BIG EARS – A CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE MUSIC FESTIVAL (PART 2) BY: NIKI KAOS
Written by Staff on April 7, 2022
As Day Two dawns I begin to fully understand the scope of what I’m trying to accomplish. I feel daunted, but excited at all of the possibilities ahead! And somehow I had missed that Nikki Giovianni is doing a session on Saturday at the Mill and Mine! Like… the REAL Nikki Giovianni?!? (I thought it was someone ELSE reading her poetry)… I swoon, and realize I have my new top pick for Saturday all lined up, because I love her work. But also I have Meredith Monk on Saturday too AND they don’t overlap! I’m now over the oon.
So it feels like the icons are almost a dime a dozen around here? That said – these icons are skewing a bit on the avant-garde side – this is not a Lollapalooza kind of line up. And that is not meant to insult good ‘ole rock-n-roll, the jam scene, the folk/bluegrass scene, etc… Those festivals are all amazing and exciting and I’ve danced my ass off at many! But this is kind of a different festival, and an impressive one at that. Unique feels like an understatement – and the best part is the different genres intermingle and co-exist so naturally you don’t even realize how unusual it really is while you are there in the moment.
In the eclectic category are a slew of musicians recreating the works of John Zorn, including: Bill Frisell, Petra Haden, John Medeski, Julian Lage…those are the ones I recognize, and too many others to name. Zorn’s experimental approach to composition is not exactly my cup of tea, and Bob agrees; so despite the roster, we rule those shows out. Because Zorn’s music is so popular, we occasionally get alerts on the festival app that the performances are at capacity. So we avoided standing in line and missing other music during the day. Got lucky on that one!
The good news is, many of the Zorn musicians are doing other non-Zorn sets during the weekend, and Julian Lage is on my radar (He’s currently tops on my list of jazz guitar guys), so I’m glad to see him scheduled with his trio. But damn – he is opposite Patti’s full band at the same time! Luckily he is playing at the Bijou, which is right up the street from the Tennessee, so I’m contemplating bouncing between the two – really want to see them BOTH!
This is the hardest part of the festival for me. Often you have people at the top of their genres – or heck – people who CREATED their genres – playing at the same time. It is cruel indeed, because if you pick “wrong” and end up waiting in line, you miss that amazing concert right next door. I’ll be honest – there were points of anxiety that I was picking the wrong show, but I had to commit and just make a choice!
Each morning we listened to the different musicians for that day’s schedule. We focused on what looks interesting, and who we’re not familiar with as we get ready to hit downtown Knoxville. Then we reviewed the locations of the “must see” acts to align our travels to maximize music time! It’s a system, and for the most part, it works pretty well.
Friday happens to be the only day we schedule a reservation in town – a scrumptious early lunch at Lonesome Dove. Friday is the only day they serve lunch, which is a great way to get food prepared by a top-rated chef at a good value. And the experience and food were amazing – a perfect start for our day’s adventures!
We finished early, so we spent time exploring downtown while waiting for our first show, Harriet Tubman – a mix of funk, jazz, reggae and more – with guitar solos like Hendrix and Prince had a love child. The bass and drums rounding out the trio syncopated with the vibe of the grooves.
While I liked the music overall, the bass overpowered the room volume-wise. Super-talented player, but the bass rig was waaaaay too much in the mix. Probably the only show I saw where I felt the sound mix was off. After enjoying the music from the outdoor seating area where it was less overwhelming, Bob and I decided to go for a change of scenery and check out the most intimate venue around the corner – The Pilot Light.
The Pilot Light was very crowded – and reminded me of being downstairs at the old Valentine’s in Albany, which I found nostalgic and comforting. People were all standing on the bench seats around the perimeter of the room, and at first I shook my head. Once a space opened up, I said, why not? …and I climbed up for a better view. The band was Okapi, and their sound was haunting and unexpected.
The band is really a duo – a cello and bass trading female and male lead vocals. Technically excellent, I’m almost not sure how I felt about their style of music? It was interesting, and not in a bad way. But I had to really listen and think about what they were doing. The closest I can think to describe it is avant-garde pop folk, but that’s a best guess. I feel encountering music that challenges my thinking is pretty cool – so I enjoy their set for a little bit. Then we decide to move on, siesta for the afternoon, and get ready for round 2 later this evening.
Friday night’s schedule is tricky! And the challenge is you can’t line up for a show if you are watching a show. Kim Gordon is right after Patti Smith’s show, both at the Tennessee, and I realize I’m risking not making it out of Patti and back on line in time for Kim. Which is kind of a bummer, because of course I want to see BOTH!
There is Animal Collective at the Mill and Mine in between Patti and Kim, and I realize there is no way I’ll make that either, because I’m now on Gay St., and Animal Collective is too far. Oh well. Julian Lage is right next door at the Bijou, so Bob opts for that because he has seen Patti perform with her band before. After waiting with me for Patti, and a delightful chat with our neighbors in line, we make a plan to meet up later and part ways.
Patti Smith and her full band is in top form, and it is very cool to have Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daughtery join Tony and Jackson for the full ensemble. The addition of drums and electric guitar brings a different energy to the songs, and the room is rockin’. I’m a little disappointed at the lack of dance space and the fact that no one is up and moving. You’re in a big beautiful theater with those fancy seats, but everyone is trapped with nowhere to dance!
I found a way to make it work in the way back section, and that’s okay for a little while. But since I saw Patti yesterday, and there is overlap in the set list, I decided to hop on over and check out the Julian Lage Trio. I saw him perform with Nels Cline in Brooklyn not that long ago, and was so impressed. I figured it was worth sneaking over, and I’m glad I did.
Julian Lage is on fire right now. I’ve never seen a guy play with such joy and fluidity. The bass (Jorge Roeder) and drums (Kenny Wollesen) complete the trio and bring me back to a smoky jazz club from the 1930s. I don’t care what kind of seats there are, the band is groovin’ and my body’s movin’. As a musician, sometimes it is hard for me to get out of my “I would do this differently” head when I watch music. It can be difficult to just sit back and enjoy the show. Lage’s trio kicks any of that right out the door, and I’m transfixed by the sheer magic of it all.
The show ends, and as we leave the theater, we see the line for Kim Gordon is around the corner and out of sight at the Tennessee. Dang. But drifting out the door of the Bijou Bistro we hear the sound of some serious post-bop – a Knoxville jazz quartet tearing it up! We were graciously seated at a perfectly positioned table, and ordered up a nightcap. Grateful for Knoxville’s robust rideshare scene, we settled in for the set, and this band is blowing our minds – they are so good!