It was tough to define exactly what connected all the artists who performed at the first edition of the Big Ears music festival back in February. New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff wrote that "Big Ears was for people with long attention spans, good concentration and an appetite for letting repetitive non-dance music wash over them." Metro Pulse ran a short introduction to the festival that referred to "the amorphous and uncategorizable nature of post-World War II avant-garde and experimental music." How else do you make sense of a lineup that featured the composer Philip Glass, whose minimalist experiments in the 1970s have now been embraced by the mainstream concert hall, former Swans frontman Michael Gira, transsexual cabaret singer Antony Hegarty and his band the Johnsons, and Baltimore synth-pop impresario Dan Deacon?
The theme of Big Ears 2010, scheduled for March, wasn't much easier to identify when the first round of the lineup was announced last week. The biggest name is Vampire Weekend, a New York quartet inspired by Talking Heads and West African pop whose self-titled debut was one of the most celebrated albums of 2008 (and also one of the most contentious), followed by a handful of other notable indie performers: the inscrutable arena rocker/performance artist/motivational speaker Andrew W.K.; psych-folk harpist Joanna Newsom; guitarist Annie Clark, who performs as St. Vincent; New York dance-rock machine Gang Gang Dance; the young disco-rock group the xx; turntable ace DJ/rupture; and Bay Area cabaret-pop group My Brightest Diamond. (The composer Terry Riley, another giant of minimalism, had already been named back in November as the official artist in residence for the festival.)
Immediately after the announcement, there was Internet speculation that AC Entertainment, the producers of Big Ears, had deliberately selected a more commercial roster of artists for 2010. ("sounds like this is moving closer to just being an indie festival? I'm not making a judgement on that, gotta sell tickets to put it on, after all," was a typical post on the I Love Music message board.) But AC Entertainment president Ashley Capps says the extra planning for this year's event has led to a more fully realized version of Big Ears.
"Last year, in all honesty, we were thrown a number of curve balls while we were planning it," Capps says. "We were exploring all sorts of different options at the time. It was never intended to be exclusively avant-garde. The driving force behind Big Ears is to bring together audiences whose interests in many areas overlap. It's no more consciously commercial this year than it was last year."
Capps acknowledges that Vampire Weekend, whose album has sold more than 400,000 copies, stands out from last year's lineup, but he promises their performance will be a surprise. The band's second album, Contra, is due out in January.
"Vampire Weekend has thrown people off," he says. "But they're great fun, and in the overall concept of what we're doing, the way they'll ultimately fit in makes a lot of sense."
The lineup was curated in part by Bryce Dessner of the band the National. (Dessner will be performing solo and with his band the Clogs.) Besides the big-name draws at the top of the bill, the lineup also includes a number of avant-garde—and decidedly uncommercial—acts: the young composer Nico Mulhy, who'll be performing with violist Nadia Sirota, banjoist Sam Amidon, and Thomas Bartlett, aka Doveman; boombox DJ duo Javelin; Swedish electro-pop singer jj; Dutch anarcho-punk collective the Ex; guitarist Gyan Riley, son of Terry Riley; and the Calder Quartet, who have collaborated with both Andrew W.K. and Terry Riley.
Capps says as many as 15 more artists will be announced before the festival, which he expects to be significantly bigger than last year's. "There'll be many more concerts," he says. "It really won't be possible for any one person to attend all of them. There will be at least 50 shows.... There are things we're hoping will work out that probably won't, and there will probably be some surprises we're not aware of yet."
The Tennessee Theatre has been added to the venues for Big Ears 2010, in addition to the Bijou Theatre, Knoxville Museum of Art, and Pilot Light, all of which were part of the first festival.
Big Ears 2010 will take place Friday, March 26-Sunday, March 28. Passes for the entire weekend are available for $199.50; tickets for individual shows will go on sale in January.