There’s no way to encapsulate a Big Ears experience neatly or to cover it completely, so here’s a little taste of what I saw and heard at Big Ears 2023 in three parts. First, my Big Ears by the numbers: 38 hours of music (and walking), 28 artists, interviews, and panels, 14 venues (including Krutch Park, Mast General Store, and more), 530 photographs, and 56,599 steps (about 23.5 miles) in four days.
It’s hard to make decisions, going in, about what to do. Some people wing it and others (like me) want at least a plan I can deviate from as I go. But which artists to choose? Artists who sound like they’ll play my kind of music or artists that will stretch my understanding of the noise/music continuum? Artists I’ve seen before and loved or artists who are new to me? Should I stick to my favorite venues or ignore venue entirely? How much music am I willing to sacrifice for time to walk to further flung venues? Am I going to attempt to see complete shows or be content with portions in order to see more artists?
It’s not easy, but I try to see music in as many venues as possible, try to see as many complete or near-complete shows as possible, mix new artists and favorites, and plan a route to minimize lost concert time. And then I wing it as I go. Generally by Sunday I’m paring down my ambitions to the essential shows.
As I waded into this year’s festival, I was shut out of the first show I wanted to attend, by the crowds. It was a good reminder to be more shrewd in my planning. My official first show was Allison Russell. I’m not sure whether to feel stupid (probably) or perceptive: I didn’t read her bio, just scanned the kind of music and added it to my schedule. As the show began in the Bijou, of course I fell in love with her and her music, but thought something sounded very familiar. That voice. It hit me that she sounded a lot like the female vocalist in Birds of Chicago. Which, of course, she was.
The music is somewhere under the Americana umbrella, with interesting flourishes of sound that don’t quite fit the genre. Her vocals are silk and the all-female band was top-notch. I also kept thinking I knew that guitar player. It came to me eventually: Megan McCormick is a Nashville-based, superb, guitar player who played Sundown in the City opening for Johnny Lang in 2011. She was impressive then and is impressive now. Check out Allison’s music and work your way back to Birds of Chicago if you haven’t heard them.
I had an app glitch and missed a show, but I continued the night with Los Lobos at the Tennessee Theatre. The guys were in great form and, even when they muddled around a bit, David Hidalgo joked that they had only been getting ready for the show for fifty years. They played more to the rock end of their repertoire, with splashes of more traditional songs, Spanish and English ebbing and flowing on the stage, electric guitars and drums intertwining with maracas, a guitarron, and Hidalgo’s signature accordion bringing out the band’s zydeco connection. The band played again on Friday at the Street Party at the Southern Railway Station (which I also caught), offering a set filled with traditional Mexican music at the free show.
I ended the night with a musical stretch for me, to balance out the fact that I’d seen two acts that fit perfectly in my musical pocket to start the night. Liturgy is a band/experience spear-headed by Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix, the press for the band says, “Liturgy’s signature use of rhythmic complexity and repetition are exponentially amplified to maximalist proportion.” I’d have said they pound on a rhythm a max volume, often riding one chord for minutes, with the throbbing guitars and drums sometimes accentuated or punctuated by intermittent primal screams, sometimes polysyllabic, but never decipherable.
I would have placed the music somewhere between punk and speed metal, though I understand the band is now going for a middle ground between punk and classical. It reignited my thoughts about music and noise and where that line might be. Obviously, it is in different places depending on the listener. There were hundreds of (mostly 25-to-forty-year-old) white males banging their heads rhythmically to what must be, in their ears, a beautiful noise, if not music. If it brings you joy, right? For sure.
It was nearly 1:00 am and I needed to prepare for day two. I’ll have more Big Ears coverage later today and we’ll wrap it up tomorrow. For now, here’s the complete gallery from Day One: