Photos: Big Ears Festival kicks off first night with diverse collection of musical performances

The eclectic Big Ears Festival kicked off its four-day residence in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, Thursday night with a wide array of diverse musical talent on display.

Among artists performing on Thursday were Avey Tare from Animal Collective, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and the ’90s psychedelic group, Mercury Rev.

Lesser-known artists like the Japanese math-rock trio, Kukangendai, displayed their unconventional playing styles. Kukangendai played with clockwork-like deliberation to their music, with guitar, bass and drums, working hand-in-hand to create complex rhythms between one another.

Jazz-vocalist Theo Bleckmann performed a moving tribute to the acclaimed ’80s singer-songwriter Kate Bush. Bleckmann—with accompaniment from his free-flowing instrumentalists—managed to channel the spellbinding presence of Kate Bush in chill-inducing ways. He frequently switched between a deep male voice to delicate falsettos—turning his voice into an expressive instrument.

Artifacts Trio used the reverberating space of St. John’s Cathedral to their advantage with a masterful display of jazz talent. The group—composed of flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid and drummer Mike Reid—played off one another wonderfully, allowing their music to rise and fall with intensity in a way that felt spontaneously composed.

The psychedelic titans Mercury Rev closed out Big Ear’s first night with a career-spanning setlist that jumped between soothing chamber-pop melodies and lush shoegaze jams. Lead singer Jonathan Donahue moved like a mad-conductor across the stage—seeming to control the output of his musicians’ music with his hands—and sang to the crowd with wide, all-knowing eyes. Their guitarist, known as Grasshopper, created much of their sonic density with powerful guitar leads that reverberated throughout the venue.

Big Ears still has a lot in store for its attendees this weekend, and fans will be treated to music from masters of jazz, electronica and psychedelic in the days to come. 

To contact Lifestyles Editor Mamie Lomax, email

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