Report: Big Ears Festival in Knoxville

Held last weekend,
March 26-28, in Tennessee, it featured such non-festival staples as Terry Riley,
The National, Joanna Newsom and Nico Muhly. Guess what? It was cooler and
smarter than just about any festival you’ll be privy to all year.

 

By Steven Rosen

 

As there are smart phones, cars and homes, there are a
growing number of smart rock-music festivals.

 

By that I mean something more than those that are astutely
booked to show breadth and depth of their line-ups (Bonnaroo, Coachella), or
clever niche appeal (Ponderosa Stomp). Rather, these other festivals believe
they can smarten you up – educate you – about the connections between new rock,
especially that with an alternative bent, and other types of creative music,
including classical, contemporary jazz and avant-garde/experimental. And they
also just want to have fun.

 

Fests like New Orleans Jazz & Heritage and South by
Southwest long ago taught us the connections between rock and traditional jazz,
blues, R&B, folk and country – so this is the new frontier. Such “smart”
fests include All Tomorrow’s Parties, England’s
Meltdown, Cincinnati’s MusicNOW, Cambridge’s Beeline, and BAM Next Wave in Brooklyn.

 

And also Big Ears in Knoxville,
Tenn., which completed its second
year during the final weekend of March. Based on the quality and imagination of
its approximately 55 performers, the beauty of its major venues, the
attentiveness of the audiences, and the general coolness of downtown Knoxville, this is
becoming the smart-festival standard-bearer. It is founded by Ashley Capps, who
also organizes Bonnaroo. At the end of Big Ears 2010, he said he’d soon start
work on the 2011 edition.

 

He’ll have to go some to beat 2010. It featured as artist-in-residence
the 74-year-old minimalist composer/keyboardist Terry Riley, a guru-like figure
with his long white beard and kindly smile. During the weekend, he performed
solo and with both jazz- and classical-oriented combos, including one featuring
his son, guitarist Gyan.

 

With an almost-20-piece version of the Bang on the Can
All-Stars, Riley did a fantastic, long-after-midnight performance of his 1964
“In C,” which begins on a C and features individual musicians repeating short
patterns. Over the years, Riley has studied Indian raga vocals, and his use of
chanting and calm, meditative singing gave this “In C” – a landmark of Western
modernism – an Eastern spiritual dimension that only enriched it.

 

So, too, did the concert setting – downtown’s 1,600-seat
Tennessee Theatre, a restored 1928 movie palace that has a curved interior and
luxuriously golden Baroque decorations and looks like a Turkish palace. “It’s
like being inside an Easter egg,” said an admiring Shara Worden (My Brightest
Diamond), while performing her exhilarating Sunday evening set there before a
fest-closing performance by Brooklyn’s The National.

 

The other major site, downtown’s nearby 100-year-old Bijou
Theater (also restored), was smaller and less opulent but also had wonderful sound.
Other venues included an interesting club on Market Square called the Square
Room, which shared a glass wall with a restaurant so you could watch diners eat
and read newspapers while listening to, say, a Tennessee solo guitarist using
the name Mountains of Moss create sampled, looped ambient soundscapes
suggestive of a forest on a calm day.

 

The National used its Big Ears gig as a showcase for songs
from its upcoming alt-rock album, High
Violet,
which seem to highlight U2ish group shout-out vocals – and
revved-up bursts of rousing song-ending rhythm-guitar work – as counterpoint to
Matt Berninger’s moody, tense, Ian Curtis-style baritone singing.

 

Yet despite the use of horn arrangements and extensive
violin work by Padme Newsome, the set featured some of the least experimental
music of the weekend. (It was rivaled in that department by Vampire Weekend,
whose sold-out Saturday night Tennessee Theatre set of punkish but friendly,
world-music-tinged rock had the crowd on its feet and screaming start-to-finish.
At the very least, they’re the new Weezer.)

