By Wayne Bledsoe, Katie Cauthen, Jennifer Duncan-Rankin, John Flannagan, Rusty Odom and Matt Rankin
There are at least two ways to enjoy the Big Ears Festival. One is by sampling everything like a buffet: You take in a little of this show, a little of that show, you get a taste of everything and maybe, if you’re not too full or exhausted, you’ll go back for more of what you liked best. It’s likely that you’ll experience a little of this without really trying. Shows you want to see often overlap, making you leave one performance to catch another, inevitably missing some of both.
The more challenging and more satisfying route, though, is to take shows in like a full meal. You settle in and savor the shows, letting the artists serve you with their art in the way it was meant to be presented, from the appetizers down to the dessert.
By the third day of Big Ears 2018, audiences had plenty of opportunities to take both routes and even go back for seconds of the acts they liked best – if they knew where to go. Secret shows and unannounced appearances, generally occurring in places where audiences do not need a weekend or daily pass to get in, have helped make Big Ears 2018 particularly special. – Wayne Bledsoe
Rhiannon Giddens • Keynote address
Given the Appalachian component of this year’s festival, who better was there to talk about the complex history of a region that often is misunderstood and maligned than the Grammy-winning, multiethnic, multilingual MacArthur fellow who has extensively studied its music and culture? In what came across as an engaging lecture rather than a formal speech, Giddens spent the hour discussing what constitutes Appalachian music, how it formed and in what ways it has evolved before providing a detailed rundown of instruments commonly associated with the genre.
Giddens asserted that Appalachian music is, in fact, world music in that many of those instruments made their way into the area via slave ships from Africa. Over time, they were incorporated into the cultural identity of the region along with those introduced by immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, Germany and other places. Giddens provided a demonstration of how to play each, with Bela Fleck, Abigail Washburn and Brooklyn River lending additional support.
Heart-wrenching yet beautiful, each song that was performed widened the borders of Appalachia a little bit at a time, exposing its complicated underbelly to everyone in attendance at the Tennessee Theatre and helping to establish common ground between them and the inhabitants of this area. This theme of relatability is central to the festival as a whole; Big Ears seeks to shatter preconceived notions while opening minds and fostering appreciation of new ideas. This event accomplished all three and served as a perfect microcosm of the weekend. – Jennifer Duncan Rankin and Matt Rankin
Free programming presented by Visit Knoxville • Multiple events at Knoxville Visitors Center/WDVX
Big Ears programming at Visit Knoxville started at 10 on Saturday morning. WDVX’s “Kidstuff Live,” in collaboration with “Big Ears for Little Ears,” presented Billy Martin’s “Stridulations” for the Good Luck Feast, a rhythmic game piece for kids. Martin (Medeski Martin & Wood) performed to a packed house of nearly 200 people, including more than 70 children, using bamboo cut from his own backyard as percussion tools for the audience.
Noontime brought the WDVX “Blue Plate Special” live radio show, which featured a solo performance by Steve Gunn. He played to a full room of Big Ears festivalgoers and “Blue Plate” regulars alike, as all programming at the Visitors Center is open to the public this weekend. The audience hung on every note of Gunn’s performance and listened intently as he described his Big Ears experience thus far, noting specifically Milford Graves’ Friday performance at the Bijou as a highlight.
In yet another unique Big Ears moment on Saturday afternoon, Ben Shemie of SUUNS performed his piece “Music for 2 Radios” for the fourth time ever (and the first time in the United States) at Visit Knoxville. This 15-minute, prerecorded version of the piece was created specifically for Big Ears, only to be performed in Knoxville, never to be rebroadcasted or released. Taking over the airwaves of local radio stations WDVX and WUTK, “Music for 2 Radios” was a simulcast, with half of the piece airing on WDVX and the other on WUTK. Listeners needed two radios – one set to one station, the second to the other – in order to hear the full experience. Shemie conducted the simulcast live from WDVX’s studio inside the Visitors Center while maintaining communication with staff at WUTK. He himself was armed with two handheld FM radios. There were radios set up on the WDVX “Blue Plate Special” stage and around the Visitors Center. “Music for 2 Radios” aired once at 2 p.m., and again at 2:30, which admittedly left some listeners confused if they were not aware of the Big Ears happenings on their radio dials. The piece was experimental, and at times you could only hear a person breathing on one of the stations, if you were not tuned into both.
In an interview on WDVX following the performance, Shemie said the project was inspired by the moment you pull up to a stoplight and can hear the music playing through the radio of the vehicle that is stopped next to you. The idea that if it happened to be a popular song at that moment in time, it is possible that the same song could be playing on two different stations at the same time. Shemie liked the idea of two radio frequencies interacting with each other in a way that is unique to a specific community and able to be heard only in the broadcast area of those two radio stations – in this case the area in which WDVX and WUTK’s broadcasts overlap. – Katie Cauthen
Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn
The keynote address delivered by Rhiannon Giddens transitioned smoothly and seamlessly into this charming set from the banjo-playing husband-and-wife duo. Channeling the love created by their shared bond, they delivered an intimate, joyful and masterful performance. Tightly in lockstep together musically, Fleck’s ebbs complemented Washburn’s flows and vice versa. Touching in song, the pair’s banter in between tunes was equally engaging. Lighthearted ribbing and back-and-forth storytelling infused the show with a fun comedic element that supplemented the more serious lyrical tone.
