Magnetic Fields, Deerhoof Highlight Big Ears Festival Saturday & Sunday (FESTIVAL RECAP)

Big Ears Day Three once again featured artists sharing a passion for innovation. Few wind up creating a new form, but each demonstrated the wide variety that musical innovation can take.

Joan Shelley, a Louisville-based singer and songwriter, works in the traditional genre of acoustic, Appalachian-style folk, expressed simply but beautifully through her resonant voice and spare guitar arrangements. In a packed-out show at the Square Room on Saturday afternoon, Shelley sounded like an artist who had been performing this music her entire life when in actuality her first two recording projects were with a band and in the folk-rock vein. The songs in her set, one inspired by Dolly Parton’s “The Bridge,” were straight forward and evocative, their emotion enhanced by the restraint with which she performed them. Apart from her personalized approach to traditional music, Shelley seemed like an odd choice for Big Ears, but the minimalist techniques of drone and repetition made an unexpected and pleasing appearance in her music via the traditional sound of open strings and the finger-picking patterns common to folk and bluegrass.

Taking a very different approach, and one more intentionally linked to the technique of repetition, Baltimore instrumentalists Horse Lords started their show at The Standard at full tilt, guitar, bass, sax, drums laying down a powerful riff and altering it through slight changes, to what the guitar, sax, or percussion played. Unlike the band Tortoise’s more laid back, jazzy approach the night before, Horse Lords were high-energy, amping up the crowd. Melodically the group chose fewer notes to build their patterns, giving the overall sound a modular and more machine-like quality.

Improvisation is a highly valued tradition at Big Ears, but Magnetic Fields and its lead man Stephin Merritt took a highly scripted approach during the first of a two-part show at the Tennessee Theatre Saturday night. Twenty-five songs from the group’s project 50 Song Memoir was performed Saturday night and the rest as Part Two on Sunday afternoon. On stage, Merritt was set up in a small three-sided room with windows, the accompanying musicians surrounding the room on the outside looking in. Closer to musical theater(Merritt has also written operas), the set’s songs were highly polished, impressive in craft, and in their ability to convey humor and regret simultaneously. Musical analogues that came to mind included Brian Wilson’s playful qualities in the studio, Steven Sondheim’s idiosyncratic complexity, and Sufjan Stevens a la his Illinois. Though none of the Festival’s minimalist or improvisational qualities were present in Magnetic Field’s show, the highly personal vision expressed through Merritt’s songs, “Must We Make Eye Contact?,” for example, make the group a kindred spirit to the other artists at Big Ears.

Henry Grimes and his quartet chose an older path for expression, jazz improvisation. Grimes, a bassist who has accompanied celebrated jazz innovators including Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, and Thelonius Monk, is a highly intuitive player. His ability to lead the quartet without being obvious about it was a testament to both his ability and to the other players’ (drums, flute/vocals, and guitar) attentiveness. Though the musicians seemed to be disconnected at first, it soon it became clear they were moving together through the piece, making discoveries and sharing them with the audience, an exciting experience.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, in contrast to most of the artists at Big Ears, presented her music solo, stationed behind what looked like a table of knobs and wires with a single abstract visual image shifting on a screen behind her. Using the voices of the Buchla synthesizer, named for a lesser-known electronics pioneer of the 1960’s, Smith was able to create sound that was at once singular and riveting, that seemed distinctly alive, from a bunch of hardware. The voices were at different times shimmering, dazzling, layered on top of each other, pulsing and percussive without a distinct rhythm. The overall effect was of something distinctly organic and not mechanical. This was helped by Smith singing while she played the Buchla, though her voice was modified by the computer and mixed low. Smith’s show was one of those unexpected moments of wonder that festival-goers pray to stumble across each year.

Also performing solo during his show at The Standard was DJ Rupture aka Jace Clayton. The Saturday night party crowd had come to dance and they weren’t disappointed, but Rupture did more than keep the party going, presenting a mashup of cultures and well as beats by mixing in tapes collected while traveling abroad. Also a researcher and lecturer on the global impact of shared music software, Rupture never slowed the beat while demonstrating that the turntable itself is a form of looping technology.

Deerhoof brought Day Three to a close with charm and raucous energy. A Bay Area band with its roots in the mid-1990’s, the band performed with an enthusiasm that belied over twenty years of history. Longtime member Satomi Matsuzaki (bass) provided a whimsical quality that somehow complimented the band’s ability to rock as hard as anyone else. Founding member Greg Saunier, his drums set up near the front of the stage, was a source of relentless energy and humor via an onstage monologue. Deerhoof blended humor and raw punk energy, repeating riffs and elements of noise, proving there’s always one more way to be original.


Day Four at Big Ears was a welcome respite from the hectic schedules of the previous two days, and featured several classical and jazz performances.

Local modern music ensemble Nief-Norf performed Michael Pisaro’s Closed Categories in Cartesian Worlds at the Knoxville Museum of Art on Sunday afternoon. The composition includes the sound of various materials being poured onto the head of a snare drum. In another segment two large bells were played with violin bows, accompanied by an occasional single note from an electric guitar. The sparse sounds served as an encouragement to listen.

St. John’s Episcopal Church, in conjunction with Big Ears, offered a choral evensong, with a full choir featuring the music of popular Estonian composer Arvo Part. When the church’s big pipe organ began playing pulsing chords more in keeping with the work of Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, one could only wonder what some of the congregation’s more staid members were thinking.

Henry Threadgill, highly respected jazz veteran and winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Music, was a perfect fit for Big Ears. Alongside his band Zooid, Threadgill demonstrated his tightly controlled version of unconventional jazz. The precision was deceptive. Zooid’s drummer, for instance, rarely played on the beat, but kept the beat going. What emerged was a sort of Dixieland approach that wasn’t anything like the New Orleans style (though the band includes a tuba), but rather in the way the players seemed to be playing solos at the same time. The result cooked in a loose and wonderful way.

Norwegian musician Helge Sten’s project, Deathprod featured Sten seated on a darkened stage producing layered and ambient sounds using electronic effects. Foreboding and eerie, a howling wind and caving glaciers came to mind. Compared with Kaityln Aurelia Smith’s multi-dimensional performance on the Buchla synthesizer a day earlier, however, Sten’s music had all the charm of a soundtrack for a scary carnival ride.

Xiu Xiu, the final act of the evening and of the entire festival was an appropriate choice given the band’s unique approach. Singer/guitarist Jamie Stewart’s lyrics tackle difficult subjects, but because the words were inaudible, they were a nonfactor for those who weren’t already familiar with the band. Stewart’s quavery style of singing and dramatic manner on stage worked to create a level of irony, while Xiu Xiu’s drummer, standing beside Stewart, was impressive for both her physicality and technical skill.

Four days of Big Ears may be a one-time thing, according to one staffer. Audiences and crew seemed to be dragging by the final evening. And it can’t be easy to book a fresh crop of unusual or innovative musicians that will pay the bills each year. A few artists at this year’s Big Ears were excellent, but weren’t particularly unusual or innovative. The city of Knoxville once played a great host, and a festival celebrating musical quirkiness is worthy of continued support.

Photos by Becca Moore

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