After a three-year hiatus, the adventurous—iconoclastic, even—three day event returned to Knoxville, TN, for March 28-30. Among the artists performing were Steve Reich, Dean Wareham, John Cale, Television and Colin Stetson. Our own Prof. Rosen was in attendance, and he’s rumored to have returned home raving and drooling but otherwise intact.
2014 Big Ears Festival 3/28-30/14, Knoxville TN
BY STEVEN ROSEN
As the years passed since the 2010 Big Ears music festival in Knoxville, with no announcement of a new one, it looked like maybe it had been too progressive and eclectic for its own good. Or for the land between the coasts.
In its two-year existence, it had been devoted to that area of New Music where brainy rock/post-rock meets contemporary classical – especially where both use noise, minimalism, repetition, droning and other forms of sonic experimentation. It also honored alt-rock and New Music “elders” – composer Terry Riley had been 2010’s artist-in-residence – and outsiders who defied easy categorization.
Ashley Capps, whose AC Entertainment produced Big Ears, quickly declared after the 2010 event that planning would start for 2011, but it never happened. Nor did 2012 or 2013. He had other things to work on, true – Bonnaroo, Louisville’s Forecastle, and two festival ventures in nearby Asheville, N.C., that explored the area where serious-minded electronic music met synth-pop and EDM – Moogfest and Mountain Oasis. Even while a similar but smaller festival, MusicNow, thrived in Cincinnati and proved a heartland audience existed for barrier-breaking music, there was no new Big Ears. (MusicNow’s founder is Bryce Dessner, the classically trained guitarist with The National.
Still, Knoxville – AC Entertainment’s home – seemed a wonderful place for a thoughtfully programmed indoor festival for serious music listeners. So this year, with support from the city government and the mayor, he brought it back.
Knoxville is a great place for such a festival. The two main concert venues are treasures. The bejeweled 1,600-seat Tennessee Theatre was built in 1928 and painstakingly restored; the 700-seat Bijou (also restored) was built in 1909 and has a Victorian feel.
Market Square, site of two clubs used as Big Ears venues, is a model of a human-scale public space, ringed with good restaurants and shops. And the giant golden Sunsphere, a relic from the 1982 World’s Fair that awaits revival, looms over the city like a prop from a dream-state Sun Ra concert, setting a perfect standard for Big Ears’ ambitious musicians.
Steve Reich was this year’s artist-in-residence. Reich, at 77, long has been accepted (and feted with a Pulitzer Prize) as a composer who reinvigorated classical music with his use of subtle variations in persistent percussion and electronic sampling/looping. He made minimalism as popular in classical music as it is in art. But his impact on (and borrowing from) rock has only lately been recognized. His music has parallels with the Velvet Underground, funk, Kraftwerk and today’s many younger musicians who use electronic sampling and repetition. (Should Steve Reich be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?)
That contribution was recognized at Big Ears’ closing event, during which Ensemble Signal flawlessly, breathtakingly performed his nearly-hour-long “Music for 18 Musicians.” Vibes, piano, string and brass instruments and voices developed the hypnotic, repetitive melody lines with quietly controlled precision and delicacy. It rocked.
When it was over, the crowd at the Tennessee Theater offered Reich, who was present, and Ensemble Signal a long standing-ovation. The piece dates from the mid-1970s, but it was received by many of the theater’s younger attendees as if it was a revelatory contemporary breakthrough. Reich’s audience is growing and widening.
With acts at up to five venues (including workshops and discussions at the Knoxville Art Museum), there was too much for any one person to take everything in. I tried but missed some. But here are observations about some of the notable others (besides Reich and his interpreters) that I saw:
Dean Wareham with band: The Velvet Underground side of New Music was well-represented by Wareham, who spotlighted the loping, melancholy melodies and affectingly droll deadpan vocals of his recently issued debut solo album. His guitar solos were particularly fluid and controlled. Wife Britta Phillips played bass in his band.
Dean and Britta’s 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screentests: Meanwhile the duo’s Andy Warhol project, which they have been touring with for several years now, continues to grow in popularity along with Warhol’s legacy. Indeed, Dean & Britta bear considerable responsibility for the increasing importance of the screen tests as part of Warhol’s work.
They were black-and-white silent films – unedited close-up portraits of several minutes’ duration in which the subjects are left to their own devices to do something interesting – that Warhol shot of visitors to his Factory. This was during the mid-1960s, Warhol’s “underground” and most avant-garde phase that Lou Reed wrote about in the songs “Chelsea Girls” and “Walk on the Wild Side.”
On stage at the Bijou, Dean and Britta told stories about the subjects and then played their suitably downbeat, transfixing songs, some purely instrumental, as the films play on a big screen.
