After a four year hiatus, Big Ears finally returned to Knoxville, TN this past weekend. The incredible lineup was particularly special because of its top headliner: Steve Reich. In the festival’s two previous installments, Ashley Capps & Co. delivered some of the most important names in minimalism — from Philip Glass to Terry Riley — though the one act that always haunted each lineup announcement was the pioneering American composer. Finally, those rumblings came true… even if it took four years to become a reality.
The years have been kind to Big Ears, though, as the festival’s spirit remains intact. In my coverage of its 2010 installment, I wrote about the communal vibes that glazed over the weekend, and I’m happy to write about them again. Once more, almost every performer stuck around town to catch the other sets, tinker with fellow musicians, or straight up hang out. Walking around Knoxville’s Market Square, you were just as likely to run into Lonnie Holley or Laraaji or Stephen O’Malley as anyone else.
Photo by Rodrigo Avendano
It felt good to be a part of something so jovial and pertinent. Waiting for Steve Reich in the lobby of the Tennessee Theatre alongside the likes of Julia Holter, Jenny Hval, Dawn of Midi, and Bryce Dessner only heightened the festival’s balmy energy, keeping our minds warm amidst an admittedly soggy weekend outdoors. Between the use of unique locales like the Knoxville Museum of Art to the array of innovative speeches by Reich, Capps, and Mayor Madeline Rogero, Big Ears drenched the thousands of minds present with culture and invention.
Just don’t ever leave us again — okay?
10. Colin Stetson makes magic with his saxophones
Photo by Scott Criss
Friday, March 28th, Scruffy City Hall, 8:30 p.m.
Seeing Colin Stetson perform live is similar to observing a talented magician. You have no idea how he’s doing what he’s doing, which makes the whole thing completely enthralling, exciting, and, well, magical. The way Stetson conjures up his albums all by himself is a true tour-de-force in every sense. Armed with just three different saxophones, Stetson worked off his series of New History Warfare albums, in addition to a few rarities he typically can’t perform due to airline restrictions allowing him only two instruments. For Big Ears, he opted for a spring road trip to Knoxville, bringing his full arsenal to treat festivalgoers to “The Stars in His Head” and a few other selections on his alto sax. Usually, I jot down plenty of notes when I’m covering a show, but I was so floored by Stetson’s commanding presence that the only thing I left in my notebook for this entry were two words: “HOLY SHIT”. Pretty sure that’s how everyone else felt, too.
09. Television still works
Photo by Rodrigo Avendano
Saturday, March 29th, Tennessee Theatre, 10:00 p.m.
Almost 40 years after the release of Marquee Moon, Television may look like a group of grandpas, but they can still rock out with the best of them. Using a classic curtain reveal instead of just walking on stage, the foursome – now with Jimmy Rip on guitar instead of Richard Lloyd – launched into an extended jam before getting into the meat of their discography. While they did dust off one song from their oft-forgotten 1992 self-titled record, the majority of the set was made up of classics from Moon and Adventure. “Prove It”, “See No Evil”, “Glory”, “Elevation”, and “Marquee Moon” were a few of the big highlights of the set. What’s more, Rip proved to be as worthy a successor to Richard Lloyd as anyone, and Tom Verlaine reminded everyone why he’s such a renowned guitar player, taking lead on many of their most complex and shredding works. The weekend’s schedule left little room for encores — even John Cale didn’t do one the night before — but Television returned for a well-deserved extra couple of songs.
08. Dawn of Midi performs Dysnomia
Photo by Rodrigo Avendano
Saturday, March 29th, Bijou Theatre, 2:30 p.m.
If you don’t already know the story, Dawn of Midi is a trio from Brooklyn that play piano, upright bass, and drums. Don’t mistake them for a jazz trio, though. They use that traditional improvisational jazz setup to perform extremely tight compositions that have more in common with minimal techno and German trance than anything found at a jazz club. Watching them perform at the Bijou Theatre was a revelation. Their timing was impeccable and their musicianship was immaculate and inventive. While it wasn’t announced ahead of time, they ended up performing their new album Dysnomia in its entirety without ever stopping once. The demographic-spanning crowd was waiting so long to show their appreciation that as soon as they ended they were given an immediate standing ovation.
