Big Ears 2024: Latching onto the Starship and Starting the Ride

John Paul Jones, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2024
Tord Gustavsen Trio, Big Ears Festival, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, March 2024

And the long journey begins. I’ll cram my coverage and photos into two articles, with a second to arrive this afternoon. We’ll have more coverage tomorrow, as Heather and Luke share their stories. No two people experience the same festival at Big Ears. I made my schedule based on favorite artists, including some I’ve seen and loved, and others I’d not seen. I listened for hours before the festival and only attended shows I thought I’d enjoy. I’m a fan, not a critic, and that’s how I approach the festival. As a result, I see fewer artists as I try to stay for full shows as much as possible.

I also pay attention to how far apart venues lie and try not to use too much of my time walking from one end of the festival footprint to the other. As a result, I saw no shows at several of the venues that simply didn’t fit into my path or a cluster of other shows in nearby venues around the same time. I also chose not to see films, art, and interviews, and that’s a hard decision because I would have enjoyed all those things, but I also needed time to edit photographs and write along the way, so I prioritized concerts. It’s a geometric puzzle to assemble and no two people assemble the same parts the same way.

My festival started Thursday evening with four shows at four different venues over the course of six hours. The stunningly gorgeous music of Norway’s Tord Gustavsen Trio at the intimate, acoustically beautiful Bijou served as a perfect beginning for my ride on the starship as the meditative music slowed my racing heartbeat and reminded me of the reason I do this. Considered one of the most important jazz musicians to come out of Europe this century, Tord began recording in 2003 and has produced nine albums in the span of 21 years.

Kurt Vile and the Violators, Big Ears Festival, Civic Auditorium, Knoxville, March 2024

From jazz to Indie rock, I next stopped off at the Civic Auditorium for Pennsylvania’s Kurt Vile. The Civic Auditorium serves as a venue of a larger size, but its current condition only underlines that Knoxville desperately needs a performing arts center. While the sound is often uneven and unpredictable, I’ve found that hanging out around the sound board (I stood behind it for almost every show) delivers a consistently good sonic experience. Hats off to all the sound engineers that make this improbable musical journey possible.

Vile, the co-founder and guitarist for the excellent War on Drugs (give them a listen if you don’t know them), has built a strong following, first under his own name and then with the Violators. He’s credited with a unique guitar style and vocal delivery and counts among his influences many of my musical heroes. All that said, honestly, this show didn’t hit me. Nothing on him, it just happens at festivals. Sometimes it’s because of the contrast or sameness of the music I heard just prior, the mood I’m in, how tired or hungry I am. Who knows? I listened for about thirty minutes and walked to the Tennessee Theatre where one of my festival favorites awaited.

Charles Lloyd Quartet, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2024

Charles Lloyd began his recording career in 1964 with his album Discovery!. He’s recording an additional fifty albums since, with the most recent, The  Sky Will Still Be There Tomorrow, coming just a couple of weeks ago, March 15, on the event of Mr. Lloyd’s 86th birthday. His current lineup includes a favorite of mine, and a genius in his own right, Jason Moran, along with a drummer, Eric Harland, who makes subtle magic on every track. The show was everything I hoped for an more. I can’t wait to get the new disc on vinyl (I’ve been listening via smart speakers).

This proved to be the first show of several in which my photographic skills fell short. In this case the culprit came in the form of  such saturated lighting that the band disappeared into a purple haze. Their purple faces could sometimes only be remedied by switching to black and white, which I did with several photos. In other concerts I failed in my battles with back-lighting, little-to-no lighting, harsh lighting, and excessive fog machines. Other times I simply didn’t attend to my own business correctly and get the exposures and focus properly set. I’ll keep working.

Angelic Brothers (John Medeski and Kirk Knuffke), Big Ears Festival, Old City Performing Arts Center, Knoxville, March 2024

I ended the night with a great set featuring the Angelic Brothers including the stunning John Medeski (Medeski, Martin, and Wood), whose playing I was to enjoy several times over the next few days, and cornet player Kirk Knuffke. Kirk originates from Colorado, but has lived in New York City for twenty years, studying privately with Ornette Coleman and Wynton Marsalis.

The performance, billed as “drawing from the visionary works of Sun Ra,” and the spirit of Sun Ra filled the Old City Performing Arts Center for a standing-room, packed performance. Boundaries? They pushed them. Both perform at such high levels and intertwined seamlessly even as the music took unexpected turns. For fans of a minimalist version of the Sun Ra vision, this was the performance you’ve been looking for. Word is they have an album “in the can.”

