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Big Ears: Everything Is Amazing

Everyone else has already written about Big Ears, I know. And it's all been great press, uniformly, other than one post too dumb to link to. And I know I'm not a music critic and there's kind of no point in me writing about stuff, but whatever. All the boys writing about the festival -- and they have all pretty much all been boys, because that's the music criticism game, especially if you're covering avant-garde/experimental/whatever music -- seem to have all missed one of the best shows. So I'm going to write about it. And some other stuff I saw. Here goes.


I missed the Friday night shows because I was at home, working, because sometimes your job takes precedence even over Kim Gordon. And I missed the Saturday afternoon shows, too, thanks to more work (and a much-needed nap). 

Finally I made it downtown, just in time for Nils Frahm at the Tennessee Theatre, and holy Mary mother of Jesus! The sound! Oh my lord, that sound! Who knew a piano (well, a piano and a synthesizer and some other stuff) could ever fill the Tennessee like that! 

It's probably not fair to compare Frahm's show to the Ensemble Signal's Sunday night performance of Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians -- Frahm has clearly been influenced by Reich, but he's doing something totally different. Yet it's hard for me not to compare the two, because they both demonstrated that minimalism can be anything but, well, minimalist. 

Frahm was just one man on stage, but I've never heard anything louder in the Tennessee. (Suggestion for AC Entertainment: Next year, include earplugs with the wristband. I always have my own, but they don't seem to be a thing that occur to most Knoxville music-goers, and I noticed several older people leaving Frahm when he reached his most resounding crescendos. I mean, maybe they just hated the noise, but I also don't know if I could have sat through it without protection.) Still, the entire performance wasn't loud -- it ranged from quiet and subtle to booming back to soft and muted and then back to thunderous. The applause -- a standing ovation -- Frahm received at the end was thunderous, too, as well it should have been. We, an audience rapt, had just witnessed something completely emotionally overwhelming, in the best way possible.

Sunday night's experience was similar, if the opposite -- 18 (or 20, as some have counted) musicians filling the upper chambers of the Tennessee with pure music, pure emotional intensity. Cleansing, almost. Other critics have written about the performance better than I'd be able to attempt, so I won't, although it made me think of Orfeo again and wish that I could. (If you saw the show and like Reich and like reading, you really should pick up a copy.) So I'll just say it was beautiful. It was like nothing else I've experienced. And I think everyone in the audience felt exactly the same way.


As amazing as the finale was, everything else I saw Sunday that led up to it was also pretty damn great. As I headed downtown that morning for a fabulous brunch with some friends, I was almost nervous for what the day would hold. Expectations for concerts are funny things, and sometimes I'm apt to raise them so high that when they inevitably aren't reached, I find myself wishing I had just stayed home.

I suppose it was bound to happen, after such a powerful performance by Frahm, that the rest of Saturday felt almost like a let down. Julia Holter at the Bijou was pretty good, I guess, like Feist mixed with Ornette Coleman via Lana Del Rey. I could see the appeal, but it just didn't do that much for me. Neither did Susanna, over at the Square Room, whose vocal stylings seemed awfully like Holter's, albeit with an accent. The most effusive praise I heard of both came from my guy friends, and I wonder if the singers' attractiveness had anything to do with it. Me, I'm pretty much over the Diamanda Galas-esque revival. But it doesn't look like it's going anywhere, so who knows, maybe I'll eventually come around.

After Susanna I went to Television, because of course I did. And it was fine, it was good. Then the jamming went on a little long and I almost fell asleep and that was the end of my night because I was stupid and didn't drink any caffeine earlier. (Lame, I know.) 

Anyway, back to Sunday: After brunch, and mango-ginger mimosas, I rallied my positivity. I was just tired the day before. Today would be great, I was sure. So I headed to Dean & Britta's performance for 13 selected Warhol screen tests. 

I missed the first couple, and I wish I hadn't -- it was lovely and haunting and a bit sad, all these beautiful people captured at the height of their beauty, who then OD'd or jumped out a window or disappeared in the winter without their false teeth. Seeing the screen test of baby Lou Reed, in dark sunglasses, drinking a Coca-Cola from a glass bottle in such a way as no one else could possibly do, made me realize that no one, but no one, can ever possibly be that cool again. It was a freeing thought, actually -- it takes all the pressure off you to never have to bother to pretend you're cool again if there's no point because the epitome of cool was actualized decades ago.

We all stumbled out into the bright sunlight halfway in a dream state when it ended. I tried to go see Keiji Haino afterwards, but the club was roasting and I kept literally walking into people in the almost-pitch black darkness and that was at the very back of the room anyway and my claustrophobia got the best of me and I left. One of my friends said the set was a life-changing experience, and maybe that was true, but having a cold PBR outside with some other friends who also couldn't handle the crowd was pretty great too. 

I probably shouldn't complain about only having five minutes of a bad experience during an otherwise lovely and well-put-on festival, so I won't. Those kinds of crowds are why I usually don't go to music festivals, and I'm thankful Big Ears had so few of them.

Beer finished, I returned to the Bijou for Rachel Grimes, who was playing with a trio. It was incredible. Just incredible. (And not only because Jacob Duncan played two saxophones AT THE SAME TIME during one piece.) I saw Rachel's back in the day -- way, way back in the day -- but this set blew what I remember of that show out of the water. The theatre was pretty full, yet apparently all the critics opted out of her show, because I haven't seen a one write about it. Whatever -- it was their loss. 

Near the end of the show, Grimes announced the next couple of pieces would be from her most recent album, Book of Leaves, but with different arrangements. As she led into what would be the last song, I noticed the man sitting down the row from me, a few seats over, clap his hands together silently in glee. You know, that thing you do at a concert when you're like, "Yes! They're playing my favorite song! Sweet!" That's what this guy -- older, balding, a nerdy academic type with round glasses -- did. 

For a Rachel Grimes piece

Later that night, after all the performances of the Reich works, I saw Grimes standing outside the Tennessee and went over to tell her how much I enjoyed her show. This is something I pretty much never ever do, unless I'm actually friends with the musicians in question, but I had interviewed her and her show was amazing and the Music for 18 Musicians was amazing and the day had been amazing (and, okay, yes, I had probably a bit too much bubbly earlier). After complimenting her performance, I told her about the guy clapping his hands together. Grimes' face became one of utter surprise. 

"Really? That really happened?" she asked. I told her it had, and how awesome and crazy it was to witness, here in Knoxville, that this had happened here of all places. 

"Big Ears is just magical," she replied. "This weekend has been incredible." And she was right.


Earlier that afternoon, I randomly ran into a friend of mine from Athens (who now lives in Atlanta). I hadn't seen him in years, but we paused and chatted for a few minutes about how great the Grimes show had been. (We had both just left it.) 

"It was SOOOO AMAZING!" I said. 

"It totally was!" he agreed. 

Then he said what, to me, has most summed up everything about Big Ears. "I'm so sick of saying 'AMAZING' about everything," he said. "But everything is!"

I had just been thinking the same thing. It was a pretty great feeling to have. 

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