It’s been nearly 30 days since Big Ears Festival turned Knoxville on its head.
Astounding performances from artists across the globe were jam-packed into one quietly crazy festival right in the heart of downtown Knoxville. Each of the four days had quite “literally can’t-miss” experiences: some of the artists made their relatively rare appearances in the U.S. This is the unique driving force behind Big Ears, and one thing that Ashley Capps states drove him to create Big Ears in 2009.
As a lover of jazz music, he found it increasingly difficult to see his favorite artists perform in venues other than in large concert halls. There isn’t as large a market for jazz musicians as there is for indie rock bands who can play in small capacity venues and bring in crowds. Especially not in Knoxville, which doesn’t have the same pull or demand for variety like Los Angeles or NYC. Despite that, the location of Big Ears, stretched along the streets of downtown Knoxville from the Bijou Theatre to the relatively new Mill & Mine. The festival obviously could not have happened in a campground or open field like Bonnaroo, another A-C Entertainment festival.
All that being said, let’s get into the music! Let’s take a small glimpse into the performances I enjoyed the most at Big Ears.
I kicked the festival off on Thursday with UK’s Anna Meredith, an artist I had gotten excited to see since her latest album Varmints was released in 2016. The live performance was much different than what I expected from listening to Varmints, given that it is a minimalist, twinkly, synth-driven album.
Anna Meredith, the band’s front-woman, was energetic and just as powerful as the keyboardist and vocalist, while also adding percussion, often grinning and wildly pounding on the drums as the melodies of the song reached their climax. Her band’s tubist and cellist played beautifully together with the melodic rhythms of Meredith.
Afterwards, I caught Ukraine folk group DakhaBrakha at The Standard. They had one of the most standout performances I had seen during Big Ears, and probably one of my favorite concert performances ever.
Describing themselves as “ethno chaos,” the quartet performed in traditional Ukraine dress and sang beautiful harmonies in their native language. Though they came as Ukrainians, they performed incorporating styles from Africa, Australia and Russia. At times the drums were pulsing at a steady beat, backing the vocals of all four members, and at other times the cello was powerful and at the forefront of the music.
On Friday night, I saw my most anticipated performance: Lætitia Sadier. Sadier was one of the co-founders of krautrock/art pop band Stereolab, active in the in the 90’s to the late 2000’s.
Sadier went on to record her own solo albums after than band went on an indefinite hiatus in 2010. As someone who was not alive during the bands hayday in the early 90’s, I recently discovered Stereolab’s music within the last few years and they have become one of my favorite bands. Sadier’s contribution to the band, including her lovely, recognizable voice (in which she sings in French and English) shone through in her performance at Big Ears. She was unaccompanied by her band (now touring as Lætitia Sadier Source Ensemble) and opted to play solo, only her guitar and vocals at her disposal. The show felt very personal. Granted, I was in the front row, entranced by Sadier as everyone in the row was. As the guy next to me said before the show: “We’re about to see a goddess.”
My last show on Friday was to see Oliver Coates, the London-based cellist and composer who most recently contributed to Radiohead’s 2016 release A Moon Shaped Pool. I listened to his most recent albums in anticipation of the show, Upstepping and Remain Calm, both of which were released in 2016 and the latter a collaborative effort with experimental producer Mica Levi.
Coates’ performance was backed by visuals by artist Lawrence Lek that took the viewer on a trip to an animated “speculative world.” I thoroughly enjoyed this performance. I am not a huge fan of classical or jazz music (hence why I mostly frequented the experimental acts at Big Ears) but Coates is not your average cellist. The lushness of the backing ambient track with the distortion of Coates’ cello produced a beautiful soundscape, fitting for the visual film behind him.
On Saturday night, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith played at the Mill & Mine. I had previously seen Smith open for one of my favorite bands, Animal Collective, in Nashville. Anyone who has listened to Animal Collective’s earlier work compared to their most recent work will know that they have taken a turn towards a more pop sound.
However, their early releases include more of an ambient sound. It was interesting seeing Smith play for AnCo considering how much she reminded me of their earlier albums. She uses her voice as an instrument à la Holly Herndon, someone who modulates their voice past recognition to a deep, slightly frightening baritone. Smith never took her hands off the synth during the entirety of her performance. The specific synthesizer she uses does not include a keyboard, thus it requires constant attention to plug in/plug out cords and turn knobs. I definitely enjoyed her performance and look forward to her new album, which she should be releasing within the next year or so.
The last performance I wanted to note was Xiu Xiu. I had seen Xiu Xiu on Saturday afternoon at the Tennessee Theatre playing the music of Twin Peaks. On Sunday night, they rounded up the festival with an explosive performance– quite literally, as Stewart’s amp caught on fire during their pre-encore song.
The duo played songs from their discography from their first album Knife Play (2002) to their most recent record Forget (2017). Dunkelman and Stewart gave a maniacal performance. Stewart’s tortured vocals ranged from melancholy whispers to loud, desperate cries which made me leap out of my skin. Xiu Xiu isn’t a band for the faint of heart. So they made the perfect closer for Big Ears Festival. Exciting, unexpected and ultimately enjoyable. Big Ears Festival is sure to delight next year March 22 – 25 in 2018.
See you then,
Music Director/Co-host of WUTK’s Indie Aisle, Monday nights 8-10
(all photos taken by me)