2017 Big Ears Festival Guide

John Flannagan, Matt Rankin and Lee Zimmerman

By now, if you live in Knoxville, you’ve probably heard of BIG EARS, even if you’ve never taken the plunge. It can be intimidating to the casual music fan, but it might just be the most rewarding festival on the map. If you’re looking to dip a toe in to the mix this year or dive right in, here’s a little look in to what you can expect.

Ahleuchatistas

Adroit technical ability, a penchant for the dramatic and an ear for tuneful melody allow the Asheville-based duo of Shane Parish and Ryan Oslance to create a product much more expansive and propulsive than what might be expected from just two musicians. Drawing from a variety of genres, they fuse elements of noise, psychedelic, math and garage rock into long, frequently beautiful instrumentals. Time signatures can change at multiple points during the same track, but the transitions always feel organic. The band will be on hand early Thursday evening at the Standard to provide the proceedings with a much needed jolt of energy as they are just starting. (Parish will deliver a solo acoustic performance of his critically praised Appalachian freak folk at high noon the next day at the same venue.) – Matt Rankin

Maya Beiser

Last year’s solo performance by the American cellist saw general admission crowds waiting upwards of an hour to be admitted entry into the Bijou Theatre, but the wait to glimpse the performer’s brilliance proved vastly worthwhile. With a set that included both live accompaniment to prerecorded pieces for Steve Reich’s “Cello Counterpoint” and compelling covers of Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” and Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” Beiser displayed a virtuosic and effortless ability to veer between classic and modern fare. She is a striking presence on stage, and this year’s early Friday afternoon set at the Mill & Mine affords attendees more spacious environs in which to witness the dynamism. However, anyone hoping to catch her collaboration with Glenn Kotche and Gyan Riley on Saturday at the aforementioned Bijou had better arrive early. – MR

Blonde Redhead

Performing their 2004 fan favorite Misery is a Butterfly in full at this year’s installment of Big Ears, Blonde Redhead looks to push the boundaries of shoegaze rock by performing with American Contemporary Music Ensemble.  With a career spanning more than twenty years, Blonde Redhead has never stopped evolving.  While it’s hard to nail down their sound, think of it as somewhere in between Stereolab and Pavement, always veering somewhere in between experimental and commercially viable. The band released a box set late last year titled Masulin Feminin, which focuses on their first two releases along with rarities and a live KCRW session. Their Big Ears tour stop late night at the Mill & Mine on opening night should be one of the festival highlights. – John Flannagan

Oliver Coates

Straddling the line between radical experimentalism and pop accessibility is this Englishman’s forte. Having contributed to Jonny Greenwood’s eerie, stark and distinctive soundtracks for “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master,” Coates later collaborated with Greenwood on Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool. Work on tracks by MF DOOM and Massive Attack offer further proof of his artistic range. Equally comfortable performing a Boards of Canada cover as he is an obscure classical composition, Coates will be flexing his considerable musical muscle twice in Knoxville: first late Friday night/early Saturday morning at the Standard and then Sunday afternoon at the Mill & Mine. I would expect each set to vary widely from one another. – MR

Deerhoof

Everything about these San Francisco experimental rockers is unique; take, for instance, the recording of their last album, The Magic. Recorded in an abandoned office space in the middle of the New Mexico desert, the four piece simply set up shop and began playing loudly, recording a 15-song masterpiece in just under seven days. It’s a raw effort with elements of hair metal and R&B with dashes of punk and pop mixed in. For more than twenty years, this recipe has worked for Deerhoof, a group that is never afraid to think outside of the box. While many members have come and gone, bassist Satomi Matsuzaki and drummer Greg Saunier have remained the constants and the basis for their continued sound. The Mill & Mine will be the place to be to see them late Saturday night/early Sunday morning. – JF

DJ /rupture

This Big Ears alum is much more of a renaissance man than his namesake might suggest. Although certainly an excellent spinner of records, Jace Clayton is an accomplished author and radio host, as well. What will be on display in Knoxville, however, is his uncanny ability to weave gems accrued from years of relentless crate digging with found sounds and homegrown beats into compelling sonic collages. The result is more IDM than EDM, but expect more than a few folks to be breaking it down at the Standard late Saturday night. – MR