 

Ironic, then, that one of The National’s guitarists,
Yale-educated Bryce Dessner (the other is his brother, Aaron), was Big Ear’s
co-curator, and has emerged as perhaps the rock world’s biggest advocate of
festivals like this. (He founded the smaller MusicNOW in his native Cincinnati five years
ago. It is held immediately after Big Ears.)

 

Dessner, himself a New Music composer, brought plenty of
other rock-tinged (or not) experimentalists with him. One was Newsome’s chamber
group The Clogs, which features Dessner and used Big Ears to debut The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton. Dessner also appeared with Bang on a Can All-Stars for “In C.”

 

But as busy as Dessner seemed, the electrifying young New York
composer/keyboardist Nico Muhly seemed even busier – nearly omnipresent. A
strong candidate for my favorite Big Ears set was one at the Bijou featuring
Muhly with two singer-songwriters, Sam Amidon and Doveman (Thomas Bartlett),
and viola player Nadia Sirota. Among the set’s highlights was Sirota playing to
a Muhly-created tape loop of Antony’s
recorded voice, and a group take on a haunting old folk song, “The Only Tune,”
that Muhly’s family taught him.

 

On the latter, the group – with Amidon on banjo – built up
the song’s mournful, Americana qualities but then also deconstructed them with
discordant atonality, before singing “Oh, the dreadful wind and rain” like a
resigned, touching refrain of all life’s pains. Strong, mesmerizing,
transcendent stuff. (It’s on Muhly’s new album, Mothertongue.)

 

Of the alt-rock bands that I caught, London’s The xx trio made the most startling
impression during a Friday night set at the Bijou. For such a young band, it
had dramatically theatrical lighting – worthy of Tom Waits – and started the
show with only its shadows visible behind a stage curtain. Its music was
twisty, downbeat, restrainedly romantic. Simultaneously dark and gnarly,
minimalist yet textured, it left a powerful impression. Its co-vocalist and
-guitarist, Romy Madley Croft, was just one of several younger women who led or
co-led groups in powerful experimentalist pop and rock sets.

 

St. Vincent’s Annie Clark,
also at the Bijou, compensated for her small voice with powerful use of guitar
feedback, pounding and beating the instrument to get noise and jumping backward
and forward with a startle, as if getting a shock. Quite literally, her band’s
set seemed electrifying. But for all that, it was most notable not me for a
lovely melancholy cover of Jackson Browne’s “These Days,” which she introduced
as a Nico song. (Nico recorded it on her Chelsea Girls album.) That revealed a lot about
her influences.

 

I’m not sure if Joanna Newsom’s densely textured and
arranged pop music qualifies as rock or even pop – The New York Times has called her “alt-harp” – but she has the kind
of adoring following that is characteristic of cult rockers. They were out in
force at her headlining Bijou show. Tiny compared to her harp, with long
flowing hair and a broad smile, she had a magnetic stage presence, which she
needed given the time she spent tuning her harp. (She also played piano.)

 

At their best, the songs she and her five supporting
musicians played had colorful arrangements, and songs from her Have One on Me album benefited,
especially the title one. She was also in strong voice, with an especially
clear soprano range. That said, there were still times when the songs and
lyrics seemed to go off somewhere private, resisting accessibility as they hunt
for something mythic and enlightening. Incidentally, Saturday Night Live
comedian Fred Armisen opened for Newsom, doing his mildly amusing impersonation
of drumming instructor Jens Hannemann.

 

It’d be great if next year Big Ears introduced this crowd to
some of the still-active lions of Free Jazz – Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor or
Anthony Braxton would all make great artists-in-residence. And, it’d be
terrific to hear some of the more barrier-breaking vocalists/songwriters of
jazz and soul – Abbey Lincoln, Andy Bey, Eugene McDaniels if he’s still
performing, and some younger people they have influenced.

 

That way, Big Ears would get even smarter.

 

 

 

 

 

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