Not everyone in Knoxville, Tennessee, knows exactly what to make of Big Ears. “I’ll admit it. I’ve never heard of a single artist on this festival,” reads the top comment on last December’s lineup-announcement post on the city’s Reddit forum, a recurring sentiment among much of the city’s non-music-head contingent — from service-industry workers to cab drivers — over the past weekend. “There’s two reactions,” festival founder Ashley Capps told Rolling Stone. “One is completely mystified. The other is, ‘This is the festival of my dreams.’”
The summit for eclectic, envelope-pushing music, art, film, dance and more just celebrated its ninth installment. Capps, the festival savant whose Knoxville-based AC Entertainment company also puts on Bonnaroo, began Big Ears in 2009 as a passion project, took a break to regroup from 2011 to 2013, and has since presented it annually. From last Thursday morning to Sunday night, impossible-to-pigeonhole sounds from the jazz, ambient, classical, folk, punk and noise worlds filled the Appalachian industrial and college city’s downtown and bohemian Old City district, echoing out from 15 venues ranging from historic theaters to churches, museums, pubs and dive bars.
Put simply, Big Ears is an alternate universe, one where form-and-structure-defying acts can draw standing-room crowds, and erudite, serious listeners from around the globe can compare notes. Many of the artists Capps attracts are giving rare if not exclusive performances — this year’s included jazz drumming guru Jack DeJohnette, bluegrass combo Punch Brothers, Animal Collective co-founder Avey Tare and folk-guitarist extraordinaire Richard Thompson backed by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. For these musicians, it’s not a stop on tour — it’s the destination.
At its core, the festival is a celebration of the cerebral listening experience, offering a cornucopia of new and old sounds foreign and domestic (including one showcase based around the concept of silence) for the relentlessly open-minded music fan.
“The way it gets pigeonholed as inaccessible and only for music nerds or music snobs is the one struggle we have to try and overcome,” says Capps. “But right now we’re at capacity at our venues, so how much do we really need to overcome it?”
Best Breakout Act: The Comet Is Coming
Post-everything London trio the Comet Is Coming reeled off not one but two turnt-up, genre-destroying sets Friday, first at the gymnasium-like Mill & Mine, then at a poorly-kept-secret show at the shoebox-sized dive the Pilot Light. With their all-instrumental, high-BPM brew of heady Seventies prog and jazz skronk, EDM drops, and even the odd hard-rock riff, Comet (synth player/hype man Dan “Danalogue” Leavers, drummer Max “Betamax” Hallett and sax virtuoso Shabaka Hutchings, who also melted faces with his other project, the Caribbean-tinged Sons of Kemet) were a damn juggernaut, crafting a perfect soundtrack for life in Marty McFly’s 1985. Bridging the gap between experimentation and accessibility — this could easily translate to arenas — and doing it with a sense of joy and a total lack of posturing, they embodied the festival’s adventuresome spirit and made for something undeniable no matter what music you listen to. C.Z. and A.G.
Most Dexterous One-Man Synth Band: Nils Frahm
Following a 2014 Big Ears debut that was by all accounts mesmerizing, Nils Frahm’s headlining set Saturday evening at the Tennessee Theatre was perhaps the most highly anticipated of the festival. And those expectations weren’t lowered when, early in the 90-minute performance, the German neo-classical pianist and avant-IDM keyboard warrior let on he was battling a bout of food poisoning. “There will be no champagne after the show,” Frahm lamented. Luckily the festival’s returning champion’s hands were fine. With the left, he’d twiddle knobs and dials on analog synthesizers, making looping drippy sound collages that rumbled the seats and skittered off the ornate auditorium’s Spanish-Moorish walls, while his right hand danced with ballet-like grace at dizzying speeds across the ivories, offering arresting melodies as if by muscle memory. Frahm appeared in an almost meditative state, his head buried in the keys, when seated at the piano. But when standing at an adjacent station of synths — he had a mad scientist’s laboratory of gear onstage — Frahm, nausea and dehydration be damned, put his whole body into the performance, dancing wildly before an audience glued to their seats by the sheer force of what they were hearing. A.G.