Mr. Sun, Barley’s Taproom, Big Ears Festival, Knoxville, March 2024

I stopped in for most of the bluegrass set at Barley’s Taproom by Mr. Sun, featuring Darol Anger, iconic bluegrass fiddle legend who “is a founding father of new acoustic music,” according to his record label. The set was good, but I had to leave quickly for Jason Moran and the Harlem Hellfighters at the Civic Auditorium.

Jason became a favorite of mine six years ago when he brought the music of Fats Waller to the festival. I’ve tried not to miss a performance since and I’ve seen him many times. Often on a mission beyond simply performing amazing jazz, this year was no exception as he brought a brass ensemble to play the music of largely forgotten and historically critical James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters. The set was great, of course, and featured a visual component via a large screen. I hated to leave early, but . . .

Jason Moran and the Harlem Hellfighters, Big Ears Festival, Civic Auditorium, Knoxville, March 2024
John Paul Jones, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2024

John Paul Jones, former bassist for Led Zeppelin awaited at the Tennessee Theatre and I knew I’d need to be there early to be sure to get inside. And I am so glad I did and that I was there when it started. In an entrance for the ages, Jones emerged from beneath the stage playing the Mighty Wurlitzer, sending out the iconic opening strains to “Your Time is Gonna Come.” The room erupted and I could not have been the only one with chills.

What followed could not have surprised me more (knowing nothing of what he has done in recent years). The man mastered repeated classical pieces on the piano. He played bass parts from his Led Zeppelin days (without “the less important parts”), played a triple-necked mandolin, a collapsible lap steel guitar (stunningly) and looped music repeatedly to play alongside himself. It was simply the performance of a master. And a funny, self-deprecating one. He held the audience enchanted.

Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway, Big Ears, Mill and Mine, Knoxville, March 2024

From there I intended to catch Ringdown at the Old City Performing Arts Center, but I got the notice they reached capacity. The notices of capacity provided an extremely helpful source of information all weekend via the app. And this is as good a time as any to point out that the volunteers and everyone who made the festival work were simply fantastic. I felt media were treated better than ever.

Since I missed that show, I inserted something that otherwise had no place in my schedule: food. I grabbed fish tacos at my place, edited a little, and walked to Mill and Mine for Molly Tuttle. I knew she was a big deal in the bluegrass world, but I was unprepared for her guitar virtuosity, the brilliance of her band, and her genre defying covers. She and the band did a mind-blowing cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” and a great cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Standing on the Moon,” which she declared her favorite song and said the lyrics are written on the inside of her guitar (she wrote them on the wood before it was assembled).

Slauson Malone 1, Big Ears Festival, The Standard, Knoxville, March 2024

I had a short time to include a portion of one act and I chose to stop off at The Standard to see Slauson Malone 1. I’d read or heard very little, but I was curious and I had the time. It wasn’t until writing this that I caught that little detail about his lineage: His actual name is Jasper Marsalis, son of Wynton and grandson of Ellis. What else could he do, but music? His is very different at this point in his life, blending punk with jazz, electronic feedback with cello (Nicky Wetherell, brilliant, sometimes playing with two bows), and avant garde with crowd diving. One part spectacle, two parts sonic chaos.

Chocolate Genius, Inc., Big Ears Festival, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, March 2024

My penultimate stop for the day came at the Bijou for a performance by Chocolate Genius, Inc. An evolving collective headed by singer Marc Anthony Thompson, the group’s initial album, Black Music, debuted in 1998 and was replicated for this concert in honor of its (last year) 15th anniversary. The music hews someplace in the avant-garde/jazz/folk/rhythm and blues world. Picture that? It’s hard to unless you hear it.

Joined by his daughter for a portion of this show, his regular backing artists currently include Marc Ribot on guitar and John Medeski (there he is, again) on piano, and they both joined him for this joyful, funny, confrontive concert. Unafraid to comment on serious topics, several statements flew from the stage, sometimes followed by a sardonic laugh. The performance (and music) could not be faulted. I’m listening to the album now, and I’d encourage you to give it a listen.

Rhiannon Giddens, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2024

And here comes another artist I have a very hard time missing in favor of someone else. I ended my night at the Tennessee Theatre with a two-hour Rhiannon Giddens show that, as is always the case, enthralled, entertained, and educated. The Pulitzer Prize and multi-Grammy (among many other honors) award winner owns a stage and a crowd as if she’s sitting on her front porch serving iced-tea. And you can imagine sitting on that front porch and sipping along through a hot summer night. The show could not have been better.

So, is anyone still here? No, really? That covers the first two days, lightly. 17 hours of running around and seeing shows, 334 photographs (helpfully reduced here to a slim 126 photographic collection). For the stout of heart, part two comes later today.