The 802 Tour
Sam Amidon, Nico Muhly, Doveman, and Nadia Sirota make up the 802 Tour, which relies on the quartet's shared classical training and pop instincts.
Crawling out of the same L.A. scene that produced No Age and HEALTH, the four young men in the band Abe Vigoda bash out sloppy, poppy, sunny surf punk.
Instrumental spazzcore-funk-metal-jazz fusion-punk from Asheville, N.C.
Some of the songs on Sam Amidon's All Is Well sound like they were arranged for a barn—just Amidon and a banjo, maybe some percussion. Most of the songs sound like they're meant for the concert hall, all the empty space filled in with horns, strings, and piano. Above it all is Amidon's voice, high and strong, with a tone that recalls the late art-disco composer Arthur Russell.
Andrew W.K.'s appearance at Big Ears gives credence to the suspicion that his pop-metal party anthems are somehow more complicated than they seem.
A handy reference point for this local doom metal band is Black Sabbath, except Argentinum Astrum is louder, and slower, and all the grooves have been disrupted to a lurching, lumbering, narcotic crawl. It's like trying to pull yourself out of quicksand while you're wrapped in chains and stuffed inside a burlap sack with a wolverine.
Bang on a Can All-Stars
The All-Stars are a six-piece offshoot of the highly regarded new music ensemble Bang on a Can, founded in 1987 in New York. The group has performed work by experimental composers like Harry Partch and John Cage; it's also commissioned original work by minimalist pioneers Terry Riley and Steve Reich, and regularly performs new music by younger composers. The Bang on a Can All-Stars will be busy during Big Ears. They're scheduled for three performances, the two most notable of which give some indication of their range: Riley's In C, with the composer, and Brian Eno's Music for Airports with the Books and Tim Hecker.
Happy accidents aren't unusual, especially for artists who keep themselves open to chance, but rarely has serendipity altered the aesthetic direction and career of a musician to the extent it has with William Basinski.
The annals of guitar awesomeness have volumes devoted to Adrian Belew. In 1970, Frank Zappa heard Belew playing with a Nashville cover band and had his chauffeur invite him to audition. While playing with Zappa, Belew caught the attention of one David Bowie, who hired him upon completion of the Zappa tour. Bowie introduced Belew to Brian Eno, who was in deep with a band called Talking Heads at that time. Add to all that a grip-full of multi-faceted records under his own name, or bands that he has led or co-led like the Bears and King Crimson, and you have a fair representation of what the guitar—and the guitarist—is capable of. Simply put, Belew can make the damn thing do any damn thing he wishes—from art-rock to shredding to electronic to classical to orchestral. He's comfortable with that, and shoulders the guitar god mantle lightly.
The Czech violinist and singer Iva Bittova comes by her idiosyncratic mix of classical, folk, and rock music almost by birthright. She was trained in violin, ballet, and theater as a child; by the mid-1980s, after working as an actress for most of the previous decade, she'd combined her classical training with contemporary alt-rock and her own Romani heritage into stirring avant-chamber folk.
Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong, who work together as the Books, create a fractured folk-pop built out of a few live instruments, a lot of electronic noodling and manipulation, and found sounds. It's almost uniformly happy music, the sonic equivalent of big blocks of bright color, but the duo's frequent use of strings gives it all a melancholy underpinning.
Buke & Gass
This Brooklyn duo, made up of Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez, plays ragged, noisy art-rock with hints of both punk and folk on two homemade instruments—the "buke" (a modified ukelele) and the "gass" (a guitar/bass hybrid invented by Sanchez) of the duo's name.
The California-based Calder Quartet demonstrates something of whatever indefinable thread connects the artists at Big Ears. The string group has performed with both Terry Riley and Andrew W.K., as well as Vampire Weekend, which may give them a wider range than any other act this weekend.
Big Ears audiences who find themselves at Clogs' Saturday afternoon set at the Bijou to see indie-folk superstar Sufjan Stevens (in his only scheduled appearance at the festival) may be in for a surprise. Though fans of Stevens' tastefully indulgent arrangements won't be completely lost up against Clogs' wispy, varied chamber music (arranged primarily for viola, guitar, bassoon, and percussion), they may find it one of the most pleasantly challenging of the weekend's events.
When it comes to big ears, few folks boast a more outsized set than Jace Clayton. Operating for more than a decade under the nom de knob DJ /rupture, Clayton is a pioneer in taking the omnivorous crate-digging DJ aesthetic global, filling his influential mixtapes with not only the products of first-world clubs and conservatories but also with the beats and sounds of further flung and less prosperous parts of the planet.
The Knoxville duo of Ben Tramer and Jennifer Toland has only recently unveiled its cabaret synth pop, a moody pairing of drums, electronic programming, Toland's fragile vocals, and video projections.
Destroyed by Magnets
This Knoxville trio creates music that's like the tail end of a bad trip, long drones with echoes of notes swirling around the edges, building to massive slabs of feedback and rhythm. Their songs don't end, they just give up.
