Big Ears Festival: 26-28 March 2010 – Knoxville, TN

Big Ears was upon us at last. The time had come for the Southern take on the boutique festival, located in my adopted hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. That’s right…Knoxville. It was time to show the rest of the world that we’ve got a pretty hip little town on our hands, and the Big Ears Festival is a perfect mission statement. Along with a burgeoning downtown and some stellar concert venues, we also stake claim to Ashley Capps. Capps owns and operates AC Entertainment (Pollstar’s #20 concert promoter in the US) which puts on both Big Ears and festival giant Bonnaroo. In the fest’s second year, the lineup is much more accessible with indie darlings Vampire Weekend, The xx, and The National taking center stage along with the likes of composers Terry Riley and William Basinski.

Friday started out on a high note with the University of Tennessee’s men’s basketball team advancing to the Elite 8 for the first time in school history. Elevated spirits set the table nicely for Dutch punk band The Ex’s blistering set at the Big Ears Annex. The Ex absolutely killed with emphatic tri-guitar bursts that were as tight and poised as they were furious. It’s a rare treat to see a band that’s been around for thirty years who haven’t lost a step regardless of constant lineup changes or middle age. Truth be told, I was riding so high off UT’s tournament win that new Ex frontman Arnold de Boer could’ve channeled his inner GG Allin and flung feces at me and I still would have responded with resounding applause. It became clear very early on that this was a different kind of festival: one that sits far enough left of the dial to have its most recognizable artists feel comfortable rubbing elbows with the masses.

Next stop was Knoxville’s historic Bijou Theatre for an intimacy reality check. The gorgeous, 750-seat theatre was packed, leaving me to settle on a back balcony spot for L.A. experimental electro DJ Nosaj Thing. Nosaj Thing’s set was enjoyable but was followed by one of the biggest disappointments of the weekend. Swedish duo jj took the stage and proceeded to phone it in with a virtual karaoke set complete with the worst accompanying background video I’ve ever seen (crappy soccer footage and whales)? Singer Elin Kastender looked disheveled and confused (strongly resembling Claire from this season’s Lost), yet her voice was beautiful and comforting booming over the canned backing tracks.

Partner Joakim Benon eventually joined Elin on stage, guitar in hand. Still perched high in the back balcony seat, I presumed that Benon had decided to actually perform, only to have my bubble burst as he stopped playing to give Elin a kiss while the guitar chords continued to fill the theater. I was able to move down front for the end of jj’s set to catch the bird’s nest of curly blond hair lay motionless while her bandmate’s prop guitar feigned life. The only real crowd reaction came when the backing video showed Elin rolling up and smoking a blunt. You could sense the audience collectively realizing (pause for deep breath); she’s probably high right now! Big deal.

Sporting my newly acquired fourth row seats and noticing the incredibly young crowd, we prepared for The xx. As a great white sheet blocked the band from our gazes, the twenty-year-old London kids filled the small Knoxville venue with the chilling notes of “Intro” as their silhouettes shined through thanks to outstanding light support. The sheet dropped, revealing the band and a shiver went up my spine, caused either by the music or the vibrations of the bass shooting through the floor. After the showmanship free jj set, the glitz and glamour of The xx light show was well received. To my left was a ground level balcony packed with fresh-faced teens. They gyrated and made out ferociously, fueled by the sexiness of “Crystalised”. All I could think about was how awesome it would be if the youth culture in America fully embraced The xx. Singer-guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Oliver Sim wore black blazers and half turtlenecks complete with gold guido chains. How amazing would it be if American youths ran with this style?

I’d much rather be greeted at the mall by black clad teens rocking xx inspired gear than those damn Insane Clown Posse and Misfits t-shirts. About half of those kids don’t even know who the Misfits are: ask ‘em and you’ll be amazed. In typical adolescent fashion, the hormone-charge youths was disbanded after they were caught smoking cigarettes and removed from the theatre. The juvenile makeout session continued though as a couple on the upper balcony were so enamored by the music that they proceeded to go at it while half the Bijou watched. At one point it looked like the kid was attempting to unclasp her bra, but alas, he didn’t quite have the game to pull that off and they were separated by security shortly after.

