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Big Ears Festival


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I'm here and it's great! Came to U-Tenn to give a talk and stayed for this. Best performance so far (although there are way too many to see, and the quality is extraordinary) has been Frederic Rzewski doing "The People United Shall Never Be Defeated." Sat on the floor right next to the piano's open lid and it was mind-blowing. I hope to come back next year.

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I don't have a lot of experience with big festivals but this was my 3rd year at Big Ears and I plan to keep going as long as possible. I went to at least 20 shows this time, including Carla Bley twice, Gavin Bryars twice, M.E.V., Hans Joachim Roedelius, etc. Would have put a few more on my list before the drive home (Rangda, Henry Threadgill, and a Norweigian fiddle player whose name escapes me)  but by the middle of day 4 it takes a real toll on the legs.

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They were all within walking distance, maximum 15-20 minutes apart (at a leisurely pace). I found it all very smooth and well-organized. Not every venue chosen was perfect for every act (sometimes a bit too much ambient noise in the Mill & Mine venue specifically) but for the most part the venues were great. No monster crowds, which was really refreshing. Artists were super accessible too, and just a good vibe overall.

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  • 1 month later...

Review in June issue of The Wire:

“We do things in our own scruffy way,” announced Madeline Rogero, mayor of Knoxville, opening this year’s Big Ears festival. ‘Scruffy’ might be this small town’s self-image, but it was looking spruce to me – not a candy wrapper in sight, traffic becalmed and a tightly managed schedule of 200 performances across ten venues. Since 2009, Big Ears has been an agent of cultural regeneration in this birthplace of Quentin Tarantino, James Agee, Cormac McCarthy and Johnny Knoxville himself. I came expecting Trump heartland. I found a welcoming, tolerant, cultural city that’s quietly going through an urban rebirth. Music, art, food and housing gentrification are all in the mix.

Art, continued the mayor, promotes empathy, which in turn leads to justice. It was one of many statements over the long weekend whose allusions hardly needed spelling out – especially in light of the fact that two overseas performers had already been denied entry permits.

Knoxville houses the University of Tennessee – a vast campus still spreading – and the future-retro sky tower set up during the 1982 World’s Fair still stands, a reminder of Knoxville’s utopian, outward-looking mentality. Big Ears director Ashley Capps also runs Bonnaroo and owns several of the city’s key music venues, including the Bijou and Tennessee theatres, and the converted warehouse the Mill And Mine, which hosted everything from Deerhoof to Oliver Coates

(a rock crowd cheering solo Messiaen? Now I’ve heard everything).

The programming was a mix of contemporary music, jazz, rock at the more creative end and a little folk. So, after Wilco’s sell-out at the Bijou, Jeff Tweedy – in hirsute Ozark Mountain phase – went into full “Machine Gun” mode, thrashed a wooden Strat and theremin along with drummer Chris Corsano and Darin Gray on horizontal guitar. Gray joined percussionist Glenn Kotche in the tropicana-tinged On Fillmore duo, more charming on stage than on record, with the two clearly enjoying each other’s company as they tease each other’s efforts (“I thought that was a pretty successful solo,” retorted Kotche to Gray’s goading).

Pianist Frederic Rzewski prefaced MEV’s set by reciting the parable of the Gadarene swine. “There’s a lot of pigs here,” he appended, before embarking across a vast tundra, the audience parked up close to Richard Teitelbaum and Alvin Curran’s electronic tabletops. Variations on “What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor” spluttered from the piano before the fade out.

Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Drone Mass and Colin Stetson’s reboot of Górecki’s Symphony No 3 introduced sober and sombre notes, and the schedule in St John’s Cathedral was pitched towards reflection. With evensong embedded in the festival programme, the preacher took the opportunity to welcome all nations, creeds and colours to the pews. Richard Bishop,

not known for his ecclesiastical bent, set up a cascade of modes and scales in folk guitar extemporisations that journeyed from India to Appalachia via North Africa, Arabia and Iberia, tracing similar folk routes to Davy Graham. Hans-Joachim Roedelius, who during an earlier Q&A spoke about being forcibly conscripted as a boy soldier into Hitler’s army and getting arrested by East German Stasi, flooded the space with tranquil piano preludes and the atmospheric buzz of electronics. Norwegian Hardanger fiddler Nils Økland and his five-piece band forced the crowd to their feet in appreciation of their fluid blend of meditative folk overtones and vibrating harmonics (Sigbjørn Apeland particularly effective on harmonium and the church organ). When Økland thanked the audience for coming “to hear alien music made by people you don’t know, speaking a language you don’t understand”, he received a warm and wild response.

Økland was part of a Norwegian invasion package that included Frode Haltli’s Border Woods, an accordion driven composition that evokes spirits at play in the forests skirting Oslo; a 20th anniversary meltdown for Supersilent, and a crushingly powerful set from Helge Sten aka Deathprod. The Tennessee Theatre has surely never been subjected to such harmonic trauma, as wave upon wave of particulate noise and threatening drones drove a tungsten wedge of gravitas into the evening, and felt all the more politicised for that. Gavin Bryars Ensemble’s Sinking Of The Titanic, by comparison, sounded like Sunday afternoon on the boating lake.

