A look back at Big Ears Festival, day two

by John Flannagan, Matt Rankin, Lee Zimmerman and Rusty Odom

Wu Fei • Bill Foster

Thus far, the 2017 installment of Big Ears has gone off without a hitch. There have been very few lines like last year and staff could not be more accommodating and friendly, even with a greatly increased security presence. Another beautiful part about this festival is the love that all the local establishments receive during these 4-5 days. Magnolia Records, which opened just in time for this festival, has drawn crowds in the past two days, much to co owner Paxton Seller’s amazement. “We hustled to get everything open in time, we couldn’t be more excited for this event.”   Other local establishments that have seen their fair share of extra business include Sweet P’s, Public House, Urban Bar and Sugar Mama’s, to name a few. Here’s hoping Big Ears remains an early spring ritual for many years to come and here’s what we dug on Friday, March 24th.             -John Flannagan


Matmos • Photo by Bill Foster


While I missed their daytime set, I did manager to sneak in a quick conversation with Drew Daniel, who is one half of the duo (the other being M.C. Schmidt).   Their set on this day was made with sounds out of a washing machine while performing composer Robert Ashley’s “Perfect Lives (Private Parts).” Daniels handled the electronic sounds while strings, flutes and vocalists accompanied the score. Currently on Thrill Jockey label, Daniels and company have worked with many of the artists performing at Big Ears this weekend including Anna Meredith. As we chatted over a beer during Michael Hurley’s set, Daniels marveled at the beauty of the Tennessee Theatre and had to catch a glimpse from the audience view point as he did not have a chance to take in the beauty or crowd during his earlier set.   He mentioned that their show attracted approxatemly 600 people and he was obviously still reeling from that experience, “Where else can we play a noon gig to 600 people, ” Daniels said in amazement, “this is what makes Big Ears so great, how receptive the audience is to experimentation.”             -JF


Wu Fei

Following a Big Ears preview show held at the Pilot Light in November, the guzheng master returned to Knoxville to perform a stately set at the equally elegant St. John’s Cathedral on Friday afternoon. Seated at the sanctuary and overlooking the nave, the musician delivered a sublime acoustic performance, unaided by any amplification, to a capacity crowd. This fact did prove problematic for attendees near the rear of the venue, as her gregarious between-song banter could not be heard by the many who were craning their necks to hear what was being said. However, her bright singing rang clear through the church on the handful of vocal turns she undertook. Overall, it was a spellbinding opportunity for deep listening, and it was as close as it gets to epitomizing the true Big Ears experience.   –Matt Rankin


Robyn Hitchcock • Bill Foster

Robyn Hitchcock

Most fans would agree that Robyn Hitchcock is an eccentric. Indeed, his random musings about life and general happenstance make both his music and his persona as charming as they are challenging. A wordsmith like no other, his wry observations find him both amusing and thoughtful all at the same time, the result of an unrestrained wit expressed on both stage and in song.

That inventive stance made him a perfect performer for Big Ears, a festival that courts artists that are decidedly out of the ordinary. Consequently, during his two Friday performances at the Standard, Hitchcock easily lived up to those expectations, fascinating fans and followers with songs from various intervals in his nearly 40 year career. Oddball favorites like “My Wife and My Dead Wife,” “Raymond Chandler Evening,” “Madonna of the Wasps,” and “I Want To Destroy You,” a song first sung with his seminal band the Soft Boys back in the day, surfaced during his sets, nether of which found any replication. Less familiar were the songs from his upcoming self-titled set, but the fact that his afternoon performance opened with three covers — Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom,” The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” and a relatively obscure song by the late Syd Barrett, the madcap founder of Pink Floyd — clearly suggested he was returning to his roots.

“Time seems to slow down as we get older, because we’ve been through so much of it already,” he remarked at one point, clearly referencing the older individuals in attendance, himself included. We could go one step beyond; time seems to stand still when Mr. Hitchcock is at the helm.             – Lee Zimmerman


Michael Hurley

Humor was the activity of choice last night as Michael Hurley picked up where Robyn Hitchcock left off earlier in the evening.   Hurley proved to be the perfect table setter for Wilco, playing in front of packed house at the Tennessee Theatre . Michael Hurley sang about Yeti’s, (actual bigfoot creatures not the popular cooler) and forgetting the salt. Hurley’s wasn’t billed as a comedy show, but there was plenty of humor coming from the stage with well crafted guitar playing and harmony mixed in. It was great to see him show off his raw talent to so many at this showcase and the only way to describe him was brilliant and funny.


Wilco crowd • Bill Foster


The members of Wilco decided to embrace their inner Big Ears experimentation but managed to do so without losing the “twang” which has endeared them to their fans for so many years. It was so refreshing to see a band reinvent itself without losing its identity. Having seen Wilco many times I thought about skipping the show, but so glad I went with my gut as this was a show for the ages. A 24-song marathon set with two encores left the crowd wanting more.             -JF



Tortoise proved to be a wonderful crescendo to my two days at Big Ears 2017. The jazz fusion (hi Wayne!) that I so desperately needed was displayed two songs into their set. Tortoise played with precision that was unmatched so far at Big Ears, ending their set with the fan favorite “Build Your Own Coffin.” They also threw in one of many political statements that have been heard throughout the festival, stating, “We need a woman president.” Truly a great fit for Big Ears and delight to see them pull off all their tricks live, no matter your political leanings.             -JF


Oliver Coates

After a very long day of mind-blowing music, film and art, Coates took to the Standard stage opposite jazz-fusion favorites Tortoise, who were performing at the Mill & Mine. The accomplished Brit more than held his own, though, looping striking cello parts over preprogrammed beats he simultaneously controlled via a laptop. The mixture was as stunning as it was danceable, and tired festivalgoers were given a noticeable boost by the groovy music. It was an excellent ending point for another incredible day of Big Ears.                        -MR

Wilco • Bill Foster

Keep up with us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook throughout the weekend but also check us out on Periscope, where we’ll be live streaming select moments from the festival. Find us by searching for @blanknewspaper

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