07. Jonny Greenwood warms up to his audience
Photo by Rodrigo Avendano
Saturday, March 29th, Tennessee Theatre, 4:30 p.m.
The first of two Jonny Greenwood appearances of the weekend began with Wordless Music Orchestra’s Saturday afternoon performance. Selections from his film scores — specifically, There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Norwegian Wood — shared time with non-Greenwood selections mostly by Iannis Xenakis. Of course, the real highlight was when the Radiohead guitarist stepped on-stage himself to work the six-string alongside Wordless. As he performed, a message flashed on the screen behind him, instructing the audience to visit a website on their smartphone if they wanted to participate in his next piece, “Self Portrait with Seven Fingers”.
Upon visiting the website, users found a simple dot in the middle of the screen with the number 49 on it. This would act as a button and everyone was instructed to press it to participate, and to make sure the phone’s volume was audible. Each push delivered a different sound, all in line with the music being played. Even if it was just a collection of bleeps and bloops, the engulfing feeling of experiencing music from all angles was quite surreal. Each user had 49 chances to press the button and contribute to a Big Ears performance. It was unique by all means.
06. Tim Hecker makes noise
Friday, March 28th, Bijou Theatre, 12:00 a.m.
Tim Hecker was the lone repeat from the last edition of Big Ears, moving from a noon slot in 2010 to midnight this time around. Regardless of the time, his stage show remains mostly the same, eclipsed by darkness save for the light from his computer screen. As Hecker toggled with his computer, the collage of noise slowly crept into the audience, making for a soothing if not eerie experience. Beautiful, desolate, and bone-jarring — a perfect late night set for a festival of this stature.
05. Dean Wareham plays Galaxie 500
Photo by Scott Criss
Friday, March 28th, Tennessee Theatre, 7:30 p.m.
A small crowd gathered at the massive Tennessee Theatre to catch Dean Wareham and his band, which includes his wife Britta. The outfit shrugged off the meager turnout by twisting straight into Galaxie 500’s “Tugboat”. Thanks to crisp acoustics and tight musicianship (the latter quite remarkable given that it was the opening night of their tour), Wareham had little trouble swinging to and from his solo and older work. Material off his new self-titled offering sounded great and received notable fanfare, though obvious highlights included Galaxie favorites such as “When Will You Come Home”.
Between songs, Dean injected dollops of humor in his on-point introductions. “This is about the time I dropped acid and went to 7-11 and bought some Twinkies,” he said of “Strange”. “This is about Monday Night Football,” he described new song “Holding Pattern”, which includes the line “San Diego over Denver 17 to 6.” Chuckles fluttered throughout the ever-growing crowd, and while more showed up by set’s end, he deserved a packed house. His set was a bonafide crowd pleaser and a great way to kick off an equally great weekend.
04. Nazoranai’s US debut
Photo by Craig Nowicki
Saturday, March 29th, Bijou Theatre, 1:00 a.m.
Late nights at the Bijou had a particular theme at Big Ears: noise, and lots of it. Nazoranai, the noise supergroup made up of Japanese underground legend Keiji Haino, Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley, and drummer Oren Ambarchi, followed Tim Hecker’s lead from the night before by making their US debut at 1:00 am on Saturday night. While the rhythm section (if you can call it that) of O’Malley and Ambarchi crafted waves of noise, Haino began the set by fumbling around on his recorder and noodling on his guitar with improvisational strokes.
It was a disastrous 10 minutes that soon exhibited a rare brand of finesse as Haino teetered between guitar shredding, pedal swapping, and wild experimentation with a theremin-type device asleep on his gear table. He shared the faint resemblance of an evil wizard as he spastically summoned god knows what from each instrument. It was weird alright, but accessible enough that he managed to summon a human spirit to follow his every move. In other words, a lone festivalgoer danced in a trance, clearly possessed by whatever Haino was doing.
