By Wayne Bledsoe, John Flannagan and Matt Rankin
Friday’s lineup of Big Ears events was so diverse, engaging and rife with surprises that it might prove difficult to adequately do it justice with a simple summary. From high-quality early afternoon sets and artist talks to exemplary late-night programming and secret shows, yesterday proved to be one of the best days the festival has ever boasted.
Like on Thursday, the weather remained mostly cooperative; however, overcast skies replaced the sun early in the morning and persisted throughout the day. Only a few sprinkles manifested, though, and they failed to dampen the proceedings, as they fell rather late in the night.
Although attendance figures won’t be released for a while, suffice it to say that this year’s numbers have a good chance of exceeding past totals. Most venues experienced long lines, capacity alerts and delays. Non-official establishments and happenings were packed, as well, with both locals and wristband-holders eager to experience all that downtown Knoxville has to offer.
However, we doubt that you arrived here expecting to read a recap of the festival’s mundanities. Concerning the music, which was plentiful and divine, a full cadre of artists representing every conceivable genre made appearances on the day, almost all of them making an immediate and lasting impression. From mid-morning to past 2 a.m., their refrains wafted from within venues to the collected’s collective unconscious and beyond.
Enjoy the following, the BLANK staff’s ruminations on the best Big Ears had to offer on Friday, March 23. – Matt Rankin
“Brimstone & Glory” with live score by Nief-Norf and Wordless Music
One of the best ways to sit down and relax with the music at Big Ears is to attend one of the films accompanied by a live musical performance. It’s a surprisingly different experience than simply watching a movie. The combination of Knoxville-based percussion ensemble Neif-Norf and the New York-based orchestra Wordless Music accompanying “Brimstone & Glory,” a documentary about the National Pyrotechnic Festival in Tultepec, Mexico, was inspired.
The film is full of suspense and drama as dangerous fireworks displays are constructed and then set off in a far-less-than-careful crowd. Of course, the Tennessee Theatre, where the show was presented, was completed in 1928 and originally had musicians accompanying silent films, so there was something a little nostalgic about it. Hearing Neif-Norf and Wordless Music accent the drama and the fireworks exploding in the air onscreen was amazing. It didn’t hurt that the score itself was simply beautiful and the film itself was riveting. – Wayne Bledsoe
Matt Nelson Trio • Secret show at Magnolia Records
Chicago jazz group Matt Nelson Trio stopped into Magnolia Records (which is celebrating its one-year anniversary this weekend) to play an early, secret show on Friday. The trio consisting of a stand-up bassist, an electric guitarist and a drummer played their noise-jazz to a packed room. Always unpredictable, Nelson’s licks and tones range from soft dynamics to wild, Frank Zappa-esque crescendos, as bassist Tim Dahl and drummer Nick Podgurski fill in with a feverish, off-timed backbeat. The timing can be a little tricky to discern, but somehow the trio manage to reign in the chaos, led by Nelson’s virtuosic skills on guitar and as bandleader. – John Flannagan
Easily the most powerful set of the day, Atlanta’s Algiers performed to the first packed house of the afternoon, as the Standard remained at capacity for the duration of their set. Playing with something of an improvised lineup due to bassist Ryan Mahan’s detainment overseas, frontman Franklin James Fisher dedicated their set to Mahan and his family. Fisher commanded the audience by belting his heavy lyrics with the fire of a Southern preacher delivering a sermon of soul and activism. Their sound comes off as post-punk with a tinge of industrial and soul mixed in to grease a moving, resonant message of oppression. Drummer Matt Tong (Bloc Party) tied everything together by feverishly laying a thundering backbeat yet still lending a subtle pop sensibility to the music. If you missed what will go down as a top-five set of the weekend, rest assured: You will get your chance to see them again, as BLANK has learned that they will be performing a secret show at the Pilot Light today at 3:30 p.m. You’ll want to get there early for this one, as once word is out, this show, too, will be at capacity throughout. – JF
In some cases at Big Ears, it is easy to feel a certain sense of pride that the audiences are there for artists who have been unappreciated. A good instance was the Friday performance at the Bijou by 76-year-old free-jazz drummer Milford Graves. While he’s a master and a legend in a certain circle, having almost 600 people giving him their undivided attention these days is probably pretty rare.
