Big Ears a triumph for Knoxville and musicians alike • Recapping the last day of the 2018 festival and the weekend as a whole

Bang on a Can performs Michael Gordon’s “Big Space” • Photo by Bill Foster

By Wayne Bledsoe, Rusty Odom and Matt Rankin

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And just like that, Big Ears has come and gone once again.

It takes an enormous amount of work to put together a one-day festival, but the amount of coordination necessary for a world-class engagement like Big Ears, complete with four days of music, film programming, secret shows, artist chats, a 12-hour overnight event and a far-sprawling footprint within a city that continues to operate in relative normalcy (aside from hosting a full marathon at the same time) … well, that’s a whole different ballgame.

It went off without any major hitches, just like it always does, and Knoxville is left a little wiser musically –  but also with a little more pride within its borders. It’s impossible not to hear a compliment or five about the city from listeners and musicians here for the festivities, but the one I heard in passing while walking the north-side festival route sums it up best in terms of what Big Ears already has done for Knoxville and what it can do for it moving forward.

It was Sunday afternoon, and I was exhausted. As I made the trek from the Standard to the Mill & Mine, I crossed paths with an attendee who was leaving a show with great satisfaction and speaking to someone over the phone. “Yeah, it’s great,” he said. “You’re coming with me next year!”

I smiled as I rebundled a bit to shield myself from the breeze that hit me as I turned the corner. It gave me a much-needed boost and lightened my lumbering stroll. It just felt right. Thanks, Big Ears.

The festival route can be broken down into two relatively distinct parts. By the end of the weekend, some folks decided to stay on either the north or south sides of the festival. The aforementioned north consists of the Mill & Mine, the Standard and the participating venues in the Old City. The south side of the festival is home to the Tennessee and Bijou theaters, the churches, Market Square and its lone participating venue, the Square Room.

Like many experienced Big Ears festivalgoers, we stuck to this formula for stretches, separating assignments as best we could, but it’s also important for us to watch a show or two together as a newspaper family. What good is working a festival if you don’t take the opportunity to hang out with your friends? I’ve been to a lot of festivals now, starting with Bonnaroo in 2004. I guess I’ve probably hit about 70 of them in total, and with that comes a lot of band overlap. The reason I keep going is the people in the crowd. It’s the people you see once a year and the strangers who become friends. Festivals create an environment that you aren’t going to experience in everyday life. Everyone is on the same team for the most part, and people lower their swords with regard to their differences. Big Ears is a great festival in part because it brings that sentiment to people I call neighbors and lifelong friends who might not get to take part in that otherwise. Everyone should experience that aspect of it at least once. If you haven’t yet, luckily, you live in a town where you’ll have another opportunity, and soon.

I simply must bring my mom to Big Ears next year to hear some of these compositions. I say this at the conclusion of every one of these things, and then I forget to research what she might like. Maybe AC Entertainment can book Ludovico Einaudi or bring back Philip Glass. Anyhow, here are our thoughts from the final day of the 2018 edition of Big Ears. What a treat it will be when we’re celebrating Big Ears 2019 at the same time next year, in Knoxville, Tennessee. – Rusty Odom

Lucius • Photo by Bill Foster

Rostam

Rostam Batmanglij exemplified grace as he kicked off our Sunday coverage with an early-afternoon show at the Standard. Accompanied by a quartet and a drummer, the former Vampire Weekend member glided through measures of brilliance and tone, all the while maintaining one of the most straightforward performances of the weekend. He, along with Lucius (which performed later in the evening) are the artists on Sunday’s bill that you might hear on independent radio.

These kinds of artists are important for me when I attempt to explain Big Ears to folks that might not know about the likes of Keiji Haino or Sunn O))). I had to crawl before I walked with Big Ears, but over the past several years, I’ve grown to understand and enjoy some of the things I never thought I would listen to. It was the bands I was familiar with on those previous lineups that provided me a reference point from which to start to grow, and I’ve seen it happen with other people many times, as well.

Rostam also executed the only encore I saw on the weekend. As he walked offstage, the crowd wanted more, and they expressed that desire. After minimal hesitation and perhaps a drink of water backstage, back he came with a smile. This ensemble’s music fits in with a lot of genres, and it would surprise me if we don’t see Rostam climbing up festival posters in the years to come. It was a lovely and appropriate start to the final day of the festival. – RO

Rostam • Photo by Bill Foster

SUUNS

I confess to outright dismissing this Mon­treal band’s inclusion in Big Ears 2018 when the festival announced its lineup. I was not impressed by the handful of tracks I had heard to that point, as they sounded like retreads of songs by artists that I know and love. (I picked up on a fair amount of Clinic, Tame Impala and the Dandy Warhols in what I heard.) Perhaps I didn’t dive deeply enough into the band’s catalog, though; Secretly Canadian is a revered label that doesn’t sign just anyone. Or maybe SUUNS simply thrive in a live environment. Whatever the case may be, their early afternoon set at the Mill & Mine immediately struck a nerve, sucked me in and drew me close to the front for the duration of their time on stage.