In hindsight, the best way to describe Nazoranai is by likening it to a religious experience. All night, you could feel the vibrations throughout your body and it didn’t stop when the music did. The trio of deities infected all of us with their piercing noise, and it was one of the best experiences of the weekend.
03. Julia Holter is just as obsessed with Big Ears as we are
Photo by Eric Smith
Saturday, March 29th, Bijou Theatre, 8:15 p.m.
And the Big Ears award for the biggest gap between music and personality goes to: Julia Holter. When she wasn’t invested in her haunting and gorgeous works, Holter was playful and hilarious, repeating the words “big ears” because she liked the way it sounded. Soon after this realization, she enticed the entire audience to join in and say it with her, pleading on-stage for a linguist to explain why she liked it so much. (Of course, one later did via Twitter — apparently the velar stop of the /g/ is what does it. Who knew.) Really, she was just downright obsessed with the festival, admitting that she booked an extra day in town to catch more shows. Rather self-aware, she insisted that she wasn’t paid by the festival, but just really got wrapped up in the atmosphere. We couldn’t help but do the same with her music.
02. Marc Ribot reawakens Chaplin
Saturday, March 29th, Bijou Theatre, 12:00 p.m.
If you were to walk into the Bijou Theatre at noon on Saturday, you wouldn’t have any cues to indicate whether the year was 2014 or 1920. In the early 20th Century, the Bijou was used as a movie house, and live scores of silent movies were a regular thing. Marc Ribot took us back to those days with his acoustic live scoring of Charlie Chaplin’s first full-length feature, The Kid. Performing on the side of the stage with no light to direct any attention towards himself, it was easy to forget Ribot was even there, especially since his score fit so well with the film. Ranging from melodic and emotional to frenzied and dissonant, Ribot’s guitar playing was made all the more impressive considering he flooded the entire hour-plus film with music. He was one of many performers who received a standing ovation from a packed house.
01. Steve Reich Night
Sunday, March 30th, Tennessee Theatre, 7:30 p.m.
The weekend reached its apex on Sunday night with the grand finale at the beautiful Tennessee Theatre: a night of programs by legendary American composer Steve Reich. First up was Reich himself, along with Ensemble Signal conductor Brad Lubman, performing “Clapping Music”. While it wasn’t as impressive as a duo as it was as a trio at the launch party, it’s still a fantastic piece of music that doesn’t require any instruments at all. It was also the only thing Reich performed himself, which made it all the more significant.
Next up was Jonny Greenwood, performing his rendition of Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint”. Playing opposite his laptop, Greenwood made loops on top of loops and continued to intertwine his own guitar playing until he moved to the next section, where he would do it all again. It was a treat to watch a master at work, nodding to another master of a different kind. Reich would then nod back, as Ensemble Signal came out to perform one of his newer works, “Radio Rewrite”, which was inspired by two Radiohead songs: “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” and “Everything In Its Right Place”. With Lubman conducting, it was a compelling performance, and an intriguing interpretation of those two songs.
Photo by Rodrigo Avendano
What followed soon after was the weekend’s main attraction: Reich’s minimalistic masterpiece, “Music For 18 Musicians”. Performed to precision by Ensemble Signal (sans a conductor, mind you), the piece was an incredible sight to behold and required an immense amount of skill, timing, and focus. Eight musicians faced eachother, weaving back and forth according to the piece. Mallet percussion — marimba, xylophone, metallophone — in addition to a piano and several maracas flooded the back and struck each section of the stage in different strides.
It was a tremendous performance that yielded the loudest standing ovation of the weekend — 10 minutes, no less. In that time, however, the players bowed from their positions, brought out Reich, bowed again, left the stage, returned for a full bow in a line, left the stage again, and came out for one final bow. (They could have done this as long as they wanted to and the crowd would still be applauding.) Not a soul would argue against such credibility; an incredible conclusion for an incredible weekend.