Cheers to Ten Years of Big Ears

The Tennessee festival offers big options in terms of its diversity and dynamic

The Amazing Allison Russell at The Big Ears Festival at Bijou Theatre on March 30, 2023 (Image: Alisa B. Cherry)

While any number of festivals may pride themselves on versatility and variety, it’s fair to say that Big Ears–now in its 10th year–has them beat.

This annual extravaganza, which took place in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee March 30 through April 2, featured well over 100 diverse artists, more than 200 performances and a variety of venues that ranged from intimate clubs to the city’s Knoxville Coliseum. 

Although it was touted as the tenth celebration, that’s not to be construed as the tenth consecutive festival. Like the rest of the world it was impacted by covid, but nevertheless, having the opportunity to recognize its unique endeavor and special success is cause enough for celebration.  That’s proven by the illustrious line-up that’s become a constant every year. It veers from any number of singular artists (among them, David Byrne, Rickie Lee Jones, Bela Fleck, and Los Lobos) to staples of the alt and indie community (Iron & Wine, Lucius, Calexico, The Bad Plus, Algiers, Bonny Light Horseman, Lee Ranaldo, The Mountain Goats and Devendra Banhart), any number of some of most inventive and innovative instrumentalists (Marc Ribot, Steve Reich,  Pino Palladino, Christian McBride, Charles Lloyd, Andrew Bird, John Zorn and Bill Frisell), and ultimately to those that have more recently gained acclaim (Sierra Ferrell, Adeem The Artist and Josephine Foster, among them).

As with any sprawling festival, sheer numbers make it difficult to catch even a fraction of the artists and ensembles that are there to share their wares. Happily though, it’s an easily walkable distance between  Knoxville’s downtown, and the historic Old City center. Locals, of course, consider it all familiar turf, but even visitors seem to have no trouble navigating the reasonable span between desirable venues.

While the festival obviously attracts those with decidedly adventurous tastes — at least when it comes to venturing into the realms of the avant-garde, there’s also plenty to entice those who are willing enough to bask in a certain familiarity factor. Rickie Lee Jones and David Byrne’s appearances were certainly enough of a lure on their own, but a pair of films offered added incentive —  Byrnes’ hit Broadway musical “American Utopia” and the multiple Academy Award-winning movie “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” Q&A sessions with Byrne, Jones and other artists were nice add-ons as well.

David Byrne performing with Terry Allen & the Panhandle Mystery Band at The Big Ears Festival at Tennessee Theatre on March 30, 2023 (Image: Alisa B. Cherry)

One of the results of providing such a diverse roster is the fact that even those who are unsuspecting about what to expect are given reason to stick a proverbial toe in the musical waters. Due to proximity, Big Ears allows ample opportunity to discover artists that one may not have heard before. It frees up a conventional mindset and provides ample opportunity to delve into different realms.

In that regard alone, Big Ears qualifies as one of the most entertaining and educational events one might ever encounter.

Our choices more or less transcended the divide — if any — between the accessible and the experimental sides, and we were rewarded by allure and intrigue. Our festival festivities kicked off in grand fashion with a performance by Allison Russell. All the reasons why she received top courtesy of last year’s Americana Awards became abundantly clear. With her Rainbow Coalition band in tow, she shared a vast expanse of emotion, from the solemn to the celebratory. So too, she showed her musical dexterity, incorporating both banjo and clarinet into her arrangements while not allowing that somewhat unlikely mix to overshadow her passional performance. It was in some ways, based on a stoic sound, but one that was spawned from arcane Americana and given greater emphasis in light of today’s cultural chasm. 

Terry Allen and his Panhandle Mystery Band offered a rare opportunity to see a venerable forebear in action, and indeed, he didn’t disappoint. While he’s naturally associated with the archival origins of West Texas music as passed along by any number of legends over the years, beginning with Buddy Holly and proceeding through Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Allen himself, he’s not bound to any strictly defined down-home demeanor. He remained fully focused on his keyboards, but freely added elements of Texan, country, roots, and even psychedelia. However, there was a constant. The songs were consistently memorable, and certain selections — “Death of the Last Stripper,” “All Those Blues Go Walking By” “Gonna Make Me a Killing in Juarez,” and “City of the Vampire” (the latter Allen claims he co-wrote with his granddaughter) — soared on the strength of the performances. Old pal David Byrne strolled on stage towards the end of the set to join in a rousing rendition of “Buck Naked,” while Shannon McNally, a gifted vocalist in her own right, shared the stage through most of the show.

