Big Ears Festival 2010 A Highlight Reel

When the initial lineup for the second Big Ears festival was announced a few months ago, the inclusion of current indie darling/punching bag Vampire Weekend led to a minor fury of online diatribes and general WTF-style comments. More alarming to some was that this year’s edition was being co-curated (alongside Big Ears honcho Ashley Capps, whose AC Entertainment is also responsible for Bonnaroo) by Bryce Dessner, guitarist for the rather bland rock group The National. Never mind that composer Terry Riley was the centerpiece of the fest and Dessner turns out to have an impressively art-drenched CV; for a festival whose mission statement claims to offer a platform for “artists possessed of singular and unique visions that stand apart from the mainstream,” and whose biggest concessions to pop music for its inaugural edition were Antony and the Johnsons and Dan Deacon, the thought of VW and The National appearing seemed like a turd in the punchbowl for some. Where was this year’s The Necks or Burning Star Core?

As the Knoxville-based festival weekend grew closer and acts such as Liturgy, William Basinski, Ben Frost, and Tim Hecker were added, these complaints died down somewhat. With an expanded lineup, there were even more fringe/avant-garde acts than last year, and the programming reflected the different audiences that were targeted. If you didn’t want to see Vampire Weekend, you could catch British improv trio Konk Pack (arguably the most challenging, out-there act of the festival), Terry Riley play a giant pipe organ at the nearby University, or some experimental films by the likes of Stan Brakhage and Harry Smith. (Did you notice I used an Oxford comma in that last sentence?) If you don’t care for St. Vincent, you could experience the bizzaro world of old-timey avant improv duo Shaking Ray Levis with vocalist Shelley Hirsch.

So while I personally don’t particularly care for most of the indie bands that played, it ended up being a non-issue because so much else was going on. (I thought I should at least catch a part of The National’s show, since they were the big finale and their forthcoming new album is being hyped so much, but a friend who ducked in for a few songs said it sounded like a bank commercial, confirming my suspicions. The next day Rolling Stone called them “a scruffier Kings of Leon” and compared them to U2, so I have no regrets.) All I can say for certain about sets by VW, The National, Clogs, St. Vincent, and The xx is that bands and audiences were well-served by the venues. Two things that make Big Ears stand out as a festival were the intimate, ornate, acoustically impressive theaters that served as the primary venues. The Bijou is over 100 years old with 700 seats, while the slightly younger and bigger Tennessee Theatre holds 1600, the largest capacity of the festival. All but one of Terry Riley’s performances were at one or the other, but lesser-known’s like electronic acts Nosaj Thing and jj, and Brooklyn noise pop young’ns Abe Vigoda, opening for Vampire Weekend, got to take those stages as well.

On with the superlatives!


Most unexpected unexpected surprise

He’s one of the most influential composers of the 20th century and the eminent guru of this festival, so in what way were Terry Riley’s performances a surprise? The diversity of his multiple performances. (And who knew he sang so much?) If you were only familiar with his more famous compositions, the Terry Riley Quartet would have been the biggest shock. Featuring his son Gyan on classical guitar, electric violinist Tracy Silverman, and flat-out amazing drummer for the downtown NYC stars Ches Smith, the Quartet played a lengthy jazzy piece that was both composed and improvised, while Riley interjected Zen statements through jazz standard singing. They switched gears with an unorthodox take on an evening raga and a more identifiably Riley-esque piece. Quite a performance. The next day he played the giant pipe organ at the nearby university, a performance I missed, but for many was the highlight of the weekend. Later that evening, he teamed with the Bang On a Can All-Stars for a take on Autodreamagraphical Tales, a spoken-word/sung piece in which Riley recounted several dreams, mostly cannabis-related. Then straight into a big-band rendition of workhorse “In C.” (see below)

He closed out the weekend with a solo piano performance following Calder Quartet’s presentation of his Cadenza On The Night Plain. The 75 year old was busier than almost anyone else over the weekend, and he demonstrated how deep and diverse his repertoire is.


Best rock show

The Ex had absolutely no competition here, as pretty much anyone who attended the Dutch band’s show will tell you. You wish more rock bands would be this tight, this committed, this intense. Drummer Katherina Bornefeld was a joy to watch, her African/militaristic steady beats driving the three guitarists on. Terrie Ex, Andy Moor, and new guy Arnold de Boer alternately played lockstep and challenged each other with rhythmic, assertive guitar. It was a bit odd at first to hear someone other than GW Sok, who left the band after 30 years, handling vocal duties, but de Boer more than lived up to the challenge of replacing him, getting across the urgency and passion of the songs. They played only one other show, in Chicago, during this trip to the States, and the audience seemed to know how lucky they were, soaking up every note.


Most definitely not ambient

Ben Frost issued teeth-rattling bass bombs and brutal electonic blasts, over which he played a guitar that sounded pissed-off and injured. It was an intense, all-enveloping sound, one that live up to title of his album, By The Throat. The most gorgeously damaged set of the weekend.

