Big Ears 2022 Stages Another Great Year
Artists at Big Ears often say how good it is to be there. That’s a common refrain at plenty of musical festivals, but at Big Ears, you sense they really mean it. The multi-venue Knoxville, Tennessee festival returned after a two-year hiatus due to COVID. Speaking as a first-time attendee, this was worth the wait. The lineup – featuring artists spanning generations in terms of influence and ability to take music to strange new places – was already a major selling point. But Big Ears made it even better, hosting these great artists in a beautiful array of venues around downtown Knoxville and its art district and drawing crowds there are – if you pardon the cliché – about the music. No music festival is perfect. But at Big Ears, it feels everyone is doing their best to make it the best experience possible.
And even if not every performance meets the same height of excellence, none feel remotely phoned-in. These are truly performances – as much about the conceptualization, choreography, and visual element as they are about the music. I came to Big Ears as a fan of many artists on the lineup and left a fan of even more. Of the many highlights during my three days at Big Ears (I was sadly unable to attend the fourth and final day), these stood out the most. Patti Smith
Until now, it hadn’t dawned on me how surreal it was that within mere hours of being both in Knoxville and at Big Ears for the first time, I was in the same room as Patti Smith and that I would be again a day later. The punk legend performed a set of acoustic songs through her catalog and readings from memoir “Just Kids” at Mill & Mine and then a full band set at the Tennessee Theatre. For someone who entices people to stand in lines that stretch around the block, Smith is remarkably humble. Performing with son Jackson on guitar (along with several other talented musicians), Smith took breaks between powerhouse performances of “My Blakean Year” and “Free Money” to remind us of the human beneath the legend. One who humorously self-deprecates about her blanking on the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings” (recovered with help from Low’s Alan Sparhawk) and who leads the crowd in happy birthday sing-alongs for her tour manager. As Dylan himself has shown, legendary artists don’t always give legendary performances. But Smith felt as lively now as she would have 50 years ago.
I’ve only recently become familiar with Sparks catalog, listening to their beloved album Kimono My House and seeing their surreal movie musical Annette last year. But it was seeing the brothers Mael live that made me feel like the missing, most important piece of the puzzle had been found. It’s totally possible to enjoy the manic glam of Sparks on record or video. But to see Russell Mael contort his vocals and limbs in equal measure in matching yellow vest and pants is to truly appreciate Sparks. Beginning with Annette opening number, “So May We Start,” the brothers (Russell on vocals, Ron on keys) and their backing band gave selections ranging from 1975’s Indiscreet to 2020’s A Steady Drip, Drip Drop maximum amounts of beautiful bombast. And the aw-shucks humility of Russell made him all the more endearing. Next time I put on a Sparks album, I’ll be fondly recalling this experience.
The biggest downside of attending a festival like Big Ears is knowing you won’t be able to see everything you want to in full. I had to leave Arooj Aftab’s early afternoon performance at the Tennessee Theatre halfway through to catch Claire Rousay at the Old City Performing Arts Center. But I was tempted to stay all the way through, thanks to Aftab’s unbelievable voice, which reaches incredible crescendos but which she keeps down-to-earth all the same. Describing the jazzy and mournful sound of songs like Vulture Prince standout “Last Night” as “sexy-sad,” Aftab was as charismatic in between songs as she was during them. And her band, including such renowned instrumentalists as harpist Maeve Gilchrist and drummer Greg Fox, kept things in a heavenly but grounded way.
Big Ears is also a great way to first acquaint yourself with artists you’ve been meaning to check out in a proper live environment. Such was the case with me and L’Rain. I learned that bandleader Taja Cheek has guided previous audiences to sit on the floor and that the use of feedback made earplugs even more of a necessity. The audience at The Standard stood up and noise levels weren’t anything too abrasive. But – venue name aside – this was not a standard indie rock show. Cheek and her band create compositions that are experimental not in a haphazard way but in a disciplined chaos. Whether having warped vocal passages playing over graceful guitar melodies or looping her laughter live, Cheek feels like she’s always looking to shake things up. Ending things with a haunting scream and a wall of sound worthy of Sonic Youth made things even more spectacular. Before long, we’ll be describing performances from even newer acts as “worthy of L’Rain.”