Over the course of an hour, the band created droning, noise bases on which it slowly established melodic grooves. They then sustained these with layered guitar and electronics. The resulting swell was organized yet primal. Drummer Liam O’Neill was the visual embodiment of this contrast; his robotic precision on the kit was matched only by his endurance, and both were special to behold. The music as a whole came across as a futuristic, smarter version of stoner-rock. The last couple of songs lacked the urgency of those that came before them, but all-in-all it was an impressive showing. Also, although I shouldn’t have needed a reminder, it served as a lesson to never dismiss anything Big Ears has to offer; in my experience, the good always has vastly outweighed whatever hasn’t quite tickled my fancy. – Matt Rankin

SUUNS • Photo by Bill Foster

Abigail Washburn & Wu Fei

Wonderfully rewarding surprises lurked around every corner of the Bijou for the capacity crowd assembled there Sunday afternoon to witness a spellbinding collaboration between these friends and colleagues. Blending Appalachian and Chinese folk traditions, the pair wove beautiful, intricate tapestries with their instruments of choice (banjo for Washburn, guzheng for Fei) that sounded downright heavenly in the city’s best listening room.

Excitedly explaining the histories behind individual songs, joking with one another between takes and warmly embracing the opportunity to perform together, it was apparent that Washburn and Fei’s tight personal relationship influenced the quality and meticulousness of the music on display. The fact that language is no barrier for the pair enhanced this performance, as well; Fei is fluent in English, and the same is true for Washburn, who has been visiting China regularly since she was a teenager, with regard to Fei’s native tongue. This shared understanding showed especially in their duets, as they sharply matched one another’s vocal turns.

In one instance, Washburn and Fei fused popular folk songs hailing from their respective homelands into a singular work of art. Another moment saw them sing a cappella together, which allowed the audience to hear how each word was pronounced/enunciated perfectly and in tandem. And like she did while performing with husband Bela Fleck on Saturday, Washburn, pregnant at seven months, expertly clogged to finger-picked accompaniment by Fei. Everything combined made for a whirlwind experience that flew by too quickly. But for anyone like me who thought that the performance was all too fleeting, worry not: The duo promised that an album produced by Fleck will be released in the not-too-distant future – most likely at the start of 2019. – MR

Abigail Washburn & Wu Fei • Photo by Bill Foster

BANGS

Every year at Big Ears, there is one show for which I have no expectations that turns out to be amazing. I never know which one it will be, but this year, it was BANGS, the trio made up of pianist Jason Moran, cornetist Ron Miles and guitarist Mary Halverson, who performed at the Bijou on Sunday.

Initially, the mood of the music was atmospheric. But melodies appeared slowly, and when they did they were beautiful. It wasn’t apparent until later that the set was comprised of actual different songs that were performed with no breaks between. The tone was generally sweet, but Halverson sometimes sampled her guitar and fed it through some abrasive electronics. At another point, the musicians seemed to break apart into their own worlds before reconnecting with an almost ragtime feel. The final effect was surprisingly emotional, and when it was over, the act sold all of the albums the members had brought.

According to Moran, speaking between numbers, the act has been together for six years but has performed only four times, meaning that the audience in Knoxville was even luckier than they initially realized. – Wayne Bledsoe

Nief-Norf Performs Steve Reich’s “Quartet” (6:15 p.m.) • Bang on a Can (7 p.m.)

The Knoxville-based classical percussion group Nief-Norf is one of Knoxville’s most unlikely groups, and the band is sort of tailor-made for Big Ears. Led by University of Tennessee professor Andy Bliss, the group can swell to whatever size is needed for whatever project is at hand.

The group’s performance of Steve Reich’s “Quartet” acted as a perfect opener for what was to come. “Quartet” had the group playing two pianos and two vibraphones. Reich, a previous Big Ears artist-in-residence, writes repetitive music that builds slowly, often beautifully, and it was powerful when Nief-Norf delivered it.

The group expanded to more than two dozen members, many of whom were stationed around the audience when the group combined with the New York-founded experimental music group Bang On a Can to perform the work “Big Space.”

It was an immersive and strange experience. The sound the army of musicians created using all manner of percussion, piano, woodwinds and stringed instruments felt a little like being run over by freight train or being underneath a jet while it was taking off. It was not so much sound as it was a full-body experience. Everyone in the audience was, of course, hearing something slightly different, depending on what musicians they were seated near. Afterwards, Bang on a Can took over to perform “Big, Beautiful, Dark and Scary,” a title that was honest and appropriate. That was in contrast to a later performance of Philip Glass’ “Closing,” which showed that these musicians could also nail a delicate, pretty piece.

If other acts were surprising to fit into the Big Ears mold, this group celebrating more than 30 years as a unit was perfectly in line with expectations, and it was amazing. – WB

Neif-Norf Performs Steve Reich’s “Quartet” • Photo by Bill Foster

Lightning Bolt

The last show of Big Ears 2018 ensured that the festival would go out with a bang instead of with a whimper. Like Xiu Xiu last year, Lightning Bolt filled the spacious cavity of the Mill & Mine with shrieking, snaking guitar riffs and thundering, resonant percussion. How a two-piece can generate such a forceful wall of noise in general is mystifying; that this particular group continues to play at an ear-splitting volume and with such intensity two decades after its inception is stunning.

Using non-standard tuning and voice-modulation techniques, the duo fortified its sound to moving effect, pushing their instruments to their limits and their bodies past the point of exertion in the process. Without earplugs, braving the show from inside the venue put my hearing at risk. (Seriously, even far in the back, more than 50 yards away from the dual speaker stacks, it was deafeningly loud.)

As a result, I spent most of the show seated in the patio area outside, listening to the jarring rhythms and jagged refrains rattle the external windows. I wasn’t alone in preferring a more subdued listening experience, though. Several attendees streamed through the exit door on that side, not quite ready for the wonderful weekend to be over yet wanting to preserve their hearing for future iterations of the cutting-edge festival. – MR

Bang on a Can’s Mark Stewart responds to the first notes from the performers on the balcony • Photo by Bill Foster
Mark Stewart’s view from the stage • Photo by Bill Foster

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