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Big Ears 2024: A Safe Space for Provocation and Discovery

From the hypnotic “zen-funk” of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin to the Afrobeat-jazz of Kokoroko
Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin at the Bijou Theatre (Photo credit: Cora Wagoner)

It’s Palm Sunday at Big Ears, America’s most avant-garde music festival—and here I am, an open-minded agnostic, crammed into a sweaty club next to a barbecue joint in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee. The crowd is appropriately reverent on this religious holy day as percussionist/composer Ches Smith begins, leading his unclassifiable ensemble Laugh Ash through a maze of scrambled electronics, free-jazz vibraphone, and orchestrations that shift from unnerving to sweet. 

Early on, as a hint of rhythmic pulse emerges through a wash of alien synth, the beaming 20-something to my right bounces like they’re riding the rail at a Skrillex show. This music is challenging—and based on the inquisitive faces I see scanning the crowd, this is the experience we’ve all come here seeking. 

Part of what makes this event so rewarding—and, for the uninitiated, potentially frustrating—is the mystery of it all. Unlike most big-deal music festivals, where you can map out your concert schedule with high confidence that you’ll savor every second, the sprawl of Big Ears’ lineup invites you to stop pre-Googling bands and just surrender. 

I typically consult the festival program, scan the quick-fire blurbs, and do my best to blend the familiar with the mysterious. And sometimes it doesn’t work out! I think I walked out of five shows this year—everything from sluggish ambient-pop to atonal horror-jazz—because I’d reached my limit after 10 minutes. But I don’t regret a second. I’d rather be urged into an early exit by art that makes me fidget than passively entertained for a full set while I scan my phone and yawn. 

Here are some more of my scattered notes—favorite shows, overheard snippets of conversation, audience observations—from this unicorn of a festival. 

Thursday, March 21

My favorite set from the entire four-day event—and probably one of my top shows ever—came Thursday evening with Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, the self-described “zen-funk” quartet, who hypnotized everyone at the regal Bijou Theatre. The Swiss keyboardist/bandleader guided his band (electric bass, woodwinds, drums) through dynamic “modules” of tranquil minimalism and polyrhythmic fury, often muting his piano strings to create eerie, synth-like effects. Even the visual presentation added to the atmosphere, with the players bathed in a hellish red light. 

John Paul Jones at the Tennessee Theatre (Photo credit: Andy Feliu)

Friday, March 22

I planned my entire day around Led Zeppelin legend John Paul Jones, who played his first of three shows at a stuffed-to-the-brim Tennessee Theatre—Knoxville’s classiest venue, and the kinda place where you can catch a touring Broadway production. The vibe at this solo set felt perfect for living rock royalty, especially as he rose up from the pit playing Led Zep’s “Your Time Is Gonna Come” on an ancient Wurlitzer pipe organ. I don’t think any of us knew quite what to expect—I was admittedly also a bit disoriented, having just jogged .7 miles south from church/makeshift venue The Point. 

The whole set was delightfully informal and a bit scattershot—Jones maneuvered through technical glitches with wit and charm, telling the crowd to “talk amongst yourselves” as he fiddled with the laptop resting on his grand piano. The hard rock fans seated nearby me in the balcony gasped audibly when he pulled a Fender Jazz Bass off the stand, joking, “You’ll have to excuse me—I’ve never done anything quite like this before. I could have sworn I booked a band!” That joke introduced a solo-bass rendition of Zeppelin’s “Ramble On”—a weird idea, given the song’s intricate riff and the lack of rhythmic backing. But Jones looked and sounded more comfortable behind the keys, whether cranking out a soulful take on “No Quarter” or using loops to create swirls of crystalline ambience.

Hours later at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium, Laurie Anderson teamed with NYC jazz act Sexmob for “Let X=X,” a poignant (and often hilarious) show featuring reworked tracks from her entire career. The whole set was a joy, from a chilling rendition of her 1981 breakout single “O Superman” to a meditative take on “Junior Dad” (a collaborative track by Metallica and Lou Reed, Anderson’s late husband) to an encore where she led the audience through Tai Chi. “This was like church!” gushed a college-aged kid in the row behind me. No argument there. 

Herbie Hancock at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium (Photo credit: Cora Wagoner)

Saturday, March 23

Saturday was so stacked, I was forced to skip multiple shows that still pain me to ponder. (One of these years, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum!) But there’s a striking diversity in my favorite sets of the day. 

The first heavyweight was Ishraqiyun, a psych-prog mindfuck drawing deeply from Eastern harmonies. (Special shout to the audience at the Mill & Mine: One fan danced a kind of demented “Macarena” against a rhythm that might have been set in 15/8, but I was too distracted to count; elsewhere, a purple-haired onlooker in a jean jacket twisted from side to side, almost like an awkward version of Uma Thurman in the Jack Rabbit Slims scene from Pulp Fiction.) 

The dancing was more conventional that evening at the Jackson Terminal, where British octet Kokoroko played one of their first U.S. shows. The band moved gracefully from Afrobeat grooves to soul-jazz balladry—including a handful of tracks from their upcoming second LP. (“We love your lot’s accent,” keyboardist Yohan Kebede told the crowd, likely addressing the locals. “It’s so musical.”) 

I managed to close out the night by frantically darting across downtown to the Civic Auditorium, waiting through a predictably massive line, and watching jazz legend Herbie Hancock tear through classics from his full catalog—including a massive opening overture, a scorching “Actual Proof,” and a vocoder-heavy spritz of “Come Running to Me.”  

Finom at Regas Square (Photo credit: Billie Wheeler)

Sunday, March 24

Confession: I did break my “no Googling” review for artful indie-rock duo Finom, mostly because the festival program blurb was so intriguing that I found myself craving an appetizer. The group’s set at the adorably intimate Regas Square blew me away—particularly their ping-ponging vocals and colorful approach to time signatures and effects pedals. (They also nailed a rendition of Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting,” with co-bandleader Macie Stewart on violin.) 

And I decided to wind down with another safe bet: jazz guitarist Julian Lage, who offered a bit of musical comfort food after a stretch of heavier, wilder sounds throughout the afternoon. “A  good omen,” I scribbled in my notes at the Tennessee Theatre, as the endearing loudmouth behind me excitedly sang a play on Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Around the World”: “I know, I knoooooow for sure / Julian Lage is gonna plaaaaaaaay guitaaaaar.” And that he did! It’s rare to encounter a guitarist with such dexterity, both in terms of style and, uh, fingers. The whole show was like a warm bath, from the ambling delicacy of “Hymnal” through the sweet-natured Telecaster tumble of “Tiburon.” 

After the show, I strolled down Gay Street with a dumb grin on my face, thankful that—in the algorithm age, where festival lineups seem to be dictated by a rigid “RIYL” ethos—we’ve carved out a safe space for provocation and discovery. 

A Big Ears display in the lobby of the Embassy Suites in downtown Knoxville (Photo credit: Jenifer Reed)