2017 BIG EARS Saturday recap

by Matt Rankin and Rusty Odom

Gavin Bryers Ensemble • photos by Bill Foster

BIG EARS maintained it’s beautiful flow on Saturday, highlighted by unique performances and once in a lifetime collaborations. Here are some of our favorites of the day.



Gavin Bryars

Gavin Bryars performed in the United States of America for the first time in Knoxville, TN this weekend.  That’s quite a feat for any festival, but for BIG EARS, such an occurrence is not all that surprising.  I spent just under an hour thumbing through a hymnal at St. Johns Cathedral (pictured above) while listening to Bryars and company, which featured a rotation of brilliant musicians. Bryars spoke only when he had to, but did take the time to dedicate a song to festival producer Ashley Capps. The new song has a title I can’t claim to memory, but Bryars called it “A gift to Ashley,” which speaks to the rare connection between the person behind the scenes and the musicians performing. That sort of relationship is one that very few festivals can claim and part of what makes this festival so special. The song can be heard on Blank Newspaper’s Periscope page.     -Rusty Odom

Xylouris White

At the conclusion of Friday’s action, I met up with a group of friends, one of whom had just seen this band perform a secret show at the Pilot Light. To say that she highly recommended seeing their official set on Saturday afternoon would be a massive understatement. The endorsement proved to be far more than warranted when the duo of George Xylouris and Jim White launched into a propulsive, engrossing first track. The music built steadily until it reached a thrilling crescendo with drummer White switching the mallets he was so artfully twirling for sticks and Xylouris furiously strumming rhythms and leads on an electrified lute, They made it seem effortless for the duration of the set, but the musicianship was tight and exact throughout. This set marked the first time this year that I stayed for an entire performance in lieu of bouncing around to other shows, but for good reason; having attended each iteration of the festival, I’m not sure that I’ve seen a better, more moving display of artistry.   -Matt Rankin

Six Organs of Admittance

Patrons to the Standard were gifted a fine, full-band treatment of songs by the prodigious guitarist Ben Chasny. Culling from his more melodic material, the set found the group exploring beautiful harmonies over slightly freaky folk. The vocals absolutely sparkled in the venue, possibly for the first time with me in attendance to bear witness. With little in the way of alternative programming, the floor was packed with reverent listeners, many blissfully nodding along to the relaxing jams.   -MR

The Magnetic Fields

Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields • Bill Foster


The first show of two by Stephen Merritt and a gaggle of musicians was a gem of performance art that is better seen and heard than described. His latest album is a 50-track opus with every song chronicling a memory from each year in his life, and these split sets are a means of presenting half at a time. Interjecting his wry wit into setup commentary between some tracks, Merritt and company blew through the material with ease, even having time to pause for a long intermission in the middle. Lyrically personal in a manner unusual for the band, this collection was at points sad, joyful, funny and intriguing. A surprise visual component added to the fun and kept things fresh, and the stage setup was elaborately welcoming. Sunday’s conclusion should be another wonderfully entertaining dose of nostalgic reminiscence.    -MR

Yasmine Hamdam

I went into this show not knowing much about the Lebanese performer and her bandmates, but I left having been utterly blown away by the sheer force of the music in the best kind of revelatory experience that only Big Ears devotees know. While pockets of quiet beauty permeated some of the earlier tracks in the set, it erupted toward the end in a psychedelic onslaught that was simultaneously arresting and titillating. Fusing elements of R&B with electronica and straight-up rock, the talented crew married the disparate parts into an intoxicating, funky broth. The last punishing song saw the crowd congregated near the front explode into the closest thing resembling a mosh pit I’ve seen form at this festival.    -MR

Magnetic Fields • Bill Foster

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