Savannah and Knoxville music festivals are back, with high hopes

After a three-year pause, Savannah, Georgia, and Knoxville, Tennessee, are finally putting on their famous music festivals, which both begin Thursday, March 24, with great expectations and a few nagging worries.

“This was not without a little trepidation,” said Ryan McMaken, artistic director of the Savannah Music Festival, which will stage 60 shows by 50 different acts over the 17 days from March 24 until April 9.

Savannah had a short series of performances last year instead of a full-blown festival. This year’s festival is almost back to normal, with slightly fewer events than usual.

But there have been a few bumps in the road to the reboot

“We usually the announce season in November but we couldn’t do that this year,” said McMaken. “As we came into that time frame, omicron was starting to flare,” delaying the start of ticket sales until January.

Credit: Greg Miles

Credit: Greg Miles

At the same time, some artists were added to the schedule late in the game, including gospel and R&B singer Mavis Staples and composer, pianist and Harvard professor Vijay Iyer.

Last-minute changes probably won’t trouble Savannah’s ticket buyers, who often wait before pulling the trigger, said McMaken. “Savannah is always described as a last-minute town, and now it’s even more so.”

In Knoxville, the Big Ears festival, founded in 2009, has come back stronger than ever, selling out every ticket for the four-day event as of last month.

“We have never really fully sold out before” said founder and executive director Ashley Capps, who is also co-founder of the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee.

There will be about 200 performances over the course of the festival, which takes place in about a dozen venues and in two outdoor locations in a walkable area of downtown Knoxville.

This year’s festival includes eight different settings of the work of eminent composer/saxophonist/band-leader John Zorn, including appearances by Zorn with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and with Zorn’s ensemble the New Masada Quartet.

Credit: © 2014 Eli Johnson Photography.

Credit: © 2014 Eli Johnson Photography.

Capps said the Big Ears organization had conversations with Savannah during the lockdown, “sharing information, sharing perspectives, thinking about the future. We had some conversations about co-booking, but none of those came into fruition. We may be sharing some acts, but independently.”

There are a few groups that will appear at both festivals, including the Lakou Mizik, a collective of Haitian musicians formed in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, created, according to the Savannah website, “to communicate a message of pride, strength and hope to their countrymen and the world.”

Haitian-American singer and cellist Layla McCalla will also appear in both cities, performing music from her latest project, “Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever,” an exploration of Haiti’s first privately-owned Creole-speaking radio station, Radio Haiti-Inter, whose owner, Jean Dominique, was assassinated in 2000.

Big Ears expands on the Haitian theme with a Krewe du Kanaval street party and parade, a celebration of New Orleans and Haitian musical culture curated by Ben Jaffe, creative director of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

Both Capps and McMaken are delighted to see the festivals in their sister cities reignited. “Generally, the more the merrier,” said McMaken.

Both festivals have made their mark by presenting a wide range of music — jazz, rock, experimental, folk, classical, international — to audiences that can appreciate many genres, though Big Ears has pushed its selections further toward the cutting edge.

With eight shows devoted to the music of avant gardist John Zorn, is Big Ears treading out on a limb?

“I don’t really see it as being out on a limb,” said Capps, “if anything I’d say we are in deep.”


FESTIVAL PREVIEW

The Savannah Music Festival, featuring 60 live performances by Mavis Staples, Lúnasa, Blind Boys of Alabama, Drive-By Truckers, Béla Fleck, C.J. Chenier, Bruce Hornsby, the Wood Brothers and many others. March 24-April 9, at 15 venues in downtown Savannah. 912-525-5050, savannahmusicfestival.org.

Big Ears, featuring by Patti Smith, John Zorn, Sparks, Animal Collective, the Kronos Quartet, Lonnie Holley and many others. March 24-27. Sold out. bigearsfestival.org