Jeremy Gara

With 2016’s Limn, drummer Jeremy Gara released his first solo album, an ambient noise collection that’s a far cry from his day job in the more conventional Arcade Fire. Playing multiple sets at Big Ears, including one with Colin Stetson, Gara will also be performing solo Sunday evening at the Mill & Mine.  Last year, the ever-so-busy Gara filled in for Fred Armisen on Seth Meyers’ late-night NBC telecast in between dates with Arcade Fire. In addition to being a fine percussionist, Gara dabbles in guitar and synths, as well.  And as if that wasn’t enough, Gara created all of the artwork for Limn on his own. It’s refreshing to see artists branch off from their regular positions to create work they are passionate about in different mediums while collaborating with other artists in the process. Try to catch him as much as possible over the course of Big Ears this year. – JF

Magnetic Fields

Although Magnetic Fields never stray too terribly far from their basic pop precepts, that doesn’t mean they lack creativity or credence. A remarkably prolific songwriter, frontman Stephen Merritt manages to inject a tirelessly progressive posture into each of his outfit’s efforts. While Merritt’s unbounded energy has found him working on several side projects over the years, he raised the bar with Magnetic Fields via 1999’s expanded trilogy, 69 Love Songs, an album that featured a varied instrumental lineup and his most ambitious musings to date.

Several compelling albums have followed since – i (2004), Distortion (2008), Realism (2010) and their most recent, Love at the Bottom of the Sea (2012) – and each experimental in its own way in their use of varied instrumentation, noise and synths. Merritt himself is known to turn a twist with his pop profundity, writing lyrics that vary from witty and wry to dark and disarming. The band’s latest project, “50 Song Memoir,” was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music and finds Merritt replaying songs from each of his 50 years of living on planet Earth, dividing them into two sets of 25 songs each. In that way, Magnetic Fields should find an effective mix of roots and relevance. The Big Ears performance of the song suite will be divided into two parts, both taking place at the Tennessee Theatre. The first part will take place on Saturday afternoon, the second on Sunday afternoon. – Lee Zimmerman

Matmos

Perhaps best known for contributing to some of Björk’s most seminal work in the early aughts, this experimental American act nevertheless have forged a stunningly creative path for themselves in their own right and have produced consistently excellent electronic material in their two decades together. For their Friday performance at the Bijou, they will be taking on Robert Ashley’s iconic Private Parts. It’s the perfect vehicle to showcase the duo’s painstaking attention to detail and insular aesthetic. You’ll not want to miss it, especially if you have yet to hear the album in question. – MR

Rangda

Justifiably extolled for their respective solo catalogs, Sir Richard Bishop and Ben Chasny formed Rangda in the first part of this decade with drummer Chris Corsano – himself a celebrated performer with an exhaustive resume. As impressive of a supergroup as can be found in indie circles, the power trio excels in extended, largely improvisational jams. However, they also have the ability to knock out more conventional, three-minute rockers, and they are known to do so with frenetic, reckless abandon. The avant-psych goodness will go down at the Mill & Mine early on Sunday evening. – MR

Laetitia Sadier

As a founding member of the seminal, psychedelic, indie-pop duo Stereolab, Sadier has gained notoriety over the years as much for her unique voice as for her virtuosic multi-instrumentation. Sadier’s willingness to push the boundaries of electronic pop music has drawn interest from musicians across several genres of rock and pop. As a result, she’s worked with such varied artists as Atlas Sound, Tyler the Creator and Mouse on Mars. Since having split with Stereolab, Sadier has released three solo albums to date. Her most recent effort, “Something Shines,” was released to critical acclaim in 2014.  That album witnessed her showing off her chops by playing guitar, keyboards and percussion along with showcasing her considerable writing and singing talents. Knoxville is in for a real treat when she hits the stage Friday night at The Standard for a one-of-a-kind intimate performance. – JF