Best Roll-Credits Music: Every Spiritualized Song
British space-gospel legends Spiritualized are perhaps the closest that Big Ears comes to booking a classic rock act. Closing out Friday night festivities at the Mill & Mine, backlit by a video wall blinding the crowd with psychedelic visuals, the sextet and their backing choir dished out hits (at least relatively speaking) from Nineties LPs like Lazer Guided Melodies and Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. They paired seamlessly with a large helping of tunes from the group’s latest — last year’s And Nothing Hurt. True to both band and album name, the set felt like big waltzing moments of sonic cinematic bliss in a cathedral turned heady rave. Maybe it was the juxtaposition of coming near the end of a day filled with challenging music of the avant-garde, but dissonance isn’t in Spiritualized’s wheelhouse. Rather, resolve is, making the swelling climax of nearly every song feel like ending-credits music for films that elicit tears of joy. A.G.
Best Stay of Execution: This Is Not This Heat
Ahead of This Is Not This Heat’s Big Ears appearance on Saturday, co-founders Charles Hayward and Charles Bullen had been quoted saying it would be the reconstituted U.K. art-rockers’ last in the U.S. before slipping back into retirement (they have a pair of shows in their native London scheduled for May, but nothing more). Talking to Bullen and Hayward the morning after the gig, however, they seemed to be reconsidering. Heading up a six-piece, dual-drummer ensemble, the pair brought to life the tape-loop-happy doomsday proto-post-punk of 1981’s Deceit and the rest of their small but flawless catalog as This Heat. Still only their fifth Stateside show — ever — the reclusive group’s hour-and-a-half performance, from the towering “Health and Efficiency” to Deceit’s somewhat terrifying “Makeshift Swahili,” proved that while this music might have been written 40 years ago, its creeping sense of dread and strange beauty has never sounded more eerily prescient. C.Z.
Gnarliest Set: Moor Mother
Much of Big Ears’ lineup spoke to the current cultural dialogue about visibility of women, non-binary and African-American performers in contemporary music. But none did so as forcefully as Thursday night’s fourth-wall-breaking set from Philadelphia poet, singer and electronic musician Moor Mother (née Camae Ayewa). Ayewa began by repeatedly running fingernails across a contact mic. It only escalated from there. Her scorched-earth treatises on centuries of white-on-black persecution drew a direct line from the slave ships to the streets of Ferguson; her backing tracks matched the bluntness of her words with their industrial, harsh noise and free-jazz trappings, plus haunting live violin accouterments. It was severe, it was harrowing, and that was precisely the point. C.Z.
Best Trend: Deconstructionist Experimental Jazz Super-Trios
The Big Ears bill boasted no shortage of sets to please jazzophiles, but the performances that challenged those (along with the format on the whole) were among the festival’s brightest (and darkest) standouts. Even the most hardcore heads crammed into the Standard Friday night had trouble not flinching during Swedish psych-jazz trio Fire!’s late-night gig. The wrenching beauty of veteran blower Mats Gustafsson screaming painfully through his baritone sax like Rosemary’s baby was about to pop out the other end offered a pulse-quickening sonic shock to the system, while bassist Johan Berthling laid down steady ostinato grooves as connecting tissue between Gustafsson’s possessed squalls and drummer Andreas Werliin’s steady foundation of fat beats and dizzying polyrhythms. The following afternoon, the Standard played host to similarly shambolic-by-beautiful-design jazz power-trio Thumbscrew. A collaboration between rising-star guitarist Mary Halvorson, upright bassist Michael Formanek and skinsman Tomas Fujiwara, the group plays their deconstructionist swing against each other as much as with each other. The sound of those gears grinding was like a fight scene scored with wobbly six-string bends, low-slinking bass slides, skittering drums and echoes of reverb that sounded like chirping birds were hiding in the club’s walls. A.G.
