When you think of classic college towns, Knoxville, Tennessee doesn't exactly spring to mind. Unlike Athens, Georgia, or Chapel Hill, North Carolina, whose respective universities spill into the downtown streets creating a vibrant, eclectic social hub, the University of Tennessee buttresses "The Strip," a mostly soul-crushing stretch of countless fast foot chains and down n' dirty student bars. For various reasons, the city's nearby downtown area has struggled through the years — part of it is geography, it's separated from the university by a man-made park and a busy six-lane highway — but after some wobbly periods it's begun to find its footing due to a dedicated group of local activists and tent-pole events such as the Big Ears Festival, which held its second installment this past weekend.
Simply put, while Knoxville may not have the name cachet, Big Ears is arguably the classiest, most diverse festival in the country, selling more than 13,000 tickets for the 30-plus events. The brainchild of local promoter Ashley Capps (also one of the founders of Bonnaroo), BE's closest model is All Tomorrow's Parties in England, but with an even wider range of musical offerings. Of-the-moment bands like the xx, Vampire Weekend and the National — whose guitarist Bryce Dessner served as Capps' co-curator — joined renowned minimalist composer Terry Riley, ambient noise freaks like Ben Frost, Tim Hecker and William Basinski, black metalists Liturgy, electronic folk artists the Books and even Andrew W.K., who performed with his chamber pop collaborators the Calder Quarter as well as giving a fiery motivational "speech" at high noon on Saturday at the Knoxville Museum of Art.
But the bar was immediately set high on Friday night with a searing set from legendary Dutch punks the Ex. Going on 30-plus years, despite a shifting lineup of members, their agit-anarcho rattlings sounded just as vital as they did in 1979. Later that night, the xx continued to prove that they were capable of living up to the fawning foisted upon their 2009 self-titled debut. Early gigs were tentative, but the English trio has found a comfort zone using sneaky production tricks and lighting to fill out their dour Timbaland-meets-Joy Division groove. The response at the 750-seat Bijou Theater was shockingly intense, even driving one couple in a balcony box into the throes of ecstasy during the seductive "Shelter" before a security guard stepped in and told them to get a room.
Hotly tipped openers jj didn't fare as well. The Swedish duo's three records are filled with beautifully crafted, druggy pop songs but there was no attempt to duplicate the sound live. Singer Elin Kastender sang to backing tracks from a laptop while partner Joakim Benon wandered onstage after 20 minutes holding a guitar (which he never actually played), and made googly eyes at Elin. Onstage, they were merely having a laugh, but many didn't see the humor.
Saturday dawned warm and sunny, but the action was in the dark and inside. After a festival highlight set at the Bijou by the 802 Tour — featuring composer Nico Muhly, folk artist Sam Amidon, electronic musician Doveman aka Thomas Bartlettt and violinist Nadia Sirota — the Dirty Projectors ambled onstage down the street at the ornate Tennessee Theater (seriously, it's like watching a show inside a Faberge egg) for a set of knotty, pulsing selections culled mainly from last year's Bitte Orca. The crowd was already lining up for that night's Vampire Weekend show at the same venue. Much of Ezra Koenig and Co.'s material seemed more muscular — especially tracks like "Holiday" and the punky highlight "Cousins" — and their 90-minute set wrapped to Jonas Brothers-worthy screams from the mostly female crowd.
SNL's Fred Armisen made a special appearance as his drummer extraordinaire character Jens Hannemann before Joanna Newsom's set, and Saturday ended with a late-night tribal dance party put on by Gang Gang Dance. Sunday, St. Vincent a.k.a. Annie Clark destroyed the Bijou with her ferocious guitar work, mad noise scientists the Konk Pack pinged and ponged down at the Annex and Terry Riley — the festival's anointed artist-in-residence — played a set of comfortable jazz, each setting the stage for the finale of My Brightest Diamond and the National. MBD's leader and multi-instrumentalist Shara Worden is a dynamo, whether it was playing a slow-burning blues number or the set-closing cover of "Tainted Love" (not to mention, all this while being five months pregnant).
Worden's set was so strong, she nearly upstaged the National, but after a shaky start, the Brooklyn band locked in. Their upcoming fifth album High Violet (due out May 11th) is one of the year's most anticipated releases and if the live versions of tracks like the anthemic "Bloodbuzz Ohio" and "England" are any indication, it should be a monster. The band is a scruffier Kings of Leon (but with more intricate songs and deeper lyrics), combining the grandeur of U2 and Bruce Springsteen with folk elements and a distinct indie-rock thrash. Charismatic lead singer Matt Berninger rumbled his vocals in an Ian Curtis-like baritone while spastically stalking the stage like a jittery Chris Martin (even bolting into the crowd during the ripping "Mr. November" from their 2005 breakout Alligator).
For the encore's first song, High Violet's closer "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," the band were joined by many Big Ears performers — Muhly, Clark, Doveman and Worden, among them — and after the quiet, dreamy number Berninger announced, "we're always sorry to see them go." For Big Ears festival attendees, the feeling was mutual albeit on a much bigger scale.