I couldn’t make it to the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, but luckily I had an intern who was more than willing to go down and cover it. Here’s my intern Liz Lane’s report (and photos by Linda Moorhead)
Big Ears Festival Day 3 :: words by Liz Lane // photos by Linda Moorhead
Nico Muhly & Doveman (@ Bijou Theater)
I was looking forward to seeing Doveman the whole time I was at the festival simply because I know how great of a musician he is. And he surely did not disappoint. Thomas Bartlett (a.k.a. Doveman) took the stage with his friend and fellow pianist Nico Muhly and the two worked wonderfully together. Bartlett’s hushed, haunting voice complimented Nico’s wizardly skill on the synth and piano. The pair sat back to back on adjacent piano stools for most of the show and played selections from their Peter Pears project, intermingled with solo work from each. The result was seamless piano duets and the stage interaction between the two men was hilarious—it was obvious that both are great friends.
The highlight of the performance was when Doveman told a story of his obligation to cover the “Footloose” soundtrack for a friend. “It was dreadful,” he said. “’Let’s Hear if for the Boy’ was a tough one.” Then he played a medley of his labors, including the “Footloose” theme, “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” and “Almost Paradise.” He made annoyingly catchy 80’s pop songs beautiful.
St. Vincent (@ Bijou Theater)
It’s always a treat to see St. Vincent perform. This being my second time seeing Annie Clark and crew perform live, I sort of knew what to expect. Though she was more reserved than the first time I saw her, she put on a fantastic set. She is a fierce performer—she feels the music and puts her entire body into it. Her set drew heavily on material from Actor and included an endearing cover of Nico’s “These Days.”
A St. Vincent becomes an entire experience—you enter a dark dream world that’s pulsing with color and rhythm. Then she tweaks and fiddles with her distortion pedals, beats on her guitar, and creates sounds resembling the soundtrack to a nightmare. Annie is a phenomenal musician and is wildly adventurous when it comes to distorting her guitar and layering eerie sounds. What sets St. Vincent apart from the rest is her ability to take this atmosphere and turn it into a sweet dream the next song over.
My Brightest Diamond (@ Tennessee Theater)
My Brightest Diamond was the show I was most anticipating at Big Ears and it quickly became the most impressive. Shara Worden has such an immaculate and pure voice that the dreamy acoustic set up of the Tennessee Theater coddled and enhanced it even more. Her band opened with “Golden Star,” setting the tone as powerful and meaning business. MBD spanned genres, as Shara ripped apart a soulful cover of Nina Simone’s “Feelin’ Good,” (the highlight of the set) and captivated the crowd with cute, animated storytelling to accompany the song “From the Top of the World.” As they left the stage, many in the audience were wondering how the National could top such a performance.
The National (@ Tennessee Theater)
The most anticipated and final show of Big Ears might as well have been performed in a basement of a dive bar. This isn’t a slap at the National’s talent, but rather their lighting. The stage was dimly lit in filtered purple and reds for the entire show, making the band appear like shadows emerging from the massive Tennessee Theater stage. All darkness aside, their set was what the crowd expected and more as the band played a majority of their new songs from the forthcoming album High Violet. Favorites such as “Abel” and “Squalor Victoria” also fleshed out the set, as Thomas Barlett, Nico Muhley, Sufjan Stevens, Annie Clark and Shara Worden all appeared on stage at some point to close out the festival.
The National got rowdy—but tastefully so. Matt Berninger let loose near the end of the set, screaming words to a few songs and eventually jumped off the stage and took a stroll through the crowd on the backs of the theater seats.