Best Solo Drummer: Bl_ank
Outside Nashville’s country and pop worlds there’s an underground clamoring not to keep Music City weird (à la Austin in the early 2000s), but make it weirder — which fringier acts like Will Hicks, alias B|_ank, represent well. A drummer, synth player and projectionist who has logged time on the road with the Flaming Lips and played with outsider-music icon R. Stevie Moore, Hicks stood out among numerous solo drum performers for the completeness of his soundscapes, attention to melody (look out for the soon-to-be-released set highlight “Computer”) and the sheer virtuosity of his playing, reminiscent of Hella’s similarly octopus-like Zach Hill. Using the whole room like the craftiest noise-punk drummers do, for the finale, he left a feedback loop going as he hastily dismantled his kit and moved it catty-corner across the venue in three trips — the crowd parting for him each time — then reconstructed it just as fast, wailing on it merrily one last time before signing off. C.Z.
Best Techno: Coupler
You could throw a rock at any point during the weekend and hit a quality ambient or drone act, but those craving a steadier, quicker pulse did well to check out Coupler, one of the more palatable acts on offer, in the atrium of the Knoxville Museum of Art on Friday afternoon. From Chicago via Nashville but sounding decidedly more Düsseldorf, the Third Man Records-affiliated analog synth crew got the heart rate up with their immersive pieces, pausing only for Tangerine Dream-like segues and buildups that established the next melodic motifs. The following day, the trio donned traditional rock instruments for a second show in the same location, providing a live score to 1933 silent Japanese gangster movie Dragnet Girl that didn’t try to mimic the action onscreen so much as thoughtfully tap into the film’s overall vibe. C.Z.
Best Room for Rock Shows: The Pilot Light
It wouldn’t have been of much note to spot some of Marble City’s elected officials taking in a classical or jazz performance at the Tennessee or Bijou Theatres, but Knoxville mayor Madeline Rogero went almost unnoticed as she milled about the beer-swilling revelers at indie-rock hole-in-the-wall the Pilot Light not long before last call Saturday night. That wasn’t the only irony about the punked-out Petri dish’s first year as an official Big Ears venue. Whereas the Pilot Light would be Knoxville’s go-to for left-of-dial listening on a normal weekend, during Big Ears it was one of the few venues where festivalgoers might stumble upon a cathartic double-shot of visceral local rock. On Saturday, that came in the form of art-punk faves White Gregg and post-punk rippers Caps. The former — led by captivating sometimes-speaking, sometimes-screaming vocalist Maggie Brannon — delivers squealing saxophone over disjointed rhythms and shards of clashing guitar. The latter quartet homaged the Fall and Wire, with minimal-but-hypnotically-tight bass hooks and beats from bassist-vocalist CC McBride and drummer Joan Monaco, and buzz-saw riffs and feedback frenzies from guitarists Dakota Smith and Chris Rusk. Two nights earlier at Pilot Light, Nashville’s Altered Statesman — the longtime vehicle for indie-rocker Steve Poulton — elevated prosaic subjects like golf, healthcare and relationships gone awry with his disarmingly soulful singing and remarkable vocal restraint. A.G. and C.Z.
Best Unifying Legends: Art Ensemble of Chicago
Led by Roscoe Mitchell, one of two remaining members of the original Windy City collective celebrating its 50th anniversary this year — percussionist Don Moye is the other — the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s festival-closing Tennessee Theatre set alternated between through-composed works and free improvisation. There were moments when the players all locked in, and others where they’d be going, then suddenly stop as Mitchell rose from his chair to deliver a cathartic, cloud-parting alto sax solo — becoming part of the audience themselves. These pieces brought together the different threads that unite classical people, jazz fans, those who like their music dissonant and abrasive, and those who just want to dance. In other words, a microcosm of Big Ears’ clientele. C.Z.