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by Andrew Frisicano
Sam Amidon, accompanied by Thomas Bartlett, ushered in the first show of the 2010 Big Ears Festival at the Knoxville Museum of Art on Friday (3/26) with "Wild Bill Jones," his own version of the Appalachian folk song, punctuated with a piercing scream half-way through. "These are all folk songs, some from around here," said Sam, which was the right thing to say at the KMA, an institution whose collection and staff brims with East Tennessee pride. After a welcome by festival organizer Ashley Capps (whose AC Entertainment also organizes Bonnaroo) and co-curator Bryce Dessner, Calder Quartet and violinist Iva Bittova led the audience through the folk-inspired world of Bartok, Janacek and guitarist/composer Fred Frith.
A little after 7pm at the gorgeous Bijou Theatre (est. 1909), Terry Riley and his quartet - consisting of his son Gyan on classical guitar, Tracy Silverman on electric violin and Ches Smith on drums and marimba - played a series of extended ragas and genre-morphing songs. By midnight, an ecstatic crowd of all ages filled the hall for the xx. Just a few hours before, University of Tennessee basketball advanced to the NCAA Elite 8, and the partly collegiate crowd carried the celebratory mood to the gig. Some danced in front of their seats or in the aisles, and cheered in anticipation - in one opera box, an exhibitionist couple shared a drunken embrace dangerously close to the railing. Clandestine cigarettes were smoked as the xx performed their moody rock alongside minutely choreographed stage lights.
The earlier jj were even more laid back than the xx, with a sole singer, Elin Kastlander, standing before video projections that included an Italian soccer game, romps on the beach by Elin and co-member Joakim Benon, and whales and other nature scenes. We also got to see Elin roll a big blunt on screen, which might speak to her onstage ambivalence and generally lackluster approach. She did pick up an acoustic guitar once, as did her blond gentleman collaborator, Joakim, for a few numbers. With the music on autopilot, everything else - from the canned "native" beats to the narcissistic video - seemed to follow suit.
The first act had much better luck: Nosaj Thing's post-apocalyptic electronica, riddled with blippy bullets and ghostly echoes, destroyed the darkened theater. The xx gig was one of of the fest's sold out gigs (the others are currently Vampire Weekend and Joanna Newsom) but those with all-access Inner Ear passes ($250 now, but cheaper if you bought earlier) had no trouble finding front-row first-come, first-served seats if they showed at least 15 minutes before doors. The passes are pricey, but a good deal even if you make it to only 1/3rd of the 30-some shows at the fest.
A few blocks away, Andrew WK and the Calder Quartet finished their set with a cover of John Cage's 4'33" - or as Andrew put it "Johnny Cage! Fatality! Mortal Kombat!" The room was divided between those trying to rebel ("Play music!"), those trying to explain the piece ("It's supposed to be people talking"), those shushing, and those just enjoying the spectacle. Andrew returned for an encore of "Party Hard" (piano, voice and crowd participation) and brought out Calder's Eric Byers for a Bach cello piece, accompanied by an interpretive dance by Andrew WK (think "an impressionistic karate kid") dedicated to the late Merce Cunningham.
The compact nature of the participating venues in downtown Knoxville (one mid- and one large-size theater and a handful of smaller club-like spaces) gives Big Ears an intimate feel, and the festival's musicians - most recognizably, Sufjan Stevens, though his only performance is in a supporting role with Clogs (The BQE is being screened too) - can be seen hopping from venue to venue along with the fans.
The difficult decisions of Big Ears day one - Dutch post-punks the Ex against newcomers the xx - only intensify as the festival progresses, with the headliners like Joanna Newsom, Vampire Weekend and composer in residence Terry Riley all going head to head on Saturday.
More pictures and video from Big Ears day one are below...
Thomas Bartlett (Doveman)
Terry Riley Quartet
Andrew WK & the Calder Quartet