Yo Yo Ma (via video), Big Ears Announcement Party, Mill and Mine, Knoxville, January 2023
Knoxville is a great city in which to be a lover of great music. The genres span the spectrum and the music never stops. Last night and this coming weekend highlights the best of who we are musically, from the scruffiest homegrown music to the most fluid and enchanting homegrown music, and the spotlight on international artists that is Big Ears, it’s all here.
Last night at the Mill and Mine, a party of sorts was held, hosted by Big Ears and Visit Knoxville, and attended by hundreds of guests. The night featured good food and lots of great music by Evie Andrus (I missed her), Drums Up Guns Down, Adeem the Artist, and Rica Chicha, the new project led by Kukuly Uriarte.
Ashley Capps welcomed everyone and thanked all the foundations and individuals who have made the Big Ears Festival possible, including the Aslan Foundation, Natalie and Jim Haslam, Visit Knoxville, the City of Knoxville and Knox County, and the employees of Big Ears Festival. He pointed out that Big Ears brings people, literally, from every state in the U.S. and, at its peak (so far) in 2019, it drew people from twenty-four different countries.
This is the tenth rendition of the Big Ears Festival (spread over 15 years) and Ashley said each year since 2009 attendance has grown at least 15% each year. Last year attendance grew by 35% and it was declared a sell-out five weeks before the festival. “This year we outsold last year a month ago.” He pointed out they have once again expanded their footprint, including the Civic Auditorium as a venue, as well as the East Tennessee History Center.
He stressed that people spend four or five full days in downtown, not traveling to an outside site. He said hotels are sold out for the weekend and visitors are booking rooms outside of downtown. An outside group estimated last year’s festival had a $36.1 million economic impact on the city. “We bring the world to Knoxville and we showcase Knoxville to the world.”
Mayor Kincannon said she had been to every Big Ears Festival except one and she appreciates him planning it every year on her birthday. “It’s the arts that get us through the low times and helps us celebrate the good times.” Mayor Jacobs said, “Most people who purchase a festival pass travel from outside our county, bringing in outside dollars . . . We are a place where everyone can create their own unique opportunity.”
The focal point of the gathering was an announcement by Ashley which underscores the fact that while the Festival itself is a major event in the spring, the organization is now developing and presenting year-round programming. He told the story of his years-long quest to bring Yo Yo Ma to Big Ears. It culminated in an hour-and-a-half zoom meeting between Ashley and Yo Yo Ma and then a gathering of a small group of musicians, park service officials, a world-class chef, story-tellers, members of the Cherokee tribe and others for great music, conversation, and food, “for no really clear purpose.”
A few weeks later Yo Yo Ma’s assistant called to say that they wanted to replicate that event in the mountain on a larger scale in Knoxville. Big Ears will produce the event May 25 – 27 all around the city, culminating on the World’s Fair Park on May 26. At that event, Yo Yo Ma will be joined by all-star guests including Rhiannon Giddens, Chris Thile, Edgar Myer, and others. It is a part of Yo Yo Ma’s “Our Common Nature” initiative and will be called “Our Common Nature: An Appalachian Celebration.” Tickets for the Friday event go on sale this Friday (2/3).
Waynestock, our very own home-grown musical showcase returns this week (Thursday through Saturday nights) at its long-term home at Relix Theatre on Central Street. The event started in 2011 on the death of beloved Wayne Bledsoe’s son Drew. Meant to be part fund-raiser and part tip-of-the-hat to Wayne, who has championed so many local artist over the last three decades, the event became an opportunity for local bands to gather and hear each other, to cross-pollinate and celebrate their common bonds.
It’s a love-fest for everyone who loves local music and musicians and I’m happy to have celebrated with everyone from the beginning. It’s the single best way to get an introduction to the local music scene, with some of Knoxville’s best playing short sets and rotating off, giving an overview of a large number of bands in three days. The money raised each year goes to a locally-related charity and this year funds go to help local musician J.C. Haun who was injured in a four-wheeler accident and continues to have extensive medical needs.
Every night is a little different and each have major draws. You can find the full list here. There is no “best” night and I’m as excited about Thursday night as any, which features a group fronted by Benjamin Savage of Whitechapel. I’m most pumped to hear two jazz combos, one lead by Kenneth Brown, the other by Keith Brown (no relation, best known for his work with the KJO). Friday night highlights include Adeem the Artist, Mercy Lights, and Left Foot Down. Saturday night you’ll find the return of BARK., Rus Harper‘s NeoWizard and an all-star finale led by Kelsi Walker. The finale is always a highlight and often features music of performers we’ve lost since the last festival. In this case, that covers a lot of ground.
Tickets are $5 each night at the door. If you love local music, this is a series not to be missed.