American minimalism comes in many guises. It’s implicit in the rippling undertow of Tortoise, who, roused from a ten year (s)lumber, blindsided the Mill and Mine with musclebound, gurning, funk-charged versions of their back catalogue. It’s been revived in the agitated threshing of Julius Eastman, whose curious outsider status is wittily celebrated in Jace Clayton’s Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner project, part Eastman showcase, part sketch show. And minimalism is the Molotov cocktail under the asses of New York meth rockers Horse Lords, with their hypnotic, die-cut double-kit riffage underpinned by cacophonic electric guitar airshipped from Mali with stop-offs at Tom Verlaine and Terry Riley’s Reed Streams. (Apparently they manage a mean Eastman cover themselves.)

The deft curation extended to a running theme around Middle America, taking in Matmos’s rendition of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives, David Harrington Group’s live soundtrack to No Country For Old Men, Xiu Xiu’s montage of Twin Peaks scenes, and in Colleen’s singing of the lullaby from Night Of The Hunter (scripted by Knoxville author James Agee). But there was cosmopolitanism too, as Matana Roberts sang-spoke of her own struggles to affirm her identity amid her nation’s tangled racial and political history; Steve Lehman weaponised his conscious, pan-African future-jazz unit Sélébeyoné; and Henry Threadgill’s Zooid achieved harmolodic heaven. No scruffiness there."

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  • 5 months later...

The 2018 lineup was announced this morning,  and it's pretty strong from a jazz point of view.

Abigail Washburn & Wu Fei
Aine O'Dwyer performs William Eggleston's Musik
Anna & Elizabeth
Anna Thorvaldsdottir: "In the Light of Air" performed by International Contemporary Ensemble
Anoushka Shankar: "Land of Gold"
Arto Lindsay
Bang on a Can All Stars celebrate their 30th anniversary with works by David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe
Bang on a Can All Stars perform Julia Wolfe's "Anthracite Fields"
Bang on a Can All Stars "Field Recordings"
Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn
Béla Fleck & Brooklyn Rider
Bonnie "Prince" Billy
Brimstone & Glory live score performed by Nief-Norf and Wordless Music
Brooklyn Rider
Cleek Schrey & David Behrman
Craig Taborn Quartet
Cyro Baptista & the Banquet of the Spirits
Cyro Baptista presents "Vira Loucos"
Diamanda Galás
Duet for Theremin & Lap Steel
Evan Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble
Four Tet
Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Innov Gnawa
International Contemporary Ensemble
Jaga Jazzist
Jaga Jazzist featuring Ståle Storløkken & Jon Balke
Jason Moran Duo with Milford Graves
Jason Moran presents Fats Waller Dance Party
Bangs (Jason Moran, Mary Halvorson and Ron Miles)
Jenny Hval
Jenny Scheinman presents "Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait"
Jenny Scheinman's "Mischief & Mayhem" with Nels Cline & Scott Amendola
Juana Molina
Julie Byrne
Kelly Lee Owens
Kid Koala (DJ Set)
Kid Koala's "Satellite" Turntable Orchestra
Knoxville Symphony Strings performs "Were You There" with baritone Davoné Tines
Laurel Halo (DJ Set)
Laurel Halo (Live with Eli Keszler)
Lightning Bolt
Medeski Martin & Wood
Milford Graves
Nels Cline: "Lovers" with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra and guests
Peter Evans Ensemble
Rocket Science (Peter Evans, Sam Pluta, Craig Taborn, Evan Parker)
Roscoe Mitchell Trios
Rova: "The Sound in Space Project"
Rova Channeling Coltrane: "Electric Ascension"
Sam Amidon
Steve Gunn
Steve Gunn & the Black Twig Pickers
"Go Dig My Grave" featuring Giovanna Pessi, Frode Haltli, Cheyenne Mize and Susanna
Tal National
The Black Twig Pickers
The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda performed by the Sai Anantam Ashram Singers
The Jerry Douglas Band
The Thing
Tyshawn Sorey Trio


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My closest friend and oldest musical partner, Rob Rushin, wrote a piece about last year's festival for the wonderful online magazine The Bitter Southerner.

And I've got to put in a plug for perhaps the most obscure ensemble on the bill - Atlanta's Duet for Theremin and Lap Steel. The group is just what the name says it is, and they are pretty far from jazz, if that matters. "Ambient" would be their category, I guess. Scott Burland and Frank Schultz improvise long, atmospheric pieces in which it is seldom clear who is making what sound. They are almost always magical.

Sometimes I think, "I've heard them so many times - do I really need to hear them again?" And I'm always glad I did.


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  • 2 months later...

I just ordered day pass tickets for Friday and Saturday.  My Friday priority list

Evan Parker Solo

Rocket Science with Evan Parker

Trio Five with Roscoe Mitchell

Milford Graves

Jason Moran (Fats Waller Dance Party)

The Thing


Half a dozen others.


For Saturday

Evan Parker Electro Acoustic Ensemble

Roscoe Mitchell Trios

Jason Moran and Milford Graves

Peter Evans (if I like him on Friday)

Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog.


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  • 2 weeks later...

Here's a venue map, I hope it isn't shrunken too much to be readable.

Big Ears Venues

My Friday looks like:

Roscoe Mitchell kicks off Friday at Noon at the Standard


Either Ikue Mori or Milford Graves knowing I will have to leave early.

Rocket Science - Evan Parker, Peter Evans, Craig Taborn

Some combination of

Jenny Scheinman with Nels Cline, Bela Fleck and/or Medeski Martin and Wood

The Thing

Jason Moran



Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic

end of Bela Fleck

beginning of Peter Evans

All of Jason Moran - Milford Graves

End of Marc Ribot

Evan Parker Solo

Most of Roscoe Mitchell Trios

If not ready to crash then probably more Rova





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