With time, fewer and fewer of the filmed subjects – so many looking young, vibrant and impossibly cool – are still alive, adding to the solemnly elegiac nature of the presentation.
That also adds to contemporary appreciation of the subjects. Applause broke out, for instance, at the screen image of the now-departed Lou Reed, drinking Coke from a bottle and wearing shades. (Dean and Britta played the Velvets track “You’re Not a Young Man Anymore” during this.)
John Cale: One living link to that era, Cale, was actually something of a disappointment at his Friday night show at the Tennessee. Now white-haired at 72, but still gifted with a powerfully clear voice – capable of soothing melancholy and screaming grittiness – he should have used his set to make a statement about the worth of his six-decade career. What really mattered the most to him, and what would most endure? His Velvet Underground material? His solo albums from the 1970s? The 1980s? All of the above?
Instead, he used his set primarily to showcase material from 2012’s Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, a good but not great contemporary alt-rock, fusion-y album that – when performed live, at least – shows Cale trying to fit in with today’s music rather than tower above it. (He did have an excellent guitarist, Dustin Boyer, to offer dazzling playing as Cale mostly was on keyboard.) Strangest of all, he did a few of his older songs, like “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend,” “Ship of Fools” and the Velvets’ “Waiting for My Man,” in an odd, choppy style as if he was in Devo. Some songs after better left unreinvented.
There were exceptions – his beautiful tribute to the Beach Boys, Nookie Wood outtake “All Summer Long,” sounded gorgeous. With him on acoustic guitar and several female back-up singers offering harmonies, Cale sang Fear ballad “You Know More Than I Know” with introspective mournfulness. And he can rip the heart out of “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Television: On the other hand, compared to Cale, Tom Verlaine knew exactly what Television’s showcase Saturday night set at the Tennessee should be about – a statement that the band’s vision of punk as a music where smart, dark lyrics coexist with long guitar solos than build and then soar off from minimalist, repetitive chording is every bit as relevant as the Ramones’ or Talking Heads’ take.
And is he right! The show featured epic takes on “Marquee Moon,” “Little Johnny Jewel,” “Torn Curtain” and other enduring mid-1970s classics, with Verlaine taking many of the solos but leaving room for second lead guitarist Jimmy Rip (who has replaced Richard Lloyd) to add textured interplay. The second encore, in which Verlaine took “Psychotic Reaction” from its 1960s-garage-rock roots into a strange, slow fade-out that replaced the song’s original bravado with sadness, was unforgettable. Television has a future to match its proud, underappreciated past.
Colin Stetson: This muscular, polite saxophonist is becoming a sensation – a music hero – with his literally breathtaking playing. Using disciplined circular breathing, he plays long solos primarily on an oversized bass saxophone, and sometimes on tenor and alto. He forcefully plays and hums through the reeds, and the results are cosmic – part Anthony Braxton and part Tuvan throat-singer.
The surprise is his following, considering the esoteric nature of his work. The bar where he played his Big Ears set, Scruffy City Hall, was jammed for his Friday night show. Air, let alone sight lines, was at a premium. And people talked about Stetson all weekend. Could he become the most popular saxophonist since Kenny G? The thought is as mind-blowing as his music.
Lonnie Holley: This 64-year-old African-American “outsider” artist, who uses found material to put together phantasmagorical yet poignant sculpture, has also been recording his improvised, free-flowing songs full of poetic yearning – last year’s Keeping a Record of It was outstanding. At Scruffy City Hall on Sunday afternoon, where there at least was some room to move, he enchanted as he played keyboard and sang with plaintive gruffness. Vocalist Jenny Hval and members of Julia Holter’s band carefully offered support. Holley’s humor mixed well with his wisdom – dedicating a song to Big Ears, he observed “What big ears you have” to audience members and then confided – perhaps a nod to the frailty that comes with aging – “I just hope in a year/I can still hear/With my big ears.”
Time and space doesn’t permit detailed descriptions of all the other highlights as well as the very few disappointments (Jonny Greenwood’s performance of Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint”). But Julia Holter’s hushed, slowed-down version of Barbara Lewis’ dreamy “Hello Stranger” was mesmerizing and belongs in the next David Lynch movie; multi-keyboardist Nils Frahm (below) displayed his talents without for a second appearing to be a show-off; acoustic trio Dawn of Midi featured an equally inventive pianist in Qasim Naqvi; and guitarist Marc Ribot’s constantly inventive playing during a screening of Chaplin’s silent movie The Kid was a treat at the Bijou, which probably showed silent movies when they were new.
It left one eagerly awaiting the next Big Ears. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait four long years for it.
Photos by Steven Rosen.