Tuesday, March 26, 2024

2024 03 Big Ears Festival in Knoxville Tennessee


Monday, March 18, 2024

Today is the first of a few travel days to Knoxville, TN, where I will be attending this year’s version of Big Ears, an international music festival held in various venues throughout the downtown area of that city.

I left Milwaukee this morning at 9:00 a.m. My first goal was to get to the to Kankakee Sands Bison Viewing Area in Morocco, Indiana. I made it but the buffalo were no where to be seen from the south viewing area where I parked. I drove around a bit and did manage to see three buffalo way off in the distance but ultimately this was a bust.

The rest of the day I spent driving though snow showers in Northern Indiana. I decided I had enough of trying to decide if this wise or not and pull off in Fort Wayne for the night.  Believe it or not, I got ramen from the front desk and that was my dinner. This is not typical for me. 

Mileage for the day: 306

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Today I continued to do the unusual for food: I ate breakfast in the hotel lobby—gasp!

I continued to drive on state highways and that led me to Portland--Indiana, that is. The stop was to go to a huge and wonderful antique mall called The Wheel and Spoke. I bought a small van full of cool stuff for future projects at home. 

There is not going to be much outdoor stuff today or photos because in Portland it was 30 degrees with 40 mile an hour winds. Man, it was cold. 

I worked my way across Ohio because the goal was Peebles where there is an ancient formation called The Serpent Mound. You are not going to see any photos from me because the formation just looks like really bumpy grass. You have to understand what the significance of this is in terms of man’s history. Sometime between 2,000 to 900 years ago (depending on which historical occupant you credit with the work) some one built a giant snake in the ground. I will say this: seeing it in person is historically chilling if you get it.

Photo from roadrunner.travel.com

Because I want to watch the NCAA Tuesday play-in games tonight I chose to drive to Huntington, West Virginia. Dinner is out of a bag from Taco Bell but I got in the room and was ready to watch when it turns out the games are on TRU which my hotel does not get on its cable. The weird thing is the games are broadcast on MAX so I ended up streaming the basketball tonight. 

Mileage for the day: 340

Mileage for the trip: 646

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Today’s breakfast in Huntington was at Butter It Up! a cute diner in a downtown building with a multiplicity of restaurants and boutiques.

Today it was just state highways in Kentucky which proved to be very mountainous and really beautiful. I did make one stop at a thrift store along the highway but it did not generate a purchase.

I got to Knoxville, Tennessee, at 4:00 p.m. The Hilton Knoxville is my home for the festival. I got checked in, fed in the restaurant and was in my room in time to watch both NCAA play-in games and the NIT rounds as well.

Mileage for the day: 280

Mileage for the trip: 926

(The van will now sit until I am ready to leave on Monday)

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Today I went to Pete’s Coffee Shop for breakfast which is a short five minute walk from my hotel. This cool diner is a great place for breakfast that I eat at each year I am here. 

Knoxville was the site of the 1983 World's Fair and the Sunsphere still exists as a tourist attraction outside the convention center. 

Next I went to the Knoxville Museum of Art. This year I was not particularly thrilled by the exhibitions but in one room I did find photographs by Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Lewis Hine and Walker Evans. The museum has an outdoor sculpture garden that had this work in it.

Now it is time to do a walkabout and see what Knoxville has for the camera lens.

Every year I walk Strong Alley to check out the art on the walls.

I then walked up to the Terminal to buy my festival shirt. 

My first official event of the festival was to go to The Red Gallery to witness the mass produced art of Steve Keene. He works on plywood squares and with a photo as an inspiration, he paints about a dozen copies at once. They only sell for $30 and, honestly, that may be all they are worth. 

Steve Keene at the Red Gallery (festival photo)

I visited an artist cooperative gallery on Gay Street that had some great collage work and a quilt exhibit that was wonderful. 

The last gallery stop was the UT Downtown Gallery where “Y’all Don’t Hear Me,” an Appalachian art exhibition.