The final stop of the evening was the Square Room for Andrew W.K. and the Caulder Quartet’s midnight show. Expecting some rowdy, booze soaked party tunes, I was a little thrown to arrive to Andrew playing an improv piano solo. He did play “ I Get Wet” and “Party Hard” with the Caulder Quartet backing before breaking into John Cage’s “4’33’’. In other words, 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, which was a bit more than the crowd could handle. One woman stormed out, furious at the audience’s inability to go more than ten seconds without making a lame joke. I ducked out midway through the experiment; the final audible notes heard were someone’s “Safety Dance” ringtone.

Saturday had much more of a marathon feel and was quite a bit more challenging. The highlight of Bang on a Can All-Stars’ set was a chance to sit on the floor and take in a piece penned by Thurston Moore. “Stroking Piece #1” would’ve fit perfectly on Sonic Youth’s Sister and went well with the repetitive, minimalist style of many of Big Ears’ artists. After a brief bit of The 802 Tour, I caught a mostly poppy, Doveman heavy part of the set. After that, it was back to the Square Room to get ready for guitar god Adrian Belew. Knoxville’s own Shortwave Society opened for Belew, sounding like a string-heavy Arcade Fire/Postal Service hybrid. Their pop harmonies and compelling string work gelled nicely with the comedic undertones of their songs. Belew’s set was a little bit disappointing. I was expecting a little more out of the living legend whose axe blared side by side with Bowie, Zappa, and the Talking Heads. Sure his twenty-minute set was loaded with some of the most impressive looping and whammy bar work I’ve heard in a long time, but all I really wanted was for him to break into some King Crimson.

I was fortunate to have friends save a seat up front for the Dirty Projectors packed set. This was my first non Projectors show and I was looking forward to checking them out in the stunning, and recently renovated, Tennessee Theatre. The band launched into “Cannibal Resource”, showcasing some of the tightest musicianship and vocal harmonies I’ve heard live to date. Lead singer Dave Longstreth, recent third place winner at a Stephen Malkmus look-alike contest, thrashed away; breaking several stings during frenzied renditions of much of Bitte Orca. The harmonizing of the Projector’s female trio was stunning. As I headed out to catch the Clogs’ set down the road, hordes of teenyboppers waiting for Vampire Weekend littered the walkway outside the theater, foreshadowing things to come.

The Bijou was buzzing over rumors that Sufjan Stevens would be performing an unannounced solo set after The Clogs. Unfortunately, the bonus gig never materialized and was the second such downer as The National lead singer Matt Berninger was unable to make it to perform guest vocal duties. Terry Riley’s son Gyan blew the crowd away with his superb guitar work as the opener. Big Ears’ co-curator Bryce Dessner joked during Clogs’ set that Sufjan asked if he was embarrassed to go on after Gyan. The Clogs had loads of help, joined by Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond as well as the Caulder Quartet. Sufjan did come out and play his own “Barn Owl, Night Killer”, but it still seemed a waste for him to come all this way only to perform in guest appearances. The set featured some of the most beautiful music I heard all weekend but was overshadowed by slight disappointment and exhaustion.

It was time to give my brain a rest and enjoy some inescapably likable pop tunes from the festival’s biggest name, Vampire Weekend. Swarms of young girls with neon sunglasses and dudes in Ezra Koenig costumes packed the Tennessee Theatre for one of the festival’s sold out gigs. Opener Abe Vigoda seemed to be suffering from an identity crisis and couldn’t quite seem to make their sound work, but they did reference the Sun Sphere from the classic Simpsons episode so they got a pass. Vampire Weekend took the stage to a roar of approval from boppers and indie kids alike. I was pretty sure that I might have accidentally stumbled into a Jonas Brothers concert. As “White Sky” opened, sounds of girls screaming were drowned out by the impressively full and clean sound of the band. Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut always seemed a bit musically thin to me but the live renditions really fleshed out the compositions with a little help from the occasional canned backing track.

