A Look At Big Ears Festival: A Knoxville Dream

Makaya McCraven
Nathan Zucker
– Makaya McCraven
Makaya McCraven leading his band at The Mill & Mine

A musical oasis appears annually in Knoxville, Tenn., that brings thousands of adventurous music lovers to celebrate dozens of under-celebrated musicians. The Big Ears Festival is perhaps the best collection of music of any U.S. festival. Instead of big names in the pop and rock worlds, Big Ears brings legends in not-so-mainstream worlds of jazz, a broad range of rock music, and barely describable genres like drone. “Experimental” is an often-used tag. “Avante-garde,” too, and it applies here. But any attempt to categorize the artists could not capture their diversity. 
One could safely say Big Ears’ programmers act as trusted curators who see beauty is non-conformity. If their mission is to meet high expectations and deliver unexpected wonderment, the programmers do exceedingly well. Singer and composter Meredith Monk, who made her second Big Ears appearance, said she appreciates the eclectic mix of artists. “Big Ears feels very one-of-a-kind. [CEO of AC Entertainment] Ashley Capp’s programming is both unusual and brilliant to include so many different genres of music in one festival,” Monk said in an email. Monk, a recipient of a National Medal of Arts, performed her concert-length work, Cellular Songs, with a vocal ensemble. “The audiences were also among the best I’ve experienced: attentive, responsive and enthusiastic.” 
The host city, Knoxville, Tennessee, is less heralded than the festival. But the state’s third-largest city has its excellent venues and a downtown that feels custom built for such a four-day event. At first blush, Knoxville may seem like an unlikely host for artists. In any other situation, the doorstep of the Smokey Mountains in the Southeast is an unexpected location for Big Ears. Popular Southern—and country music—tourist draws, Dollywood and Gatlinburg, are not far south. But Knoxville is a surprisingly common tour stop for its size and location. It’s the home of AC Entertainment, the local promoter that has made regional and national marks with Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, Forecastle in Louisville; and Highwater in North Charleston, SC. Like Asheville, North Carolina, to its east, Knoxville is home to an active music scene that’s too Far East to get overshadowed by the music business in Nashville or the blues in Memphis. 
Then again, it’s not unusual for large festivals to be held away from the congestion of major markets. Bonnaroo takes place in Manchester, Tennessee, a small city an hour drive south of Nashville and not far from Atlanta. BottleRock Music Festival in the verdant Napa Valley, north of San Francisco, offers local wines and chefs. The Coachella Valley Music and Artist Festival happens near Palm Springs rather than the Los Angeles metro area. On the other hand, Lollapalooza takes place in downtown Chicago. Hangout Music Fest takes place on the white sands of Gulf Shores, Alabama, a popular vacation destination. And handfuls of festivals can be found in New York City: Governors Ball, Afropunk, Winter Jazzfest, and Electro Zoo, to name a few. None of these festivals take place in a relatively small city’s historic downtown district, with multiple venues, and without standstill foot traffic—although Big Ears’ venues often fill to capacity. 
Big Ears is comfortable without locally distilled spirits and meals prepared by rock star-status chefs—although downtown Knoxville has good dining options. But Big Ears is important because it is a necessary event. The country needs a festival that draws artists not on tour, artists who come for a gig and stay for the music, and music lovers eager to be surprised. “It was like a dream,” said Rafiq Bhatia told Pollstar. Bhatia guitar playing and accompaniment defy easy description—frantic jazz, off-kilter rhythms, dreamy atmospheres, surprises around every turn. “I told the audience that day that playing in the context of that festival and for those people really felt like I was playing to family. It felt like preaching to a choir in a way because everybody at Big Ears is there because they are really interested in giving music a space in which it can question, and where it can stretch, and surprise.”
Too many festivals feature the same artists—some go on a summer festival tour—in the three big genres: rock, hip hop, and EDM. Even the more eclectic festivals lack the sort of motley assortment of music Big Ears programmers gather each year. Discerning music lovers—music snobs is too cynical a term—want to get away from the mainstream and into the small niches that make music to rewarding. And so Knoxville’s streets and venues were filled mostly by middle-aged, jeans-and-T-shirt-wearing men who resemble John Cusack ’s record store owner character in the movie High Fidelity, a stereotype. Side note: after the stereotype was made, I overheard something while in line for a Harold Budd performance: “I’m a record store owner.” True story. Even a cynical record store owner would be converted. “I did not see a single or local Knoxvillian or other audience that didn’t have their jaw hanging down,” said composer and sound artist Tim Story.  
Artists may get as much out of the festival as the festival goers. “Big Ears is an encouraging meeting ground for friends old and new,” Monk wrote. “It fosters an atmosphere that reminds us, as artists, that what we’re doing is important in the world, and that music is an antidote to the dark times we are living in. The entire experience provides a sense of solidarity and courage to keep going.” Story was thrilled to meet many artists and industry people.“It’s great to be in a place with like-minded people. We tend to be on islands with the music we do.”
Knoxville, mainly its small downtown area, played an outstanding co-starring role. The third-largest metropolitan area in Tennessee, Knoxville’s has just a one-million metro population—and just 200,000 people in the city itself. The University of Tennessee is adjacent to the west but imbues little “college town” influence on the downtown area. Instead, the area has with the character of historical, brick buildings that escaped the wrecking ball. A wide promenade lined with shops, bars, and restaurants is a meeting place for locals and visitors. Hotel rooms and Airbnb options are plentiful and within a short walking distance from all festival venues. The downtown area easy to traverse and find one’s way without a map. Going on foot between venues takes no longer than 15 at most and usually far fewer. Attendees of the SXSW festival will see a similarity to Austin’s grid-like layout; Knoxville lacks the spring break atmosphere, though. “Walkable, charming, and because Knoxville is consumed for the week with artists, audiences, and friendly, curious locals, there’s a kind of camaraderie that I think would be lost in a bigger city,” said Story, whose Big Ears appearance marked his first trip to Knoxville. What’s more, the beautiful March weather kept people outside, strolling, talking, never taking cover from short bouts of heavy rain. 
Venues are part of Big Ears’ charm. Knoxville has two world-class theaters within a short talk of one another, the Tennessee Theatre and the Bijou Theatre. Other venues aren’t far from either theater. Two downtown churches, St. Johns Episcopal Cathedral and Church Street United Methodist Church, hosted performances as well. “The logistical key is the venues, they are amazing really for a city of this size.” Story added. On each of the festival’s four days Story performed at the KMA Contemporary Galley. His work, The Roedelius Cells, a reworking of some unreleased recordings—improvisations and outtakes—that were played through eight channels and eight speakers arranged in a circle. “The variety suits the breadth of what the festival brings, and so many are within earshot of each other.”
The Mill and Mine was another standout venue. The comfortable space, housed within brick walls with wood ceiling panels and flooring, can squeeze in 1,200. For a sparsely decorated venue, the Mill and Mine does an excellent job absorbing and dampening the sound waves before they bounce around the shoebox-shaped room, allowing for a surprisingly crisp sound—although though Sons of Kemet, with a tuba and two drums, each with a kick drum and booming toms, suffered from a low-end muddiness.
Eli Johnson
– Spiritualized
Spiritualized performing at the Mill & Mine