Sunday afternoon, day three of the fest, came too early, but stumbling into a pitch-black Tennessee Theatre to hear Tim Hecker’s aural assault woke everyone up real quick. A common complaint of laptop/electronic shows is that there isn’t anything to really watch, and Hecker solved this “problem” by performing in the dark, the better to concentrate on his loud, layered soundscapes. These two performances stood in stark contrast to most everything else over the weekend, and they were a great reminder of how amazing and unique live heavy electronic music can be.

Unfortunately the much-anticipated collaboration between the two didn’t offer much beyond a mini-treatise on what each one does. They seemed to be playing over each other rather than with, turning in a not terrible but somewhat lackluster collaboration.


Best voice/most criminally under-attended show

In a festival full of unique vocalists — Sam Amidon, Nico Muhly, Joanna Newsom, Shelley Hirsch, Liturgy dude, Dirty Projectors’ Amber and Angel — Iva Bittova destroyed them all. I know, it’s not a competition, but still — she destroyed them all. Kind of a shame the 802 tour, featuring Muhly and Amidon, was scheduled at the same time, because I know she would have wowed some of that audience. The Czech singer and violinist has an unusual style, incorporating classical, jazz, and gypsy music, with a huge dose of personal chutzpah. She opened the festival with a set of Janacek and Fred Frith-composed songs with the Calder Quartet, which might have convinced some it was okay to miss her solo set. Too bad, because a smaller room containing a couple dozen people at most allowed that voice, for much of the set a cappella, to penetrate even deeper; at one point, she played a violin duet with a passing train in the distance.


Most interesting bill

Pairing Iva Bittova with black metal-with-Middle Eastern-influences band Liturgy was inspired, but the William Basinski/DJ rupture/Dirty Projectors lineup brought together the most disparate group of people. If it didn’t completely go over well for everyone (and here I specifically mean the frat-types who had shown up for the Projectors and critiqued Basinski’s lulling ambient tape loop performance with such insights as “God! This is so stupid! It would be more entertaining if he busted watermelons on stage like that one guy.”), this lineup provided the exact sort of cross-pollination and reaching out to “big ears” that the festival encourages. And for all those who didn’t like the triple-header, for some of us it held a surprise:


Best show by a group whose albums I don’t like that much

I wouldn’t have made much of an effort to see Dirty Projectors, so I was glad I stuck around after Basisnki and rupture. I totally get what a unique guitar player and composer Dave Longstreth is, and the vocal arrangements are particularly ambitious in the world of indie rock, but I generally find DP more interesting than enjoyable. Sometimes those voices even annoy me. But seeing them live made me appreciate them even more, and finally wholly enjoy them. And whilethe complexities of the full band resonate, the simple acoustic guitar/vocal duet of “Two Doves” will likely linger as a memory longer.


Regional low profile acts who were every bit as good as many big names

For some, the folk-informed guitar styling’s of Mountains of Moss and Paper Hats, the fractured rock of Ahleuchatistas, the conceptual electro-pop of Damaged Patients, the sonic pummeling of New Brutalism, the balls-out metal of Warband, the black metal histrionics of Argentinum Astrum and the ambient soundscapes of Villages and Ampient Music, all acts from Knoxville or surrounding cities, were more in line with last year’s lineup, and the rewards were great for the smaller crowds who ventured to these lesser-hyped shows.


Best concert to slip in and out of consciousness to

I was sure it would be Bang On a Can’s interpretation of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, a soothing ambient epic well-placed as a Sunday afternoon come down, but I’d had too much coffee by that point. Instead, the 1:30 AM start time of Terry Riley’s “In C,” executed by a 19-piece megaband led by Bang On a Can All Stars, was the perfect music for the liminal state of sleep and waking. I saw lots of heads nodding or resting on the backs of chairs, as we would drift off for who knows how long and wake up to find ourselves sort of back where we left off… but not really. It was an appealing if occasionally eerie experience. You may think it odd one of the highlights of my weekend was spent in a state of partial sleep, but you can’t plan for or replicate such experiences, and you have to think Riley would appreciate such a thing.


Best party/Biggest bummer

Following the 2:30 finish to “In C,” most of us just wanted to sleep for real, but we heard that Gang Gang Dance started late and was still going strong. We arrived to find the exact opposite of “In C,” the only real dance party of the weekend, with the band and the audience in an ongoing state of communal bliss. The band seemed to be having as much fun as the crowd, Liz Bougastos on the edge of the stage (in a Ghostface Killah Fishscale shirt, natch) encouraging audience and band. Local laws made the venue cut the sound at 3 AM, but the three percussionists kept going for a bit longer. It’s hard to say who was more bummed, the band or the crowd, but it was definitely a major buzzkill. More than one kid was mad because the MDMA was just starting to kick in.


