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It’s #throwbackthursday , so we’re taking you back to Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN. Here are some belated recaps of shows that Rock Show DJs attended. Words contributed by Ethan Simonoff, Jenna Powell-Malloy, Harlynn Siler, and Gillian Levy. Pictures by Gillian Levy.

Big Ears is unique among music festivals. Spanning five venues in downtown Knoxville, attendees are encouraged to jump between theaters and concert halls to catch the best of each performer. Curated by Steve Reich, this year placed heavy emphasis on minimalism with maximal sonic effects.

Big Ears Launch Party w/ Steve Reich, So Percussion, and Laraaji
5:00PM @ Knoxville Museum of Art

Steve Reich
Steve Reich kicks off the festival @ Knoxville Museum of Art

Laraaji @ Knoxville Museum of Art

Big Ears kicked off at the Knoxville Museum of Art with an opening address from festival organizers and Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, who threw some shade at Brooklyn hipsters: “We had scruffy guys with banjos way before Brooklyn did.” After some polite clapping and thanking of sponsors, So Percussion took the stage with Steve Reich himself to perform “Clapping.” Reich gave some quick opening remarks on how grateful and excited he was to be at the festival, and then handed the stage over to Laraaji for a short set. Thus we began our Big Ears experience!

So Percussion w/ Glenn Kotche, Buke & Gase
6:30PM @ Bijou Theater

So Percussion takes your picture @ Bijou Theater

So Percussion takes your picture @ Bijou Theater

So Percussion rocks it out with Glenn Kotche

So Percussion rocks it out with Glenn Kotche

The first official show I attended was So Percussion at the Bijou Theater. So is Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, and Jason Treuting, percussionists who met as graduate students at Yale. They opened their set by coming out with disposable cameras, clicking and winding away at the audience, which led to ripples of laughter throughout the crowd. Each member performed alternately on a drum set or another percussive instrument; marimbas were prominently featured. After their openers, Glenn Kotche came out to accompany them for some drumkit pieces he wrote specifically for the group through Meet the Composer, and he also stayed for a performance for Steve Reich’s “Pieces of Wood” with one member of the quartet. The last half of the show featured Buke & Gase on guitar, bass, and vocals, which added a decidedly twee element to the show.

Stephen O’Malley (solo)
7:00PM @ Scruffy City Hall

As the rain picked up outside, we retreated to the doom metal cave that Stephen O’Malley was creating inside Scruffy City Hall. With his signature clear guitar and spread of effects pedals, O’Malley performed haunting pieces that had as much to say over their sparse buildups as they did in their abrasive peaks. His pieces went through slowly evolving phases, each one just subtly distinct enough to create a hypnotic yet accelerating soundscape.

Colin Stetson
8:30PM @ Scruffy City Hall

Colin Stetson and his saxophones @ Scruffy City Hall

Colin Stetson and his saxophones @ Scruffy City Hall

Colin Stetson and his giant sax

Colin Stetson and his giant sax

Colin Stetson is a one-man powerhouse. It’s hard to listen to his records and imagine what it might look like live, especially knowing that Stetson doesn’t use looping at all. In person, he is a force of nature, alternating between three different saxophones and thrusting his entire physical being into the performance, rippling muscles and all. Just seeing the title track of his new record (New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light) was definitely a festival highlight and I think we all have huge crushes on him.

9:30PM @ Bijou Theater

Kim shreds the night away @ Bijou Theater

Kim shreds the night away @ Bijou Theater

You can’t talk about Body/Head without focusing on its most famous element: Kim Gordon, the mother of all things noise rock and founding member of Sonic Youth. Since her split with Thurston Moore ended Sonic Youth, Gordon has kept busy with her experimental guitar duo with Bill Nace. I had the opportunity to see Body/Head back in September at the MCA in Chicago, and this performance was pretty much exactly the same thing: Bill & Kim shredding, Kim yelping into a microphone, and a poorly executed “art-school” film playing in the background. It’s quite an experience to see Kim Gordon in person (and we did see her walking around downtown Knoxville twice!), but I’d suggest waiting for a more innovative new project.