After an Animal Collective show that drifted more than it bounced (and where was the “For Reverend Green” encore that seemingly everyone else is getting?) and a Kim Gordon performance beset by both “technical difficulties” and a general lack of thematic clarity, I was exhausted. But my Friday night thankfully did not end there, as I was convinced to check out Mdou Moctar for at least a few songs. I am so glad I did, because even with only catching the last half of the Nigerien musician’s performance, this was an absolute highlight of the weekend. Another artist I knew of but was experiencing for the first time live, Moctar and his band displayed both incredible skill and chemistry at an immeasurable level. During at least one of Moctar’s extended guitar solos, I alternated between looking at him and looking at the crowd watching on in amazement. In my notes for this performance, I wrote “just mindblowing.” If you’ve seen Moctar live, you know exactly what I mean.
William Tyler & Mary Lattimore
Saturday at Big Ears began with both a beautiful performance as well as a history lesson. Nashville guitarist William Tyler and harpist Mary Lattimore scored a montage of archival footage of life in the Tennessee Valley, appearing to span the ‘20s to the ‘50s. The quality of the preservation and the beauty in the images of people living their lives in times good was enlivened by Tyler and Lattimore’s gorgeous compositions and vice-versa. Many artists marry image and sound. Few are able to do it quite as well.
It’s only fitting that the one performance I saw at Knoxville’s First Baptist Church was heavenly. Performing with the Attacca Quartet (who began with their captivating set), North Carolina multi-talent Caroline Shaw sang recontextualized versions of bittersweet standards like “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown.” Standing perfectly still behind the microphone, sometimes with her hands clasped and other times with them behind her back, Shaw awed. Her quivering yet soaring twang recalled the likes of Joni Mitchell and Vashti Bunyan, and like her string accompaniment, she managed to be both grandiose and introspective at once. It’s a stirring case of technical perfection not canceling out vulnerability.
“Did I see Meredith Monk dance the floss?” I write in my notes. I hadn’t. But there’s a move during her performance of “Tokyo Cha Cha” that’s close enough that I can say “close enough.” Performing with the Bang On A Can All-Stars, almost exactly two years after the release of their album, Memory Game, Monk was wonderfully playful. As vocally impressive here as she was on Dolmen Music 40 years ago, Monk also proved herself a great curator. Her collaborators, including numerous other remarkable vocalists, gave these oft-surreal numbers the life they need to feel genuine. One piece, Migration, is about humans resettling in a new world halfway between familiar and unknown. This performance gave me a pretty good idea of what that’d be like.
I caught the first half of Dawn Richard’s energetic set before jetting off to catch Moses Sumney at the Tennessee Theatre. During Richard’s performance, I mourned the rather barebones stage setup and how much something like a backdrop of the Second Line cover art would help. That was certainly not an issue with Sumney’s performance. Wearing an endlessly ruffled black outfit, Sumney and his band performed with a live video projection distorting their images. Sumney’s hair, already cast bright orange under the stage lights, took on even more hues in the photo negative and VHS warp displays on screen. But it was how Sumney sounded that really mattered. The sumptuous sounds of his co-musicians gave Sumney’s voice even more power. And his presence was magnetic both onstage and whilst walking in the aisles and throwing what appeared to be flowers during a performance of Björk’s “Come to Me. Sumney ended things with a stunning rendition of debut single Doomed (complete with an incredible light display), and me greatly looking forward to whatever he has planned next.
Circuit des Yeux
I had listened to Circuit des Yeux in the past. But it had been so little that I was expecting to see a whole lot more synths onstage. Instead, I got a brilliant set of thunderous goth folk. Haley Fohr’s voice is built for echo, as proven by the sound aesthetics of Jackson Terminal. And she performs with such passion and commitment, going as far as to pound her chest for percussion. At the sound of the lightly shuffling chords of “Black Fly,” the crowd moved forward at once. Now that’s influence.
Angel Bat Dawid
Positive peer pressure convinced me to wait out Angel Bat Dawid’s extended soundcheck. This was a performance that was hard to take notes on. It’s not that there’s nothing to report. It’s that writing something down would take me out of the moment. And if there was any time to be in the moment, it was here. Situating us on “the Planet Knoxville,” Dawid and her sound practitioner collaborators brought forth intention at every moment. Through free jazz clarinet performances, passionate piano ballads, and mindfulness exercises, Dawid reminded me – and hopefully others – of the importance.
Recap by Mimi Kenny
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