Big Ears Festival in Knoxville scratches an itch no other American festival quite does. Ashley Capps, one of the creators of Bonnaroo, brings some of the most exciting artists working today to his hometown in settings that let them shine—all within a half-mile radius. Big Ears’ jewel box setting for these shows shines a light on the work, and in turn, the music shines a light on charming downtown Knoxville. There are restaurants, bars, and shops that I actively seek out every year, and the familiar faces of shopkeepers and bartenders that I delight in seeing, the frosting between the layers of fantastic music. I’ve never had a seat saved for me by the mayor in any other city in the world, especially not for something as out there as The Necks.
Having attended each year since the festival’s return in 2014, this was the most balanced and diverse lineup yet, but it also found Big Ears at a crossroads. Whether through word of mouth, subtle shifts in the ticketing, or the continued refinement of the lineup, this year felt far more populous. The greater portion of sets I attended hit capacity, and by the end of the first night, it was apparent, unlike the free-flowing sampling encouraged by previous iterations, that this year demanded a more deliberate approach, with choice shows requiring lead time and even waiting in line. But there were benefits to this, like the electricity of the crowds, for one. Thorny, cerebral music like Anthony Braxton was met with an audience on the edge of its seats and who responded rapturously with a standing ovation. Patience seemed to be rewarded, leading me to stay for more full sets, and as a result, I saw fewer total acts but went deeper with each.
Thursday started strong with Mamiffer. Faith Coloccia’s project with Aaron Turner, the band was augmented by Brian Cook (Russian Circles, Sumac), and the gravity of their thick, reverb-drenched drones and riffs provided a heavy base for gorgeous melodies to orbit around. Not swampy but rich and warm, notes seemed to appear out of a fog and slowly melt in high enough definition to highlight their changing qualities. Next, I headed to The Standard for Chatoyant, Detroit’s improv rock quartet featuring Jim Baljo (Wolf Eyes) on drums, Matthew Smith (The Volebeats) on guitar and trumpet, Marko Novachoff, who played with LaMonte Young, on reeds, and the glue of Joel Peterson (Faruq Bey) on keys. With a raw swing, they attacked notes and then drew back. Grimy riffs splintered and hung in the air, textures thrown into sharp relief by rivulets of pure rhythm. Those first two sets were an investigation of the sensuous and spiritual qualities of decay, a trend that continued with sweaty, roiling techno at the end of the night.
On Friday, my deepest pleasures slipped along the axes of composition and improvisation. Harpist Zeena Parkins and drummer Tony Buck (of The Necks) had a conversation that shook the walls with a set of some of the most focused and stirring improv I’ve ever seen. Both explored the tonal quality of their instruments all the way to the edge and found surprising intersections and dynamic shifts, showing huge smiles of delight and surprise as they nudged each other to unexpected places. The Anthony Braxton 10+1tet dug deep and made every intricacy, every high-end flutter, every thick and deconstructed groove, and every interlocking piece glisten and glow. Even in its occasional austerity, Braxton’s music was played clearly with love as its animating spark, as grins rippled through the band as its leader conducted by gestures of his horn and Mary Halvorson and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum fist-bumped at the set’s conclusion.
That evening at The Mill & Mine, Marshall Allen’s fiery tenor and EWI floated above and redirected the tides of funky space jazz techno being emitted by Hieroglyphic Being (pictured top). At the Bijou Theatre, Vijay Iyer (pictured above) and Wadada Leo Smith played A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke, their new duet record for ECM, and true to its visual art inspiration, it worked in deft strokes to reveal a picture both intimate and expansive. My evening ended with a bang, with Faust augmented by two upright bassists, a violinist, and Laurie Anderson on electric violin, performing a hard-rocking version of a proto-minimalist Tony Conrad composition. Anderson’s jagged, human tone skipped like a stone over the river of drone and thick rhythms, stabbing me right in the heart.
Saturday was a torrent of musical experiences any fan would be lucky to have. Any one of the sets I saw was better than some people see in a whole year. Mary Halvorson (also a standout in the big Braxton band) started the day with a solo guitar set drawn mostly from her Meltframe record that lit me up from the inside like a paper lantern. In an hour, she traversed the entire spectrum of American music, from grungy punk sludge to delicate flamenco, plucking out soulful blue notes and bluesy twang with slide and pull-offs. She bookended the set with Ornette Coleman’s “Sadness” and Duke Ellington’s “Solitude.” Australia’s The Necks played an unbroken piece that built small cells and gestures up from the alternated ringing notes of Chris Abraham’s piano while tossing a doppler rhythm in between bass, piano and drums. Their intensity turned into waves of scouring, purifying fire that seemed to hit all at once.
The Necks were followed in the same venue by another trio of composer Nico Muhly on piano and electronics, violist Nadia Sirota (pictured above), and singer-guitarist Sam Amidon. They resembled an avant-garde Carter Family on traditional tunes and Muhly’s soaring “Etude for Viola No. 3,” which he composed for Sirota and played with her. Later that night, all three of them joined Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett (who also played with The Gloaming on Thursday) for his delightful three-ring circus of song and camaraderie, The Burgundy Stain. Bartlett took full advantage of the pool of guests, with stellar playing from the aforementioned as well as Marc Ribot and Bryce Dessner on guitars and Olivia Chaney on vocals, rhythm guitar, and percussion. It was a spellbinding tribute to the flexibility of songs and the warmth of human interaction, with a spontaneous run through Chaney’s “Loose Change” being the highlight. My evening ended with Kamasi Washington, who was riding a wave of acclaim and playing with a hunger. His (relatively) small band—one trombone, one bass, one keys player, one vocalist, and two drummers—played like they had something to prove, emitting rippling, gritty textures amongst a relaxed, confident ebb and flow that revealed a keen sense of melody.
Sunday, I trekked out to the IJAMS Nature Center for the finale: John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit performed by a plethora of percussionists and horn players set up on paths and in clearings along a quarry. Listeners could feel their way through the snaking, unfolding, powerful composition hearing it change and ripple off the quarry walls, through budding trees, and around just-blooming dogwood. Like the rest of the weekend, it rewarded careful listening and attention and left me hungry for next year.