The second installment of the Big Ears festival was bigger in almost every way than the first—more people, more shows, more performers, more venues, and more prominent headliners. The loose thread that connected last year’s lineup has disappeared. Big Ears, organized by AC Entertainment, is now a major national pop festival that also includes fringe acts from the avant-garde, the experimental, and the underground. For one weekend, at least, Knoxville felt like a major cultural hub, with big shows (Vampire Weekend and the National), small ones (the Dutch post-punk collective the Ex, black-metal alchemists Liturgy), and events you may never see again (Terry Riley on the University of Tennessee’s new pipe organ). And Knoxville was up for it—artists, fans, and journalists mixed it up together all over downtown, and all of them seemed to appreciate the city’s accommodations. Last year, “Why Knoxville?” was a frequent question. This year it never came up.
At times, though, it felt like two different festivals were happening simultaneously, one at the Tennessee and Bijou theaters on Gay Street and the other at Pilot Light and the Big Ears Annex in the old Blue Cats/Catalyst space in the Old City. It seemed that passholders who saw Vampire Weekend and the National were likely to attend Clogs, Joanna Newsom, the xx, and Dirty Projectors to the exclusion of the Old City shows. Another handful of fans were here for Bang on a Can, Konk Pack, Shelley Hirsch, Shaking Ray Levis, and Iva Bittova and might never have seen a rock band all weekend. During Hirsch’s performance with the Shaking Ray Levis in front of fewer than 30 people, AC Entertainment’s Ashley Capps, who had fielded low-key but persistent grumbling about the fest’s shift toward the commercial mainstream, wondered where all the avant-garde music fans were.
Two shows that people from both camps talked about were the Ex on Friday night (SPIN’s pick as the best moment of the weekend) and Gang Gang Dance’s late-night set on Saturday, which was abruptly cut short a few minutes before 3 a.m. (That was about it as far as glitches go—there were no complaints about fitting individual ticket holders and pass holders into sold-out shows by Vampire Weekend and the xx.) In the middle of it all, easy to miss if you weren’t looking but impossible to ignore once you noticed it, was Kno Ears, a guerrilla performance marathon by local musicians in alleys and parking garages and on the sidewalk.
The national press was uniformly positive after the festival. Ben Ratliff, the jazz critic for The New York Times, wrote that Big Ears was “like a string of mind-blowing midnight movies,” and praised both Gay Street theaters: “Since last year I’d been looking forward to revisiting the Bijou, a perfectly configured 700-seat historic theater with balconies. ... But the 1,500-seat Tennessee Theater, a Moorish Revival movie house a few blocks from the Bijou and also recently renovated, was dreamier still: a palace as big as an ocean liner, where sound reveals itself naturally and precisely.” (Ratliff also gave a shout-out to local band Argentinum Astrum: “a fantastic doom-metal band from Knoxville. Repeated riffs so fat, loud, slow and heavy that the individual notes are nearly disconnected: what’s more minimal than that? Nothing. Consider yourself informed.”) Two different reviewers, from Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, compared the Tennessee Theatre to a Fabergé egg.
RS also said that Big Ears “is arguably the classiest, most diverse festival in the country.” Los Angeles Times critic Ann Powers described it as a “seamlessly staged, highly stimulating weekend exposing the circuitry that connects art music from the academy to Brooklyn home studios to L.A. clubs.”
Powers also suggested that some jazz and world music would benefit the festival next year. “But room for improvement only means that Big Ears is evolving,” she wrote. “Capps has intimated that he’d like to bring versions of Big Ears to other cities; let’s hope he does so, and also that he keeps it in Knoxville, where it’s welcome, thriving and doing much good.”