This Year’s Big Ears Festival Offered Auditory Exuberance

Patti Smith, Sparks and Kim Gordon highlight Knoxville, TN’s celebration of creative music

Big Ears Festival 2022 poster (Image: Big Ears Festival)

They call Knoxville “The Scruffy City” and for good reason. It’s got a hip vibe and a cool culture, one rich with an appreciation for the arts and all things edgy and eclectic.

In some ways he can be compared to nearby Asheville, although where that city is all about attitude and reputation, Knoxville just does what it does and refutes any attempt at pretension in the process.That makes it a natural home for Big Ears, one of the most unique and eclectic musical gatherings one might ever find anywhere in the world.

Having taken place from Thursday March 26 through Sunday March 27, it spread itself over a good portion of downtown, Worlds Fair Park and various venues located in the historic Old City.  Although its focus is mainly on jazz, avant-garde and experimental music, it allows room for artists of an incredibly diverse variety.

This year’s festival encompasses an array of artists with incredible credentials and sounds spawned from a dizzying array of genres. Opening night found the Preservation Hall Jazz Band performing two sets at the Jig and Reel pub, joined by members of the East Tennessee Bluegrass Association. Later, they led a street parade down Gay Street in true New Orleans tradition. Other highlights included composer Ellis Ludwig-Leon, the musical mastermind behind the progressive chamber pop ensemble San Fermin, premiering anew work titled “False We Hope” in collaboration with the Attacca Quartet. The evening before, Attacca shared a new composition of their own on the stage of the historic Tennessee Theater, a work for three violins, cello and percussion that they called Real Life that was equally well received.

 

VIDEO: Attacca Quartet “Summa”

Singer/songwriter Tift Merritt and her accompanist, veteran pedal steel player Eric Heywood, may have seemed somewhat out of place in a gathering of artists given to more eccentric designs, but regardless, she drew an enthusiastic audience that filled the place to capacity.

That said, Merritt seemed somewhat out of place in this gathering of eccentric artistry. For the most part, it were the newer works that dominated the event. And while the unexpected held sway, many of the artists taking part could claim marquee name appeal. Joe Henry, Low, Bill Callahan, John Medeski, the Kronos Quartet, Animal Collective, Marc Ribot, Annette Peacock, and Bill Frisell all took part, often times taking part in multiple performances with various concert collaborations, including a tribute to avant-garde jazz icon John Zorn. The venues were varied as well, from the larger expanse of the Tennessee and the nearby equally regal Bijou theater to intimate clubs and the august environs of two churches. 

As a result, it wasn’t unusual to see attendees lining up outside and hoping to find seating before the capacity was at a legal limit.

Big Ears demands that listeners lean in to new sounds they might not expect, much less be familiar with. Tone and texture can vary to a great degree, from pure dissonance to decidedly subtle shadings,  Former Sonic Youth bassist and guitarist Kim Gordon leaned towards the latter, in stark contrast to an all-star ensemble — drummer Brian Blade, guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist Jason Moran and bassist Thomas Morgan — that performed the mellower music of the late Ron Miles, and followed immediately after. The former was startling and often impenetrable while the latter lulled several listeners off to dreamier environs as the evening wrapped up. 

 

VIDEO: Fan footage of Sparks at the 2022 Big Ears Festival 

Sparks’ first visit to Knoxville was marked by a boisterous performance at the Tennessee Theater on Thursday, one which found the Mael Brothers easily living up to their reputation as unabashed purveyors of perky pop whose career now spans over 50 years. With he recent release of the documentary The Sparks Brothers, their popularity is once again revived. Russell Mael bounced his way from side to side of the stage, while older brother Ron still maintains his stealth-like glare, glued mainly to his keyboards although he occasionally moved to center stage for a deadpan refrain or curious bit of choreography. Backed by their five piece backing band that remained way to the rear, the group ran through a litany of greatest hits — “Get in the Swing,” “I Predict,”“Stravinsky’s Only Hit,” “Tips for Teens,” and an encore consisting of “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us,” “My Baby’s Taking Me Home,” “Wonder Girl,” and “The Number One Song in Heaven.” It was indeed, an enjoyable and entertaining evening that went well beyond the ordinary or expected. 

Patti Smith was equally engaging, both in an intimate solo performance and with full band in tow. The group included longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye, veteran drummer Jay Dee Dougherty, bassist and keyboard player Tony Shanahan and Smith’s son, guitarist Jackson Smith Once again, the roll call of classic was seemingly never-ending — “Dancing Barefoot,” “Pissing in a River,” “Because the Night,” and “Gloria,” among them. Smith boasts an especially emotive vocal, far removed from her reputation as a punk priestess and her interaction with the audience belied any hint of an insurgent attitude. Indeed, at 75 years of age, both she and Kaye boasted an attitude more akin to the 20-somethings who took New York’s CBGB’s by storm. Likewise, a tender reading of Bob Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings” showed that at even this point in her career, Smith is not only throughly committed to her craft, but also a remarkable performer who has matured with grace, clarity and commitment.

That’s the beauty that accompanies Big Ears. It’s an opportunity to open one’s ears — and mind — to fully process all the possibilities. 

 

VIDEO: Fan footage of Patti Smith at the Big Ears Festival 

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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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