John Cale
10:30PM @ Tennessee Theater

John Cale strums it out @ Tennessee Theater

John Cale strums it out @ Tennessee Theater

We piled into the Tennessee Theater, the largest and most beautiful of the venues, to catch a set from famed multi-instrumentalist John Cale, of Velvet Underground fame. Cale’s set lasted an hour and a half and consisted of the best of his glam-rock pieces spanning decades of work. While it was enjoyable to the older crowd, I think the glamour of glam rock escaped us.

Tim Hecker
12:00AM @ Bijou Theater

After a day of bopping from venue to venue in Knoxville we headed over to the Bijou to check out Tim Hecker. Exhausted but ready to go for an aural ride we settled in. Due to unfortunate acoustics or sound engineering the music was much too loud. Instead of the aural bliss we were expecting, we were cocooned in a vibrating bed of sound. Shrouded in smoke and wearing his ever-present beanie, Hecker intently worked away. That vibrating bed quickly became equal part lullabies. It was only the slow cessation of vibrations at the end of his set that pulled us out of our reverie.
Tl;dr we all fell into a lovely sleep and aren’t apologizing for it.

That’s it for our Friday recaps! Stay tuned for Saturday and Sunday for more shredding and droning and drumming.


By Svyat Nakonechny ’14

On my way to the DakhaBrakha show, as the cold and lonely after-rush-hour Chicago swam by, the band’s solemn “Nad Dunaem” (“Over Danube”) came on in my headphones. Between the pauses of the melodic vocals and the distant hums of the harmonic, I zoned out, only to come back to the far less pacific cannons of the Red line. And such was their concert – an alchemy of familiar tones spiced with crafted peaks of DakhaBrakha’s brilliant voices.

By the time Marko Halanevych thanked the generous audience for the first time (after the opener), the room was theirs. Then came “Oi za lisochkom” (“Far by the creek”), a fine crescendo of vocals and tender bass, a composition in the realm of its own. Iryna Kovalenko poured her sharp Old Ukrainian dialect into Nina Garenetska’s somber cello, then Marko’s resonant vocals stole our ears, all to Olena Tsibulska’s colorful drum tone.

Then there was a jazzy twist, a rhythmic tune about how to plant Ukrainian beans, but what DakhaBrakha sang mattered far less than how they did it, how they organically merged their poised voices and skillful multi-instrumentalism with the unknown to most of us ethnos, a mystical land that has seen much agony and far less joy, peoples firm in their melodies and witty in their tongue. Spontaneously all this cliffs back to Marko’s echo, back to a bizarre bag pipe-sounding flute, to the vivid atmosphere of the show.

Like true Ukrainians still hibernating after their late Eastern Orthodox Christmas, DakhaBrakha produces a schedrivka, a traditional well-wishing and celebratory tune, one I’ve never heard before. Again, splendid. Even my Peruvian neighbors agree.

In my conversation with Marko after the show (I admit, I pretended to have recorded it – “Can we do an interview for our listeners?” sounds substantially less preying than “I just want to talk about this music of yours”), a colleague interviewer asked about the environments in which the group prefers to play. The truth is that this journalist-y query fades behind DakhaBrakha’s virtuous performance, regardless of the venue or the quantity of hands clapping. With this band comes some strange ambiance, one that no mic can amplify and no record can reproduce. To an unfamiliar ear it’s all a beautiful sound contraption – mysterious, profound, virgin. To this humble servant, it’s a summer’s trip into the dense Ukrainian woods my six-year-old self used to make; it’s my grandmother’s painful but sweet lullaby, one I will never fathom hearing but will always shiver when I do.

All that’s left to do is pick up our jaws from the ground, for DakhaBrakha’s diapasons and vocal ranges are second to none. And all I can do is convulse in the ecstatic rhythm of “Carpathian rap.”

At some point I put my phone down and stopped taking notes. It’s shameful, but I couldn’t rack up bits and pieces of this mosaic. It’s unjust. To the quartet, to the audience, to the reader. I zone out again, then wake up to “Howard is next, doors open on the left on Howard.”


DakhaBrakha Official Site

In case you missed this Friday’s Sonic Celluloid event at the Block, here’s a chance to listen to some of what you missed. Autumn Drones opened the night with a great score to Stan Brakhage’s “Prelude: Dog Star Man.” He posted it to his Soundcloud, so here it is in its entirety:

After the jump, an embed of the film so you can sync them up at home.