Big Ears Festival has become synonymous with world-class improvisational music and one-0ff collaborations between some of the most inventive artists in the world. It’s a weekend where the boundaries of conventional musical constructs are broken down, giving artists the freedom to experiment and expand their sound.
Now in it’s 6th year, Big Ears has solidified itself as a destination for the eclectic music listener, one that appreciates the subtle nuances of expertly-performed compositions as well as interpretive avant-garde music. The festival draws an audience that is just as interested in the headliner as they are the last name on the bill.
Taking place March 23-26, 2017, Big Ears collaborated with the city of Knoxville as much as any artist. The festival served as a platform to showcase the best of a city that was full of the energy that comes with one of the first beautiful weekends of Spring in the South. The city offers abundant choices of bars and breweries, an vibrant dining scene and no shortage of beautiful music venues and event halls all within walkable distance from one another for the festival to be held at.
Last year Live Nation purchased a majority stake in AC Entertainment, however Big Ears was not part of that acquisition as it is a registered 501(c) non-profit organization. This allows the group to continue to curate an event that highlights non-dance music not usually found on a festival stage.
This year’s music lineup was highlighted by Wilco, The Magnetic Fields, Tortoise, Matmos, Supersilent, Xiu Xiu, Deerhoof, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Blonde Redhead and many more. The bill also boasts unique film experiences such as Dave Harrington Group’s live improvisational score to No Country For Old Men alongside classic works of contemporary American and international films.
Big Ears Festival is redefining what a music festival can be through innovative programming that is just as improvisational and collaborative as the music itself. One has to think that some of the exclusive collaborations that have taken place here have spurred musical and other artistic side projects that otherwise would not have occurred.
Over the course of the festival weekend the Dead Audio Team were able to catch some amazing performances, here’s some of the best things we experienced at Big Ears 2017:
Jóhann Jóhannsson – Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson performed his 2015 composition Drone Mass. Jóhannsson was joined by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), Theatre of Voices, and conductor Donato Cabrera. Unlike many other drone-centric compositions, Drone Mass was contemplative, almost like a funeral dirge in an echo chamber complete with screeching violins, looping cellos and low, ominous synthesizer grumbles. Jóhannsson is also known for composing soundtracks for films such as The Theory of Everything and Arrival. Fun fact, the composition was inspired by an Egyptian hymn that was unearthed in 1945.
Wilco – Chicago rockers Wilco headlined the festival on Friday night, showcasing their collective talents before their individual performances throughout Saturday. The stage was elaborately decorated with fabric layers of trees and foliage. Several times throughout the show, the trees were lit with black lights, illuminating the branches, creating a skeleton effect on the trees, giving the show a dark, cemetery feel. The band played something off every studio album ranging from their most recent release, Schmilco, back to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s not uncommon for the audience to sit throughout a show at the Tennessee Theater at Big Ears. However, after a thunderous rendition of “Heavy Metal Drummer” Glenn Kotche (drums) stood on his seat, arms up, motioning for the crowd to get on their feet. From there, the audience was in full force. They played an extended show that included two encores.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – In a mesmerizing set, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith performed drone based pop melodies using her Buchla 100 synthesizer. Running her voice through a modulator added an eerie, human element to the otherwise pulsating electronic set. The backdrop for the set was flooded in an ever-changing rainbow kaleidoscope of color that sucked the listener in and paired perfectly with the morphing sounds coming from Smith’s instruments.
Jeff Tweedy meets Chikamorachi (Chris Corsano and Darin Gray) – Trading in his lyrics and a dozen guitars for a simple set up of a single guitar and effects, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy paired with Chikamorachi (Chris Corsano and Darin Gray) at the Mill & Mine early Saturday afternoon. Corsano provided percussion with wild, jazzy drumming and Gray kept an impeccible beat on the standup bass. The set was purely improvisational as the trio wavered between fuzzed-out, atmospheric guitar riffs and erratic scat jazz.
DJ/rupture – Performing one of the only “dance” sets over the weekend was DJ/rupture. Beginning slowly with pulsating beats, the artist’s set evolved into a full on party as he remixed artists such as Missy Elliot into his schizophrenic, hip-hop genre bending soundscapes.
Musica Elettronica Viva (Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum and Frederic Rzewski) – When was the last time you saw the entire crowd at a festival sitting around a grand piano and synthesizers? On Saturday afternoon at the Mill & Mine, you could find the audience entranced by the trio of Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum and Frederic Rzewski that form Musica Elettronica Viva. As light poured in from the Spring day, the crowd was quiet, relaxed, yet intently listening to every note, letting the classical music with an electronic element wash over them.
Cup (Nels Cline and Yuka C. Honda) – After melting faces on the main stage as lead guitarist for Wilco, Nels Cline collaborated with wife Yuka C. Honda to a standing-room-only crowd. With Cline on guitar with pedals, the duo lit up the room with a truly unique performance that showcased the one of the premier guitarists in the world as his most improvisational. Honda was the wild card, incorporating a laptop, creating beats in real time on a led-pulsating midi controller in one hand, and synth with the other.
The Magnetic Fields – Stephen Merrit, singer/songwriter of The Magnetic Fields, was the center of attention as the headlining act on Saturday evening at The Tennessee Theater. Sitting in a room with the fourth wall broken, he Merrit led the band through Part 1 of their “Fifty Song Memior.” With poignant, sometimes angsty lyrics, Merrit introduced each song, telling it’s story and who was playing what instrument behind him. Highlighted with intricate sets, costumes and often comical, tongue-in-cheek visuals, The Magnetic Fields set left the crowd anticipating the end half of the memoir, which would pick up where they left off on Sunday.
Theo Bleckmann Quintet – Part lounge singing, part classical music and jazz fusion, the Theo Bleckmann Quintet played an intimate set at the Bijou Theater. The band played their unique form of jazz highlighted by Bleckmann using voice modulator and loops throughout the set.
Tortoise – Instrumental post-rock pioneers Tortoise jammed at the Mill & Mine forgoing the typical guitar/drums/bass configuration that most bands of the genre incorporate. Introducing instruments such as xylophones and synthesizers, the band performed at times and easy-going jazzy set, and the next minute they were hard rock.
Michael Hurley – By far the most minimal sets at Big Ears, Michael Hurley let his guitar do the work for him. Opening for Wilco at the historic Tennessee Theater, Hurley’s figure was overshadowed by the headliner’s impressive stage design set up behind him, yet he captivated the audience by pairing folky, playful lyrics with the soft strum of his acoustic guitar.
Oliver Coates – Oliver Coates late night set at The Standard showcased Cellist’s dark, atmospheric sound created by running his instrument through synthesizers and pedals. As old school 64-bit graphics were projected on a screen behind him, the crowed was mesmerized by the artist that has been known to collaborate with top-tier acts such as Radiohead, Massive Attack and MF DOOM.
Deerhoof – Avant-garde experimental rock band Deerhoof closed out the Mill & Mine Saturday. Front woman Satomi Matsuzaki’s absurd lyrics rang out over the band’s inventive, unorthodox garage rock, spearheaded by Greg Saunier’s immaculate drumming.
Check out Dead Audio’s coverage of Big Ears 2016 where the festival collaborated with man, music and nature.