By Sidney Roy, Indie Aisle Host
Knoxville’s 2018 Big Ears Festival drew artists and fans from every continent for a weekend of perfectly-curated music, film, food, and sweet, sweet, droning. This year featured one of the most ambitious programs in its history, as it welcomed more bluegrass, appalachian folk and jam bands than before while still catering to a diverse audience of music lovers. It’s impossible to rank over two dozen shows seen, all of which defied expectations, but here are the five shows that won’t soon be forgotten.
In passing, the phrase heard the most at this year’s festival was “I’ve never heard a saxophone make those kinds of sounds before.” These were clearly in reference to Mats Gustafsson, whose brutal playing in The Thing was a belligerent jazz performance. The Norwegian free jazz titans have a massive sound for a three-piece band. Gustafsson, double bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love contorted their bodies on stage while churning out an hour of the most striking jazz music of the weekend. Even from the back of The Standard the audience could see the veins popping out of each member’s foreheads and hear every note howling out of the trio. Fans of this performance flocked to The Mill & Mine on Sunday to catch more of Gustafsson, where he played a collaborative set with beloved electronic producer Kieran Hebden, also known as Four Tet.
Big Ears 2018 was the immersive Suuns fan experience. In addition to their Sunday afternoon set, The Montréal quartet played a secret show at The Pilot Light the night before. Both shows featured different setlists and drew massive crowds. Fans of the band’s recorded material would be even more impressed by their live shows. They used more pronounced drums and synthesizers to give their songs more power onstage. A few hours after their Pilot Light show, fans got to see back-to-back sets by guitarists Ben Shemie and Joseph Yarmush at the 12 Hour Drone event, which featured 12 hours of constant, unbroken sound. The event ran from midnight to noon on Saturday, and showcased 20 regional and international instrumentalists including violinist Jessica Moss, saxophonist Walsh and guitarist Steve Gunn. Big Ears attendees also had the opportunity to hear the exclusive second exhibit of Shemie’s radiophonic work, Music for Two Radios. The project involved Knoxville’s WDVX and WUTK radio stations, who simultaneously broadcasted music recorded by Shemie while he mixed them live at The Visit Knoxville Center.
Atlanta-based Algiers brought their untouchable blend of post-punk and protest rock to Big Ears. Many attending the festival anticipated their set, and it showed when they played to a full house at The Standard on Friday. Like Suuns, they couldn’t get enough of Big Ears, which led to their secret show at the Pilot Light on Saturday afternoon. They set the bar high with their official show, but they went even harder at the second show. Renamed “Tangiers” in honor of their bassist Ryan Mahan, who could not make it to Knoxville, they kicked off their secret set with the haunting tune “Blood” from their debut record. What ensued was the most raucous shows of the weekend, as the band powered through soulful, guitar-driven tracks like “Walk Like a Panther” and “Death March.” The band also seemed to enjoy Big Ears as much as their fans. All members of the band were found enjoying shows by Diamanda Galas, Jason Moran and others throughout the weekend.
Jenny Hval put on a dreamy Friday afternoon show at Big Ears. The Norwegian singer-songwriter filled the Bijou Theatre, an impressive feat in itself for an early performance. She was joined by instrumentalist Håvard Volden and visual artist Orfee Schuijt. The first half of the set drew mostly from her last two releases, “Apocalypse, Girl” and “Blood Bitch.” Hval’s voice glided over airy, synth-laden beats. Halfway through the show, Hval joked that there was still plenty of time for something to go wrong in her show, and said “the ceiling (could come) down.” Her microphone cable fell out minutes after the joke. The second half evolved into Powerpoint karaoke, as Schuijt ran slowly through a slideshow and Hval sang whatever words scrolled by. The show ended with a robot voice listing off two dozen “chill” Spotify playlists, like “Chill Lo-Fi Study Beats” and “Pop Chillout.”
Arto Lindsay’s music has the ability to satisfy every music fan’s palate at Big Ears. The singer-songwriter has a background in jazz, no wave, and Tropicália, and he combines all three in his solo records. His varied styles are homogenized in his live shows, which he showcased in his Friday set at The Mill & Mine. A tight backing band featuring double drummers and a virtuosic rhythm section played sensual, breezy Brazilian music while his noisy guitar work, the style of which influenced other early no wave bands like Sonic Youth, somehow seemed right at home. Lindsay’s soothing vocals seamlessly transitioned between English and Portuguese throughout the show. He played another set early Saturday with The Thing’s drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, but sadly I was recovering from a late night spent at Laurel Halo’s DJ set to attend.