I grabbed some sushi from Kabuki on the pedestrian mall and took it back to my room to watch some NCAA tournament play. 

My first event was at the Bijou Theater and it was the Tord Gustavsen Trio. This was a piano with bass and drums. I thought the sound was good. The bass player was innovative and his bowing sounded like an electric guitar.

Tord Gustavsen Trio photo from Inside of Knoxville

After a slice of pizza I was back at the Bijou for Nik Bartsch’s RONIN, a quartet who played two pieces before I had to leave in order to make the next show.

My third show was Charles Lloyd at the Tennessee Theater. The Tennessee is a huge auditorium, but the sight lines and sound are always good. Lloyd appeared with Jason Moran on piano, Larry Grenadier on bass and Eric Harland on the drums. The great thing about seeing legends is you see them before they die but Lloyd look very old and weak. His playing was just OK however the rest of the band made up the difference.

Charles Lloyd photo from Inside of Knoxville

I was back to the Bijou for the last event of the evening for me: Fred Frith: Drawing Sound. Frith’s four piece ensemble included him playing an unusual style of guitar with Jordan Glenn on drums, Jason Hoopes on bass and a special guest female trumpeter whose name I did not get. They played in front of a screen on which visual artist Heike Liss displayed visual effects. I thought the wall of sound the band created had some highs and lows. I was not impressed with the visuals at all.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Today I went to Ruby Sunshine for breakfast, a sister restaurant to Ruby Slipper in New Orleans where I have had breakfast.  I then went for a walkabout to see more street art.

Today’s music started out at the Bijou Theater with Trevor Dunn’s Trio-Convulsant avec Folie a Quarter. Dunn is a bass player who wrote music that combines heavy metal and chamber music. The Trio-Convulsant is Dunn, Mary Halvorson on guitar and the drummer is Ches Smith. The Folie a Quartet is Carla Kihlstedt on violin, Oscar Noriega on bass clarinet, Mariel Roberts on Cello and Anna Webber on flute. This was a pretty entertaining to open the day.

Next I hopped over to the Tennessee Theater for the highly anticipated show by John Paul Jones, the bass player from Led Zeppelin. Because I had to get to another venue I could only stay for the first four songs but the unique thing about that was each was on a different instrument. He began the concert by rising out of the pit playing a beautiful and huge concert organ. Then he played a number on a piano, a three necked guitar and then played one solo bass piece. He is quite witty so it was also a little bit of a comedy routine.

John Paul Jones at the Tennessee Theater (festival photo)

The reason I had to leave was to get to the Mill and Mine (a good hike from the other venues) for a bluegrass double header. The first band was Mighty Poplar, a supergroup of musicians consisting of Noam Pikelny and Chris Eldridge (Punch Brothers), Andrew Marlin (Watchhouse) and Greg Garrison (Leftover Salmon) who get together to do this because they love traditional bluegrass which they don’t get to play in their other groups. (Full confession: I sat way in the back during this concert so that I could watch the Marquette Golden Eagles NCAA game against Western Kentucky—they won!)

Mighty Poplar (festival photo)

Next up on the bluegrass stage at Mill and Mine was Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway who just won a Grammy for best bluegrass album of the year. Wow—this was like watching Taylor Swift if she could flatpick a guitar. She has surrounded herself with awesome musicians and what an event this was. I do have to say that the challenges of some of the music at Big Ears is OK but it was nice to go to a venue where you could actually tap your toes to the beat. 

Molly Tuttle and The Golden Highway (festival photo)

Between bands I was able to grab some ramen at a very convenient food court in that area. Back at the Tennessee Theater I was to see a solo piano concert by the great Brad Mehldau. This was a very entertaining concert with the music ranging from originals, pieces by Eliot Smith and Old Man by Neil Young.

