6 coolest things we saw at Big Ears 2016


Big Ears Festival, a music and arts festival put on by AC Entertainment in downtown Knoxville, takes place at various venues throughout the town for four days. This year, Sidelines experienced all the avant-garde, experimental, weird and delightful artistic events the event had to offer. Check out our reviews and photos below:

Tony Conrad’s Short Film Series at The Bijou Theatre

We headed to The Bijou Friday morning to check out a short film series created by Tony Conrad. I went into the event with no idea what to expect. The film series began and followed through with the avant-garde theme of the weekend. My favorite part was a 30 minute film titled Flicker, which featured black and white film flickering the entire time, complete with an epilepsy trigger warning. Another part of the series was a five-minute piece where Conrad assembled old film found from the ’80s and narrated a ridiculous story about a murderer and a zipper factory, ensuing laughter from the audience.

Lou Reed’s Drones presented by Laurie Anderson at The Standard

This was without a doubt the most unconventional event  I experienced at a festival. Walking in, I was directed up a small set of stairs to a dark room with dim red lighting and a single disco ball. The floor was littered with pillows, blankets and napping festival attendees scattered about. Lou Reed’s guitar tech took the front of the room on a small stage. On the stage was a wall of amps with guitars leaning against them and a small control board. The room was overwhelmingly filled with loud, droning noise that surprisingly had a relaxing, hypnotizing effect. The event was a five-hour installation that took place Friday and Saturday during the festival. It was a great break from the hectic running back and forth to venues all day and really captured the spirit of Big Ears, showing that the experimental and weird can also be strangely comforting.

An installation of Lou Reed's Drones at Big Ears Festival at The Standard in Knoxville, Tenn. on Friday, April 1, 2016. (MTSU Sidelines / Olivia Ladd.)
An installation of Lou Reed’s Drones at Big Ears Festival at The Standard in Knoxville, Tenn. on Friday, April 1, 2016. (MTSU Sidelines / Olivia Ladd.)
An installation of Lou Reed's Drones at Big Ears Festival at The Standard in Knoxville, Tenn. on Friday, April 1, 2016. (MTSU Sidelines / Olivia Ladd.)
An installation of Lou Reed’s Drones at Big Ears Festival at The Standard in Knoxville, Tenn. on Friday, April 1, 2016. (MTSU Sidelines / Olivia Ladd.)

Veils and Vesper installation at The Sanctuary

John Luther Adams, a Pulitzer-prize winning composer, showcased his best work at Big Ears 2016 with Veils and Vesper, a collection of electronic compositions. All together, the pieces added up to six hours of mesmerizing sound inside of The Sanctuary, an old church in Knoxville. Inside were speakers in all corners, drowning the room in vibrations and sound. I followed arrows taped on the floor to the center of the stage where chairs sat and four speakers surrounded the enclosed area for a spiritual listening experience. Though I couldn’t stay the whole time, I did appreciate the music more in succession than I would have listening to one piece off of my computer or the like.

Angel Olsen and band at The Bijou Theatre

This was my second time seeing Angel Olsen, having been a fan since 2012s release of Half Way Home. The songwriting goddess took the stage at The Bijou just after the sun went down Saturday night. She began her set with boisterous pieces, showing off her vocal talent while the backing band seemed to play catch-up. Overall the performance was satisfying, though it seemed Olsen’s guitar was a bit out of tune. Her stunning vocals made up for the rustiness of the overall playing, and her song selection was above par with hits like “Hi-Five,” “Lights Out,” “Acrobat” and closer “unfucktheworld.” Angel’s radiating tone of elegance, deeply sad lyricism and booming vocals reminded us why she was chosen for the festival, and the crowd couldn’t quit talking about her as they filed out of the theatre.

nief-norf at The Square Room

This was one of the first sets I caught Friday morning at Big Ears. nief-norf is a three-piece group, including a baby grand piano, electronic control board and marimba. This was an intimate setting, with many people spilling onto the floor of the dark room. The stage sat high above the eye level of the crowd and was draped in soft lighting, making room for all to focus solely on the art being made. I do admit I was unfamiliar with this artist all together walking in, but their set bordered on experimental and what I assume was partly improvisational. I was shocked by how talented the group was. They didn’t necessarily make “drone” music, but it had a similar effect and they experimented well with resonance. The coolest part of this set was that the group utilized a teapot as an instrument. It was sitting next to the piano with wires ran through it and a microphone hanging above, using the feedback as an integral part of the set.

Bombino’s set at Mill & Mine

Bombino was an act I had been excited to see all weekend. Friday night after Shabazz Palaces, the group took the stage and had the crowd grooving. Bombino is a world music/blues rock group from Niger. I heard about them when Dan Auerbach produced their album in 2014 and have been obsessed since. The group began the set apologizing for knowing little English, but the language barrier was not a problem at all for the crowd. I’ve been to blues concerts my whole life growing up in the South, and I’ve honestly never seen a set that soulful. The group performed both popular and obscure songs from their discography, such as “Azamane Tiliade” but drew them out into jams that I didn’t think could go any longer with each shift of the chords. This was incredible for all who experienced and one of my favorite sets of the weekend. The group itself is such an enigma and pours out talent. This was an experience you can’t get anywhere else, and it was refreshing to see a band that is honestly doing something that isn’t being done musically. It was captivating and enchanting all the way through.

Omara Moctar of Bombino performs at Big Ears Festival at Mill and Mine in Knoxville, Tenn. on Friday, April 1, 2016. (MTSU Sidelines / Olivia Ladd)
Omara Moctar of Bombino performs at Big Ears Festival at Mill and Mine in Knoxville, Tenn. on Friday, April 1, 2016. (MTSU Sidelines / Olivia Ladd)
Bombino performs at Big Ears Festival at Mill and Mine in Knoxville, Tenn. on Friday, April 1, 2016. (MTSU Sidelines / Olivia Ladd)
Bombino performs at Big Ears Festival at Mill and Mine in Knoxville, Tenn. on Friday, April 1, 2016. (MTSU Sidelines / Olivia Ladd)

For more events and updates, follow us at www.mtsusidelines.com, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter/Instagram at @Sidelines_Life.
To contact Lifestyles editor Tanner Dedmon email lifestyles@mtsusidelines.com.

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