It’s #throwbackthursday , so we’re taking you back to Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN. Here are some belated recaps of shows that Rock Show DJs attended. Words contributed by Ethan Simonoff, Jenna Powell-Malloy, Harlynn Siler, and Gillian Levy. Pictures by Gillian Levy.
Big Ears is unique among music festivals. Spanning five venues in downtown Knoxville, attendees are encouraged to jump between theaters and concert halls to catch the best of each performer. Curated by Steve Reich, this year placed heavy emphasis on minimalism with maximal sonic effects.
Big Ears Launch Party w/ Steve Reich, So Percussion, and Laraaji
5:00PM @ Knoxville Museum of Art
Steve Reich kicks off the festival @ Knoxville Museum of Art
Laraaji @ Knoxville Museum of Art
Big Ears kicked off at the Knoxville Museum of Art with an opening address from festival organizers and Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, who threw some shade at Brooklyn hipsters: “We had scruffy guys with banjos way before Brooklyn did.” After some polite clapping and thanking of sponsors, So Percussion took the stage with Steve Reich himself to perform “Clapping.” Reich gave some quick opening remarks on how grateful and excited he was to be at the festival, and then handed the stage over to Laraaji for a short set. Thus we began our Big Ears experience!
So Percussion w/ Glenn Kotche, Buke & Gase
6:30PM @ Bijou Theater
The first official show I attended was So Percussion at the Bijou Theater. So is Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, and Jason Treuting, percussionists who met as graduate students at Yale. They opened their set by coming out with disposable cameras, clicking and winding away at the audience, which led to ripples of laughter throughout the crowd. Each member performed alternately on a drum set or another percussive instrument; marimbas were prominently featured. After their openers, Glenn Kotche came out to accompany them for some drumkit pieces he wrote specifically for the group through Meet the Composer, and he also stayed for a performance for Steve Reich’s “Pieces of Wood” with one member of the quartet. The last half of the show featured Buke & Gase on guitar, bass, and vocals, which added a decidedly twee element to the show.
Stephen O’Malley (solo)
7:00PM @ Scruffy City Hall
As the rain picked up outside, we retreated to the doom metal cave that Stephen O’Malley was creating inside Scruffy City Hall. With his signature clear guitar and spread of effects pedals, O’Malley performed haunting pieces that had as much to say over their sparse buildups as they did in their abrasive peaks. His pieces went through slowly evolving phases, each one just subtly distinct enough to create a hypnotic yet accelerating soundscape.
8:30PM @ Scruffy City Hall
Colin Stetson is a one-man powerhouse. It’s hard to listen to his records and imagine what it might look like live, especially knowing that Stetson doesn’t use looping at all. In person, he is a force of nature, alternating between three different saxophones and thrusting his entire physical being into the performance, rippling muscles and all. Just seeing the title track of his new record (New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light) was definitely a festival highlight and I think we all have huge crushes on him.
9:30PM @ Bijou Theater
You can’t talk about Body/Head without focusing on its most famous element: Kim Gordon, the mother of all things noise rock and founding member of Sonic Youth. Since her split with Thurston Moore ended Sonic Youth, Gordon has kept busy with her experimental guitar duo with Bill Nace. I had the opportunity to see Body/Head back in September at the MCA in Chicago, and this performance was pretty much exactly the same thing: Bill & Kim shredding, Kim yelping into a microphone, and a poorly executed “art-school” film playing in the background. It’s quite an experience to see Kim Gordon in person (and we did see her walking around downtown Knoxville twice!), but I’d suggest waiting for a more innovative new project.
10:30PM @ Tennessee Theater
We piled into the Tennessee Theater, the largest and most beautiful of the venues, to catch a set from famed multi-instrumentalist John Cale, of Velvet Underground fame. Cale’s set lasted an hour and a half and consisted of the best of his glam-rock pieces spanning decades of work. While it was enjoyable to the older crowd, I think the glamour of glam rock escaped us.
12:00AM @ Bijou Theater
After a day of bopping from venue to venue in Knoxville we headed over to the Bijou to check out Tim Hecker. Exhausted but ready to go for an aural ride we settled in. Due to unfortunate acoustics or sound engineering the music was much too loud. Instead of the aural bliss we were expecting, we were cocooned in a vibrating bed of sound. Shrouded in smoke and wearing his ever-present beanie, Hecker intently worked away. That vibrating bed quickly became equal part lullabies. It was only the slow cessation of vibrations at the end of his set that pulled us out of our reverie.
Tl;dr we all fell into a lovely sleep and aren’t apologizing for it.
That’s it for our Friday recaps! Stay tuned for Saturday and Sunday for more shredding and droning and drumming.