I've been busy, and had no intention of reporting on Big Ears anyway, but I can't help offering these tardy notes:
Usually I can think of a precedent for everything that happens in my home town. Bicycle culture, local bacon, home-brewed porter, live-audience radio, tamale carts -- none of this is very new here, even if the first wave is forgotten. When it comes to AC Entertainment's Big Ears, the uncategorizable music festival though, you have to think harder. In the 1880s, we had an springtime opera festival that attracted well-known tenors and sopranos from the northeast and even Europe, but I don't gather it was ever edgy. In the early 1980s, fans claimed that Knoxville was on the cutting edge of hardcore punk rock, and an almost-steady diet of famous big-city bands and just a few locals who almost made it big made it seem almost plausible. However, thinking of a precedent for Big Ears, my best thought was of the 1920s and '30s, when there was an almost bohemian subculture doing new things with old music. They dressed differently, lived differently, played differently -- a form of music that was not yet known as Country. Maybe the nearest precedent for some of the things we saw last weekend was the day Roy Acuff showed up on Market Square with a band that included a dobro, an obscure west-coast instrument most people had never seen nor heard, and played an obscure song called "Great Speckled Bird." Or maybe it was a few years later, when Chet Atkins was performing unprecedented new tricks with a guitar on the WNOX stage.
Maybe. But not really. The clearest precedent for Big Ears may have been another of Ashley Capps' long-ago projects, a show called Unradio. About 30 years ago, it was an eight-hour long show on WUOT that started every Saturday at 11 p.m., and the premise was that Ashley and several adventurous colleagues played music that was otherwise unlikely to be heard on the radio. Hence the name. Several featured guests at Big Ears, including John Cale, Tom Verlaine with and without Television, and Steve Reich, made their debut appearances in certain Knoxville homes, very late at night, via Unradio. And what made it thrilling, and to some of us it really was thrilling, was the unlikely connections between these otherwise extremely different forms of music, and the unknowability of what was coming next. That was what made Big Ears fun, too.
This past weekend, especially on rainy Saturday, I was ostensibly working on a couple of book projects downtown and didn't expect to see much of Big Ears. But by pure luck I came upon a wristband, and considering our office, and the library I'm doing research in, are both within a three-minute walk of most of Big Ears' venues, I found myself sampling one thing, then another. And by the time it was over I'd seen all or substantial parts of 20 shows, almost all of them remarkable for one thing or another.
It would have been a challenge like the old politically incorrect Six Blind Men and the Elephant story. It was a heavy-metal festival, a classical chamber-music festival, a minimalist festival, a guitar-jazz festival, an old-film festival, a technofest, an alt-rock festival.
When I was 24, I thought of Television as a legendary band from the misty past, long over with, and despite their influence a band that no one would ever see again, certainly not me, and certainly not in my home town, in the same theater where I grew up watching Disney movies starring Dick Van Dyke. But there at the Tennessee was Tom Verlaine himself, an inspiration to so much that was happening in New York in the latter '70s and that spilled out into America. Verlaine was more than recognizable, singing in the voice David Byrne borrowed from him, but guitarist Jimmy Rip, an electric-guitar virtuoso disguised as a grizzled, long-bearded cowhand, was a crowd favorite. I suspect he's the only one who wasn't with Television during CBGB days, but he has enough personal cred to make up for that fact.
The night before, John Cale, who turns out to be an amiable legend, was doing a polished singer-songwriter sort of set, doing a few more things with a guitar than, say, Richard Thompson or Bryan Ferry might do. It occurred to me maybe the reason he's not as popularly known as they are is that his lyrics are deliberately confounding, as if he's trying to keep his distance from the sort of fans who come just because they want him to play their personal favorite. No graying couple is likely to demand "Fear is a man's best friend" because it's their song.
Somehow this intellectual music festival, intimidating to some who expected it to be too intellectual, drew the biggest audience for a classic silent comedy in memory.
There turned out to be several reasons to see guitarist Marc Ribot, who played one eclectic set at the Bijou that verged on surf, cool jazz, and heavy metal, and another at an extremely crowded Scruffy City Hall, with a Latin band. But one of the most memorable experiences of the festival, I think, will be his accompaniment to Charlie Chaplin's 1921 silent, The Kid. He took a back seat to the movie itself, to allow the audience to respond more to that often belly-sprainingly hilarious 93-year-old story than to his playing.
It was the biggest and most enthusiastic audience for a silent movie I've ever seen in Knoxville, and my experience with witnessing mostly disappointing turnouts for public showings of silents goes back to the '70s. Chaplin has a place on Gay Street, of course. Downtown's single most prominent place in literature may be the scene in Chapter One of James Agee's A Death in the Family, the kid watching a Chaplin comedy with his doomed father at a smaller theater called the Majestic. Of course, Agee became one of Chaplin's fiercest champions, when many Americans wanted him out of the country, for Communism, or adultery, or something.
But overall it was one of those memories that will bubble up when I'm in a nursing home, and I'll wonder what the hell that was, when I saw a packed theater watching a Chaplin movie, with somebody playing guitar in the dark, and I'll probably conclude I just dreamed it.
