Big Ears Festival 2024 Touches The Sublime

Screen Shot 2024 03 29 at 9.11.39 AM
HEY YA (INFINITE CONNECTION)! André 3000’s “New Blue Sun” project, with Carlos Niño, Surya Botofasina, Nate Mercereau and Deantoni Parks, performed five shows as part of Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival. Photo by Andy Feliu / Big Ears

What makes Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival so transcendent are the performances. Featuring primarily “fringe” artists, whose edgy sounds are often dismissed, ignored or maybe just go unheard by the mainstream, the festival feels like being in on an incredible secret. In on the rub are some 8,000 attendees a day, for a total of more than 30,000 over a four-day late-March weekend, treated to a vast array of varied and far-flung sounds across some 200 shows often making for exultant and thrilling live experiences.  

“The festival just builds on each year,” said Ashley Capps, founder and director of Big Ears, when responding to a possibly over-exuberant writer who had just confessed to having deep live music revelations and naively asked if this was the best year yet. “We’ve got this really exciting progression and it comes from the artist,” Capps continued. “It comes from the audience. It’s just everybody coming together to make this really amazing music utopia for the weekend.”

Bearing out this music Valhalla this year were deeply moving performances by Rhiannon Giddens’ Silkroad Ensemble; André 3000’s “New Blue Sun” project; Mexico City’s cumbia punk band Son Rompe Pera; Angelic Brothers with John Medeski and Kirk Knuffke; a “Blacktronica: Afrofuturism in Electronic Music” series curated by King Britt featuring Carl Craig, DJ Heather and Charlie Dark and others; bluegrass virtuoso Molly Tuttle; the U.K.’s Shabaka Hutchings on various woodwinds; Myra Melford’s Fire & Water quintet; Egyptian singer Nadah El Shazly; and Sons of Chipotle featuring Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones with Anssi Karttunen, among many, many others

RachelCraig SonRompePera BE24 1
Mexico City’s Son Rompe Pera performing at Jackson Terminal on March 22, 2024 as part of Knoxville, TN’s Big Ears Festival (Photo Rachel Craig/Big Ears)

Part of this elevated music experience emanates from the music itself, which is rarely if ever a carbon copy of any previous performances. The shows, in large measure, rely heavily on improvisation often in dialogue with other musicians, the audience and whatever else is happening in the world. These situational conditions create a unique here-and-now performance, which, to some degree, all performances share; but at Big Ears, the dynamic range of sound possibilities can push performer and fan alike beyond traditional limitations.

That performance kismet was something André 3000, who played five ticketed shows with his ethereal flute-centric “New Blue Sun” project, explicitly discussed. He opened Sunday’s afternoon (on March 24) set asking the audience to react viscerally and audibly to the music. This led to fans creating bird calls, percussion and sundry noises, contributing to the performance.

Pivotal to Big Ears is Knoxville (population 192,600), the county seat and home to the University of Tennessee’s flagship campus. Like most American cities, it’s undergone tremendous development over the last decade or so, which includes converting a variety of industrial spaces into gorgeous music venues. There’s the Mill & Mine (an early truck dealership), the Old City Performing Arts Center (an ice factory), the Standard (a glass company) and Jackson Terminal (a railroad depot). There are also beautifully restored historic theaters like the Tennessee Theater and The Bijou; places of worship like St. John’s Episcopal and The Point; and more contemporary spaces like Knoxville Civic Auditorium (which featured larger shows by Herbie Hancock, Adrianne Lenker, Laurie Anderson and Jon Batiste among others) and Knoxville Museum of Art inside the 1982 World’s Fair Park site and beside the iconic Sunsphere Tower. 

BillieWheeler Atmostphere BE24 2
Jackson Terminal, a former train depot dating back to the 1890s, was one of Big Ears’ venue spaces. (Billie Wheeler/Big Ears)

Also additive is Big Ears’ long-in-the-tooth demo. These older music fans are in their 40s, 50s, 60s or older, seem the majority and have a more calm adult vibe. When that maturity is combined with a spirit of music adventurism honed over decades, it helps facilitate a more positive fan-artist feedback loop. Though there’s age diversity, the crowd is not as gender diverse, and nowhere near as racially diverse, as desirable. There is, however, a wonderful diversity of artists on stage, it’s just not reflected in the audience,

Though I only caught an unreleased film on the genius of the late-great New Orleans musician Alen Toussaint and an enlightening conversation between writers Ross Gay and Sam Stephenson, the daytime programming is as compelling as the music performances. They’re just harder to make it to after long wonderful nights of live music.

“Ashley Capps has been a thoughtful and engaged promoter for years, so it’s no surprise that his carefully reared passion project of a festival has become one of the most important places to discover new music, indulge in special projects, and be thrown on your ass with surprises,” said TBA Agency Partner Amy Davidman, who attended with artist Samora Pinderhughes. “The weekend was filled with inspiration from musical performances to important discourse to visual arts. It was refreshing, calm, and filled with love. I can’t wait for the years to come.” 

EliJohnson Giddens McBride Turrisi BE24 8
Rhiannon Giddens with Christian McBride and Francesco Turrisi perform at the Tennessee Theater on March 23 as part of the Big Ears Festival. (Eli Johnson/Big Ears)

Toward the end of her set with the brilliant Silkroad Ensemble, the luminous Rhiannon Giddens also thanked Capps for creating such a wonderful festival and spoke of the enlightened experience the Big Ears bubble creates. She asked the audience to take that positivity and bring it back to their everyday lives. 

“Rhiannon’s summed up so many beautiful thoughts about this festival before, I love to believe that that’s true,” Capps said. “I hope people do in fact take something away from this experience that they take back into their lives for the rest of the year. My hope with all of this is that it inspires people. It’s not just about having an amazing time this weekend, but it’s about taking all of this positive energy back out into the world.”