The festival email blitz started at the beginning of March: Beats & Eats – Secret Shows – Poetry & Literature – Urban Spaces – Global Connection – Launch Party – Fearless Women – Wilco Diaspora – Norwegian Invasion. My ear cilia were tingling. Perusing the festival’s online schedule, I noted which acts I wanted to definitely see. Among those were JUNUN, Oliver Coates, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Robyn Hitchcock, Magnetic Fields, Yasmine Hamdan, and portions of Jonathan Demme’s film cycle.
Near the end of February, I was booking my hotel online and decided to do a final check of the festival site. I began compiling my schedule when I noticed JUNUN had disappeared. After a semi-frantic enquiry to the Big Ears twitter account, I was informed that not all the musicians were able to obtain visas and the official announcement would be made shortly.
I was devastated but not just from the second failed attempt to see this music I’d grown to love so much. I was also devastated for the musicians. But somehow I knew, once on the road, I would feel somewhat lifted. I just had to get there.
My second let-down came via twitter the day before leaving for Knoxville.
Stop Making Sense (1984) is one of my favorite films about one of my favorite bands. I was really looking forward to hearing what it was like to be at the helm of that process. To add to the confusion, the festival twitter account on Thursday (day 1) said this.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one that found it perplexing. While I was thinking about it, where was that official announcement about Junun anyway? The answer made me cringe. Since then I also found this tweet buried in the hyperconnected twitterverse.
Deep breath. Hold it in.
Every festival brings its own adventures. But once we actually arrived in Knoxville, wristbands and check in procedures were all handled very seamlessly. Even if there were communication challenges, its people/crowd logistics were well under control.
Now for the Music of Big Ears:
Robyn Hitchcock – Set 1
Armed simply with his acoustic guitar and harmonica, he converted at least one new fan in his bounding 45 minute set. Poised on the outer ring of my musical radar by way of Peter Buck, Jon Brion, and Jonathan Demme, finally seeing Robyn perform was a real treat. He opened with Dylan, Lennon, and Syd Barrett covers – all amazing. His own music initially conjured images of youthful summers in the park, but when I fine-tuned my focus a bit more, his subject matter and subtext is what resonated with me. Part rag-n-bone, part punk, and a lot of inner rage toward the state of the world and the feeling of powerlessness among the artistically bent to do much more than scream about it was immediately relatable. I would love to sit down with him and hear his stories over a turkish coffee sometime.
Nils Økland Band
Sometimes the fun and adventure of going to “a music festival with a rare vision” are the gigs you have no idea about but you decide to add to your schedule anyway. It was like that with Nils Økland Band in St. John’s Cathedral, which has a huge vaulted altar space that lent itself well to this semi chamber-folk ensemble. I had been to the Norwegian Invasion discussion panel with some of these guys on it and liked what they had to say about arts funding and support in other countries. I also loved their sound and their openness. In between songs they advocated the importance of embracing other cultures and it was an awesome moment when the rest of the crowd cheered loudly our agreement.
Oliver Coates – Set 1
Let me preface my reviews about Oliver with the declaration that the cello is my favorite orchestral instrument. There. Now that it’s out in the open, I shall continue. I first discovered Oliver’s music on the Under The Skin (2013) soundtrack with Mica Levi. Easily my favorite track from it is “Love” – riddled with melodic pitch bends that evoke alien lamentations that fit perfectly within the film. Oliver closed both of his festival performances with this track (I wish it was longer than 3 ½ minutes). This first set, performed with electronics in late night DJ style on Friday was enhanced with tracked visuals from what appeared to be a video game set in an alternate London. “Wednesday happened not five minutes outside my front door, and then I had to get on a plane to come here and play,” he said, speaking about the London attack at Parliament. I imagined having to reset your mind and perform after something like that would be singularly difficult, if not impossible. But is it possible for musicians through performance to become conduits? Oliver then proceeded to play selections from his Remain Calm album (with Mica Levi) and his solo release Upstepping, the cover of which I could make out in the visuals accompanying his performance.
I’ve been reading a lot lately about the music of Jóhann Jóhannsson. I loved his scores for both The Theory of Everything (2014) and Arrival (2016), and hotly anticipate his work on Blade Runner: 2049 (2017). His “Drone Mass” performance with ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble) and Theatre of Voices was a peak moment of the festival. This incredible piece, with Gnostic text based on Egyptian Coptic hymns, had the entire audience transfixed, faces upwards, shining, swaying trancelike. Audience experience is another reason I go to festivals like this. Jóhannsson provided the drone from his laptop and was sat off to the side of the other musicians on stage. The center was occupied with the members of ACME in a tight inner cluster, while the vocal choir formed an outer semi-circle facing out toward the audience. The conductor was at the helm, back to the audience as with traditional orchestras. It was one of those pieces that you can read about all day (it has been lauded in the New York Times), but experiencing it live is the only way to fully absorb its otherworldly meaning.
Magnetic Fields – Set 1 (The First 25 Years)
An ornate set on the stage of the lovely Tennessee Theatre was the perfect setting for this eclectic ensemble. I have to commend anyone who can write a song for every year they’ve been alive, which is the 50 Song Memoir Stephin Merritt and company premiered here at the festival. His vocals were equally nostalgic and fresh as he sang, played multiple instruments, and told stories from his armchair. I was high up in the balcony, so it was difficult to see, especially with most of the musicians behind a semi-transparent screen. Most of them played multiple instruments and also sang harmonies or backing vocals. I was really impressed with the live sound production on this set as every instrument down to the singing saw blade was equally audible but not overpowering. This almost never happens, so when it does, it’s amazing.
This was the final show we saw at The Standard, and we had to leave halfway through to make it to another set. What carries this ensemble is definitely Yasmine herself, who sings in a variety of Arabic dialects. Her unforgettable vocals blended with middle eastern melodies first came to my attention in the film Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). I was not sure what I was expecting – something more minimal, or less like being at a nightclub? I don’t dislike nightclubs, I was just caught off guard. But this is the essence of Big Ears, being arrested by the unexpected. The programmed pop music just wasn’t enough to hold my attention. Though the crowd at The Standard was quite enthusiastic!
Oliver Coates – Set 2
So, most people play a cello, but Oliver does so much more. He also attacks it and dances with it in equal turns. In this glorious mostly acoustic set, I couldn’t help but notice the little signals that illustrated how musical performance is also part sport – or as I said after watching Oliver, stunt cello. At intervals he had to drop his left arm during Andrew Hamilton’s “Music For Losers” – described by Coates as an “incredible, really wild piece.” Dropping his arm allows blood back into the extremity around the wrist where lactic acid builds up as one races along the fingerboard. Throughout his set he would also hug the cello body with his knees and sway side to side to ‘throw’ sound from the f holes. The acoustic set was also a rare opportunity to see Coates perform a piece by Laurence Crane using a curved polyphonic bow – something of the German baroque tradition. The pace is slower. The tones sound deeper because what’s actually being played are chords, not arpeggios. Oliver posted his setlist from the festival on his twitter.
Now for Big Ears Festival HEARTS❤️ & DARTS🎯:
🎯 Don’t have panel discussions in the same area as check-in and vendors. It is too noisy and it’s difficult to hear presenters when someone is dumping barrels of ice in a metal container across the room.
🎯 Don’t make ‘official’ announcements of schedule changes on social media. Use your regular (or a special) festival email blitz for this, and make it prominent at the top (i.e. SCHEDULE CHANGES & CANCELLATIONS). When you make announcements via social media, you alienate anyone who is not on that particular service, who do not frequently check it, or turn off notifications when they become too invasive. Social media is simply too much material that’s too fleeting. Instead of making big announcements like this that can get lost in the shuffle, and possibly erode customer trust, build that trust through transparency. I really can’t stress this enough.
❤️ Do keep the performance spaces in a fairly concentrated, easily walkable area with ample free parking such as Downtown Knoxville (though more free parking may be needed as the festival grows).
🎯 Don’t have the free trolley service end at 10 PM. Perhaps reach an agreement where they run extra hours to cover the last performances and people with ADA needs. Knoxville is hilly, which some folks may not be used to.
❤️ Do continue to have friendly and courteous security staff available at venues.
❤️ Do continue to allow seating to start 30 minutes ahead of show times. This made logistical planning easier.
🎯 Don’t deny people entrance into venues who have their own water or coffee. This happened to me a couple times when I went to a local coffee shop just before a show and had a full coffee in hand but was not allowed in. HELLO?!?!? I NEED MY COFFEE and I’m pretty sure Anheuser-Busch or other beer vendors don’t sell coffee at festival venues. I’m supporting the local economy, after all. Also, there are people who don’t drink alcohol, who need to stay hydrated, and should not have to buy water for every venue they walk into. “You can only have water if you buy our bottled water.” What? This is kind of a big deal.
❤️ Do continue to book amazing musicians and ensembles that are daring and bold, who tour infrequently, and we’d otherwise probably never see who hail from the far corners of the world. When they bring their culture and context of life through music, it’s a gift that we will always accept with open arms.