Big Ears Festival

Ryan Reed on April 20, 2019
Big Ears Festival

You stroll through Knoxville, Tenn.’s cozy downtown square and glance at your phone’s interactive schedule map: “What’s on the itinerary for tonight?” you may think. “An avant-garde a cappellacomposition? A solo virtuoso banjo player in a regal Episcopal church? A psychedelic jazz-fusion trio? An artful electronic piece beaming through a theater?”

In an era when most festivals are unsubtly tweaked copies of each other, the country’s edgiest music event continues to push boundaries, to challenge your preconceptions. One decade after its modest initial launch, Big Ears remains a cultural utopia—a space that, based on the current market, shouldn’t exist as a commercial entity. While most fests repeatedly opt for the safest lineups imaginable, AC Entertainment founder Ashley Capps is embracing the experimental. Anything is possible at Big Ears, and that’s basically the reason it exists. Very few artists at the three-day 2019 event were household names—even those from the stable of venerable ECM Records, which celebrated its 50th anniversary with the label’s largest-ever U.S. showcase.

Toward the top of the bill were provocative free-jazz act The Art Ensemble of Chicago, vocalist/performance artist Meredith Monk (performing her airy, minimalist song cycle Cellular Songs), and pioneering fusion drummer Jack DeJohnette’s latest combo with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane (son of John and Alice) and bassist/sampler Matthew Garrison. The latter trio faced a nearly full Tennessee Theatre during their soothing Saturday set, a blend of atmospheric grooves and wicked solos. A sense of reverence permeated every venue, regardless of the artist’s profile—whether it was watching Animal Collective’s Avey Tare bathe rock club The Mill & Mine in ambient guitar-and-vocal drones (like “Nostalgia in Lemonade”) or virtuoso vocalist Theo Bleckmann reinvent Kate Bush’s back catalog (like an avant-punk version of “Violin”), the crowds attended because they were intrigued, not as an excuse to post an Instagram selfie or as a time-killer while shuffling between massive stages.

The intimacy at Big Ears is unparalleled: All the venues are indoors, situated throughout Knoxville’s charming downtown, and audiences brought the sort of respect and admiration you’re more likely to encounter at an art gallery than a drunken rock show. (And that focus also applied to, say, space-rock adventurers Spiritualized and progressive post-punks This Is Not This Heat, both of whom packed The Mill & Mine.) The festival closed up shop with a reliably expert set from prog-grass kings the Punch Brothers, one of the most mainstream-accessible acts in the lineup—and, ironically, the band that most clearly exemplifies Big Ears ethos of boundary-smashing. But the event’s burn-this-in-your-brain moment occurred at midnight on Friday, with a ragtag supergroup led by Mercury Rev performing an improvised jazz-noir score to the 1962 horror film Carnival of Souls. Saxophones wailed, percussion rattled and butcher knives were drawn—no one in the crowd had any idea what to expect from moment to moment, just like with the festival itself.IkD