I saw Susanna once, and would have seen her twice, if my schedule had allowed it. The singer-keyboardist's version of Dolly Parton's "Jolene," at the Tennessee, was chilling, like a soundtrack for a movie about a psychokiller. (Susanna's Norwegian and mentioned she was proud to be singing that song here, but I'm not sure she knew how intimate the connection is; Dolly began her radio career, more than half a century ago, an easy stroll down Gay Street at WIVK's first studio.)
I saw Julia Holter accidentally, because of a scheduling delay, and it was the closest thing to pop I experienced this weekend, but more magnetically interesting than most pop. Edgier than, say, Feist, but more accessible than most of Bjork, she's a woman with a striking stage presence and a good band, and one of the very few bands I saw that didn't include a prominent guitar: saxophone, violin, cello. Most of her show was very original, but she closed with a surprise, a melancholy version of Barbara Lewis's 1963 hit, "Hello Stranger (Seems like a mighty long time)." I suspect we may get more used to hearing her name.
Low, at the Bijou, reportedly dislikes the "slowcore" label, but they probably wouldn't like a label like "heroin rock," either, considering they're Mormons and, if they're observant, don't even drink coffee. But their show, illustrated with slow-motion home movies, was hard to pull away from, like waking from an interestingly peculiar dream, and the only reason I did was that Television was performing just two blocks away.
Keiji Haino is either a certifiable madman, evolving into an actual monster, or a daring and unique performance artist, but either way, he'd pretty good at worrying audiences. He seemed at home in the sesqui-Gothic Scruffy City Hall, where he played with his electric guitar and theremin (I think it was a theremin; it may have been a nuclear weapon of some sort) lurching around in the near darkness and offering cryptic advice in what may have been a sort of English. Whether you call what he does music is up to you, but the place was uncomfortably packed, the audience all standing on the ground-floor level, in a room so dark that when you walk in, you know you can't get any closer because you're run into people. During a bleak pause, as if to assure us that we're still in Knoxville, appearances to the contrary, someone hollered, "Atsa way ya do it!"
Rolling Stone noted, "The mayor of Knoxville said the words, 'Captain Beefheart.'" Whatever they meant by that, it's an apt comparison. I didn't see Madeline there, but I don't doubt she was; she attended several of the other shows.
It was hard to believe that, a few steps away, it was a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon on Market Square, where people were walking dogs and watching magic shows.
There were a couple of times, at the bar shows, where I had a surprisingly unwelcome flashback to teen years, of being stuck in the basement with a friend who's preoccupied with his amplifier, but I guess a festival needs to be open to some of that, a sort of porousness, to let new things in.
Given that, it was surprising that there were several concerts so formal that I felt underdressed for them. The Steve Reich Music for 18 Musicians maintained a strict no-entry policy for the hour-long duration of the piece, a good policy, because it was a hypnotic spectacle, like watching bees at work. People who had tickets were worried about whether they could sit through it. I looked around. The whole theater seemed rapt.
The Wordless Music Orchestra, the day before, turned out to be a string septet, dressed in black and arranged as if for a Bach piece, but they played about a dozen short, meditative excerpts from movie scores by a composer even Radiohead fans might not guess was guitarist Johnny Greenwood. Who, after an hour of that, came out himself with his guitar as a command flashed on the screen, "to participate in this performance," type the following address into your I-phone browser. Many did, and what happened later was a serious of harmonic chiming from around the room in accord with the music being played on stage. It was the only time I have been happy to hear cell phones in an auditorium. It's corny to say so, but it seemed magical. I have never witnessed that before. Has anybody?
It was an extremely well-performed classical-style set, with violins and cellos, as was the Steve Reich / Ensemble Signal show the following night. I recognized a few local folks who turn out for opera and symphony concerts, but then, very few. Maybe four or five. Did that community who so loyally support fine classical music in this same room even hear about this festival? I'm not sure they did. I can imagine both classical-music fans and heavy-metal fans looking askance at Big Ears, perhaps regarding it with equal dread. But I believe all the people who actually came were grateful for it.
I saw only a few UT people there, too. The Knoxvillians I recognized attending were mostly not academics, and the few I've mentioned it to this week seemed not to have heard of it. Was it on their radar?
I heard some restaurants were disappointed in the business over the weekend, but some did well to extremely well. It was one of the French Market's best weekends ever, and Just Ripe was slammed. It seems unlikely the leisurely dining places that expect to keep their customers seated for an hour or more were especially grateful for the festival, because there wasn't a whole lot of time between shows. What Big Ears brought was a market for good food, fast. If other attendees were like me, they skipped a meal or two just because it wasn't easy to wedge into the spaces between shows. There was a question about why there weren't any handy food trucks. I got two bags of peanuts from Scruffy City Hall and two bags of Cheez-It's from the Tennessee. It would have been nice to have a sandwich now and then.
Overall, though, like the previous two festivals, Big Ears was pretty wonderful, and earned Knoxville more positive press in the national media than anything else we ever do deliberately -- more than any college sport, certainly. The Bijou and Tennessee Theatres both got mentions in several national journals, as did the Square Room -- and perhaps no bar in Knoxville has ever been so instantly famous, weeks after its grand opening, as Scruffy City Hall. (Onetime Metro Pulse contributor Holly Haworth referred to it in Paste magazine as "the really lovely Scruffy City Hall.")
Tuesday's New York Times opens with a big photo of the interior of the Bijou Theatre, and an extremely attentive audience who didn't know they were having their picture taken. The headline is, "They Heard Whatever They Wanted."