Feeling emotionally compromised after hearing some rather tragic news earlier in the day, the pensive, poignant “If I Could Talk to a Younger Me” was particularly striking. Its graceful and plaintive rendering resulted in the waterworks being released, and they continued to gush until halfway through the walk from the Tennessee to the Pilot Light to see Algiers’ secret show. – MR
The official set by the dynamic, genre-defying Atlanta band was so uncomfortably crowded at the Standard on Friday afternoon that intense claustrophobia precipitated my premature exit from the venue. (In retrospect, festival organizers probably underestimated the group’s appeal; the Mill & Mine would have been a better fit for the number of people who had crammed into the special-event space.) Luckily, BLANK’s John “Scoop” Flannagan lived up to his nickname later that day, gleaning the top-secret news that Algiers would be playing an early second show at the Pilot Light on Saturday.
Arriving well in advance of the start of the show in order to secure a primo vantage point from which to scope the action proved to be a wise choice. As it turned out, the identity of who was to perform that slot was the festival’s worst-kept secret thus far, and the even smaller club filled to capacity in just a few short minutes after the doors opened. Everyone who made it in was treated to a varied set that alternated between pummeling rock ‘n’ roll and statuesque pillars of melodic sound laced with experimental accoutrements.
Algiers’ frontman, Franklin James Fisher, was a charismatic talisman, soulfully howling provocative lyrics over his bandmates emphatic bluster. He bounded down from the stage at the conclusion of the show, taking a seat at the bar and ordering a beer while tape loops continued to roll to droning effect behind him. The move shattered the illusory veil that hangs between performer and listener, and it was indicative of one of Algiers’ strengths: making smart music that still can be appreciated by a wider audience.
It may be unfair/somewhat incongruous to make the comparison to TV on the Radio, but they do some of the same things that made the Brooklyn five-piece such a force to be reckoned with in the mid-aughts – just in a more intense, politically-motivated way and while exuding Southern charm. It’s not a stretch to think that Algiers could follow the same trajectory toward mass popularity, but it’s clear that they will dictate their collective career path on their own. They have important things to say that cannot and will not be censored. – MR
Fiddlers’ convention • Free program at the Mill & Mine
Inclement weather – the norm for Saturday – forced this event from Market Square and into the covered lawn at the Mill & Mine. Appropriately enough, though, it lent the gathering the feel of an old-timey tent revival. Performers formed pockets around the perimeter, each group of two, three and sometimes four improvising on expanding a singular idea. Heard as a whole, it was a quite a chaotic cacophony. The best bet was to wander around in order to take stock of what each had to offer. What immediately became clear in doing so was the fact that not all of the talent on display this weekend is confined to the official roster of artists.
As a native Knoxvillian, hearing the familiar strains of mountain music at such a highly regarded, avant-garde festival – even in an informal setting at one based in said hometown – felt momentous. Perhaps it was because this event was emblematic of what Big Ears has tried to accomplish this year: exposing Appalachian music to an audience with refined tastes and hopefully seeing it garner their respect. – MR
After performing a Big Ears highlight (heck, maybe a lifetime highlight) with Medeski Martin & Wood Friday at the Bijou, John Medeski, Billy Martin and Chris Wood did their own things on Saturday. Keyboardist Medeski performed solo acoustic piano at St. John’s Cathedral. It was a great chance to hear just how many styles he has embraced in a beautiful setting with nice acoustics. Medeski incorporated ragtime, stride, gospel, rhythm and blues, rock and bebop over the course of the performance – some of it so sweet that it felt like notes washing over you. – WB
Aine O’Dwyer performs William Eggleston’s “Musik”
One of the cooler elements of Big Ears is when artists are chosen who can utilize the surroundings of the venue where they are playing. At Church Street United Methodist, Irish multi-instrumentalist Aine O’Dwyer performed the music of William Eggleston (best known as a photographer) on the church’s organ. It was an unusual experience in that the organist at this church is not meant to be seen, so O’Dwyer was basically invisible behind the instrument. With only the sounds to focus on, the effect of the simple-sounding music was by turns slightly eerie and generally pretty. – Rusty Odom
Yuka C Honda
Japanese musician/producer extraordinaire Yuka C. Honda brought her A-game to the Standard Saturday evening, kicking off an incredible run of electronic producers to perform on day three of the Big Ears Festival. Honda performed under her alias EUCADEMIX, which showcased her top-notch production skills. Honda’s set started off in an ambient lull before evolving into a dancier mix with rhythmic drum beats and patterns. As her beat picked up, so did the dancing, much to Honda’s delight as she lit up the stage with her infectious smile. She played “I Dream About You,” and “When the Monkey Kills,” both of which were well-received by the moderately sized crowd. The weather outside had started to turn frightful, but Honda proved to be the perfect table setter for the night’s excellent electronic billings. – John Flannagan
When it came to stunning performances, Anoushka Shankar and her group delivered in spades. Shankar, the daughter of sitar legend Ravi Shankar, is a sitar master herself. However, this younger master surrounds herself with a combination of tradition and modern sensibility. Her band consisted of a drummer with a rock-style drum kit (along with some pan drums and other percussion instruments) rather than the traditional tabla player. She also has a band member who switches between bass and keyboard. Rather than going totally Western and modern, though, she also has a shehnai player. (The shehnai is the Indian horn that sounds remarkably like a human voice.)
