout the weekend. Many of the lineup had their own “must-sees,” and dashed down city streets eager to make a show.
One of those music making music lovers is Nels Cline. He played three times at Big Ears: with Wilco, Dustan Louque, and with wife Yuka C. Honda, as the band Cup. After night one with Wilco, where his guitar solo during “Impossible Germany” brought most in the Tennessee Theatre to their feet in rapturous appreciation, he made sure to carve out time the next day to catch electro-acoustic legends Musica Elettronica Viva. It must have inspired him, cause during his set in Cup, he used his formidable technique and a mountain of pedals to wring every ounce of sound he could out of his Fender Jazzmaster. From ambient swells, to dark jazz-rock moments, to sheets of noise, and even a few songs (surprisingly) with vocals from Nels himself. Afterwards he caught a 12:30 am set from Deerhoof, a band he is a big fan and friend of.
Film was an important element of the festival this year as well. Retrospectives of filmmakers Jonathan Demme and Jem Cohen offered festival goers a chance to sit back and take the occasional musical rest. But if you went to the screening of Instrument, the Fugazi documentary by Cohen and Fugazi, you’d still have the feeling of being at show, though a few decades ago.
At a post screening Q&A, Guy Picciotto (Fugazi guitarist, singer) was present. He was asked to reflect on his experience, and to compare the music & corporate sphere of today with that of the 90s. He replied “I miss it profoundly. I’d give anything to be back in that moment.”
Two other notable film/music moments came courtesy of Xiu Xiu and Dave Harrington Group. As Xiu Xiu (who played twice) played their intense interpretations of the music of Twin Peaks, iconic interiors and natural scenery from the show flickered behind them. Dave Harrington and his nimble ensemble supplied a new semi-improvised score to the score-less Coen Brothers classic No Country For Old Men. The midnight screening gave the film a new guitar driven momentum. Themes emerged for characters that carved Morricone-esque widescreen sonic terrain.
During introductory remarks made by Mayor Madeline Rogero (in which she made Captain Beefheart references to the delight of festival organizer Ashley Capp), she pointed out her favorite thing about Big Ears. You can walk into a venue, not knowing what you’re about to see, and after listening deeply, you come out with ears much bigger than you had before. After four days of inspiring film and performance, this sentiment seems accurate, and one can only imagine what’s in store for Big Ears 2018.