Six Organs of Admittance

Expert guitar work, inventive percussion and an obvious appreciation of world music imbued Ben Chasny’s solo vehicle with loads of charm when it debuted in 1998. Embracing a lo-fi aesthetic, his early recorded material was immediate and intimate, drawing in listeners with droning acoustic jams that sounded as if they were being performed live by campfire in the Arabian Desert. Recent years, however, have seen Chasny experiment with electric guitar and shock long-time fans with epic, white-hot freakouts in the vein of Big Ears vets Keiji Haino and Stephen O’Malley. His most recent album, Burning the Threshold, is a marked return to much more idyllic fare, though, so I’m curious to see what his Saturday afternoon show at the Standard will entail. – MR

Colin Stetson

With a new album – one that features the absolutely breathtaking “Spindrift” – looming, it is almost a crying shame that, barring an unforeseen/unannounced additional set, Stetson won’t be performing any of his own material this go-round in Knoxville. The good news, however, is that he has compiled an all-star cast featuring several indie heavyweights to cover the emotionally resonant “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” by the modern classical Polish composer Henyrk Gorecki. It is about as gorgeous of a movement that has been penned, and even a strict rendition of the operatic score should result in a bucketful of tears shed by audience members. The Mill & Mine will play host to this one-of-a-kind performance on Saturday evening. – MR

Tortoise

Tortoise bring their dark, progressive, jazz fusion to Big Ears this year, and the only question I have is why it has taken so long. Tortoise are an experimental band who’ve been doing their thing for over 25 years. They’re also a band that fits like a hand in glove to our city’s famed festival. A catalog comprising mostly of instrumentals, Tortoise were one of the first modern post-pop bands to incorporate and fuse minimalistic jazz music with experimental rock. All of these elements make them a no-brainer for Big Ears and makes their set a definite can’t miss of this year’s Big Ears. Check them out late Friday night at the Mill & Mine. – JF

Wilco

If Wilco had done nothing more than continue the trajectory its leader Jeff Tweedy had begun with the pioneering alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, they would still be assured of well-deserved immortality. After all, Uncle Tupelo had been credited with helping to jumpstart today’s Americana movement, and with its downcast perspective and insurgent attitude, it certainly defined a sound that’s influenced scores of bands, singers and songwriters ever since.

Early on, Wilco continued to follow up on that approach, but with the dawn of the new millennium, they abruptly changed their tack, expanding their parameters into more experimental realms, which now finds them securely placed in the top tier of today’s most adventurous indie auteurs.

The band initially went through a rapid series of personnel changes, but for the last dozen years or so the lineup has remained mostly unchanged, consisting of Tweedy on vocals and guitar, guitarist Nels Cline, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen and drummer Glenn Kotche. (Kotche is an alternative artist in his own right who, like Tweedy, will play a solo performance at Big Ears).

Outside projects with Billy Bragg and The Minus 5 have expanded Wilco’s palette, but it was their seminal effort Yankee Foxtrot Hotel in 2002 that forever defined their alternative stance once their former label, Reprise, refused to release it and failed to renew their contract. After giving away a free download of their 2015 album Star Wars from their website, they followed up late last year with Schmilco, a belated return to the high, lonesome, roots-rock sound that effectively launched them early on. Given the band’s adaptability, it will be interesting to see if their Friday night set at the Tennessee Theatre will deviate from normal and into more experimental fare for which Big Ears is known and lauded. – LZ

Xiu Xiu

Jamie Stewart’s output with a rotating cast of characters has mellowed considerably over the years, especially in comparison to the abrasive, anarchic Knife Play days. The music still teems with danger; it’s just that the grating mechanical groans and shoutdowns have given way to more subtle, creeping menace and slinky dance rhythms. The maturation process has served the music well, but the lyricism remains suggestive at best, horrifying at worst. But it is just the kind of avant-garde project that Big Ears devotees respect and attend in droves. And the band will oblige, playing two sets over the weekend. The first, Saturday evening at the Bijou Theatre, sees them performing their versions of songs from the cult David Lynch show “Twin Peaks.” The second is a regular-for-them show that will close this iteration of the festival on Sunday night at the Mill & Mine. It should be a nice industrial romp that will send it out with a bang instead of a whimper. – MR

Big Ears Venue Spotlight:  The Mill & Mine

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