The Big Ears Festival could be considered multiple festivals. The music remains the focal center, of course, and involves its own personal, interactive and extremely eclectic journey. Film supports general ethos established by the music and that component has grown and expanded virtually to the point of needing its own festival. A cult has grown around the festival to provide local options, some playing more off the theme than others: The Funny Ears Fringe Festival and the Big Asses Festival. And then, there is the street festival incorporating one of the largest annual influxes of national and international visitors to our city.
While any one of these could provide a fascinating weekend, I try to focus on the musical center, with some nod to the interesting people – both local and visiting – I see on the street. The music itself is overwhelming whether viewed through the lens of sheer numbers of performances, the vast expanse of sound and genre or the geographic stretch of venues which ran from the Bijou through the Tennessee Theatre, the Square Room, Boyd’s Jig and Reel and the Standard to the two newest venues downtown, the Mill and Mine and the Sanctuary. If that wasn’t enough of a stretch, the festival concluded on Sunday at Ijams with a presentation of John Luther Adams’ “Inuksuit.”
When I say the journey is a personal one, it rings true in at least two respects. What one brings to the festival in terms of knowledge, musical background and preference will necessarily impact what one finds upon arrival. Additionally, with so many options, no two people will likely hear all the same music. Inevitably, fellow concert goers will rapturously proclaim a performance, which the listener missed, as the absolute pinnacle of the festival. And while it rings true for the person making the proclamation, the same musical experience might well have been received very differently both the other.
I started my festival experience, as I picked up my media pass (thank you, AC Entertainment) on Market Square and encountered Preston Farabow pounding an anvil while musicians improvised around his beat. What is sound, noise and music and where do they intersect? The exploration began.
My first and final performances of the festival each featured the music of John Luther Adams and began with “Veils and Vesper,” set perfectly at the former First Christian Church, now appropriately and simply referred to as, “The Sanctuary.” The slowly shifting drone of the piece in the stained-glass lighted space produced a lovely meditative entry into the musical whirlwind that would come. Instructively, it was my introduction to the drones that would become commonplace throughout the festival and which, I learned, vary widely in texture, tone, intent and, for me, enjoyment. I loved this one, but that was not to be true for each of the drone-like experiences.
Using the extremely helpful Big Ears app, I navigated through five additional performances the first day, including four different venues and the first performances ever at the Mill and Mine. The first of these was Mamiffer, the heart of which is formed by duo Faith Coloccia and Aaron Turner. The music, filled with electronic sounds performed by the two with one additional member, didn’t personally connect for me.
I learned that the sound is impeccable in the Mill and Mine, the lighting appealing and that the space is somewhat difficult for photographers because of the sight lines from the floor and the mezzanine, the later of which are obstructed by trusses. Also difficult for photographers at this festival is the fact that a number of the performances do not involve movement during the five minute window at the beginning of the show allowed for photographers. Most of this show and much of the beginnings of others involved artists looking down at electronics or remaining static on stage while one performer did minimalist improvisations on their instruments.
From one musical and geographic extremity to the other, I left the Mill and Mine for a show at the Bijou by Olivia Chaney whose music is rooted firmly in traditional folk music – though with modern twists. Her emotionally evocative vocals and multi-instrumental performance left the audience well-pleased.
I returned to the Mill and Mine for the two shows which most interested me on the first day. While one thrilled, the other confounded. The Sun Ra Arkestra, now led by saxophonist Marshall Allen, riotously stormed the stage in their multi-colored space attire and owned the audience from the beginning. Easily, far and away my favorite first day show, they ran jazzy circles around trippy themes combined with a joyous vibe and a colorful show which simply refused to flag. A performance twice as long would not have been too much. It is their show that I will remember fondly for the venue’s first day.
With a small window of time available, I slipped into Boyd’s Jig and Reel and found that local Knoxville vibe which is simply the best. RB Morris backed by the Tim Lee 3 played to a full-house including the mayor. Festival-goers would see her numerous times as she traveled between venues simply enjoying being a fan like the rest of us. RB and the Tim Lee Three sounded as good as ever and I hoped some of our out-of-town guests stopped in to see them to get a taste of what our city has to offer.
The night ended, for me with Yo La Tengo, a band I’ve heard referenced for years, but hadn’t really explored until now. Listening to their work online before the show revealed a band whose music I find particularly appealing. When band member Ira Kaplan announced from the stage that he assumed the audience was filled with fans who’d heard the band many times and so they would “do something different” on that night, he wasn’t joking. The band, which for this performance included other various Big Ears performers, proceeded an interminable improvisational drone which certainly disappointed me and, from my sampling of audience members over the next few days, disappointed a number of others.
After forty minutes, with no indication the first “song” was near completion, a number of people had filled outside and drifted away for the evening. About fifteen minutes after midnight, I had to confess I simply hadn’t connected to what was happening on stage, and being on my bike with a heavy rain falling and lightning showing on the radar on my phone, I decided to call it a night and take the wet ride home.
Later, I’ll cover more of the festival and take a look at some of the people surrounding it. Additionally, I’ll post the large numbers of photographs I couldn’t use for the articles to the Inside of Knoxville Facebook page, so watch for that.