Big Ears Festival 2014: Top 10 Performances

Festival Review


    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

    Television 6

    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.