Last year, dozens of year-end top 10 lists heaped praise on Dirty Projectors' sixth album, the Afro-electro-art-pop extravaganza Bitte Orca. From one perspective, the disc is the drum-tight culmination of nearly a decade's worth of hit-or-miss experiments from the group's Yale-educated, oppressively quirky mastermind Dave Longstreth. From another angle, though, it serves as an accessible entry point into Dirty Projectors' considerably more intimidating back catalog.
Doveman is Thomas Bartlett, a classically trained pianist who turned to crafted pop classicism for his 2009 album The Conformist.
Eric-jon Tasker, lead singer for the quirky Boston indie band Parker House and Theory, is working on his first solo album.
Though firmly rooted in the noisier side of rock, the Ex has drawn on a number of influences. They've collaborated with Sonic Youth, Dutch jazz musicians Han Bennink and Ab Baars, avant-garde cellist Tom Cora, Kurdish musicians, and even comedians.
The Chattanooga five-piece Forest Magic crafts acoustic and electronic instrumental music that steers from ambient and atmospheric to energetic pop.
Ben Frost was born in Australia and moved to Iceland in 2005. Those harsh landscapes inform his music, as do Tim Hecker, William Basinski's Disintegration Loops, and Norwegian black metal. Frost's most recent album, By the Throat, released last year, stacks processed and manipulated guitars on top of piano and horns, with sampled wolf howls thrown in for good measure. It's a disorienting experience, part chamber music, part blissed-out ambient trance, and part straight-up noise, like a blanket made out of rusty nails.
Gang Gang Dance's 2008 album Saint Dymphna is a shimmering, psychedelic head trip with dance grooves, a collage of rock, electro pop, hip-hop beats, African pop, dub, house music, and all sorts of extraneous percussion that should feel hectic and scattered but gels into something that makes perfect sense.
Jens Hannemann is the creator and star of the instructional video Fred Armisen Presents: Complicated Drumming Technique, a, um, uniquely forthright tutorial on how to make the simple act of keeping a beat much more intricate than it needs to be, and how to drown out all the other players in a jazz jam session.
Born in Vancouver and based in Montreal, Hecker had some early club success as a laptop techno producer under the moniker Jetone. But for most of the past decade, on albums under his own name, he has concentrated on rich, ambient, and mysterious waves of electronic music that can be either alluring or alarming or both. (On the 2002 EP My Love Is Rotten to the Core, he sliced and spliced bits of sound from interviews and concert recordings of Van Halen, turning familiar guitar riffs into prolonged and mutated drones.) Of his most recent album, 2009's An Imaginary Country, Britain's NME said, "If you've got patience, it's a quiet joy; if not, it'll drive you nuts."
The avant-garde New York singer Shelley Hirsch incorporates storytelling and performance art in her work, a dramatic combination of spoken word, classical vocal technique, electronic noise, and theater.
Tom Van Buskirk and George Langford, who perform under the name Javelin, recreated an imaginary mixtape of disco, funk, hip-hop, and R&B with real instruments on their debut album, No Mas. In concert, however, they depend on an array of boom boxes for their DayGlo dance pop.
The Swedish synth-pop duo jj has cultivated an air of mystery since its first single was released in early 2009, but the hazy, idyllic dance-pop on the just-released JJ n°3 has brought a new wave of stateside attention.
This international improv trio works on the edge of chaos, and its members have connections to some of the biggest names in the avant-garde—Henry Cow, Cecil Taylor, and John Butcher.
Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez
Playful indie folk from Baltimore that borrows from Belle and Sebastian, Beat Happening, and Wes Anderson soundtracks.
Liturgy's 2009 album Renihilation is a secular hymn, modern ritual music that draws on minimalism, African and Middle Eastern music traditions, and Martin Heidegger.
Mountains of Moss is mostly Adam Ewing, a 33-year-old local printmaker and Memphis native who plays guitar and harmonica, sings, and sometimes adds an untutored but effectively evocative fiddle. Most of the time he performs by himself, but he'll occasionally collaborate with his friends. He usually plays acoustic guitar, but sometimes he plugs in. The only constant from one Mountains of Moss show to another is Ewing.
Nico Muhly, who was born in 1981, has released two albums of quiet orchestral pop (Speaks Volumes in 2006 and Mothertongue in 2008) and has worked with Grizzly Bear, Antony and the Johnsons, and Björk. He's also a graduate of the Juilliard School and a serious composer—his first opera, Two Boys, is set to premiere in London in 2011 and move to the Metropolitan Opera in New York for the 2013-14 season.
My Brightest Diamond
The singer/composer/multi-instrumentalist Shara Worden leads this New York art-rock band, which plays with elements of cabaret, chamber music, folk, and musical theater.
On the surface, the elegant indie rock of Brooklyn's the National seems like one of Big Ears' most counterintuitive bookings: Over the course of their acclaimed albums Alligator and Boxer, the five-piece filed mid-'00s New York post-punk down to a fine point that combines melancholy sincerity with a rarely subsiding rhythmic drive. The result is a distinctive blend of emotive beauty and undeniable rock power—neither, it would seem, an easy fit for a festival that has gone out of its way to define itself by experimentation.
