By John Flannagan, Matt Rankin, Rusty Odom
BIG EARS is back, this time with an extra day and the most densely packed scheduled of its beautiful history. Organized by Knoxville production company AC Entertainment (Bonnaroo, Forecastle, newly announced Highwater Festival), BIG EARS introduced Thursday as a thing, and if opening day attendance proved anything, it’s that this festival correctly anticipated the success of such a widening.
The 2017 festival has spread its wings in many ways, in fact. Readings of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Suttree,’ have been added to the list of things to do. This is important because it takes those looking to explore outside of the festival footprint and allows them to see a bit more of Knoxville. There’s also a poetry slam, hosted by local emcee Black Atticus, who appropriated christened the crowd at the kick off party at Mill & Mine just after quittin time.
If Thursday was a dress rehearsal, well, everyone looked the part and sounded even better. Here are some of our highlights from night one. Check back all weekend for more, including a film wrap-up.
Ahleuchastitas – The Standard 6:30pm
This Asheville, NC duo kicked off the music at The Standard in style by performing a jaw dropping set of what could only be described as experimental jazz prog (we’re looking at you, Wayne Bledsoe). Guitarist Shane Parish put on a clinic of technical guitar playing.
Parish hit soothing high notes while looping and layering chords over top, while drummer Ryan Oslance stole the show with his unique twist on percussion. Oslance played a heavy off time style switching cymbals and other percussion pieces during songs without missing a beat. He even used a chain that he brushed against the ride at times which, needless to say, added to what was already a unique sound. Ahluechastitas (pronounced Ah-lew-chas-titas) gained many new fans as they delighted the early crowd with their sound. -JF
Dave Harrington Group – Mill and Mine 7:30pm
Dave Harrington is the other half of the electronic duo Darkside with Nicholas Jaar, who performed the same venue at Big Ears last year. While Jaar stays to his electronic roots, Harrington couldn’t be more the opposite. Lining up as a 5 piece with Harrington on keys / synth and guitar, the group has a traditional setup with guitars, bass and drums. While this sound is steeped in jazz, the group uses quiet dynamics to get its point across which proved to make for a very mellow set. Harrington’s guitar work does shred through the electronic synths at times for a louder sound, but he maintained the softer dynamic throughout the set. Harrington group also would’ve impressed the jam heads as they had a unique twist on improvisational jam music. -JF
Michael Hurley – The Standard 9:00pm
Country folk singer Michael Hurley wowed a large crowd at the Standard with his playful set of acoustic ballads. Hurley’s voice has not shown signs of age or wear as he managed to hit high note after high note, allowing the listeners to be able to hear a pin drop at times during his set. While his lyrical content was dark at times, he somehow managed to throw in humorous quips to lighten the mood, which sometimes took the audience a seconds go get, resulting in delayed laughter. This was a nice build up to the later sets of the evening and a lovely addition to the bill. -JF
Anna Meredith – Mill and Mine 9:30pm
Scottish composer Anna Meredith quickly became my favorite set on day one, delighting the late evening crowd with her infectious sound and attitude. Meredith played keys, clarinet and guitar at times, but had a full cast behind her, which included cello, tuba, percussion and guitar with some of the more interesting effects work we’ve heard in some time. Together, the band took the crowded room at Mill and Mine on an epic adventure of build-ups and thunderous crescendos.
This performance was the bands last show on this its maiden US tour. As such, Meredith bantered with the crowd who were eating out of her palms the entire show, joking that while in America each member of the band “gained a stone each” in obvious reference to America’s culinary culture. Meredith had a lot of fun as did her band mates during this incredible set and it poured over into the audience as well. -JF
My Brightest Diamond – Bijou 10:15pm
Shara Worden’s back to BIG EARS with her beloved My Brightest Diamond for the first time since 2010 when they became the surprise highlight for many. With two accompanying gentlemen in tow, Worden’s voice soared through the historic Bijou, bringing smiles to the faces of those in the at-capacity crowd. At one point in the set, she chuckled at the idea that “Some reaaaaaaallllly radical people decided to do a realllllly radical festival and some reaaaallllyy radical fans decided to show up.” She was right. And everyone involved is pleased with the outcome.
Dakhabrakha – Standard 11:00pm
BIG EARS provides a different kind of reward than other festivals, though it’s no less fulfilling. The challenge of pushing yourself into areas of ignorance has a way of humbling you. And that’s good. But it’s not until something really catches your ear and makes you tap your foot…then you give in to BIG EARS. I ran in to a lot of folks that I hadn’t seen at Knoxville’s off-center festival in the past at Dakhabrakha, and by the end of the show, all had a greater understanding of what this festival is all about.
The Ukrainian quartet sprawled through several genres of music. While they’re labeled as a folk outfit, they can do it all. A trio of woman (Olena Tsybulska, Iryna Kovalenko and Nina Harenetska) took turns carrying the show while Marko Halanevych added vocals and played percussion of various sorts (including something that looked like a cup with a string on it, ala telephone game). One friend said in the crowd, “Well now I can say I’ve heard Ukrainian Folk Rap,” while another told me, “OK, I’m starting to get it now,” in regards to the festival. Everyone in the building had an experience they won’t soon forget and that’s what BIG EARS is all about. –Rusty Odom
Blonde Redhead with ACME – Mill and Mine 11:30pm
The most beautiful performance in a festival chalked full of such performances belonged to Blonde Redhead on Thursday. Backing by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) only added to the beauty while BR performed their landmark album “Misery is a Butterfly.”
As Blonde Redhead poured through the heavy hitters, Kazo Makino and the brothers Pace didn’t seem to miss a beat with ACME as they flashed smiles throughout their set. As if their sound hasn’t evolved enough over the years, adding the twist of ACME complimented their music so well it was if it was always meant to be and made for a truly inspiring performance.
Our Friday picks are Robyn Hitchcock, Gyan Riley, Meredith Monk, Yuki Numata Resnick and Tortoise.
Dig it? Check back tomorrow after 1p for another one of these. You can still purchase tix to BIG EARS here.