There’s no other festival quite like Big Ears. Known for its eclectic mix of experimentation, avante garde, jazz, folk, roots, and world music of practically every variety, the Knoxville, Tenn.-based event has a propensity for presenting the unexpected while reaching well beyond any preconceived parameters. It also offers any number of striking debuts, rewarding and encouraging those in search of new and distinctive sounds to cultivate their curiosity and further their thirst for discovery. Many of the names on the bill are, at first, seemingly obscure, but there are enough iconic artists—Spiritualized, Ralph Towner, Meredith Monk, Harold Budd, Mercury Rev, Bill Frisell, Tim Berne, David Torn, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago among the many—to tout an impressive marquee.
Knoxville is growing in prominence as a place where artistic expression is not only recognized but revered. Ashley Capps of AC Entertainment helped launch Big Ears in 2009, but the fest was suspended in 2011. Since relaunching in 2013, it’s achieved a well-deserved international reputation, drawing visitors from practically all 50 states and nearly two dozen countries. To say it’s diverse would be an understatement, one reason it leaves its visitors dazzled and delighted. Consider us among them.
Here then are six reasons why Big Ears 2019 stirred our senses…
While it wasn’t part of the Big Ears line-up per se, Thursday’s edition of The Six O’Clock Swerve, the popular live radio show hosted by longtime journalist and music aficionado Wayne Bledsoe, did provide an ideal lead in for what was to come. Broadcast from Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria in Knoxville’s charming Old City, this particular edition featured surprise guest Richard Thompson. He played two songs from his latest album 13 Rivers and one classic standard, “I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight.’ Local favorite Mic Harrison and two members of his astute backing band the High Score—guitarists Robbie Prosper and Kevin Abernathy — had the daunting task of following, but their unplugged and untethered performance served them well, reminding all those in attendance that while Big Ears welcomes the best, the local talent is more than capable of holding their own.
Panel discussions can be hit or miss proposition at any gathering, but this particular discussion — moderated by NPR’s Ann Powers and featuring Rhiannon Giddens (who packed the same venue, the Knoxville Visitors Center, for her performance the day before), pianist/composer Rachel Grimes and Richard Thompson, was both enlightening and entertaining. All three performers are well versed in creating art from folk origins, and each has researched and reviewed documents of historical import in the process. Giddens, who was furiously crocheting throughout the presentation, became emotional and unable to hold back her tears when recalling a diary she read written by a slave woman whose child was in danger of being taken from her at auction. The point made throughout was that the lessons we learn from the past are still relevant today, although too many remain intentionally unheeded.
One of the revered architects of the so-called “Free Jazz” movement of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, 82 year-old pianist and composer Carla Bley and her three-piece ensemble found a natural fit with the Big Ears more adventurous environs. She and her celebrated colleagues, bassist Steve Swallow and reed player Andy Sheppard, provided a supple and soothing set of enticing tunes that lulled the crowd with quiet composure and a melodic embrace. Bley sat at the piano with her back to the audience, her cropped white hair and distinctive black garb making her the picture of iconic elegance, Yet it was Swallow himself who was especially striking, his melodic bass lines fueling the melodies with sublime assurance.
Béla Fleck is a banjo player, and yet his verve and virtuosity find him reaching well beyond the traditional strains of any bluegrass confines. Indeed, his solo set at the beautiful St. Johns Episcopal Cathedral held the crowd in rapt admiration throughout his hour long performance. Surrounded by six instruments, some of which he used, others that he ignored, he plucked and strummed with a melodic finesse that belied his solitary standing. While his adventurous ensemble was invariably missed, Fleck’s finesse had him drawing an overflow of enthusiasts, many of whom had to be turned away due to demand.
There are those who claim that singer, songwriter, guitarist extraordinaire, and co-founder of Britain’s highly revered band Fairport Convention Richard Thompson has outgrown his folk roots due to the evolution of his solo career. In some ways, that may be true. However with the expansive and ambitious K.I.A., a requiem for those who suffered through the horrors and hardships of World War I, Thompson digs into the archives, journals and reflections of those that documented that tragic time in stirring detail. One of the first times the piece has been presented — Thompson himself wryly admitted that he has a penchant for never being on time — his Big Ears performance with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra under the direction of conductor Peter Askim marked one of the few times the piece has been presented before a live audience. A song cycle that evolves from optimism of quick victory through the realities of war, the hell of the battlefield and the crippling effects on those able to survive, the morose tones had a stunning and sobering effect on all those in attendance. The second part of the concert, a selection of more obscure songs from Thompson’s expansive catalog, was hardly the “happy” portion of the program Thompson had promised. Still, a remarkable read of the folk classic “Shenandoah” and orchestrated covers of the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time” and the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” offered a ready respite.
Call their music “chamber bluegrass” or “regal roots.” Indeed, whatever their definition, the tight-knit quintet, consisting of mandolin plucker and singer Chris Thile, bassist Paul Kowert, guitarist Chris Eldridge, violinist Gabe Witcher and and banjo player Noam Pilkelny, are decidedly one of the boldest and most adventurous string band ensembles plying the festival circuit over the past dozen years. Thile is easily the most animated on the five, and his high pitched vocals, snaky stage moves and devilish demeanor makes him a funny front man as well, His mock debate with Pilkelny (who he referred to as “Pickles”) over a so-called “beaver-cheek” unit of measurement brought to mind the Smothers Brothers and Rowan and Martin in terms of slick stand-up, Even so, the seemingly extemporaneous interplay between the musicians remained both rowdy yet refined throughout Sunday night’s closing Big Ears set. Impossible to confine as far as category, the Punch Brothers brought humor and heroics to center stage.