Biggest word of mouth and Twitter from a show I didn’t see

Aside from the raved-about Terry Riley pipe organ concert, which when asked about elicited literal wide-eyed superlatives such as “awesome,” “amazing” and “incredible,” Clogs seemed to generate the most post-show buzz. Bryce Dessner’s chamber Americana band, which actually predates The National, were joined by My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden and Sufjan Stevens, exciting a lot of attendees who were unfamiliar with the group but showed up for the Sufjan/National connection.


Biggest negative word of mouth and Twitter from a show I didn’t see

Absolutely no one had anything good to say about Abe Vigoda.


Best Twitter

Kind of a cheat since I didn’t really look at that many Twitterers, but a link from Big Ears’ account led me to DJ/rupture’s, a sampling of which follows:

• the Tenn theater IS like an opera house on acid crossbred w Faberge egg! Luv it

• Joanna Newsome [sic] most interesting thing is way she&harp seem like 1 entity. Cyborg!

• Oops i got kicked out of Joanna Newsome concert for TALKING! For real!

• Super into LITURGY’s feral feline roar

• don’t have a superlative for her but have to mention Joanna Newsom

She was great, if you’re inclined to like her. I am, and her two-hour set drawing mostly from her new album saw her and her very impressive, understated band in great form. They play somewhat serious and kind of formal music, but were relaxed, chatty, and indulged in a Q&A and some bad jokes, making an intimate show even more intimate. Having heard and enjoyed her in a club and in a giant auditorium with the Atlanta symphony, the Bijou turned out to be just the right venue for her music.


EMS Synthi A

Ever seen anyone play one of these? If not, you should try to catch Konk Pack some time. They have a guy who plays one like a hyper mad scientist trying to change out tubes and tweak knobs in time to save the earth, creating some of the strangest sound you’ll ever hear. Plus a dangerous, insane drummer and an equally mad tabletop guitarist who used to be in Henry Cow. For those who skipped The National, a great show to cap off the weekend.


There wasn’t a single stand-out best performance, but my favorites in order of appearance, in case you just want to look at a list

Terry Riley Quartet, The Ex, Ben Frost, Bang On a Can All Stars, Iva Bittova, William Basinski, DJ/rupture (solo and with The Ex guitarist Andy Moor), Dirty Projectors, Paper Hats, Joanna Newsom, “In C,” Gang Gang Dance, Tim Hecker, Music for Airports, Shaking Ray Levi Society w/ Shelley Hirsch, Konk Pack, KnoEars (see below).


Yes, I do sometimes wonder about sound and vision

As in I wonder how The Books’ videos can be so funny and entertaining and their music so dull. Haven’t you noticed how all their songs kind of sound the same? I think it comes down to tone, and I don’t like the guy’s voice or the easy listening pitter-pat of their “folktronica.” “Well, that’s just you,” said the disproportionately-lengthy standing ovation. I’ve dissed these guys before in a live review, and don’t really enjoy doing it, but they keep turning up at festivals and insist on being scheduled between acts I want to see when I’m too tired and hungover to leave their sets.


Most interesting local response

Not everyone in town got goo-goo-eyed over eating lunch at a table next to Sufjan Stevens, sweaty palmed while chatting up Annie Clark or nerded out while assisting William Basinski in his quest for barbecue after a random encounter on the street (that last one was me). A large number of local musicians who were indifferent to or outright contemptuous of the festival participated in what they called KnoEars. Acts of a mostly lo-fi/garage rock persuasion took to sidewalks, parks, alleys, parking garages, and apartments performing mostly unpublicized shows to curious passersby and non-badge-holding townies. It culminated in an all-day Sunday event at Pilot Light, a small club that had been an official venue the first two days of the fest. It was the only alternative to The National, and the only (unofficial) live music-oriented closing party. I imagine a version of this goes in on all cities where big music festivals are held, and whatever their intent they usually end up supplementing the shows people are in town to see, so everybody wins.

So a pretty great weekend. Of the 21 performances I caught, only one was a disappointment - a ratio no one has any reasonable right to expect. Year Two saw the festival already redefining itself, casting a wider net to appeal to a more diverse group of music fans, not content to remain a refined but quaint musical festival. While it makes sense that some people are disappointed to see so much indie rock encroaching on it — aren’t there enough of those festivals? — it probably can’t sustain itself by just featuring the big (but marginalized elsewhere) acts in the experimental/avant-garde realm. (Although to be fair, how “outside the mainstream” and avant garde is last year’s centerpiece Philip Glass these days? The guy composed the soundtrack not just for B-grade horror flick Candyman, but it’s Z-grade sequel.) In fact, I suspect once other festival organizers read the glowing reviews Big Ears 2010 has been getting we may see more such integration in the future. There are lots of those festivals in Europe, thriving without worry of a potential soul-staining Manichean conflict, and it would be interesting to see more of that here.

But, dude, seriously — Vampire Weekend?

[Photo collage: Big Ears Festival website; individual pictures of The xx, Dirty Projectors, DJ/rupture, and Joanna Newsom by Shawn Poynter of Metro Pulse]

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