If you look at the lineup for Big Ears Festival and don’t recognize many names, don’t feel bad. The festival’s name is no accident. Volunteer State concert impresario Ashley Capps — Knoxville native, founder of AC Entertainment and visionary behind Bonnaroo, among other things — launched Big Ears in 2009 as a celebration of experimental, improvisational and altogether left-of-center music one might not otherwise be exposed to.
The fest is strategically scheduled while University of Tennessee students are on spring break: The college kids clear out, and the nerds swarm in. With musicians and listeners of an array of ages, backgrounds, tastes and disciplines all occupying Knoxville’s downtown and adjacent Old City area, the surreal becomes common. There’s Patti Smith hitting up the bulk foods aisle of the local co-op. Here I am rounding a corner, nearly bumping smack into modern jazz master Makaya McCraven.
Night One of most fests is a soft opening of sorts. Not the case here. I only caught one set on Thursday, but I made it count. Taking in the grand, gorgeous dronescapes of electronic-experimental guru Fennesz from the pews of St. John’s Episcopal Church — one of two sanctuaries on Big Ears’ venue map — was practically an out-of-body experience. Stoic and businesslike while playing, the tall, bespectacled Austrian artist born Christian Fennesz built up his synth-and-laptop-based pieces, let them breathe, then punctuated them with disembodied, wall-rattling electric guitar.
An expanded version of the New York outfit 75 Dollar Bill opened Friday’s proceedings at The Mill & Mine on the fringe of the Knoxville neighborhood called Old City — it’s a proper rock venue, a newer iteration of something like Exit/In. The psych-jazz duo fortified its primordial guitar-and-drums setup with strings, brass, upright bass, 12-string electric and multiple hand percussionists. The ensemble numbered 10 onstage, but moved and breathed as one. Meditative and progressive, it was a study in repetition, and a testament to the power of a good groove.
An hour later and a couple blocks away at The Standard — in non-Big Ears times, more a wedding venue than a concert venue — I caught singer-musician-composer Leyla McCalla‘s five-piece band, with whom she toggled between banjo and electric guitar. They delivered mournful, soulful treatises on forgotten histories, including the strife in Haiti, where McCalla’s parents were born. Following a particularly charged song, McCalla told the rapt audience, “I felt the big ears on that one.”
The Tennessee Theatre is one of Marble City’s crown jewels. Capps helped save the ornate 1,500-capacity room from extinction in the early Aughts, and the performances there this past weekend affirmed just what a treasure the gorgeous theater is. Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Arooj Aftab‘s Friday afternoon set there was a must-see, and one of the fest’s most-anticipated. With harpist Maeve Gilchrist‘s contributions tugging aggressively at the heartstrings, the band’s performance at its most epic recalled the orchestral-punk greatness of Australia’s Dirty Three. You could hear a pin drop as the Pakistani-American bandleader belted out brooding, sultry songs mostly in Urdu, but with one notable foray into English: “Last Night,” which is an evocative and visceral musical setting of a poem by the great mystic poet Rumi.
Elsewhere, Texan-Canadian experimental composer Claire Rousay‘s midday set at Old City Arts, a black-box theater space, was reminiscent of Nashville’s Circuit Benders’ Ball, in that it felt like any source of sound is fair game for making art. While Rousay tore down her gear after the performance, a computerized voice broadcast random tour-diary entries, jumping from ephemeral observations to deep feelings, the lack of punctuation lending comic relief. Meanwhile, Chicago musician Damon Locks — who was once in post-punk band Trenchmouth with Fred Armisen, then later introduced dub music to the post-hardcore crowd in The Eternals — helped maintain morale during the midday lull. His Black Monument Ensemble, part poetry and part R&B with a full-on choir in its ranks, wasn’t heavy on traditional songs. But as energy and passion were concerned, they delivered.
Patti Smith has been making vital contributions in music and poetry for half a century — she quite literally defined punk rock in the East Village. But she can still conjure up the fire-breathing intensity of her youngest days: The set list for Friday’s show at the Tennessee Theatre, brimming with influential songs, reached a fever pitch with the seething “Free Money” from her 1975 debut Horses. Regardless of how many times I’ve heard “Because the Night,” Smith’s co-write with Bruce Springsteen and probably her most widely known recording, hearing it straight from her mouth made my hair stand on end. The interplay between longtime Smith collaborators Lenny Kaye on guitar and Tony Shanahan on bass, plus Smith’s guitarist son Jackson Smith, was nervy and electrifying.
Smith & Co. flew multiple Ukrainian flags onstage, as well as the red-black-and-yellow Australian Aboriginal flag. She also paused between songs to examine current events. “It’s important to have a sense of humor in the worst of times,” she remarked while introducing “Beneath the Southern Cross,” a song from 1996’s stellar Gone Again LP. “This song is dedicated to life. But in life … we remember our immediate departed. … [So] tonight we are remembering those who’ve lost their lives these past couple weeks because of ludicrous, senseless war that seems so outdated in the 21st century.”
A few hours later, on the same stage, Sonic Youth co-founder and bass goddess Kim Gordon and her band tore through songs from No Home Record. The album, Gordon’s first solo release, came out in late 2019 and was robbed by COVID of a proper tour, which might have had a bit of a chilling effect on the show. The set began late and never quite crystallized, with Gordon coming off oddly tentative. It didn’t feel like the right room for the band either: They’re making a brutalist noise-punk assault, which got all murky in the big room and lost all its nuances.
I turned in early Friday to ensure I didn’t miss out on Saturday morning’s collaborative performance from Nashville-born guitar traveler William Tyler and his fellow current Los Angeles resident, harpist Mary Lattimore. At the Tennessee Theatre, they played against a video backdrop put together by Knoxville filmmaker Eric Dawson, an archivist at the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound. The piece, called Electric Appalachia, looks at how the region changed as the Tennessee Valley Authority brought electricity to remote parts of the mountains. Lattimore operated like an orb weaver on the harp, while Tyler coaxed rich, atmospheric sounds from his electric guitar; together, they filled the cavernous hall with a peaceful, spellbinding, almost-symphonic sound.
I had to head home before the fest wound down, but not before catching masterful young acoustic guitarist Yasmin Williams at the First Baptist Church. The 25-year-old Washington, D.C., native is riding a wave of momentum following her debut Urban Driftwood, a refreshing, clear-eyed take on hyper-melodic acoustic songcraft. It turned out Williams is just as gifted of an entertainer as she is a player. The room was packed to the rafters, yet anyone there will tell you she made it feel as if she was playing just for them.
The pandemic put Big Ears on hold for two full years, and judging by the length of the lines outside the venues, people were clearly excited for its return. To put in perspective how stacked the 2022 lineup was, here are just a handful of the greats I wasn‘t able to catch during my limited time in town: Mdou Moctar, John Zorn, Saul Williams, Sparks, Kronos Quartet, Sons of Kemet and Low. Tyler and Lattimore each had an additional show during the fest, as well. Overall, Big Ears remains a potent reminder of just how much music there is out there, waiting for you to tune into it.