Big Ears 2024: Cruising Through and Coming in For a Landing

Jon Batiste, Big Ears Festival, Civic Auditorium, Knoxville, March 2024
Christian McBride and Brad Mehldau, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theater, Knoxville, March 2024

I didn’t see as many shows this year as I’ve seen in the past and that move a deliberate attempt to pace myself and really see and hear each great artist. It helped me not feel exhausted (until afterwards trying to put all this together!) and really enjoy the experience more. That said, I saw fourteen full shows and six partial shows, some of which were mostly complete. I missed some great music, but that is always the case. I loved virtually everything I saw and heard and that’s all I can hope for.

I also reconnected with friends I haven’t seen in a while, had a spontaneous late night meal with a good friend, an serendipitous glass of wine and snack with another friend, found seat-mate buddies at the Tennessee, talked to people from all over the country, and heard languages from all over the world. As much as the music, I love everyone of these connections and reconnections and the international flair surrounding them in our little city one time a year.

I love Christian McBride (as does everyone who knows who he is). I came on him late, getting tickets to his show at the Village Vanguard in December 2021 without knowing anything about him. We were blown away, of course, and when I followed the trail after that show, I realized I’d probably heard him hosting on the radio, but didn’t tune in to his name. I’ve seen him since several times and never miss a chance. He’s a master of bass and, as with so many of the musicians at Big Ears, there’s much, much more to what he does. This set with the brilliant pianist Brad Mehldau at the Tennessee Theatre yielded a beautiful grace and elegance that perfectly kicked off my Saturday.

Sons of Chipotle, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2024

Following my Big Ears strategy for this year’s festival, I didn’t go far for my next show. I learned that I could get a coffee and sit inside the lobby of the Hyatt Place with a view of the lines for my next show: Sons of Chipotle, featuring John Paul Jones and Anssi Karttunen, also at the Tennessee Theatre. I ran into good friends while waiting, then joined the line as it started to move. Perfect.

The show itself turned out to be a delight, as well.  Karttunen is stunning on cello and I continued to be amazed by the musical range of knowledge and multi-instrumental skill of John Paul Jones. Accompanied by looping operated by John Paul Jones, the performance ranged from quietly intimate to loud and complex. I never expected that the most “Big Ears Music” moment of the festival for me would come at the hands of a person I new as a rock base guitar player. Absolutely phenomenal.

Dave Holland Quartet, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2024

The Dave Holland Quartet played . . . wait for it . . . the Tennessee Theatre next. This may be the first time I stayed in the same venue for three consecutive shows. It meant there were gaps, but there was coffee for that and  in a great Big Ears 2024 development: The Tennessee and Bijou allowed coffee to be brought in! This is huge and I LOVE it. The quartet? They were absolutely great. For my money some of the best music I heard all weekend, which might be what you would expect from a world-renowned bassist with multiple Grammy awards and who came up playing with Miles Davis, Stan Getz, and Joe Henderson. He’s also done projects with Chick Corea and others.

One of my biggest festival regrets was leaving this show early as I was so taken with what they were doing. Unfortunately, the end of their show was up against the beginning of a two-show run of must-see music for me at the auditorium. So I left after half and hour or so. Next year, maybe? Ashley?

Digable Planets, Big Ears Festival, Civic Auditorium, Knoxville, March 2024

Propelled to stardom in 1993 with their album  Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) and its lead single, “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat).” Two years and one album later they disbanded, but the legend lived on and fueled occasional reunions like this one. Hard to categorize — maybe jazz rap or alternative hip-hop — they forged a unique identity left a mark on the musical world in the short time they were together. They have everything I need to make rap or  hip-hop listenable for me: Real instruments, intelligent and intelligible lyrics, and enough melody sprinkled in to remind us this is music.

Their show served up everything I could have hoped for and my expectations were high. The band which included two saxophones, keys, electronic bass, drums and lead guitar, nailed it all night long. I hung out in my spot behind the soundboard and the sound came through beautifully. I hoped to hang out in-house, but the volunteers (understandably) cleared it for the next show, one of the most anticipated of the year: Herbie Hancock.

Herbie Hancock, Big Ears Festival, Civic Auditorium, Knoxville, March 2024

I had tickets to see Herbie Hancock last spring in North Carolina and was unable to attend. Crushed, I assumed I’d never get another chance to see him perform. Instead, I got to see him in my neighborhood ten months later. Always have faith, my friends. Thank you, Ashley. Thank you, Universe.

The. Show. Rocked. I had an extremely high expectations and the two hour show exceeded them. This is one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. The man, who has played with all the jazz luminaries and is considered to be one of the top jazz pianists of all time, brought it for two hours. He explored all the facets of his career from straight jazz to funk and everything electronic. We got piano, electronic keyboards, and a healthy dose of the vocoder.

The house came down when he assumed the keytar and strutted around stage throwing off licks with abandon. When he started jumping up and down (he’s 83 years old) on the stage while continuing to battle riffs with his (superb) guitar player, the place went nuts. We left the hall knowing we had been in the presence of a master musician, one of our generation’s creative powerhouses, and one of the best entertainers to hit a stage.