Los Lobos wowing the crowd at The Big Ears Festival at Tennessee Theatre on March 30, 2023 (Image: Alisa B. Cherry)

Los Lobos took the stage at the venerable Tennessee Theatre to massive applause, and the enthusiasm was elevated even further with a set that drew from any number band classics, including several sung entirely in Spanish. The audience was prone to dance and at that point, that celebratory stance was firmly immersed. Ms McNally was also spotted dancing in t0he wings.Now celebrating their half century together, they made light of that fact during a brief moment when the tuning took over. “It’s been 50 years and we’re still working on our show,” guitarist Cesar Rojas joked at one point.

Friday started with a set by the Bonny Light Horseman, an alluring outfit that’s become the darlings of the nu-folk set. Supremely soothing, their set was flush with finesse. Calexico followed, offering a trademark sound that combines Tex Mex with the windswept desert noir of their Arizona origins. At least half the set was sung in Spanish, but the biggest surprise — and satisfaction — was derived by the inclusion of that classic by the band Love, “Alone Again Or” towards the end of the set. Despite the lapse of more than 50 years, the sound was perfectly in sync. 

We ended our evening with Iron and Wine and here again, Sam Beam’s songs remained as evocative as always. He comes across as a kind of Bob Dylan/Woody Guthrie hybrid, not so much due to his material — which, in fact, do carry a folk-fueled imprint — but rather owing to his singular demeanor — one man, a guitar and songs flush with insight and intelligence. 

Saturday started on another mellow note with a performance by the sedate chamber folk ensemble Weather Station. Their low-cast approach ensured a certain subtlety in the music, but regardless, it found a steady and soothing pace regardless. However Devendra Banhart provided the most affecting performance of the day, especially when midway through a song, his voice began cracking and his eyes welled with tears. On the other hand, the set also found him in a decidedly genial state of mind. Referring to his choice of fashion, a long colorful smock of sorts, he said he. Was dressed that way as a show of support of drag queens. “The only crime I’ve committed here,” he declared, “is wearing these shoes with this dress.”

Rickie Lee Jones delighting the audience at The Big Ears Festival at Bijou Theatre on April 1, 2023 (Image: Alisa B. Cherry)

Rickie Lee Jones’ set capped the evening at the Bijou Theatre, a decidedly intimate space compared to the larger confines of the Tennessee. Some 40 years on, she still looks as mirthful and mischievous as always, her hippie/bohemian chic ever present. Some complained her band didn’t seem quite in sync, and when Jones herself had to ask the audience if anyone had a guitar pick — to which one eagerly gentleman replied — one could conclude she was perhaps a bit unprepared. Nevertheless, the songs made an emphatic impression, thanks to the fact that many of them were drawn from her earlier albums. There was no “Chuck E’s In Love,” although a glance after the fact at her handwritten set list saw it was originally included and subsequently scratched off. 

The final day of the festival brought more subtle encounters — specifically, Bill Frisell’s quartet and a series of sifting chamber music ensembles under the direction of musician/composer John Zorn. Both ensembles were decidedly intriguing, with the musicians in Frisell’s group seemingly flying in different directions while the Zorn performance seemed not only entirely in sync, but somewhat robotic in terms of the musicians’ moments, which at times, was like watching animated characters going through their motions.

Our Big Ears experience ended with an intimate recital by Ben Sollee at St. John’s Church, a beautiful setting regardless of circumstance. Sollee turns his cello into a melodic instrument, devoid of any need for accompaniment. Nevertheless, he was able to enlist the services of guest Dave Eggar for a virtual cello duet, with Eggar strumming and picking at his instrument for added emphasis. Sollee became emotional at times when he talked about the loss of a longtime accompanist and collaborator Jordon Ellis this past February, but it made the music all the more moving, showing Sollee to be an artist that’s both creative and compassionate. He also had a chance to show off some parental pride when he brought his two young daughters onstage afterwards.

And with that, another Big Ears took its place in the history books. Once again, its legacy grows large. 


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Lee Zimmerman
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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville, Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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