Graves gave both a lesson and a performance, first telling all about the use of rhythms and philosophy and then demonstrating what he meant with an amazing, crazy drum solo. After one, he told the charmed audience, “OK, Pops needs to rest a little now!”
How could you not love it? – WB
Kid Koala’s ‘Satellite’ Turntable Orchestra
One of the hardest decisions I had to make on Friday afternoon was whether or not to pull myself out of Algiers a little early to claim my reserved spot for Kid Koala’s interactive set. Having signed up in advance to reserve my spot, I left the Standard and arrived to a packed house at the Square Room. Still, I was able to quickly claim my turntable. That’s right: Each table was set up with a JBL turntable, four colored 45s and a small flashlight. There were 50 of these setups in total. On command of the colored light on the turntable, the audience had to change the album based on the corresponding color. Kid Koala controlled the sound for the most part, but it was interactive, no doubt. Koala drew from his beautiful ambient masterpiece “Music to Draw To: Satellite,” as he stopped between songs to joke and engage the crowd. While he didn’t have his lyricist Emiliana Torrino on hand, as she was back home in Iceland tending to her newborn baby, Koala did have her voice recorded on magnetic sheets he ran through a vintage device while playing the programmed drum beats.
Koala also had live images going onscreen behind him, showing chemicals being added to water to make for some interesting designs. Another highlight was the scratch battle; Koala and the crowd swapped bars testing the audience’s deck skills. As he closed out the set with the haunting “The Darkest Day,” a song about the suicide of his cousin, the mood turned somber, the ambience of the track putting the crowd into a trance. Easily the most engaging and stimulating set I’ve attended. Even if you don’t get to play with the turntables, this is one set to check out; multiple performances will continue to be happening throughout the weekend. – JF
Jerry Douglas • Secret show at Knoxville Visitors Center
Lap steel virtuoso Jerry Douglas surprised everyone with a secret show at the Visitors Center on Friday evening, playing a fierce set of tunes which included an awe-inspiring cover of Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” with support from Knoxvillian Daniel Kimbro. This packed house for the served as another reminder that Big Ears this year is engaging ticket holders and non-holders alike. The series of secret shows has been nothing short of stellar thus far this weekend, a great one in which to engage the city in the festival. – JF
If the Big Ears name weren’t already firmly engrained upon a devoted set of followers, a moniker referencing another anthropological singularity – goosebumps – might better befit a festival of this sort: one that taps so deeply into the human condition. This performance at the Tennessee Theatre was a spiritually rewarding yet viscerally engrossing experience. Dressed in brightly colored and contrasting traditional garb, Innov Gnawa harmonized beautifully – whether it was in unison, in call-and-response style or seemingly at random intervals.
Sporting a rotating selection of handheld percussive instruments, what appeared to be a handmade guitar and a type of cajón, its six members swayed with the entrancing rhythms of the Northwest Sahara they so passionately produced. Even though it was ripe for dancing, the vast majority of attendees at the 7 p.m. show stayed staid – save for a lone couple of intrepid steppers at stage right. Although those two in particular clearly were on to the excellence of the spectacle at hand, the rest of the crowd happily engaged in exuberant, interactive hand-clapping, as well.
The international flavor of Big Ears might just be the its most unheralded aspect, but it also seems to provide the festival with its most illuminating moments – at least in this reporter’s estimation. – MR
Old Time House Party with Kristin Andreassen, Becky Hill & Friends
My wife and I reluctantly chose to forgo what really was a criminal amount of primetime opportunities in order to find sustenance on this evening. Noticing that this show commenced at a time that was conducive to us eating together, we took a Joyride from Gay Street to Boyd’s Jig & Reel in the Old City. Filling our bellies with delicious, savory pies and crafted libations, we watched what turned out to be a rather lively variety show.
