Our Common Nature, World's Fair Park, Knoxville, May 2023
That a French born cellist, son of Chinese immigrants, would be the person to bring loving focus to the Appalachian region we call home, only underscores the message that he brought with his Our Common Nature series of musical experiences this past week. The simple idea that we are the same at our core, no matter our background and origin, held center place as the many identities found in this one human ecosystem were given voice, from the indigenous people who were here first, to those who moved here from Europe, and to those who were forced here, we all bring a part of the story.
The three day musical journey sometimes felt like a series of concerts by master musicians, while other times the weight of history took centerstage. By turns a celebration and a reckoning, an expression of our common joy and our shared painful history, the three days offered a rare experience, leaving those who were there with the feeling we had borne witness to something extraordinary.
At the center of it all was Yo-Yo Ma who, in conjunction with Big Ears, delivered this artistic tour de force. It began in Knoxville with quiet murmurings of a small event at Lakeshore Park on Wednesday. A crowd of about fifty gathered for an event we only vaguely understood before hand. Just after 6:00 pm, Yo-Yo Ma strode up with his cello, accompanied by flautist Jarrett Grey Wildcatt, and poet R.B. Morris. In turns they wove their magic spells on those assembled. In less than fifteen minutes, they were gone. And so went the first taste of all that was to follow.
Thursday night brought a buzz to Market Square about the same time of evening. Evie Andrus and a blue grass band played while a growing crowd square danced with calls by Phil Jameson. The night was beautiful and so was the diverse crowd assembled. Some had heard rumors of another Yo-Yo Ma appearance, but I think half the crowd or more simply stumbled into good music and fun. Mid-song about half way through, Yo-Yo Ma ambled up on stage with no introduction and plucked a cello for the rest of the set. The only acknowledgment was “How about this band?” He strolled back across the square.
Later that night Chris Thile played the Bijou, but not before Amythyst Kiah slayed the crowd. The regional theme continued, as Amythyst is from Chattanooga, but has lived in Johnson City for years. She played Rhythm n Blooms eight years ago, already obviously a spectacular talent. Now she delivers the entire package. Listen to her. She is the only warm-up act I can ever remember who brought the house to their absolute feet for a standing ovation. Chris Thile followed and he was brilliant, as well as funny. From Bach to backwoods traditional music, he delivered it all in exquisite fashion.
The centerpiece of the three days, Friday brought free events on the north lawn of the World’s Fair Park with Kelle Jolly, Drums Up Guns Down, Cattywampus Puppet Council, and more. There was something for everyone and it was free. Live-stream of the paid event followed.
A sell-out crowd of 5,500 filled the south performance lawn of the World’s Fair Park. Expecting a showcase of Yo-Yo Ma and friends, those assembled received so much more than that from the two-and-a-half hours of music and spoken word. Equal parts musical and spiritual, joy and lamentation, the evening evolved into a journey through our common humanity. Yes, that sounds convoluted. Everyone with whom I spoke agreed that articulating the experience to those who weren’t there might be impossible.
Indigenous music, vocal and instrumental flowed throughout, emphasizing, implicitly and explicitly that the land beneath our feet belonged first to them. Jarrett Wildcatt played the flute, Jennifer Kreisberg sang indigenous songs, and a Cherokee elder spoke about what the land means to his people. Sheila Kay Adams told stories and sang songs straight from the mountain tradition, while Eric Mingus stunned the crowed with his vocal performance as African-American history wove its way into the story. Rhiannon Giddens elevated and educated in spoken word and song, while Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, and Yo-Yo Ma cast their musical spell.
The crowd listened with an intensity I’ve never experienced at an outdoor musical event. I found myself forgetting to take photographs, spellbound to see and hear what might happen next. By the time the crowd joined in with the musicians on stage to sing “I Shall Not be Moved,” we all had been moved by the power of art, of culture, and of our common humanity. Those who were there will tell you this is not hyperbole.
The series of events ended Saturday night at the Bijou with Shelia Kay Adams telling stories before Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson, and Dirk Powell played a wide range of music into the night. The crowd once more sang “I Shall Not be Moved,” but Rhiannon delivered the final notes without amplification from the front of the Bijou stage, delivering a perfect ending to a perfect set of shows.
A recent list declared Knoxville one of the best music cities in the country. Online skeptics were plentiful. Bigger cities routinely pull in all the big names and we can’t compete with that. But for one night, Friday night, I cannot imagine a place I would rather have been for live music. No other city had that. A great thanks must go out to Yo-Yo Ma for having this vision, and to all the artists who made it happen, but also to Big Ears which brought it here. As someone who has experienced hundreds, if not thousands of special musical evenings, this one stands above them all.
The full gallery of video and photos are included below.