Tennessee's Big Ears fest is growing nicely into its rococo-rock ambitions

Ann Powers
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — "I like this ... rococo," said Abe Vigoda guitarist Michael Vidal from the stage of the Tennessee Theatre, an ornately gilded movie palace turned concert hall, during his band's Saturday set at the Big Ears festival in Knoxville, Tenn., which ran Friday through Sunday. Vidal had paused a beat to find the word; hitting on it, he put a perfect descriptive on a gathering virtually unlike any other in the busy pop-festival season.

Big Ears, now in its second year, is the love child of Bonnaroo co-founder Ashley Capps, who started his career in this mid-size Southern city booking concerts at the University of Tennessee. A seamlessly staged, highly stimulating weekend exposing the circuitry that connects art music from the academy to Brooklyn home studios to L.A. clubs such as the Smell (Abe Vigoda's home), Big Ears celebrates sounds that fulfill one definition of "rococo": "characterized by elaborate but graceful, light, ornamentation, often containing asymmetrical motifs."

"Graceful asymmetry" is a lovely way to describe the ruling spirits and breakout performers at Big Ears 2010. Other festivals, such as Pitchfork in Chicago and the international All Tomorrow's Parties events, highlight left-field music, but Big Ears strives to create something different — a space where artists can let down their guard and communicate, and listeners, most from around the region, can relax and be surprised.

Terry Riley, the beneficent progenitor of minimalism, was artist in residence. The 74-year-old composer performed in several different settings. He played jazzy ragas with a quartet; and he sang ditties about cannabis and bliss with the Bang on a Can All-Stars, who also worked their mojo during an after-midnight Saturday performance of Riley's essential work "In C" that included many of the fest's participants.

Riley's influence was apparent throughout the weekend: in the African and ragtime flourishes that showed up in harpist Joanna Newsom's set; in the twisted grooves of veteran Dutch punks the Ex; and in the playful and deep pieces by composer Nico Muhly.

Riley's younger counterpart in programming was Bryce Dessner, the 33-year-old guitarist for the high-romantic rock band the National, who closed the fest Sunday in an expanded version that aimed for, and occasionally achieved, an epic sweep. Dessner represents the growing contingent of rock-influenced artists challenging the classical-pop split, or any other such categorical divide. Vampire Weekend, for example, packed the 1,600-seat Tennessee with ecstatic locals dancing to their blithely syncretic blend of Afropop, downtown New York rock and mainstream song craft.

The Dirty Projectors' muscle-flexing set of hard-core art pop was a high point, as was rising British band The xx. Auteurs Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond and Annie Clark of St. Vincent readjusted pop's gender roles to make room for female virtuosity and bravado. And Jace Clayton's vinyl-spinning sets as DJ/rupture built a bridge between this fest's dominant image of art-pop and those created within reggae, soul and hip-hop.

The expansive weekend had a celebratory mood to it, which partly came from the freshness of the town's encounter with this range of music; older fans mingled with undergraduates at both the classical and pop-leaning shows, and everyone, artists included, seemed thrilled by all the opportunity. It was a far cry from the hassle and hustle of bigger, more established festivals.

Those more established events book subcultural celebs Newsom, St. Vincent and the xx, but Big Ears' vision included sets by art-scene veterans such as guitarist Adrian Belew and the Czech violinist Iva Bittova next to those by much younger artists like the folk re-interpreter Sam Amidon. Next year, the fest could stand to become more open to jazz and world music artists who might bring in different sensibilities and forge new connections. It would be great to see the Mexican guitarists Rodrigo y Gabriela here, for example, or to have Ornette Coleman play the role of artist-in-residence.

But room for improvement only means that Big Ears is evolving. Capps has intimated that he'd like to bring versions of Big Ears to other cities; let's hope he does so, and also that he keeps it in Knoxville, where it's welcome, thriving and doing much good.

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