Big Ears festival in Knoxville brings edgy music to enthusiastic crowd

After a three-year hiatus the nationally-acclaimed music festival is back, with a bang.
Nathalie Joachim, a Haitian-American singer, composer and flautist, performs music informed by her grandmother's world in the island nation.  The Big Ears music festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, brings a diverse group of musicians to the river town every spring. Photo: Billie Wheeler

Credit: Billie Wheeler

Credit: Billie Wheeler

Nathalie Joachim, a Haitian-American singer, composer and flautist, performs music informed by her grandmother's world in the island nation. The Big Ears music festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, brings a diverse group of musicians to the river town every spring. Photo: Billie Wheeler

Among musicians, “big ears” indicates a player who is aware of every subtle signal from his colleagues, who hears everything happening on stage and reacts with sensitivity and creativity.

Among music festivals, Big Ears means one of the East Coast’s most praised four-day shindigs in the unlikely town of Knoxville, Tennessee.

In one Knoxville afternoon during the March 24-27 festival you could hear nomadic Saharan Afropop from rocker Mdou Moctar, of Niger; delicate contemporary classical music from Pulitzer-winning composer Ellen Reid; Pakistani American Arooj Aftab playing a combination of Hindustani classical music and Terry Riley minimalism; and punchy funk from alumni of Living Color and the Henry Rollins band in the Black rock trio Harriet Tubman.

“The Big Ears Festival, which unfolds each spring in Knoxville, Tennessee, might be the most open-minded music gathering in the country,” wrote the New Yorker magazine.

An addition to music the Big Ears festival presents poetry readings, dance events, films and interviews with artists. Poet Nikki Giovanni spoke with moving sentiment about her native Appalachia (her family moved to Cincinnati when she was a child) and recited several poems, including the crowd-pleaser "Quilts."  Photo: Eli Johnson

Credit: Eli Johnson

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Credit: Eli Johnson

It also attracts open-minded customers.

“I like things that are not mainstream,” said Carol Noon, 59, who works at the non-profit Waterways in Chattanooga, Tennessee. At breakfast on Saturday she praised the art of meandering, and discovering “those little delicacies that you find when you don’t know who they are.”

Big Ears has, in fact, nurtured visitors who trust the festival enough to attend a four-day extravaganza full of relatively unknown artists. On Friday night Danny Kapilian, 66, a concert producer from Manhattan and New Orleans, bubbled about performances he’d already heard from ambient artist Fennesz, harpist Maeve Gilchrist and singer/songwriter Bill Callahan, none of whom were familiar to him. “I’ve never heard of them.”

Not everything went off without a hitch. Downtown darling Kim Gordon, formerly of Sonic Youth, was 35 minutes late for a 75 minute show, and then had to pause while equipment malfunctioned.

But well-coordinated volunteers and prompt artists made sure that, on the whole, everything was what Kapilian called “top notch.”

Every visitor probably experienced different high points. For this reporter, one peak experience came on Friday evening at the jewel-box venue, the Bijou, courtesy of the quartet of guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist Jason Moran, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Brian Blades.

All were members of a band led by the late cornetist Ron Miles, who died early this month at age 58 of a rare blood disorder. In tribute to their leader, Moran said at the beginning of their set, “we’re playing all music by Ron Miles.”

What followed was a tender, through-composed 75 minutes of exquisite chamber jazz, suffused with melancholy and happiness.

But other moments were just as memorable: from the fingerstyle guitar of Yasmin Williams, cracking jokes in the demure interior of the First Baptist Church, to the haunting Haitian folk songs of Leyla McCalla, at a former glass factory called The Standard.

Though four-day tickets are moderately pricey, ranging from $250 to $750, the festival sold out weeks ago, the first time it’s ever done that, according to founder and CEO Ashley Capps, who is also co-founder of the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee.

The festival presents 200 shows in 12 unique venues, most of them within walking distance of each other and close to restaurants and hotels. The density of programming makes for some painful choices.

“We literally have five or six things, sometimes more, going on at the same time,” said Capps. “It gives the festival a unique energy, which can be inspiring and can be frustrating.”

Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell played several shows at the Big Ears music festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, which brings a diverse group of musicians to the river town every spring. Photo: C. Stew

Credit: C. Stew

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Credit: C. Stew

If one could borrow Hermione’s time-turner one might be able to enjoy every show. In its absence, you must skip 60 percent of everything. Which one will it be: performance artist and movie maker (”Blackalachia”) Moses Sumney, or Southern folk artist and musician Lonnie Holley? Underground rock legend Patti Smith or guitar genius Julian Lage?

At the same time, the density of downtown Knoxville, with such gorgeous concert halls as the 1,600-seat Fox-like Tennessee Theater, and such street theater as the giant puppet parade on Saturday afternoon, makes for a congenial setting.

This year’s festival had two motifs. One was the confluence of traditions in the music of Haiti and New Orleans. The other was eight performances dedicated to the music of John Zorn.

Zorn has had a big impact in the New York avant-garde, as a player, composer and band leader and as a restless artist who combines such disparate worlds as jazz, noise, and hard-core metal.

Zorn’s music appeared at the festival in several forms, from a long solo piano suite, performed by Stephen Gosling; a noise/prog/metal organ trio performing music from Zorn’s 2015 album “Simulacrum,” and a set of vocalist Petra Haden singing uncharacteristically accessible songs written for her by Zorn and Jesse Harris.

Visitors had to wait until Sunday for opportunities to hear Zorn himself perform with his ensembles the New Masada Quartet and Electric Masada, not including Zorn’s Saturday night solo-organ improvisation at St. John’s Cathedral.

Yasmin Williams uses an unorthodox fingerstyle technique, playing her guitar flat in her lap, often with a kalimba on top of it. Photos: Big Ears

Credit: Big Ears

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Credit: Big Ears

Music from New Orleans and Haiti was equally plentiful including a day of brass bands at the World’s Fair Park.

Knoxville, at the confluence of three rivers, struggled back from the Great Depression with the economic boost provided by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Tennessee Valley Authority and Alcoa Aluminum, and showed off its strengths during the 1982 World’s Fair.

Two reminders of that fair still remain: the outdoor open-sided concert tent called Tennessee Amphitheater and the nearby Sunsphere, a 266-foot tower, topped by a 74-foot-diameter ball made of 366 glass panels coated in gold-dust.

Raucous New Orleans music took place at the amphitheater, from Aurora Nealand and the Royal Roses (followed by the astonishing Sporty’s Brass Band), and neither group was daunted by the icy wind whipping off the drained reflecting pond.

On the other side of downtown the Pulitzer-winning composer and performer Caroline Shaw reinvented vocal music, using a keyboard interface to split her strong voice into changing chords, over a bed of percolating rhythm from the So Percussion ensemble.

A giant Dolly Parton puppet was part of a parade in downtown Knoxville Saturday, March 26, that enlivened the Big Ears music festival. Photo: Chris Moyer

Credit: Chris Moyer

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Credit: Chris Moyer

Shaw spoke for all of us at the end of the performance when she said, “I’m getting to see so many things, I’m missing so many things; there’s joy, there’s sadness.”