[10 March 2009]
Looking at the lineup of the inaugural Big Ears Festival that took place in Knoxville, Tennessee, it appeared as though it belonged in Germany or New York—not a southeastern city that hasn’t been on the musical radar in quite some time. But Ashley Capps, owner of AC Entertainment, believed the town where his company is stationed was the perfect place for a festival like this. He may be correct. Not only is everything within walking distance, there are also a variety of venue sizes on offer as well. But the real revelation came with the realization that there is an audience in this part of the America for some of the premiere avant-garde artists in the world.
The festival commenced at the Knoxville Museum of Art with the sonic experiments of Sxip Shirey and Matmos. Both acts took to the stage with vigorous imaginations, the very essence of what the Big Ears Festival was all about. Observing the two children in front of me (approximately aged 7), Shipley’s set was the kind built for the mind’s eye of a child. Using various kids toys, kitchen appliances, and guitar pedals, Shipley built the framework for his three-piece band, which also consisted of tuba and beatboxing. Playing numerous sets throughout the weekend, his “Sonic New York” trio threw out the conventional styling of a band and reinvented themselves from the ground up. As for Matmos—the only group playing the festival that I had seen before—they decided upon a complete improv set, probably due to the fact that this appearance was a last minute announcement. Taking their fragmented samples and turning them into abstract beats behind a wall of saxophone and other assortments of noise, Matmos always seem to find beauty in the mess of sound. Whether playing this sort of abstract show or a more straightforward set, Matmos always make it sound special.
Later, at the Bijou Theatre, a beautiful mid-sized space perfect for the needs of these artists, Austrian laptop maestro Fennesz laid out the most intense performance of the weekend. I’ve been preaching the good word about Christian Fennesz and his otherworldly recordings since 2001’s Endless Summer, and his live solo set only served to raise the bar he set with that record. Creating loops that cover the entire range of frequencies humans can respond to, Fennesz was completely enamored in his work, not looking up at the crowd once. The lush melodies from his guitar loops hid behind a wash of ambience that reverberated throughout the entire theatre, so much so that you could feel your insides move along with the low frequencies. Playing mostly from Endless Summer and last year’s Black Sea, this show revealed that Fennesz is making some of the most important music in modern composition.
The other headliners of the weekend—Philip Glass (who stood as a centerpiece of the event), Antony and the Johnsons, and the weekend finale featuring the likes of Michael Gira and Mark Linkous—brought the crowds out in full force. Glass, performing on Saturday afternoon at 3 pm, put on a charismatic show with the help of cellist Wendy Sutter, who really brought his works to life. I’ve always enjoyed Glass as a player, but Sutter stole the spotlight with her uncanny vibrato and uncompromising dedication to Glass’ compositions. Sutter called this their best show in America in years, providing another testament to the respect and admiration of the artists performing at this inaugural event.
The most attended event of the weekend was Antony and the Johnsons. It was interesting to see what kind of response Antony Hegarty would receive in the south, considering he goes against every single southern value known to man—but the audience ate it up. Not only was Antony in rare form, he also has one of the best bands I’ve seen in years behind him. Surprisingly, Antony was also armed with an endearing sense of humor, joking with Knoxville about it being a “chicken town”—yet after realizing he was embarrassed for saying such a thing, he made the claim that everyone in New York comes from chicken towns. Playing songs off The Crying Light and I Am a Bird Now, he even turned a Beyonce cover into a soulful, creepy strut. Before seeing this performance, Antony seemed like a mythical creature, but he did an incredible job of showing his humanity by completely breaking down the wall of audience and performer.
The festival finale was something you don’t see everyday. Larkin Grimm provided the setting for the evening, creating her Medieval Greek style folk-tunes with masterful guitar work and haunting vocals. One can see why Michael Gira signed her to Young God Records—she’s almost as creepy as he is. Gira’s performance was one of the best I’ve ever seen from a man with an acoustic guitar. If Nick Cave scares the hell out of you on Murder Ballads, throw a Michael Gira record on at your next party and watch people squirm.
The festival ended with Fennesz proving, as he had over the duration of the weekend, that he could collaborate with pretty much anyone and make it sound better than they already do. It’s not as if Sparklehorse mastermind Mark Linkous needed the help, but when these two completely different artists collaborated a thing of beauty happened. Fresh on the heels of recording for the “In the Fishtank” series together, Linkous and Fennesz created pop ambient textures that soared through the theatre with Linkous’ fragile voice behind the static noise created by Fennesz.
While the Bijou played host to the weekend’s greatest performances, some of the smaller events were underappreciated. For example, the Square Room, a fancy take on a small sized ballroom (with the worst chairs I’ve ever experienced in my life), provided the weekend’s most intimate sets from the likes of Fennesz with Tony Buck of the Necks, Ned Rothenberg, and some of the Table of Elements label’s finest. The most encompassing performance belonged to prolific free-jazz musician, Ned Rothenberg, who’s circular breathing techniques allowed him to explore a number of musical territories including many from the Eastern music world. In a room of wide-open Western ears, his sound stood out from many of the performers that weekend. The Square Room also provided a great vibe for the set of Table of Elements label-mates David Daniell and San Agustin. The band explored sonic territory rooted in the blues that also found its way into the minimalist structures of slower metal and the acid-wash of Flying Saucer Attack. This was great exposure for a relatively underappreciated label that has been producing New York minimalism meets psychedelic Americana since 1993.
Ashley Capps has big plans for the Big Ears Festival to come back next year. If this year was any indication of what is to come, this may become the premiere American avant-garde festival… in Knoxville, Tennessee of all places. After all the years of the south being sheltered to this music, maybe someone was just sitting on a goldmine all along.