(Article by Contributing Writer Heather Ryerson)
Additional Big Ears 2023 Coverage:
Big Ears 2023: Many Rivers to Cross
Big Ears 2023: Emerging From the Other Side
Leslie Flanagan Blew My Big Ears Out
Big Ears celebrated its 10th anniversary this weekend, and people were HERE FOR IT! Thousands of music and film lovers descended on downtown to experience why we have become a music destination.
This year was my first Big Ears Festival, and I was not prepared for the variety of offerings or the number of miles I walked over the weekend! The people, the clothes, the merch, the venues, the music, and the thousands of steps I got in added up to a most spectacular weekend.
One of my goals was to get to know the folks who chose to take their time and money and invest it in this event. I was not disappointed. I met people who had traveled from out of state, out of the city, and of course, many, many locals who have made the Big Ears Festival a part of their yearly calendar of events.
Local festival attendee Ryan (last name protected because I forgot to ask for it) has been coming for years. This was his 6th or 7th festival. As a writer and musician, Big Ears allows him to see acts that he may never have seen before and to find inspiration in the different types of musical expression represented at the festival. Ryan added that you get this unique, communal experience with other festival goers you will never have again in each concert.
I met Taber Gables and Margherita Fava, who are part of the Nxt Gen Series through Knoxville Jazz Orchestra. Taber performed during Big Ears, and they were excited to support friends playing around town. Taber spent time in NYC and moved back to Knoxville during the pandemic. He decided moving away again was unnecessary for him to find the music scene he sought. Knoxville has it. Margherita came to Knoxville from Italy to attend school and now works with Nxt Gen with Taber and others. Nxt Gen gives younger musicians a platform to write, record and perform and “lay the foundation for the success of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra long into the future.”
The out-of-towners I met all had a Knoxville connection. Friends from college, siblings, met at church, etc. My favorite way to meet festivalgoers was on the trolley. It was a nice addition to the event this year. While it wasn’t always predictable, it always came back to provide rest for weary feet and protection from that crazy wind on Saturday.
I met a group of psychologists and a journalist (sounds like the setup to a good joke) on one ride. Two live in Knoxville, and the other two travel for Big Ears yearly. They have only missed 1 or 2 festivals. One told me that he has attended festivals all over the country, and Big Ears is his favorite. When I asked what made it so great, he said the ability to see so many acts in one city with such variety and such a walkable area are part of what makes it great. I asked if all of the choices made it harder to enjoy the festival, knowing you couldn’t see everything you might want to, the response was, “It wouldn’t be a great festival if there weren’t hard choices to make.”
A group of siblings in their 70’s have reunited year after year in Knoxville to attend Big Ears. Only one lives locally; the others come from FL, MN, and Boston. They bring their spouses and stay downtown to avoid parking issues and because they enjoy walking the city. Another group I met at the street festival on Friday had met at their church years ago and are all musicians. One lives in Knoxville, and the others travel from AL for the event.
If you missed getting a ticket for Big Ears, you still had many options for free panel discussions at Visit Knoxville and East TN History Museum and music at the street parties and other venues. Though the street party at Southern Railway Station had to be delayed and the parade through Old City was canceled, they did a fantastic job of highlighting the parade participants at the party. Cattywampus debuted a giant, electric megaphone with 8 minutes of recording on a loop of children and others from Cattywampus offering encouraging words for the city! It was amazing! There were multiple performances throughout both days like Los Lobos and local groups like Drums Up, Guns Down.
Other free concerts were found at Dr. Jane’s, Wagon Wheel, Social Dove, Five-Thirty Lounge, Jig and Reel, The Pilot Light, Knoxville Museum of Art, and Jackson Terminal, which served as the headquarters for the event weekend. Art exhibits were also open to the public through Big Ears at The Emporium and a few other art studios downtown. A traveling opera performed in several locations including Krutch Park and Mast General Store. Free events not associated with Big Ears but complementary that were open to spectators were the Dogwood Arts Chalk Walk on Saturday, which got a late start due to the weather that came through overnight, and the Knoxville Covenant Health 2023 Marathon on Sunday.
Overall, Big Ears was a hit for my family and me. We loved the people-watching, music, art, food, and downtown vibe. Keep your eyes peeled for next year’s events. I hear they are already booking more talent and venues to bring even more fun to the city next year!
Complete Gallery of Heather’s Photos: