After a late night of dancing and more dancing at Jamie XX, I got off to a bit of a slow start on day two of Big Ears. But once I made it downtown, the mix of exhaustion and anxiety over whether I’d be able to catch most of the day’s events gave way to a giddy wave of anticipation. This was partially due to the large quantities of coffee that I consumed en route to the festival, but it was mostly due to the crowds of smiling folks walking around downtown. From the camera crews running out into the middle of Gay Street to score a shot of the Tennessee Theatre to the groups of out-of-town attendees lunching on patios with a total disregard for the 40-degree temperatures, seeing people enjoy Knoxville from a fresh perspective always inspires a little jolt of pride.
I started the day by catching the tail end of the Sam Amidon, Rhiannon Giddens, and Kronos Quartet show at the Tennessee Theatre. Their set of reworked folk classics drew a large crowd and seats were scarce even in the way, way back corners of the balcony. Giddens spent a decent amount of time giving a backstory to most tracks, talking more than most performers I’ve caught at Big Ears so far. Before easing into a banjo-led ballad, she explained the banjo she was playing was a replica of one from 1858, telling audience members that one of her favorite aspects of folk music is “changing existing melodies and stories to fit what’s happening today.”
Before heading over to the Square Room to catch Dutch composer Jozef Van Wissem, I stopped by Krutch Park to chat with the organizers of the Found Sound Nation. The project works to gather spontaneous sounds and stories from the festival with the goal of crating a found-sound album. When I swung by, the set-up included a few guitars, some drums, and a 7-or-so-year-old kid singing his favorite song: the alphabet song. Van Wissem’s set was definitely a surprise standout. I can safely say that I’ve never seen a lute in person, so it was especially striking to see the instrument mastered by the prolific player. The Square Room’s acoustics were beautiful during the performance, which had a sort of mystical, ominous tone. The sound completely washed over the room. I ended up staying for the entire set before grabbing a late lunch at the Tomato Head.
Sadly, I was one of the large group of attendees who headed over to the KMA for the Nels Cline and Norton Wisdom performance only to be shut out. The show was moved to the auditorium at the last minute, which had a much smaller capacity. Around half of the folks who made the trek for the show ended up missing out, but festival workers explained that the midnight show would take place in the much-larger hall, so everyone would get a chance to see to pair’s performance. A couple of people joked that we should get free drinks as a consolation prize, so the mood was relatively understanding.
After dinner, I headed to the Tennessee Theatre for Laurie Anderson’s performance with the Kronos Quartet before leaving a bit early for Max Richter at the Bijou. I figured that the show would fill up fast, which was confirmed when I walked into a line that poured out of the Bijou’s lobby. This was one of the shows that I was looking forward to the most and, judging by the crowd, most of Big Ears felt the same way. The performance was absolutely stunning and one that I kept reliving as the night went on. As Richter and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble played through The Blue Notebooks and Infra, there were audible gasps with each crescendo and I’m pretty sure that the couple next to me started crying.
The rest of the night was a blur as I pretty much ran from tUnE-yArDs to Grouper to Omar Souleyman. Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs didn’t disappoint, with a killer, mostly female crew of musicians and dancers decked out in neon and exuding enough energy to get tired festival goers on their feet and dancing. “Thanks for standing up,” Garbus jabbed at the crowd, who were clearly eating it up. The last time I saw tUnE-yArDs was five or so years ago at Pilot Light, when her entire performance was looped, so it was definitely a change to see her with a full band.
As expected, Grouper’s set was a total sensory experience. Liz Harris sat crossed legged on the stage of the Square Room, obscured so much by the dark lighting that I didn’t even realize she was on the stage until around 10 or so minutes into the performance. Grainy, black-and-white splices of video played on the screens behind Harris as she gracefully slinked through layered, droning set.
I ended the night with Syrian electronic artist Omar Souleyman at the Standard. It was awesome. More than any other act at the festival so far, this is the one that folks said was a cant-miss and it didn’t disappoint. After a slow, tension-building intro, Souleyman strolled onto the set clapping and grinning as audience members screamed out. His set quickly exploded into a dance-party, with some audience members looking a little shell-shocked at the sheer energy behind the performance.
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