I’ll pause here for a minute to speak of a critical topic: Food. After this show I needed some. Dinner had been popcorn inside the auditorium. Not good. The show ended at 11:00 and a friend and I walked to Gay Street, through the 100 block, down into the Old City and out, before rounding the corner and finding food at Stir (thank you!). We did pass up Downtown Grill and Brewery which was serving food, but didn’t hit our spot. I understand we want the downtown restaurants to get business during Big Ears, but I have to wonder — if they aren’t able to serve food after 11:00 — could we get some late-night food trucks? Could food trucks man the outposts like KMA, The Point, and especially the Civic Auditorium. We wondered what the musicians did for food when they finish their late-night gigs.

Silkroad Ensemble with Rhiannon Giddens: American Railroad, Big Ears Festival, Mill and Mine, Knoxville, March 2024

I started my Sunday with Silkroad Ensemble at the Mill and Mine. Originated by Yo-Yo Ma and headed now by Rhiannon Giddens, the group deliberately features artists from all over the world, exploring how their music might intertwine, and shining a light on their own folk music. This themed performance focused on the transcontinental railroad and the impact it had on indigenous people, as well as African-American, Chinese people, and others.

The performance featured a wide range of music, as well as dancing. Who knew mountain dancing could mesh with indigenous dancing while backed by musicians from all over the world. Another favorite performance. And also perfectly placed. Somehow festival organizers understand my circadian rhythm and ease me into my day most excellently. Thank you!

Fatoumata Diawara, Big Ears Festival, Mill and Mine, Knoxville, March 2024

I sheltered in place for a second consecutive show in the venue, as I awaited. I knew only one sentence (and a little listening — your smart speaker knows her if you carefully enunciate) about her from the Big Ears app (which is so awesome and completely indispensable for festival goers), ” . . . one of Africa’s most vital international stars.” Intrigued, but not sure what I was getting in to, I thought the show might be visually and musically interesting.

I’ve learned since that Diawara started her career as an actress in film and on stage. Raised in the Ivory Coast and Mali (her parent’s native home), she left for France nearly twenty-five years ago and has pursued music since, writing her own material, playing lead guitar, and singing mostly in Bambara, the native language of Bali. The music ranges from rocking to ballads, from folk to reggae, but generally just “world music,” whatever that means, anymore.

Her background in acting shined through in the form of an arresting stage presence. The fact that I understood not a word mattered very little. Her smooth voice, appealing guitar work, and a personality that often seemed a wink and a nod provided plenty. Of course, she is a walking visual feast and I struggled not to take dozens of photographs. It’s easy to see why this woman from Mali has accumulated numerous accolades, international recognition, and multiple Grammy awards.


Son Rompe Pera, Big Ears Festival, Boyd’s Jig and Reel, Knoxville, March 2024

I took a break for wine and a bite at Brother Wolf and enjoyed a bonus visit with a friend and met two new ones. I’d planned to see the Thurston Moore and John Paul Jones show, but it was a long way from my next stop and when massive lines formed and the show was delayed, I enjoyed bonus food and friend time before stopping in to Son Rompe Pera at Boyd’s Jig and Reel to see what the buzz was about. I’d been hearing about them from friends throughout the festival and had just missed them. A punk band from near Mexico City, they served up high-energy fun, but I could only stay a few minutes. Luke Frazier, sometimes contributor to will have an extended look at them tomorrow, so I’ll defer to that article for a deeper dive.

Jon Batiste, Big Ears Festival, Civic Auditorium, Knoxville, March 2024

Next up for me, and my final show, was Jon Batiste at the Civic Auditorium. Only on my radar in recent years, Batiste probably first came to my attention when Urban Girl insisted I see “Soul,” the Pixar movie for which he provided the phenomenal soundtrack in 2020. He’s played with everyone you might dream to play with, directs the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, served as musical director for Stephen Colbert for seven years, garnered more than have his age in Grammy nominations (20) and won five of them. His movie American Symphony, released last year and screened at the festival is a must-see musical and emotional experience. He’s deeply rooted in the music (and his musical family) in the New Orleans area and has a Julliard education in music.

This, along with the Herbie Hancock show, was among my two most anticipated events. And event it was. I’ve never seen an artist hold an audience from the very first seconds of a show all the way to the end quite the way he did. He played guitar, sang, danced, played electronic keyboards, and sang. That covers the first two or so minutes. By the time the show ended, he’d played saxophone, drums, and the melodica. Man can do it all.

Integrating jazz, classical, R&B and lots of spiritual rhythms and sounds seamlessly throughout, the energy remained. Even with extended performances of classical/avant-garde music on the piano, the crowd remained enthralled throughout. The only criticism (or simply regret) I heard expressed was that it was too short. Scheduled to begin at 7:30, the show actually started a few minutes after 8:00 and ended at its scheduled time of 9:30. I was startled when it felt like the show might be coming to a conclusion because we’d only been there a few minutes — then I looked at my phone and realized what felt like a few minutes, was an hour. I mean, it was that good. I hope very much to see him again. I felt like I’d seen two of my favorite shows ever on back-to-back nights. And I’ve seen a few.

And so that ended my festival. I could have gotten in a part of another show, but this was the place for me to stop. It could not get better.

Thank you to everyone who makes this shocking experience possible. I cannot wait for next year!