Analogue Music | Big Ears Festival 2018

Big Ears Festival 2018

By Scott Elingburg

The line outside the Knoxville Visitor's Center queued around the block for reasons unknown, but we filed in anyway.

Matt Conner and I were too busy catching up after getting our festival passes to pay full attention to the scene. Basically, we saw a line, we got in it. (In our defense, we asked a few people in front of us what the line was for and received little information.)  

Local news cameras and reporters huddled around the street, the wind whipping into the microphones. 

"Excuse me, guys," a blonde-headed man said, as he approached us. "We're looking for a couple quotes from people about the festival. Would you mind being on camera with us?" 

Matt and I fumbled and foisted the responsibility onto each other and then back again: You. No, you. No, you. I drew the short straw and found myself in front of a camera and a microphone for WVLT-TV, Knoxville, Local 8. They did not use my footage, but they did use (ahem, pilfer) some of the context I provided. (In the video, I'm the "folks" from Charleston, SC and I directly stated that "it would probably take a year to see" all the artists and events happening at the festival.)

This year's festival was more about bringing "Appalachia to the avant-garde."

It turns out the line was for the Big Ears kickoff party. Hugs all around and lots of good vibes in the room as Ashley Capps (founder of the festival and of AC Entertainment) and Knoxville Mayor, Madeline Rogero, talked about some of the festival's history. 

To paraphrase Rogero, she noted that previously Big Ears was about bringing the avant-garde to Appalachia. But this year's festival was more about bringing "Appalachia to the avant-garde." 

That's an appropriate summation of many of the events at Big Ears. I saw a lot of banjo, acoustic picking, and deft musicianship across all spectrums. An alternating mixture of grassroots-inspired music, bluegrass, acoustic instrumentation, wall-of-sound noise, and free jazz blended together in a vat of pure artistry and fierce independence. There was no pinning Big Ears down to any single descriptor. It was as much what you wanted it to be—what you made it become—than it was "Appalachian" or "avant-garde." It was an endless stream of surprises, too; a personal, uncannily intimate weekend where genres and boundaries were mostly fluid and the volume fluctuated between quiet, very quiet, beyond quiet, and shatteringly loud.

Marc Ribot & David Hidalgo


Day one hit a snag when Nels Cline's performance of his 2016 album, Lovers, was inadvertently cancelled due to travel/scheduling conflicts. Schedules were rearranged to allow for extended performances from Meshell Ndegeocello and Marc Ribot and David Hidalgo. Ndegeocello effectively served as the festival's opener, playing to a quarter full room at the Tennessee Theater. Accompanied by Chris Bruce's acoustic guitar and supplying her voice on a set that relied heavily on covers, she jumped in with her signature bass lines on the intros, the outros, and choruses. 

Playing songs from a diverse array of artists including Nick Drake, TLC, and Al B Sure, Ndegeocello held the rapt audience in her palm for a brief 50 minutes. It's fair to say most of us could have listened to her play for another hour or more. (Nels who?) Visibly nervous, her talents overcame any jitters. I left the show with a rediscovery of one of our most talented musicians.

Strolling over to the Bijou Theatre, Matt and I heard half of Norwegian singer/instrumentalist Susanna's dark, piano and vocal effect-laden pieces, primarily from her 2016 LP, Triangle. Captivating, simple, and deeply direct, Susanna would play again Friday night for one of the best shows of the festival, for me. Eager to see most of Marc Ribot and David Hidalgo's set at the Tennessee Theatre, Matt and I left the Bijou—and missed Will Oldham (Bonnie "Prince" Billy) join Susanna onstage for a cover of Thin Lizzy's, "Jailbreak." (Twitter was kind enough to inform me of this happening.) 

You can't see it all, I guess, at least certainly not at Big Ears. But Ribot and Hidalgo helped make up for the lack of Will Oldham in my life with a delicate and pastoral set of folk/frontier songs from a shared and diverse catalog. Ribot was a standout when he accompanied Joe Henry for half of his solo acoustic set at the Bijou in 2016, and he still is. While Hidalgo is clearly the more powerful songwriter, a keen and sharp observer of musical tradition and creator of an amalgam of Tex Mex/Country/Chicano music, Ribot is an equally impressive guitar virtuoso—and a perfect compliment onstage. Ribot knows when to play and, just as importantly, when not to play. Plus, his guitar collection is probably the oldest and deepest of any guitarist at the festival. 

Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Much of the first day was cloaked in a variation of quiet, delicate sound. Not a bad way to ramp up to the rest of the weekend, but it proved to be a false sense of security. Nearly everyone, it seemed, was preparing our ears and our minds for Godspeed You! Black Emperor at midnight. 

GY!BE might have been the closest thing to a headliner Big Ears had this year. Based on the official Big Ears app, that was the most popular event that users had on their schedules and the over 1000-person capacity venue The Mill and the Mine had us packed in like a bean bag stuffing. For good reason. 

GY!BE was in the top tier of shows I saw at Big Ears in 2018. On the heels of their 2017 LP, Luciferian Towers, the nine-piece made an unholy noise; a noise that sought to topple walls and towers. In a dimly lit venue on a darkened stage, the band didn't pause between 20-to-30 minute numbers so much as come up for air. It was pummeling to the head and punishing to my body physically. Certainly not the loudest show I've ever seen—that honor belongs to the inimitable Southern Culture on the Skids (look them up if you don't know)—but maybe one of the most exhaustingly cathartic shows I've seen in many years. 

Catharsis seems to be on the minds of many artists who create music as a way to both exorcise personal demons and respond to the toxic political and social climate of the past decade. GY!BE aren't what I might call "political" but the film footage that played behind them—the footage that, essentially, provided the only light on the stage—suggested dread and lingering doubt. The word "HOPE" appeared scrawled in several places, more as a killer's warning note than a word that offers celebration; towers and tall buildings stood high above the band, each scene moving with dread terrifying anticipation of what might happen; bombs exploded in faraway places; physical fist fights between civilians with opposing views (and Presidential candidates) showed off the ugliest side of humanity. 

For much of the show, I had to look down. I had to close my eyes, as well, and let the sound lift me up and away, swaying in limbo on my own two tired feet. Nearly two hours later, when the band left the stage, one-by-one, amidst a drone of instrumentation, I exited into the chilly Knoxville air. It felt good to breathe. It felt good to hear what passed for silence. It felt good to be alive, to be tired. Tomorrow was rapidly on its way and there was more music to hear.  

Steve Gunn


Day two began in the truest rock-n-roll fashion: a Starbucks order totaling $6.66.

Of course, the most rock-n-roll experience I had on day two at Big Ears was having to choose between seeing Jenny Hval or Steve Gunn. My head said Hval, but my heart said Gunn. I made the right choice. (With apologies to Hval. Hopefully next time?) 

Gunn played at the gorgeous St. John's Cathedral, a seemingly unusual place for contemporary music to be seen and heard, but that's part of what makes the festival so memorable; the spaces, the "venues," fit the music like a velvet glove. 

Gunn's solo acoustic songs echoed through the large space, reverberating around the convex sanctuary. It certainly fell under the "quiet" moniker of shows I saw, but Gunn plays guitar with confidence and talent, a solo troubadour that really doesn't need anything else to show off besides his ability to fingerpick a song or two. 

"Playing fuzz Wah in a church on Friday is just a beautiful thing to me," Gunn told the audience. "So, thank you."

A brisk walk later and I arrived at The Standard, the closest thing to a "warehouse" venue at the festival. Atlanta band, Algiers was set to play an 60-minute set, and I needed to be front and center for it. 

Algiers comes on like an unholy cross between Motown grooves, Hendrix-style psychedelia, MC5-type fury, post-punk and no wave, and the righteous political anger of anti-colonialism. (Hence their name.) Despite the fact that their bassist, Ryan Mahan, was currently living in exile overseas and the set was dedicated to him (no additional explanation was give as to why), Algiers did not let that slow them down. Not at all. 

Guitarist/saxophonist/noisemaker Lee Tesche used every tool available to him to transform the guitar into a machine that could kill fascists, while drummer, Matt Tong, (formerly of Bloc Party) barely stopped smiling while he played. But it was, of course, singer/multi-instrumentalist Franklin Fisher's show to steal. Magnetic and entrancing as a frontperson, Fisher oscillated between electric piano, guitar, and effects-laden vocals, before ultimately grabbing a tambourine and smashing it in two near the end of the set. 

Not knowing anything about them or their music, I left the venue—ears ringing, face flushed—as an excited convert.

Algiers were one of those band I've heard of on the periphery. Not knowing anything about them or their music, I left the venue—ears ringing, face flushed—as an excited convert. 

Needing a brief cool-down session and some food, I listened to a few minutes of Sam Amidon's acoustic, folk set at the Bijou. 2018 marked my second time seeing Amidon at Big Ears, the first in 2016. The Vermont-born folk artist exorcises the demons from early folk songs, delivering them all with an eerie earnestness and a finely-tuned ear for the old, weird America of Alan Lomax's recordings. No stranger to indie rock circles, Amidon is a talented artist who always mesmerizes audiences at Big Ears. 