Among the many types of entertainment on display: storytelling, clogging, square dancing and – of course – traditional (yet exquisitely presented) music of the Irish/Scottish persuasion. The performers exuded charm, and their syrupy vocals provided a gorgeous backdrop for the couples dancing adorably in the space bridging artist and performer. On what might be the last truly cool evening for quite a while, the pub turned out to be a comfortable and welcoming refuge for weary festivalgoers. – MR
Black Twig Pickers
At the conclusion of this year’s events, this might go down as the most traditional set the 2018 festival had to offer. What it lacked as far as experimentation is concerned, however, it more than made up for in terms of musicianship, tunefulness and passion. Emerging onstage at the Standard (yet obscured by a veneer of artificial fog), the players quickly launched into a run of faithful, modern songs steeped in old, mountain-music traditions. One particularly poignant moment found the two fiddlers in the band alternating between playing conjunctive parts and counter-rhythms. The contrasting rises and falls of their respective bows were spellbinding to behold.
With its members hailing from various parts of the heart of Appalachia, the tunes the group produced served as perhaps the most authentic interpretations of the art form Big Ears attendees are likely to hear this year. Less convincing, though, were the scores of bearded and bespectacled young men attempting to stretch the limits of their rigid skinny jeans in order to feign limberness/rhythmic dexterity. Still, the dull thud that emanated from the wooden floor was a result of the contingent tapping its toes in perfect time to the music. – MR
While Ned Rothenberg is well known on the New York music scene, he seemed like a totally new discovery at the first Big Ears Festival in 2009. Just having mastered the circular-breathing technique, in which a singer or instrumentalist can breathe in while exhaling (giving them the ability to play long passages without pausing for breath) was impressive in itself. However, it was using this ability to create sublime pieces that could never be realized without the technique that made him truly special. On Friday at St. John’s Cathedral, Rothenberg delivered solo performances on clarinet, bass clarinet and a type of bamboo flute.
Even though he was by himself, Rothenberg never failed to surprise. His work on the bamboo flute was both breathy and delicate, but there was something else going on, too. Initially, you would have been forgiven for thinking there was a second musician in the wings, but it was Rothenberg creating a sort of high counter-melody with overtones on the same instrument. It was an eerie whistle that seemed a little like Tuvan throat singing, but on a wind instrument. He did something similar on the clarinet, and, finally, on bass clarinet, he utilized the keys into their own percussion instrument.
While anyone looking for a pop melody (and who was at Big Ears?), it would not have hit the spot. For for an audience looking to hear an improvisational instrumentalist at the top of his game, it was wonderful. – WB
Jessica Moss • Secret show at Pilot Light
Canadian violinist Jessica Moss popped up at the Pilot Light for yet another packed secret show. Moss, a staple in the Canadian music scene, has added her stringed touch to acts like Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire and Vic Chestnut over the years. She perhaps is best known, though, for her many contributions to chamber-punk band A Silver Mt. Zion (and the many varying forms of its name). On this night, she played the 25-minute piece from “Pools of Light” entitled “Entire Populations,” in which she prefaced her performance by explaining her mood and thought process for composing the piece. She went on to explain that all of us are connected by matter flowing over time, morphing and changing over the years. Moss plugged in and began looping sounds out of her violin through an array of effects pedals with voice accompaniment. Per her instructions, she advised that the set was best taken in by being seated on the ground, “Don’t worry: I checked the floor, and it’s not too dirty in here,” she said, and everyone heeded the violinist extraordinaire’s instructions. – JF
Following well-attended sets by a couple of high-profile touring acts – including cup, the Nels Cline/Yuka C. Honda project that was a surprise fill for the first slot – Knoxville musician Maggie Brannon took to the stage of the Pilot Light in the Old City to a noticeably smaller yet more reverent crowd. Looping bass guitar, spoken-word recordings and noise samples, she commanded the attentions of everyone in attendance; nary a breath could be heard – a rarity for the DIY venue in which every regular knows each other’s name. It was stunning solo stuff from a cherished local talent who previously was known mainly for her roles in other bands. This performance alone should go a long way in altering that perception. – MR
Bela Fleck & Brooklyn Rider
Banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck is making his Big Ears debut at the 2018 festival, but he’s no stranger to Knoxville. Fleck first began visiting town and wowing audiences back when his band Spectrum would make stops at the original Buddy’s Bar-B-Q, when the Kingston Pike restaurant was a venue for bluegrass, as well. Since that time, he’s performed locally with New Grass Revival and pretty much any other act with which he’s been involved.