By now it had started to rain which adds a little angst to the events as we do line up outside each venue prior to the concert beginning. I have Premier seating which means my group goes in second behind the VIPS. However, I still got wet outside St. John’s Cathedral. The band I was seeing was Wayne Horvitz Gravitas Quartet which consisted of Horvitz on piano, a cello, a bassoon and a trumpet. This is sonic sound (think ECM label) but it was magnificent, especially in that setting.

Wayne Horvitz (festival photo)

Because of the rain, I skipped the later shows and headed back to my hotel (only two blocks from St. John’s) and watched the Wisconsin Badgers NCAA game. 

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Today I had breakfast at a new place for me, Frothy Monkey on Gay Street. 

My musical day started with one of the greatest things I have experienced at Big Ears: Trio Mediaeval at St. John’s Cathedral. Three women (Linn Andrea Fuglseth, Anna Maria Friman, Jorunn Lovise Husan) whose voices were unamplified, sang the music of Norwegian great Hildegard von Bingen. At one point the trio came down the center aisle and stood right next to me which was so cool. I cannot even begin to explain the emotional impact these performers had on me. Amazing.

Trio Mediaeval (festival photo)

I hiked over to the Knoxville Civic Auditorium to see Kronos Quartet: Five Decades (David Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Paul Wiancko (cello). The concert was great but the big announcement was that after 45 to 46 years, John and Hank are retiring in June. The best news is that David and Paul are going to continue the work with two new musicians. 

I sampled the JJJJJerome Ellis at St. John’s but it was not to my taste so that freed me to head over to the Tennessee Theater for Dave Holland Quartet (Kris Davis, Jaleel Shaw, Nasheet Waits). This powerful set was dynamic as all the musicians proved aggressive but to watch Holland play the bass is something else to hear and see. 

Dave Holland Quartet (festival photo)

Now I had time to eat a quick burger at my hotel before going to the Knoxville Civic Auditorium to see Herbie Hancock. This concert was a feel good experience as Herbie appeared to be thrilled to be with us and chatty as all hell (including an extended dialog with the audience thought his voice altering software). The concert was like seeing music made at the Smithsonian as Herbie has a tendency to use the old stuff (which did not in any way diminish the sound) like a white keytar. The band was awesome and why not--look at this line: Terence Blanchard (Trumpet); Devin Daniels (Saxophone); James Genus (Bass); Trevor Lawrence, Jr. (Drums) and Lionel Loueke (Guitar).

Herbie Hancock (festival photo)

Despite all of this, there was still a little time to get back to the hotel to see the last NCAA game of the day. 

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Today it was in the 30s when I woke up so the decision was easy to eat breakfast in the hotel restaurant. 

My first show today was a unique performance by Davone Tines and THE TRUTH at the Tennessee Theater. Davone is an operatic singer and a major talent. His performance art added to the show but his voice was definitely one of the unique things I hear a this festival.

Davone Tines festival photo

My second show of the day, also at the Tennessee, was the saxophonist Henry Threadgill backed by pianist Vijay Iyer and drummer Dafnis Prieto.  I am going to be honest: Threadgill was showing all of his 80 years. However, the accompanying musicians made up for as both piano and drums were awesome in the solos. 

Henry Threadgill festival photo

The last show of the day for me was also at the Tennessee Theater: ballad singer Joe Henry backed by the Julian Lage Trio (Lage on the guitar; Jorge Roeder on bass; Dave King on the drums). This was a nice feel good way to end the long weekend and I enjoyed the approachable songs very much.

Then it was back to my hotel room to pack for tomorrow’s departure and to catch the last of the NCAA games on TV. 

Monday, March 25, 2024

Having packed the night before I was able to be on the road by 6:00 a.m. (CST) for the ten hour drive home. This was just federal highways all the way with limited stops. I was home by 4:00 p.m. and Denice had a nice home cooked meal ready for her weary traveler.

I had a great time in the city of Knoxville and plan on returning next year. Other than Trio Mediaeval there was no acts that blew me away but all the music was interesting and delivered in great venues with good sound. 

I guess I officially have Big Ears. 

Mileage for the day: 637

Mileage for the trip: 1563