Big Ears 2015: The Boom Bangs and Whispers


If you walked into the Bijou Theatre to see Tanya Tagaq, an inuk throat singer from Canada, you would have been absolutely still with a massive amount of weird sexual endorphins hitting overdrive. That performance was hugely erotic, then it went into this quasi-exorcism, which rattled some cages. I’ve never felt more aroused and terrified at the same time. But utterly in awe of her, and the amount of courage to become anthropomorphic in front of an audience. Yes, the more conservative festival goers left with looks on their face as if they were punched in the gut, licked, then pissed on. But damn, I fell in love with pure truth all over again.

Which brings me to the closed-door analogy. It’s open to all of you, but be ready for it once you enter. There’s absolutely no going back. You will be transformed, then fixated on how bullshit everything you’ve done leading up to that point actually is. But not in a negative way, in an uplifting, ‘hey I might try to fly home” kind of thing. And it’s not just about music, or being creative. I think I’m a better person, a better brother, a better husband from being in those rooms. Breathing in the same shitty smoke machine air with all those talented people. You feel like you belong somewhere. You can’t go back after that, it cannot be undone. You’ve seen behind the curtain and can’t believe how free you felt. Until you have to go home and settle into your robotic pod of modern-day civilization, thats life I guess. I feel as if the attendees, the performers, anyone in the proximity of this beautiful experience, created a massive ground ether that launched when SWANS wrapped the last set on Sunday. It’s still moving up there. The traveling sound collage that was our weekend together in Knoxville, Tennessee. This small, vibrant, and wonderfully “Scruffy City” has something going on.

Back in 2009, AC Entertainment, most known for Bonnaroo music festival, launched Big Ears. From the jump it was apparent that “ears” wouldn’t be your typical festival experience but more in line with acts that focused on the avant nature in creating. I recall the first one in fact, Dan Deacon directed the crowd to form a tunnel, while one of his sonic jams looped in the back ground. Or the infamous moment when Matmos had to change venues because their videos would offend the businesses religious bends. Sadly that place is still in the venue rotation, but that’s only “sad” for the horrible sound the room still has to this day. Ask Steve Gunn if he liked it…his performance was my top pick for the weekend, but the venue made it quite average. His album Way Out Weather is something to be heralded, so make sure he has the right sound to deliver it. He was a pro though, so it was fine.

After missing 2010, I was thrilled to see it come back from the dead in 2014. And last years success further instilled the yearning people have to be in a room with something unique. A call inherent in our DNA from the primitive mind. It only feels satiated after the kind of experimental ritual this weekend booms and bangs. Then there’s the whispers, the almost silent pauses in performances that are as loud as Ben Frost’s low-end at the Bijou. A friend of a friend who heard his sound check said “The bass is so loud I felt nauseous”. An example of the whole ethos behind Big Ears. Make you feel so uncomfortable that eventually you transcend into feeling completely at ease within yourself. Poetic indeed, but its truth in these moments couldn’t be more real. There’s nothing like it, anywhere. A bartender friend of mine, who works downtown, said “It’s like our Sundance”. That quote was on the list of my favorite things from the festival. He mixed drinks watching the performers and attendees stroll through downtown, back and forth between venues. How sweet it is…

This year was just as great as the last, but had a special quality for me personally. My Brother made the trip from the North. A human with his own special sense of living, and special talents with a guitar, very special. I’d been telling him for a year he had to come. It was a weekend built for him, people who can carry your interest with a word, or a recommendation into something unknown. So, the fact I was able to see and be present in all these amazing performances, with an “individual” giving his own meaning to the word, it was profound. We were essentially having these breakthroughs from one show to the next. It sounds silly to you maybe, but it gets to the core of what this festival is doing for music, whats it’s doing for us. I leave every time with the courage to be who I’m suppose to be. So this review is much more about my evolution, or better, my devolution into something else. Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs suggest as much when she talked about ego, and how big all of ours can be. Her performance, absolutely fun, was easily a stand out for us. It came perfectly in the apex of the weekend. An obvious stroke of the brilliant brush for AC Entertainment.

Big Ears 2015 obviously evokes a great deal about life for me. I’m sure it feels that way for a lot the people smart enough to pay the money to be there. It’s simply worth it. The great performances were non-stop. It was truth in Art forms. The Hive for example, Tyondai Braxton’s creation of performance and functional installation was brilliant. A genre exploration in electronic music, with live percussion by other musicians, all sitting atop these lit up pods. Something you’re not going to see that often.

Other great moments, Little Annie Sunday night. She was vivacious and poetic, gorgeously charming in the way she swayed around, without a care in the world. So damn inspiring. Likewise for Silver Apples, a pioneer in the minimal electronic sound. Simeon Coxe couldn’t have been happier up there. It was contagious, the whole weekend. And Terry Riley and son hypnotized me early sunday as I sat with family and friends at the KMA. Gosh darn memorable, in every way.

The end was just as potent as the beginning. And I chose to be decompressed by Max Richter with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra performing the score for the HBO series The Leftovers. Nothing short of breath-taking. I was so tired and wiped out from walking and listening all weekend. I more or less fell into my chair, slouched down as low as I could, and just let it all settle in. I let that performance carry me home, mentally, like a serene boat ride down a mystic river.

I asked local musician Matt Honkonen, a very close friend, for his best moment at Big Ears, he said “Tito’s and burgers after the weekend, slowly unpacking the layers of three full days. The inspiration that comes to you slowly after a weekend of music is hard to put into words”. I was able to partake in that, and believe me when I say we ate and drank like kings. Its was similar to eating after a long hike in the Smokies. We made the bar rain down a gluttonous storm. The Bistro is the best place to feel you’re somewhere special, or at least different. How fitting that while we were soaking up everything we’d just experienced, Little Annie was just finishing her Hot Totti, KSO was down the bar eating, and chatting with others. A couple well-respected locals were doing the same. It feels special to live in Knoxville, I’m thrilled about it. Can’t wait for next year!