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As they lined up Thursday afternoon for the wristbands that would get them into concert venues scattered around Knoxville, Tenn., this weekend, attendees of the Big Ears festival were greeted with an odd but wonderful juxtaposition: Two men wearing Dickies coveralls stood under a tent, one pounding hot iron on an anvil, the other wielding a looper/sampler device to manufacture an electronic soundscape out of his hammerfalls.
That installation, called Workers Strike, exemplified what festivalgoers were in for this weekend — mixtures of the modern and the old-as-the-hills, the familiar with the challenging. Within a few hours, they’d have the option of seeing Irish/Celtic supergroup The Gloaming, which coaxes cinematic atmospheres out of traditional instruments, or walking a few blocks to observe the experimental-music offerings of a collective of avant-gardists calling themselves nief-norf. On their way, they might drop in to have their eardrums punished by noise-rock Michiganders Wolf Eyes.
The Big Ears schedule is eclectic, to be sure. But it’s the kind of eclecticism one observes in the tastes of individual music adventurers, not the studied something-for-everybody programming seen at larger festivals. (Run by Ashley Capps’s AC Entertainment, Big Ears is like the bookish, thoughtful cousin of the company’s hit creation, Bonnaroo.) Look at the music collection of your favorite in-the-know record-store clerk or DJ, and you’ll see something like this lineup.
Day one gave fans the chance to hear the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra playing arrangements of work by Philip Glass, The National’s Bryce Dessner and John Luther Adams, the Pulitzer prize-winning composer whose “Veils and Vesper” electronic work was installed in the sanctuary of the nearby First Christian Church. In a first for Big Ears, some venues were transformed into makeshift cinemas, and Shambhavi Kaul’s weekend-opening film program Planet proved as thought-provoking as any music on the schedule.
A large new concert venue, The Mill & Mine, had finished restorations just in time to host the night’s biggest names, Yo La Tengo and the Sun Ra Arkestra. Given the torrential rain due to pelt downtown, it was the obvious place to hunker down for the night.
The Arkestra is led today, as it has been for the two decades-plus since Sun Ra’s death, by the bandleader’s disciple Marshall Allen. The sax-playing nonagenarian was in fine form Thursday, the charismatic center of a group bedecked in sequined capes and shawls. Never lacking for energy but sometimes seated, Allen shared the spotlight with Tara Middleton, a buoyant young singer whose spirit matched the cosmic optimism of songs that lay claim not just to planets beyond this one, but to entire new realms of existence: “Somebody else’s idea of somebody else’s world / Is not my idea of things as they are,” she exclaimed on “Somebody Else’s World.” “Somebody else’s idea of things to come / Need not be the only way to vision the future.” As the horn section paraded out into the audience to involve listeners in the groove, as a shaman-like percussionist prowled the stage with cowbell and chimes, as Marshall used a bizarre electronic instrument called an EVI to create Theremin-like squalling freakouts, it was clear that Sun Ra’s vision did not leave the planet when he did.
Those who’ve caught Yo La Tengo’s tour for the recent all-covers album Stuff Like That There likely expected the band to bring that same melodic living-room-hangout vibe to Knoxville. Instead fans got, as YLT’s Ira Kaplan put it, “something we’ve never done before”: A 90-minute improvisational session in which the band’s three members were joined by the aforementioned Dessner, the Arkestra’s Danny Ray Thompson, harpist Mary Lattimore and Chris Abrahams on organ.
For an uninterrupted half-hour or so, the seven musicians inhabited a spacey zone very different from the Arkestra’s interplanetary realm: With four stringed instruments plinking and scraping beneath harp, electronics, flute and organ, the room was conducive to eyes-closed meditation. Then Thompson traded his flute for a baritone saxophone, and his skronky contributions bumped the energy level up a notch or two. Dessner began propping his electric guitar up on its headstock, shaking it gently to produce an amplified warble. The organ got louder; percussion entered the picture. Yo La Tengo fans are no strangers to this sort of freeform creativity. But the expanded range of sounds — and the extent to which these musical strangers communicated invisibly with each other while appearing to be holed up in abstract introspection — made this a perfect embodiment of the laid-back adventurousness on offer at Big Ears.
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