Drone—let’s assume it’s a unique genre—in various forms was prominently featured at Big Ears this year. An excellent example of drone was KTL, the duo of Stephen O’Malley and Peter Rehberg, at Mill and Mine. O’Malley is best known as the leader of drone metal—let’s also assume that’s a sub-genre—group Sunn O))). Rehberg is an accomplished experimental artist and founder of Editions Mego, a record label dedicated to a range of avante-garde music. A couple of hundred people turned out for a hour-long set. As with Sunn O))) but without discernible chord progressions, O’Malley guitar conjured distorted, slow groans that reached under the skin and shook vital organs. An aluminum trash vibrated audibly. Rehberg’s electronic accompaniment, high-pitched flutters, was nearly drowned out by O’Malley’s low-pitched dirges. It was an incredible spectacle. Not to be outdone, The Standard hosted a non-stop drone event from midnight to noon on the final morning. Artists took turns performing while most of the (what appeared to be) millennials in attendance laid on the ground; many people had pillows, some sat against a wall, and all seemed to be in a state of meditation. 
Began in 2009, the eighth edition of Big Ears—it was paused from 2011 to 2013—was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of jazz record label ECM and drew a host of jazz greats who have recorded for the label: Avishai Cohen, Bill Frisell, Kim Kashkahsian, Robert Levin, Larry Grenadier, Mathias Eick, Nik Bärtsch, Shai Maestro, Theo Bleckman. What’s more, the choir from Knoxville’s St. John’s Cathedral performed “Passio,” a work by ECM recording artist Arvo Pärt. Legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette Ravi Coltrane and Matthew Garrison delivered an often mesmerizing 75-minute performance at the beautiful Tennessee Theatre. DeJohnette, through subtle interplay and searing outbursts, led two superb musicians, the sons of jazz legend John Coltrane and bassist Jimmy Garrison. A near-full house was treated to decades of the three legends trio performed songs from their 2016 release on ECM, In Movement, and added the Miles Davis song “Blue In Green.” 
The venue superbly played a supporting role to the DeJohnette Coltrane Garrison performance. The Tennessee Theatre, with a soaring ceiling and intricate detail, is a grand is a majestic venue with superb acoustics for jazz. Opened in 1928, the 1,600-seat theater was built in the “Moorish revival”—also seen in the Fox Theatre in Atlanta and Loew’s 72nd Street Theatre in New York City—seen throughout the United States in the 1920 and 1930s. Arches and intricate ornamentation rise to a soaring, domed ceiling that adds to the spaciousness. Like many of its peers in the United States, the Tennessee Theatre is on the list of National Register of Historic Places. The Bijou Theater is another gem. Opened in 1909, the 700-seat, beautifully decorated and lovingly renovated room feels intimate from any seat on the floor or the balcony. The Avishai Cohen Quartet treated a packed house an engaging, hour-long set that was perfectly audible either hushed to vigorous. 
The only downside of Big Ears is the dreaded FOMO syndrome; “fear of missing out” is best known for social media’s effect on its users. FOMO is also a natural consequence of any good music festival. A schedule with desired but overlapping concerts seems unfair at first. One solution is to see two performances happening concurrently—the festival’s small footprint makes it possible. The other option is to pick one and enjoy its entirety. The fact a festival’s schedule creates FOMO anxiety reveals the quality of its programming. 
Harold Budd
Eli Johnson
– Harold Budd
Harold Budd performs with nief-norf at the Church Street United Methodist Church