Big Ears from Another View

Big Ears Festival, Steve Keene, Red Gallery, March 2024
Big Ears Festival, March 2024

Every time I looked at the Big Ears 2024 schedule, I felt a weird mix of giddiness and exhaustion. The schedule was packed with incredible choices, but knowing I could only do so much guided my choices. This year, I bought a ticket for my husband to join me. He came with me to all of the free concerts last year, but I knew he needed the full experience this year. We were not disappointed.

Big Ears Festival, Kronos Quartet, Knoxville Civic Auditorium, March 2024

Let’s get it out of the way now that I am not the music aficionado that Urban Guy is. I enjoy music. I enjoy variety and creativity. But mostly, I love seeing passion come to life through music. People’s stories get told in beautiful and sometimes haunting ways. Other times, the story is loud and incongruent and told with great dissonance. However the story gets told, I have a deep appreciation for the storyteller, in this case, the musicians.

Big Ears Festival, Min Xiao-Fen with River Guerguerian, Bijou Theatre, Music to Silent Films, March 2024
Big Ears Festival, Min Xiao-Fen with River Guerguerian, Bijou Theatre, March 2024

I had one of the quintessential Big Ears experiences over brunch at Babalu on Sunday. I sat at the bar with two seats open next to me. In walks a loud, friendly New Yorker, Mark, and a quieter European man, Velibor Pedevski, who I found out was one of the artists for the weekend, to sit next to me. Velibor Pedevski is well known for his project, Hardedge, amongst other musical accomplishments. Being the friendly and curious Southerner I am, it was only a short time before we were in conversation about the festival and Knoxville as a city.

Big Ears Festival, aja monet, Old City PAC, March 2024
Big Ears Festival, Brandon Coleman, Jackson Terminal, March 2024

I’m going to tell on myself here. With my earlier confession that I am not the music enthusiast in this writing group, is it a surprise to anyone that I had a couple of incidents where I sat patiently waiting for an artist to warm up or tune their instruments for a few minutes only to discover that they were indeed in the middle of a song? While that was a bit of a ‘moment’ for me, it was enlightening, heartening and thought-provoking. Mainstream music would make us believe there is a box to stay within. Big Ears and festivals like it around the world bring us artists who shift us and teach us with tones, rhythms, and beats that expand the mind.

Big Ears Festival, John Paul Jones and Thurston Moore, Mill and Mine, March 2024

In my conversation with Velibor, he described music as a language. It has its own way of communicating a message. How can you interpret the creator’s message unless you understand the language? Reflecting on this with Urban Guy, he pointed out that one of the goals of Big Ears is to expand people’s musical palate and to learn those new ‘languages.’ Having traveled the world in his musical career, Velibor shared that he sees Big Ears as on par with and even better than similar European festivals. He applauded creator Ashley Capps for bringing this level of musical variety and creativity to Knoxville and the perfection of each venue he (Capps) chose. Hopefully, we’ll see him perform again alongside some of his friends next year!

I’ll do my best to highlight some of my favorites.

I checked out Steve Keen’s art at Red Gallery and loved the vibrant colors. The speed at which he can create such work is astounding. I’m regretting not buying a piece for myself now.

Big Ears Festival, Steve Keene, Red Gallery, March 2024

JJJJJerome Ellis performed in St. John’s Cathedral, and it was the perfect venue for the haunting melodies from his saxophone and keyboard. He was a true storyteller with words, music, and pictures. He uses his lifelong stutter to enrich his story and create memorable moments of time. He performed in his socks and an oat-colored dress, a gift from his wife, over slacks. The colors, the sounds, and even the time of day that brought the beautiful light through the stained glass lent to the overall beauty of the performance.

Big Ears Festival, JJJJJerome Ellis, St. John’s Cathedral, March 2024

Outside, a group extending two entire city blocks peacefully protested the war in Gaza. They were met with cheers, claps and reverence. Ellis also acknowledged their message and call for peace.

Big Ears Festival, March 2024

Kenny Wollesen’s Wolle-Sonic Massage was such a simple, yet profound way to experience the connection of mind and body to sound. Guests lay on towels, mats, blankets, and just the floor in the Knoxville Museum of Art to experience the sounds and vibrations of the unique items used for this exercise. Many were homemade items like balloons tied together, wooden shoes hanging from poles, bottle caps tied together, etc. Wollesen and his crew walked around the relaxing patrons playing their instrument of choice, changing it up every few minutes. The floor was covered, and the stairs were packed with people leaning back, experiencing the moment, eyes closed in silence. There was peace throughout the space and a respect for the art that was enchanting to me.

Big Ears Festival, Kenny Wollesen’s Wolle-Sonic Massage, Knoxville Museum of Art, March 2024

I popped in on a few others with just enough time to get a taste of what they offered, and then it was off to the next venue and artist. It was a whirlwind, and we got in lots of steps. We used the shuttle a couple of times to make a quicker transport over the Civic Auditorium, the furthest venue from the city center.

Big Ears Festival, March 2024

I did make it to one film, American Symphony, and one talk. Jon Batiste was the focus of both. The film takes you through the journey he and his wife have been on during her cancer treatment and recovery while using his music as a poignant backdrop. His conversation with Marcus J. Moore was everything I hoped it would be. This man has a smile that brings hope to a room. He operates from a place of humility and an unbridled joy that is rare.

Big Ears Festival, Marcus J. Moore and Jon Batiste, Knoxville Museum of Art, March 2024

His concert was everything. I know I’ve already said it, but the joy he and his band brought to the venue was palpable. The concert was fun, energetic, interactive, and different from one that you sit down at. I was only slightly familiar with this rising star before the festival, having seen his performances at the Grammys and Oscars this year and knowing he composed the music for the Disney animated film Soul. I am now one of his biggest fans.

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

My overall assessment of Big Ears was that it was a smashing success—great artists, venues, people, etc. I was slightly disappointed that there were fewer outdoor and free concerts and no family-friendly events like there have been in the past. I enjoyed bringing my kids out last year and giving them a taste of the music scene and some of the displayed and demonstrated arts. I assume the rationale for doing it differently has to do with weather, logistics and budget. I get it. Big Ears is not meant to be a family event per se. There are lots of other festivals that are family-friendly and culture-rich in Knoxville. We are indeed a fortunate city in that way.

Until next year…