Big Ears 2014: Keiji Haino

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Big Ears is obviously a unique festival for several reasons, not the least of which is that it's taking place in Knoxville. The city hosts some big-name performers every year, and we've done this particular rodeo twice before, but there's no getting around the fact that, aside from the music, for many citizens it will be cool and exciting just to have all these people in town for the weekend.

You might see John Cale eating lunch in Market Square, Jonny Greenwood in your favorite bar, or Steve Reich walking down Gay Street. But of all the celebrated international performers who will be making the ride down Alcoa highway from McGhee-Tyson Airport to downtown, it seems especially unreal that Keiji Haino is coming to town.

Keiji Haino is a legend, a hero, and an inspiration to many underground musicians. With his lengthy improvised solos, poetic album track titles, and haunting voice, there is no one else quite like him. Active in the Japanese music underground since the early 1970s, the 61-year-old Haino has also played with numerous American and European musicians.

"Seeing Haino live can seem quite violent and aggressive, but playing with him it's more of a trance or meditative state," says Stephen O'Malley, Haino's bandmate in Nazoranai. "He's very generous with his playing."

He's appeared on well over a hundred recordings, including solo works, one-off live collaborations, and many groups, including the seminal psychedelic improv-rock trio Fushitsusha. Though best known for his guitar playing, he's also performed works for electronics, gong, hurdy gurdy, and other instruments. Recently, he did a gig consisting of classic American soul covers.

Despite such prolificness and adoration, he still remains something of a mystery, rarely giving interviews and never appearing without his sunglasses and black clothes. With Haino on guitar, O'Malley on bass, and Oren Ambarchi on drums, Nazoranai will likely deliver the heaviest, most out rock performance of the festival. As for his solo set, a good bet is a guitar and vocal performance, but who knows what he has planned? If you're already a fan, you know you can't miss it, and if not, you have the chance to see one of the most revered avant-rock musicians of all time. Whatever Haino does, it will almost certainly be a Sunday afternoon to remember.

Keiji Haino performs with the band Nazoranai at the Bijou Theatre on Saturday, March 29, at 12:15 a.m. and solo at Scruffy City Hall on Sunday, March 30, at 2:30 p.m. Visit bigearsfestival.com for more info and a complete schedule.