The combination was magical. Sometimes the compositions (always non-vocal, although the shehnai could fool you) seemed like hard rock. Sometimes they seemed like a variant of Indian classical with the sort of dynamics you’d find at a good jazz show. During the song “Dissolving Boundaries,” Shankar played a sample of a news broadcast. The skill of musicians and the beauty of the compositions made the entire effect breathtaking. – WB
Jerry Douglas Band
There were plenty of master musicians at Big Ears 2018, but it was particularly nice to see the musicians who redefined what had been known as bluegrass instruments. Jerry Douglas took the resonator guitar (whose best-known form is the dobro) into realms no one had expected. With his band Saturday at the Mill & Mine, Douglas performed on both dobro and electric lap steel (played standing with a strap), and the results were amazing. His band included current Knoxvillian Daniel Kimbro on bass and former Knoxvillian Mike Seal on guitar, and the music fell into the category of “uncategorizable.” Hearing Douglas and the band knock out the rock classic “Hey Joe” or a soul great was powerful. It was great to see Douglas and fellow Big Ears performer Bela Fleck get the attention for being innovators and musical masters all weekend long. – WB
The expectation at Big Ears is that you’re going to find some music that is very challenging. Legendary vocalist/pianist Diamanda Galás fits that bill. Appearing onstage at the Tennessee Theatre wearing all black and playing a black grand piano, Galás looked like a combination of Elvira and Morticia from the Addams Family. Her singing could go from a witchy, hoarse rasp to high shrieks (actual notes, not random noises) that could be disarming and otherworldly. In between, she was a little jazzy and a little bluesy. While she’s probably better known than either of them, if you combined Shirley Bassey (who sang the theme to “Goldfinger”) and 1950s exotica singer Yma Sumac, you might come out with something pretty similar to Galás – if maybe you threw in a little Tom Waits in the mix as well. Galás dedicated one song to Hank III (I won’t print the epithet she lovingly referred to him as), and it sounded almost like a Satanic invocation.
Was it challenging? Yes. Was it rewarding? Again, yes. Galás encored with out-there covers of Johnny Paycheck’s “Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone to Kill” (surprising and stunning) and “Gloomy Sunday” (once referred to as the “Hungarian suicide song”). Even if you didn’t love it, it felt like she meant every note and scream. – WB
Kelly Lee Owens
One of the most anticipated acts of Big Ears was the one from Welsh siren Kelly Lee Owens. Her angelic voice and excellent production skills were on full display in front of an impressive crowd eager to dance the night away. Her set included top-flight projections, lights and banging club beats. In this live setting, the visual display coupled with Owens’ voice were reminiscent of Björk or Purity Ring. As the set raged on, it grew evident that here was an artist who is on the rise. Her billings at this festival along with Pitchfork in July look to be indications of more widespread success in the near future. Owens’ attitude and swagger were on full display as she commanded the crowd to dance and return the effort that she was pouring into her hour-long set (15 minutes longer than what was scheduled). The audience heeded her suggestions, making this set one of the most high-energy shows of the entire weekend. – JF
The brilliant Kieran Hebden pulled out all the stops, as he performed classic cuts from “Pink” and “Beautiful Rewind” before settling in with material from his latest masterpiece, “New Energy.” While we didn’t get the elaborate light show that he showcased during his five-night residency in Brooklyn, New York, we did get all the Four Tet tracks we’ve come to love, including “Planet,” “Plastic People” and “SW9 9SK.” If there was dancing at the previous shows, Four Tet’s set multiplied the body movements of any other set at Big Ears. Hebden’s electronic/jazz fusion was on full display, and it was all business for the always-professional Jedi DJ. No introductions were needed, as Hebden launched right into the set, never stopping until its completion around 1:30 a.m. At times, you couldn’t help but feel like you were in a London “Boiler Room” session, as Four Tet rarely does performances stateside. You could feel the Mill & Mine pulsating as the entire crowd moved and swayed to every note and rhythmic pattern Hebden could throw at us. I can’t speak for everyone else in attendance, but Four Tet was a bucket-list item for me, and this should go down as a legendary Knoxville performance for a lot of others, too. – JF