Big Ears – A Choose Your Own Adventure Music Festival (Part 1) By: Niki Kaos

Written by on April 4, 2022

Big Ears – A Choose Your Own Adventure Music Festival

Day 1 – Thursday, March 24th, 2022

By Niki Kaos

Who would’ve thought that Knoxville, TN would host one of the most interesting and eclectic music festivals I have ever seen? My mind is still reeling – blown away by the sheer talent oozing from every one of the 13 official venues throughout the city. In addition to the expansive music options, there are art galleries, pop up shows, restaurants, architecture and murals to explore. A dizzying array – but I’m excited by the energy surrounding this event! Bob and I can’t wait to dig in!

A very walkable city, but we also appreciated the free trolley that shows up about every 10 minutes to get you around town. We never make it out to the World’s Fair Park, which is a bit further from the 12 main stages scattered between Old City, Market Square and Gay Street. Over four glorious days, we barely scratch the surface of talent performing! Not to mention the food and cocktail scene that helps you fuel up between stops. The hospitality of Knoxville all around was welcoming and ready for the festival to return after pausing for, well, you know.

This is a festival to prepare for, because you need to have your energy up to have the stamina to get through even a fraction of the performances. I’m not complaining – it’s a good problem to have! You had to be VERY strategic about how you spend your time. Often I was torn between checking out a favorite performer or exploring someone new I had never heard of. Our pre-festival playlist helped us narrow down our options, but it was still difficult to choose and exciting to have so many options! If you’re curious, you can check out the full 2022 line up and schedule at the website

This is what happens to your finger when you jam with Patti on stage!

Our first day there was an easy choice for me, Patti Smith. I’ve never had the chance to see her perform, and knowing she would be popular, we arrived early to line up. And I was GLAD I did, because the line grew quickly behind us. Hosted at the Mill and Mine, a mid-size venue that would soon become a festival favorite for me, this was the first of Patti’s two shows that weekend. The second would be the full band at the Tennessee Theater on Friday.

This show was intended to be intimate, with her son, Jackson and other longtime band member, Tony Shanahan, completing the trio. Much of this performance was Patti reading from her book, “Just Kids” or reading from a journal, and then Tony and Jackson would join her for songs in between.

It was divine to have the flow between stories about her life, her poetry, and her music. There were many references to her past loves, especially Robert. She describes how much her relationships have defined her work over the years, and that living in the moment influenced how they created art.

The history of musicians and artists she has worked with was discussed casually, like old friends. The truth of the story is that her co-conspirators in music and poetry embraced art in the face of anything else that was happening around them, because they LIVED art. And she continues that spirit with her ongoing works.

Patti has such a centered presence for this performance and the energy in the room is beautiful. Despite this, at one point, she forgets the lyrics of a Bob Dylan song, “One Too Many Mornings”, and eventually turns to the audience for help. None of us could remember them, we all laughed, and the show moved on. It was the way that she invited you into her stories that truly captivated me.

Of the songs she performed, I especially enjoyed “My Blakean Year”, from her 9th studio album released in 2004, which I wasn’t as familiar with before. But for me, the highlight of her songs was her cover performance of “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry”, which is an old favorite of mine. She talked about her good friend and collaborative partner Sam Shepard, and then you could hear a pin drop as the band did a most lovely version of this beloved song. It was exquisite.

Those of you who know me, know that the encore was “People Have the Power”, and I’m going to have to write a whole other blog journal for that story. Patti put out the call for any guitarists in the audience, I ran up on stage, and all the sudden I’m literally rocking out on guitar next to Patti ‘freakin’ Smith!! It’s safe to say my brain short circuited immediately after that and I was dazed for at least the next several hours. I walked out of the show with clouds under my feet and people congratulating me because I had just won the lottery and now I’m Big Ears famous. LOL

So after I calm myself down from all that, there is MORE music to be seen – this was just the FIRST SHOW.

The next venue, Boyd’s Gig and Reel, thankfully, is a short walk away. We pop over to see our first version of the Preservation Hall Jazz band, which is mainly their brass ensemble. This venue was a bit like going to a smaller Irish Tavern with a bar on one side, and a long room for music and dancing on the other side, so a very intimate feel.

The Preservation Hall Brass band was a smaller subset of the Preservation Hall Jazz band performing all weekend. Every musician was top notch – and for this room, no need to even mic the instruments. The sound was pure bliss. I quickly gave up my seat to dance as the room filled with people. The brass ensemble mentioned that the musicians spent the prior week touring local schools and teaching students about the history of jazz music and jazz performance. It’s so cool to know that not only are these performers here to entertain us, they are also giving to the community while they visit.

After a few tunes, members of the East Tennessee Bluegrass Association joined the stage. Steeped in the bluegrass tradition, these players are smoking it like the mountains of Tennessee! With a mission to promote bluegrass music within a multi-generational music community, they were the hosts with the most at this venue. It is so cool to see a mashup between the New Orleans jazz tradition and the Bluegrass music of Tennessee. It blends effortlessly, and we all revel in the sense that music knows no boundaries.

At the end of the show, I go up and tease the drummer from New Orleans about his NY Yankees hat – but mostly I just wanted to compliment him because his drum rolls were like buttah! And as an aspiring drummer myself, when I see that degree of skill… if I have a chance to thank someone so talented, it is hard for me to resist! It was an honor to watch them all. They played the room perfectly in volume and attitude, and further cemented the fact that this may be the most interesting music festival I’ve ever been to.

It is only Thursday. Given today’s events, I am exhausted and any thoughts of more music give way to going back to the digs and rest up for tomorrow’s show. I know I’m going to need it.

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