Attempts to enjoy myself were constantly thwarted by the 16-year-old bopper standing on her chair in front of me screaming like a deranged madwoman every twenty seconds. I noticed an equally annoyed man standing a couple seats down from her that groaned loudly every time she let one fly. Right as I was prepared to share a sweet little burn with him, letting him know I shared his pain, she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, revealing herself to be his daughter. I quickly caged my biting remark and envisioned a battle royale in which the make-out loving xx teens and the pastel polo Vampire Weekend youths went at it. I’d take the xx kids any day as making out and smoking cigarettes is way cooler than screaming like a crazy person. Obnoxious distractions aside, I did thoroughly enjoy the set. You can’t necessarily blame the band for the fans: hell, I’m sure there were swarms of guys at Beatles concerts just begging those damn girls to stop screaming and crying. Vampire Weekend sure as hell aren’t the Beatles, but they did put on a great show.

The night capped with a double bill of Jens Hanneman and Joanna Newsom at the Bijou. I’d temporarily forgotten the scoop with Jens until I busted through the double doors to see Fred Armisen barreling towards me down the aisle. Armisen’s fictional German drumming expert was hilarious and completely won over the venue. He’s actually one hell of a drummer and his impressions were spot on. His Ringo Starr was especially impeccable. Initially, I was less than thrilled to catch the lovely Joanna Newsome’s set. Her albums aren’t exactly a fun listen for me and after a comedy set (one that Armisen graded an A+), the last thing I was looking for was a huge downer. Within minutes of her stepping on stage I was smitten, blown away by how likeable and funny she was. The live renditions of her tunes were surprisingly accessible and when you witness her sing with your own eyes, her voice’s creepiness quickly fades.

I wasn’t quite as in the mood for a brown shower on Sunday after UT’s basketball team missed the Final Four by one point. Nothing like spending an hour with St. Vincent to cheer you up though. She’s like some kind of super sweet, porcelain doll who sings like an angel and can shred on the guitar. “Laughing with a Mouth Full of Blood” followed by “Actor Out Of Work” was killer, and my crappy mood was officially shaken when she broke into Nico’s “These Days”. Quite possibly my most memorable moment of Big Ears was watching Annie, lit by a single white light, tackle the classic, complete with the occasional throaty Nico inflection.

After a short break, it was finally time to catch storied composer and performer Terry Riley at long last (this was the final of four sets in which he performed). This guy is a living legend and it was pretty cool to see him wandering around town all weekend. Every time I stumbled across him he was all smiles and engaged in conversation with the good people of Knoxville (I’m pretty sure all the youngsters thought he was Santa). Riley graced us with a little “Night Music” before telling us to “Feel free to go to sleep.” As I spaced out and took it all in, I regretted not catching one of his more upbeat sets.

Knoxville pride was high for the final two shows of the weekend. The very pregnant Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond claimed the Tennessee Theatre was the favorite place she’d ever performed. “It’s like playing inside an Easter egg” she said, and all the kind words from the day’s musical acts seemed to really sink it. Ashley Capps and Co. had managed to pull off an amazing festival with a great turnout, all without selling out the original concept of celebrating experimental music. My Brightest Diamond was fantastic and led nicely into The National’s High Violet heavy set. The new songs, particularly “Sorrow”, “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, and “I’m Afraid of Everyone” (featuring Sufjan Stevens) were killer. Singer Matt Berninger was in top form; his baritone vocals and sparsely lit visage capped a hell of a weekend. During “Mr. November”, in the most rock star moment of Big Ears, Berninger walked across several amps, white wine in hand. He jumped down spilling half his glass, looked at it for a second, and then shattered it on the stage before rushing into the audience, pushing his voice past eleven. And with that, Big Ears went out on top.