Open Your Mind and Your Ears: A Look Back at Big Ears 2017

A gem of a festival impresses with the unexpected.

Photo By: Alex Weatherly

Photo By: Alex Weatherly

Photo By: Alex Weatherly

Photo By: Alex Weatherly

Photo By: Alex Weatherly

Photo By: Alex Weatherly

Photo By: Alex Weatherly

Photo By: Alex Weatherly

Photo By: Alex Weatherly

Photo By: Alex Weatherly

Photo By: Alex Weatherly

Photo By: Alex Weatherly

Photo By: Alex Weatherly

Photo By: Alex Weatherly

Photo By: Alex Weatherly

Since its 2009 debut, organizers of this unique Knoxville, Tennessee, festival have showcased innovative artists operating outside the mainstream, often at the forefront of their respective genres. The 2017 lineup featured jazz, electronic and rock acts alongside classical musicians, multimedia experiences and artistic installations.

Electronic duo Quindar weaves danceable, rhythmic synthesizer sounds against a backdrop of vintage NASA footage. The group, featuring pianist / keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen of Wilco and art historian James Merle Thomas, worked directly with NASA to oversee digital transfer of vintage archival films and training footage that's used as a backdrop for live performances.

French performer Colleen (aka Cécile Schott) performed two sets at Big Ears 2017. To execute her unique sound, Schott stacks on-the-spot-recordings of violin, percussion and vocals to build layered, orchestral compositions.

Musica Elettronica Viva performed an intimate set surrounded by a few hundred festival attendees the floor of the Mill & Mine venue. A perfect example of a unique Big Ears experience, some concertgoers even moved underneath the grand piano with eyes closed for a total sound immersion.

Big Ears 2017 featured several word-of-app "secret shows," with rooms quickly filling once word about the performance spread to festival attendees via the official Big Ears mobile app. Here, Wilco's Nels Cline participates in a suprise set at the Jackson Terminal, a former train depot in Knoxville's Old City district.

Julliard-trained bassist and jazz legend Henry Grimes led an impressive improv set at Knoxville's historic Bijou Theater on the festival's third night. Grimes has performed alongside jazz giants like Benny Goodman, Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins.

The Standard, one of several downtown Knoxville venues participating in Big Ears 2017, hosted a gallery display showcasing works from Instrumenthead, a new coffee-table book by photographer Michael Weintraub. Weintraub spent over a decade shooting hundreds of striking portraits featuring musicians with their respective instruments in place of their heads.

Several of the larger acts at Big Ears 2017 performed at the historic Tennessee Theater located on Gay St. in the heart of downtown Knoxville. Opened in 1928, the gorgeous interior was restored in 2005 and hosts a variety of events several times a week.

Alt-rockers Wilco could be considered one of the headliners at Big Ears 2017, having a top slot at the Tennessee Theater and more mainstream brand recognition than many of the festival's other acts. In addition to the full-band performance, singer Jeff Tweedy, guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Greg Kotche each participated in additional shows throughout the weekend with other performers, typically in smaller venues.

Beijng-born musician Wu Fei gave a memorable afternoon performance in St. John's Cathedral on the second day of the festival. Wu Fei plays the guzheng, a 2,000-year-old classical instrument.

Clare Chaise delivers a solo flute perfomance using a variety of woodwind instruments and was the receipient of a 2012 MacArthur Fellowship.

A pop-up record store provided by Wild Honey Records enticed Big Ears 2017 concertgoers with vinyl. After being written off as a lesser format by the music industry in the late 1980s, vinyl has made a big comeback in recent years; 2016 sales were the largest since 1986, and vinyl is still a preferred listening format for many audiophiles.

Singer / songwriter Joan Shelly played to a capacity crowd inside the Square Room, a music venue located in Knoxville's popular Market Square.

Sparse, unsettling creep-rock was provided by San Diego, Calif., group Xiu Xiu, as they performed an interpretation of the Twin Peaks soundtrack at the Bijou Theater. The band also closed the festival with a set of original material at the Mill & Mine venue.

Softspoken English cellist Oliver Coates played an inspired afternoon set at the Mill & Mine on the final day of Big Ears 2017. Though classicaly-trained, Coates is possibly best known for his work with alt-rockers Radiohead.

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