Big Ears Festival 2014 Amplified static, Charms lollipops, and classic-rock histrionics

I’m from Knoxville but haven’t lived there in six years. The city has grown so much going back feels strange. That a festival like Big Ears is even possible in Knoxville (albeit with a three year hiatus) still seems like a dream. It’s more like the culmination of events beginning in the early to mid 90s coming full circle — weird house shows, art spaces, coffee shops, and all the other venues that have since shuttered (The Mercury, The Neptune, 619 Broadway, A-1 Artspace, The Electric Wizard) up to around 2000 when Jason Boardman opened The Pilot Light and the city finally had a legit venue for more ‘out there’ music. It may be Ashley Capps’ money and name on the festival (and I can attest from working in a record store in Knoxville for eight years, one that he frequented, that the artists at Big Ears do tend to reflect his tastes), but to me, it feels like the end result of all the people who’ve sacrificed their time and sweat building a community on display.

On the first night of the fest at The Bijou Theatre, the smallest of the larger venues and host to artists such as Fennesz and Joanna Newsom in previous years, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Bill Nace delivered a knockout performance as Body/Head. They are a live representation of all of the best traits Gordon brought to SY, her voice the perfect foil for the droning void she and Nace create through sheets of amplified static. Sonic Youth’s “A Contre Le Sexisme” from A Thousand Leaves is probably the best point of reference. They performed selections from last year’s excellent Coming Apart to a backdrop of spilling hair and close-up faces projected onto a screen behind them. The aforementioned void created, staring back at the audience quite literally.

Vatican Shadow (photo credit: Bill Foster)

Later that night, Vatican Shadow, one of the various projects of Dominick Fernow (Prurient, Cold Cave, Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement), channeled the hard and dark techno of British musician Karl O’Connor’s many projects (British Murder Boys, Sandwell District, Regis, etc.) coupled with an approach similar to the late Muslimgauze and recent TMT faves Demdike Stare. While this set didn’t come close to approaching the shirt-ripping, contact-mic’d, bleeding-ear intensity of his performances as Prurient, it was easily more powerful than the majority of VS releases I’ve been privy to. As someone who was curious of how much I might enjoy VS live I will say it was fucking banging; that’s enough for me. Fernow onstage in military garb with a small table of electronics (two cassette decks, two iPods, a few Boss pedals), headbanging furiously, sweating up a small storm was a sight to behold.

At the first of two weekend “late night” performances, Tim Hecker played the Bijou. His live setup entailed a small keyboard and laptop bathed in faint purple light. The entire venue was dark otherwise. The point, it seems, is to feel, not watch. The static-drenched chords were loud enough to rattle teeth and shake the walls. Hecker began with a version of “Prism” from Virgins and segued effortlessly between it and other material from that album and Ravedeath, 1972. I noticed at least two new pieces, which both were gorgeous.

Susanna Wallumrød (photo credit: Bill Foster)

The next day after some pizza and a trip to Mast General Store to stock up on tons of candy (Charms lollipops, napoleons, sour apple straws, etc.) I ran into a friend who told me about how he had met Helge Sten (Deathprod, Supersilent, Motorpsycho) and been heckled by the Norwegian musician’s companion for being star-struck. It hadn’t occurred to me that Sten might be in attendance, since he wasn’t performing in one of those groups but as a backing musician for Susanna Wallumrød, who (like Hecker) is something of a Big Ears alumn at this point. Also about town was Cheap Trick’s Rick Neilsen, who I recalled having an interest in experimental music from seeing him gush over PiL’s Metal Box on a random episode of a Food Network program wherein he was hanging out with future talk show host Rachael Ray.

Saturday afternoon, with a gnarly sugar high, I fidget impatiently while waiting on Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin to get started. After some technical hiccups, the lights at the Bijou dimmed. Having heard just prior to this that some of my TMT comrades had seen him perform recently and maybe caught him on an off night, I entered with a healthy dose of skepticism. That may have been true for some attendees, but I think the more likely culprit for about 70% of the audience walking out during the first third of his set was the conflicting time slot with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. It seems odd to think that in 2014 at a music festival catering to mostly avant-garde musicians it would be necessary to trot out the increasingly tiresome argument that a laptop is an equally acceptable tool for the stage as a guitar.

Oneohtrix Point Never (photo credit: Scott Criss)

As I sat in the bar around the corner later the same afternoon, I overheard a conversation at the next table over from patrons who clearly didn’t care for OPN’s set. One of them loudly proclaimed he “didn’t get it,” having only attended on a close friend’s high recommendation. Post-festival, there also were plenty of insulting tweets lobbed at Lopatin (boring, uncreative, etc.) via Twitter. For his part, Lopatin seemed to enjoy himself, cradling a tallboy as he dispatched various alternate arrangements of R Plus Seven cuts on the fly, accompanied by hyper-real projections similar to the one for “Still Life” created by Nate Boyce and released last year by Warp in anticipation of the album. Lopatin’s work grappled with ideas the music community, even some of those listeners who are more accepting, have tried to dismiss with condescension and disapproval. Especially considering Big Ears is an experimental/avant-garde/etc. festival, it frustrated me to think a chunk of the audience continued to look upon this music, this particular avenue of creation, with disdain, distrust, and contempt. But I’m going out on a limb here and suggesting this was the best performance of the weekend (and yeah I heard all about infamous Haino/O’Malley/Ambarchi’s Nazaronai and don’t doubt the people who witnessed that had a near-religious experience).

Later that evening on the same stage, Laraaji employed zither textures not far removed from my only experience with his work, that of Brian Eno collaboration Ambient 3: Day of Radiance. It was beautiful and placid. Almost the kind of music one might hear in a new age head shop. I don’t mean that at all in a derogatory manner. He was accompanied by a woman employing what appeared to be smooth stones and several types of dream catchers, which were contact mic’d to add depth to the compositions.

Laraaji (photo credit: Scott Criss)

Immediately following Laraaji was Julia Holter, who put on one of the friendliest performances of the weekend. Her stage demeanor was amiable as she chatted and joked with the audience between takes of songs from her last three albums. I couldn’t help but think of how most performers had managed to avoid the guitar (except in Body/Head’s case) for the better part of the weekend as Holter introduced her band made up of only her electric piano, drums, violin, saxophone, and cello. Her voice was gorgeous and full-bodied, transforming some of the more clanky and abstract Tragedy material such as “Try to Make Yourself a Work of Art” from its original post-punk/musique concrète sound to one of amorphous space not unlike her work on Loud City Song. Personal thanks to Holter for not making us sit through “Goddess Eyes,” a song that must be important to her because of its numerous versions but has worn thin for that exact reason.

My Big Ears 2014 experience ended flatly Saturday night with Television. While enjoyable during the performance of Marquee Moon material, I couldn’t escape the feeling their long guitar excursions have become the stuff of classic-rock histrionics. Their performance wasn’t limited to this material, as they debuted several new songs similar in style to that canonized album but lacking its immediacy. I feel there’s a reason Adventure has never been critically re-evaluated in a positive light, and that the new songs only add more dirt to that particular pile. Still, the performance was spot-on, and if the Tennessee Theatre full of Television fans this year or Vampire Weekend fans in a previous one means I also get to see any/all of the aforementioned artists and line the pockets of Knoxville businesses simultaneously, I will take it every time.

[Top image: Eric Smith]

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