Festival Puts Knoxville on Map

3/27/2017

Big Ears may forever change the way Knoxville is viewed by the world. Depending on where a person is from, Knoxville might be best known for the murder ballad “Knoxville Girl,” or being the birthplace of entertainer Johnny Knoxville, or the former home of authors Cormac McCarthy or James Agee. Or, maybe they just know the city because its home to the University of Tennessee and a certain football team. But, Big Ears, which is being held at several venues in downtown Knoxville, is putting Knoxville on the map in a different way.

“This is my third year at Big Ears,” Philadelphia resident Steve Bowman said Friday night while walking down Gay Street on his way to see the rock band Tortoise. “It’s a musical wonderland.”

Founded and promoted by Knoxville’s AC Entertainment, Big Ears began in 2009 and gained critical acclaim for its diverse lineup of artists, including some of the most acclaimed names in modern classical and experimental music.

Critic Ben Ratliff of The New York Times said “at times, it was like heaven,” and has helped spread the word and each year as the festival has gotten bigger. This year’s lineup includes rock bands Wilco, Blonde Redhead and Tortoise, classical composers Gavin Bryars, Meredith Monk and Frederic Rzewski, choir The Crossing, jazz legends Carla Bley, Henry Grimes and Henry Threadgill and a variety of world music, electronic and other artists.

Phil and Kristin Redman and Michael Sambar traveled from Madison, Wis., for the festival. On Saturday, they sat outside the Mill & Mine, just before Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy and Chikamorachi took to the stage for some loud noise rock. It’s Phil Redman’s fourth Big Ears.

“I read about it in the New York Times in a Ben Ratliff article,” Phil Redman said. “I think I’d ordered my tickets before I’d even finished the article. I love to expand my interests in music as much as I can, and this seemed like an opportunity to do that in one big gulp.”

Jill Sternheimer, who produces festivals at New York’s Lincoln Center, also read about the festival in Ratliff’s stories and made her first pilgrimage this year.

“I’m having a blast here,” Sternheimer said. “So many of my colleagues had raved about it, I had to come down.”

Sternheimer said Knoxville venues made the music more approachable.

“Taking a chance is the key piece of this,” Sternheimer said. “If something is in an ivory palace, people are afraid to go in, but these are venues people know and they take a chance. ... In New York City, it would be financially impossible to have something so walkable.”

Alex Ross, who wrote about Big Ears for the New Yorker magazine in 2016, echoed that sentiment.

'The size of the city makes it very manageable, and there's an amazing variety of venues that's really rare for a city that size or even much bigger,' Ross said. 'It should be a model for other cities to take on festivals and music series, and have faith that you can build an audience.

'What really sets it apart is, the genres of music are outside the margins. At Big Ears, those outside the mainstream become the center of attention. Seeing hundreds of people vying to get into see Anthony Braxton (who performed in 2016) doesn't happen, except maybe in Europe.'

During her Saturday performance at the Bijou Theatre, Meredith Monk said she never had experienced “such a generous audience” as the one at her Friday or Saturday concerts.

“It really does make us want to give all we’ve got,” she said.

Acclaimed jazz saxophonist Matana Roberts performed Thursday at the Square Room.

'I got a great response,' Roberts said. 'There was a lot of warm energy in the room. I threw a lot of challenging things at them, but I think people understood that.'

She also praised the festival as the most organized she'd ever participated in.

On Friday afternoon, Norwegian accordionist Frode Haltli already had played one show and said he was looking forward to performing his “Border Woods” piece twice at the Knoxville Museum of Art, the site of the festivals' free shows.

'When we do 'Border Woods,' I prefer to sit in the middle of the audience,' Haltli said. This kind of room is perfect for us. It does not fit best in a big theater. … This is the way a festival should be done. It would be a pity if we just flew in from Norway and just did one show.'

And while the festival is bringing praise and attention from outside of town, it appears to be becoming cherished by locals as well.

'This is my third year,' said Tony Lester, of Clinton. 'The big news this year was my son and daughter-in law came all the way from Romania to have a family Big Ears experience. ... We'll swim in the ocean of art and music for four days.'

'In the coolest city in the world,' Knoxvillian Sarah Kane added. 'We've been going since the first year. We do this rather than going on vacation. We quit going to South Carolina and spent the money on VIP passes.'

AC Entertainment founder and head Ashley Capps, whose personal tastes permeate the event, said planning for the 2017 festival had been going on since before the 2016 event ended.

'It's like you've been climbing and climbing and climbing to the top of a really giant slide, and you start sliding down,' Capps said. You're not sure if you're going to make it to the top and then, like a ride, it's over really fast!”

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by WAYNE BLEDSOE

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org

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