On Friday at Church Street United Methodist, Fleck performed with classical string quartet Brooklyn Rider. While the venue made it difficult to see the musicians or hear their between-song commentary, the music was absolutely gorgeous. The sequencing of the pieces let the audience appreciate the overt beauty of the combination of banjo and string quartet (and who but Fleck has ever tried?) before presenting more challenging material. By the third number, the music had become more textural and mysterious, and it ended with a finale that was stunning. The next-to-last number of the show, a movement from “Brooklesca,” written by Brooklyn Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen, borrowed from folk music (just as other great classical composers have done) and had elements of gypsy-jazz, klezmer, bluegrass and hinted at even a little Stravinsky. It was one of those moments where you simply said, “Wow” when it was over. It was also one of those rare times when you felt as if you immediately wanted to buy the artist’s album so that you might experience the same feeling again. – WB
Medeski Martin & Wood
Medeski Martin & Wood have a history with Knoxville that goes all the way back to when the trio was known as Coltrane’s Wig and the late, great promoter Chuck Burnley would book them in town and no one knew exactly what to call the music they made. These guys would go on to become international superstars, and still no one has quite figured out what to call what they do. On Friday at the Tennessee, the trio delivered the kind of experience to which any band that decides to jam should aspire. The difference between these guys and other funky improvisers is sort of the difference between Rembrandt and grandma using a paint-by-numbers kit.
Keyboardist John Medeski, bassist Chris Wood and drummer/percussionist Billy Martin are simply astounding musicians. On Friday, the music was immediately funky and groovy and never seemed forced or awkward. The trio understands the importance of dynamics and drama. And, in approximately two hours, they performed one piece, and there was a never a moment when it was less than riveting. These guys took the audience on a trip to outer space and then back to Earth, and you never wanted it to end.
While the trip was just fine with just the three players, guitarist Marc Ribot and Ned Rothenberg (on bass clarinet) joined about halfway through – and it became even better. By the time it was all over, MMW and their guests had given one of those concert experiences that you dream about: musical transcendence. – WB
My true highlight out of all of the Big Ears magic that commenced on Friday had to be the penultimate show of the day by minimal techno pioneer Wolfgang Voigt, better known as GAS. Performing “Nah und Fern” at the Tennessee Theatre at midnight, Voigt’s set was haunting and transformative. He laid ambient textures on top of a four-on-the-floor, traditional bass beat that pulsated throughout the one-hour running time. The audience members could get lost in the ever-changing visual backdrop of a forest as the music surrounded them. Multiple times, I realized that I had become hypnotized by the drone; I had to shake my head several times to remember where I was. As the forest morphed to simulate the changing of the seasons, the bass would grow heavy when the angle was closer to the ground, letting up as the angle went skyward to the canopy. As is typical with a Big Ears performance, there was no introduction or banter with the crowd until the end, when Voigt came out to take a bow and blow a few kisses. The set may have been dark and creepy at times, but it contained an unexplainable beauty that surely had listeners’ thoughts drifting toward nostalgia. This was a world-class performance at a world-class festival. – JF
Laurel Halo • DJ set
Just to think: Were it not for a scheduling tweak that lengthened its ending time, I might have missed out on seeing this performance. And that would have been a shame, indeed. Incorporating irresistible beats and only the best elements of IDM, Halo gracefully constructed a careening, pulsating sound collage capable of satisfying every pleasure center in the human body.
Armed with an array of seizure-inducing lights and a preternatural ability to read the room, she delivered the second-best DJ set in the history of Big Ears. Only Jamie xx’s full preview of “In Colour” in 2015 on the same stage at the Standard eclipses the grandeur of what Halo was able to accomplish in the wee hours of Saturday morning. Although I have to think that things were beginning to wind down when I exited the building a few minutes past 2 a.m., the bass-heavy mix still could be heard/felt thumping relentlessly, with no indication that it would ever cease. – MR