About 10 years ago, Knoxvillian Matt Hall wanted a new guitar. He couldn't find the right one, so he got in touch with a friend who does metal work. Together they built an instrument made out of solid aluminum, heavy as hell but nearly indestructible and utterly utilitarian. Now Hall and his bandmates in New Brutalism all use guitars and basses made out of metal. Even the drums are encased in aluminum. The instruments reflect the way New Brutalism sounds—clanging, angular, and aggressive post-punk in the vein of Big Black.
Six years after her debut album, Joanna Newsom remains a divisive artist. To her partisans, she's one of the most original artists of her time, her imaginative lyrics, complex compositions and dexterous harp playing unlike anything else around today, or ever. To her detractors, she's "Joanna Nuisance."
The twentysomething L.A. producer/DJ Nosaj Thing, aka Jason Chung, crafts a sunnier version of dubstep, synthetic electro pop that connects hip-hop, pop, and dance music.
St. Vincent, aka Annie Clark, writes smart, literate lyrics that can sound like antique clock chimes in her voice. Instead of the confessionals or bad attitudes one often associates with music-makers looking down the barrel of 30, Clark leans more toward enigma and magic realism.
Shaking Ray Levis
The Chattanooga-based Shaking Ray Levi Society and the performing duo the Shaking Ray Levis (drummer Bob Stagner and keyboardist/vocal artist Dennis Palmer) have been making a joyful noise just over the hill and occasionally here in Knoxville for going on 25 years.
Take two parts classical acoustic strings, one part electronic laptop beats, and one part Beatlesque pop harmonies, throw it all together, and what comes out is a love child of the Postal Service and a string quartet.
Tracy Silverman's virtuosity on the electric violin has earned him attention as a novelty—he's known for his medley of Led Zeppelin hits—but he's recorded serious contemporary work by Terry Riley and John Adams.
Violist Nadia Sirota is equally comfortable performing new music by composers like Marco Baltman and Nico Muhly and working with rock groups like Grizzly Bear, Ratatat, Doveman, and My Brightest Diamond.
As a drummer for John Zorn, Carla Bozulich, Fred Frith, Marc Ribot, Mr. Bungle, and Xiu Xiu, Ches Smith has held the beat for much of the American avant-garde in the last two decades. In 2006, he released the remarkable solo percussion disc Congs for Brums.
Anybody would be hard-pressed to define just what, if anything, connects all the acts at Big Ears. But Sufjan Stevens, the indie-folk singer/songwriter, is at the center of a cluster of musicians performing this weekend: He played piano on the National's 2007 album Boxer; he sang on Clogs' just-released The Creature in the Garden of Lady Walton; My Brightest Diamond (led by Shara Worden, who also sings on the new Clogs disc) releases her albums through Stevens' Asthmatic Kitty label; and Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, played in Stevens' touring band in the mid-2000s. Stevens won't be performing solo, but he, Worden, and Matt Berninger and Aaron Dessner of the National will join Clogs during their set to perform The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton in its entirety.
For four guys who look unlikely to do damage to anything other than a few gin and tonics and maybe some society girls' reputations, the young fresh fellows of Vampire Weekend have stirred quite a critical kerfuffle in the last few years. On one side you have people charmed by the band's combination of Ivy League introspection and world-beat aspirations. On the other side you have people appalled by their Ivy League introspection and world-beat aspirations.
The Baltimore scene that orbits around Dan Deacon and the Wham City collective shares a common neon-colored sensibility influenced by video games, Legos, and overdoses of sugar cereal. Videohippos are fully engaged in the scene's Saturday morning bacchanal, but they wrap their hi-fi version of 8-bit music in a sheath of My Bloody Valentine feedback, and they don't miss the gloomy nostalgia that goes along with shoegaze.
As Villages, Asheville's Ross Gentry constructs slow synth-and-guitar soundscapes with wispy melodies and pulses of forward momentum.
Drawing from the music they listened to as teenagers—early-'80s New Wave of British Heavy Metal, first-generation thrash, and, of course, Black Sabbath—Warband plays a fast, precise, and stripped-down style of metal. No one who's experienced Warband live would doubt that these are serious practitioners of the form, with song titles like "Time to Die" and "Waves of Blood," a lyrical fixation on death and violence, and Dungeons & Dragons- and Frank Frazetta-inspired designs for the band's flyers and CD cover.
The U.K. press proclaimed the xx the new sound of young London after the release of their self-titled debut album in August 2009, and with good reason—the disc shows off the band's surprising maturity and restraint. Sim's slinky bass lines, Croft's skeletal guitar parts, and the accompanying atmospheres of percussionist/producer Jamie Smith and keyboardist Baria Qureshi (who has since left the band) favor mood, minimalism, and delicacy over big riffs or heavy studio overdubs.