Somewhat recuperated, but with ears still ringing, I had every intention of hiking to Church Street United Methodist Church for Bela Fleck and Brooklyn Rider. Sadly, I didn't make it, bowing to hunger pangs and opting instead for some chicken and pancakes at Tupelo Honey on the Square. 

I might have been more upset about missing the show had Fleck and Brooklyn Rider not been rehearsing in the hotel room beside ours that morning. Naturally, I stood beside the door, just out of view of the peephole, to listen to the rehearsal sessions. It wasn't exactly a full-fledged concert, but it was a good example of the closeness that Big Ears' has become adept at sharing. Artists and musicians don't seem so far out of reach at this intimate festival and elevator rides with festival musicians are not uncommon. (Just be cool about it, okay?)

Later that evening, it was time for one of the festival's heavy hitters: Medeski, Martin, and Wood. The jazz fusion funk trio started firing on all cylinders after a brief warm-up track. MMW's secret weapon has to be Chris Wood. Subtlety was not on the table for his bass attack, even as he switched deftly from bowed upright bass to plucked upright bass to electric fuzz bass. Drummer Billy Martin and Wood seemed to click early on and read each other's movements as easily as steering a car. Medeski is the band member who doesn't cry out for attention, letting his keys and swirls soak up the remaining space left by Wood and Martin. But the tight trio operates like any great band after nearly three decades together: if one element is absent, you'll notice, and no one noticed anything off about these three that evening. 

Susanna on piano
Susanna on piano

Heading for round two of Susanna at the Bijou Theatre meant missing Tal National at The Mill and the Mine, probably the toughest choice I made all weekend. But for the second show Susanna brought along a quartet that included Giovanna Pessi on harp, Frode Haltli on accordion, Kentuckian Cheyenne Mize on vocals and violin, and a lengthier visit from Bonnie "Prince" Billy providing male harmony vocals. 

The 90 plus-minute set was, in a word, chilling. Eerily quiet, save for the musicians' delicate plucking and singing, most of the material was called from Susanna's latest and darkest release, a deathly folk collection of murder ballads and more called Go Dig My Grave. No one is more suited to reinventing the Americana folk and Appalachian music tradition that Will Oldham. He's spent most of his earthly career doing just that with his myriad releases. But he's found a foil and partner in the Norwegian songstress Susanna. Her voice is alternately crystalline and captivating, dangerous and dagger-like. Where the night before it was only her effects-laden voice and piano, tonight she performed with out any electronic instruments to mask her, letting her voice take flight. Oldham sang, as well, for about half the set which, seemed odd given that it was only his vocal harmonies that he lent to the quartet. But removing the instrument from his hands let his powerful tenor become the focus, as well, along with Susanna's dark melodies. 

Together, the instrumentation was flawless, a top-notch performance that spanned hundreds of years of songs including covers from Jeff Buckley ("Lilac Wine"), Lou Reed ("Perfect Day"), Nick Drake ("Which Will"), and one rollicking rendition of AC/DC's "It's A Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)." 

"In memory of Angus!" an audience member shouted when it was over. Oldham grinned, noting the gaffe, and asked if Susanna heard the shout. Thankfully, someone cooly corrected the yeller, reminding him that, "He's not dead, yet. Wrong guy." It might have been a facepalm moment anywhere else, but the audience was so into what Susanna and her guests were feeding us that everyone took it in stride, eager to hear what might come next. It was dense and heavy show for a chilly night in East Tennessee but, in many ways, it was also the most serene of the weekend (that I saw). A stark reminder that you don't always need to go to eleven to be heard. Any member of the audience could have heard a pin drop that entire evening. 

Across town more free jazz was being proffered by The Thing, minimal electronic pop from GAS (Wolfgang Voigt) was spilling out of another theater, a "Fats Waller Dance Party" presented by Jason Moran was kicking off, and, soon, Laurel Halo would DJ a set well past my normal bedtime. Any of these events would have been a fitting end to the day, but I was satisfied and more than content with the refrain of Lou Reed's tune ringing in my head: "Oh, such a perfect day / You just keep me hanging on / You just keep me hanging on."

Abigail Washburn & Rhiannon Giddens


Saturday delivered a day's worth of surprises and a few missed opportunities for me. Believe me when I say I tried—oh, I tried—to cram as much music into Saturday as possible. But after nearly driving myself crazy packing a schedule on Friday, I decided to let go of my rigid schedule and float along, just wanting to see where the day brought me. 

To begin, the day brought me to the Tennessee Theatre for the keynote address from Rhiannon Giddens. The North Carolina-native and MacArthur "Genius" Fellow, Giddens spent much of her hour-long address bouncing between the podium, where she discussed identity and racial politics in American folk music and the historical creation instruments such as the banjo, and stage left, where she played with several key performers such as Brooklyn Rider, Abigail Washburn, and Bela Fleck. It was a freewheelin' keynote, one that Giddens clearly seemed to have more to talk about but was swept up in the music and the performances. As Bela Fleck entered to accompany her on a reading of the James Agee text, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Giddens was swept up in emotion, visibly choked up while crossing through the text. She recovered and exited stage right as Abigail Washburn came out and joined her husband on a rendition of Sarah Ogan Gunning's "Come All You Coal Miners."

Washburn and Fleck crossed to center stage where the two sat for over 90 minutes, trading banjo licks and songs and, even at one point, regaling the audience with a lengthy (fictional) story about meeting each other on "" Quartet Brooklyn Rider joined for a few numbers and a visibly-pregnant Washburn was the epitome of grace and sweetness in her songs. A few tracks from their latest LP, Echo In the Valley, a few Flecktone songs, and plenty of traditionals—including a Chinese folk tune Washburn lent her near-perfect dialect and voice to—and the afternoon was nearly over. But what a way to spend it; in the presence of two string instrument virtuosos clearly enjoying their music and each other's company. 

It is safe to say that Saturday was the most "experimental" of days at Big Ears, but that didn't seem to deter anyone from jumping venue to venue, in hopes of having their ears and minds stretched further out.

John Medeski played a solo set at St. John's Cathedral, Jason Moran and Milford Graves collaborated at the same time Aine O'Dwyer performed William Eggleston's Musik, and a full to capacity cathedral show hosted Alice Coltrane Turiyasanagitananda: The Ashram Experience to open up the spiritual world in the most transcendental way possible. Even though Alice Coltrane (who passed away in 2007) was merely there in spirit, she loomed heavily over the jazz-inflected Saturday performances. It is safe to say that Saturday was the most "experimental" of days at Big Ears, but that didn't seem to deter anyone from jumping venue to venue, in hopes of having their ears and minds stretched further out.

Knowing that Saturday would be our last day at Big Ears (Matt and I both have multiple jobs, families to attend to, not to mention six-hour drives home in opposite directions), I willingly packed day three with as many performances as possible. Despite the protestations of my tired feet and a step counter that read 15,789 steps by 3PM, I rested only briefly before rejoining to the Tennessee Theatre for Anoushka Shankar's performance of Land of Gold, her 2016 LP about immigration. 

The four-piece, with Shankar front and center, was mesmerizing, stunning, and enlightened. Ravi Shankar, the man who brought the sitar to pop music via The Beatles, was, like Alice Coltrane, a specter over the event. But Anoushka, his daughter, had established her clear musical identity years before, and brought Eastern and Western elements and instruments together. 

"I wrote [Land of Gold] about two years ago when someone was talking about building a wall," Shankar said. The crowd offered boos and hisses in response to the unnamed President. "But I tried to end it with hope." That's what the final number, "Land of Gold (Instrumental)" instilled in me. Is it too much to suggest that Shankar's performance, despite the band flying directly in from South Korea the day before, was transcendental? I could jumble up a few synonyms to describe it, but seeing it was an elevated experience I'll continue to carry with me. 

Jerry Douglas
Jerry Douglas

Any musician would be hard-pressed to follow Shankar's performance, but one man and his band could do: Jerry Douglas with a horn section. Certainly not the biggest crowd at The Mill and the Mine, The Jerry Douglas Band ripped through several numbers off their bluegrass and horn-infused LP, What If? Douglas apparently has always heard horn lines in his music, but never committed to them, I suppose. Until now. The Union Station dobro player is a consummate performer, offering the crowd plenty of virtuosic slide dobro and trading off guitar, bass, drum, and horn solos with deliriously tight band. 

Douglas, like some of his festival fingerpicking colleagues, has been immersed in his abilities and his own ideas for many, many years now. He's an inspiration to a new class of bluegrass and folk and seems comfortable playing the elder statesman. I, for one, am glad Douglas and other professionals like him are welcome at Big Ears. 

The surprise performance of the festival for me was a set from Laurel Halo. On the heels of someone like Jerry Douglas, it can be difficult to flip the switch from acoustic-anything all the way to electric-everything. But Laurel Halo definitely eased that transition for me. A dimly let room with only her and a relatively quiet drummer/percussionist offered up the right kind of downtempo, even chilled out mood that kept everyone hanging on her words. It was an odd mix of sultry vocals, cryptic lyrics, and shifting electro-beats, but it was its own unique beast that kept the packed crowd firmly in the palm of her hand. 

I might have thought I was going to recharge with some late-night coffee and a quick rest in my room before Kelly Lee Owens' set, but my phone buzzed to tell me that the 11PM secret show was none other than Suuns. 

Knowing I was going to miss their set at The Mill and the Mine tomorrow, I stuffed a protein bar in my mouth (and one in my pocket) downed some cold coffee from earlier that afternoon and trudged in the pelting rain to The Pilot Light.

Easily the smallest (and diviest) venue of the festival, Suuns wasted no time turning up the volume and issuing a deafening roar of snapping snares and cymbals, electronic noises, compressed guitar lines and more than a few non-sequitur lyrical couplets from their latest LP, *Felt*. Maybe it was the size of the room, the limited space of the stage, or the shivering wet bodies of fans failing to soak up the sound waves, but Suuns were fucking loud. 

Probably the closest replication of an indie rock show at the festival, Suuns barely looked up as they ripped through their short 45-minute set. I was shaken and felt bruised when they were done; a powerhouse foursome that comes off completely different on record than in a live setting. 

Outside, more rain continued to drench me as I speedwalked over to The Mill and the Mine, hoping to catch a few minutes of Kelly Lee Owens set. Having already changed clothes three times that day, I was mildly annoyed at the constant rainy barrage. Yet, I still felt an unending sense of freedom and a newfound joy at all the music I witnessed so far. 

Kelly Lee Owens is probably a little over five feet tall, but her music makes her seem twice as much. Headbanging and swiveling her way around various sequencers, Owens reminded me more than a little bit of Animal from The Muppets. (Entirely a compliment, I assure you. The Electric Mayhem are a band to be reckoned with.) 

Four Tet
Four Tet

But now we come to the moment of soft regret. I would have gladly listened to another full hour of Kelly Lee Owens, but instead the room was buzzing with anticipation for one of the biggest acts at Big Ears: Four Tet. 

Maybe the day had caught up to me finally, or, maybe, my expectations were higher than necessary. I had seen photos of Four Tet concerts, complete with the kaleidoscopic light show—a sort of inverted Christmas tree in pinks and blues—but at 12:15, the show kicked off in near total darkness, save for the two desk lamps Kieran Hebden used to navigate the left and right areas of his desk. 

In one sense, the lack of light and visuals turned the focus almost entirely to the music, which, I should say, was perfectly good. Four Tet layers music and samples subtly and isn't so much about power or volume as disparate sounds that establish a constant flow of electronic music. But in the darkness of the venue, after I took a few dimly lit photos, I walked home about 40 minutes after his start. 

The rain was still coming down, albeit not with the force of earlier in the evening. I wasn't ready to go home, I was ready to wake up and do it all over again tomorrow. But daylight comes earlier than expected when you're not ready to rouse your body. My hotel was a good seven or eight blocks away and my glasses were rain-splattered, making it near impossible to see my way back. 

Outside the venue I stopped and snapped a picture of the JFG Coffee sign high above the railroad tracks of Knoxville's Jackson Station. Coffee sounded good. But at 1AM on Sunday morning, nearly all the shops were closed. My decision was made then; time to change out of my wet clothes (again), pop some Advil, and think about the long ride home the next day. 


It was an exuberant and blissful weekend, a weekend that, in some small way, helped restore an empty musical tank and expanded my appreciation of music that existed outside the typical confines of my Spotify playlist.  

The feeling still rings true, too. It's been a week since day one of Big Ears, and the longer I sit and remember the experiences, the more I revel in my time with the artists and their music. 

At home, I watched festival recaps pour in on Monday. I tried to crank it all out within a similar time frame. But it felt wrong. It felt rushed. I had to go back over the packed days and the experience with a fine-tooth comb. It's not something I want to forget anytime soon. Here's hoping I recalled it with due diligence and accuracy. Thank you, Knoxville. Thank you, Big Ears. 

[Note: If I missed anything or your schedule differed from mine, or if I just absolutely misrepresented an experience, tweet us @analogue_io with your thoughts and experiences. Always glad to listen.] 

Photo credits (all): Scott Elingburg