Written by on April 18, 2022

It’s day three, and I’m pushing away the bittersweet thought that I’m on the second half of the four days, because I am seriously looking forward to what I have planned. At this point, Bob and I are feeling pretty confident about getting where we need to go, and first up for me is Nikki Giovianni at the Mill and Mine. Bob decides to opt for a music and film pairing from Mary Lattimore & William Tyler titled “Electric Appalachia”. Anticipating a possible line for Nikki Giovianni, we head into town early so I can queue up while Bob walks to the Tennessee Theatre.

Nikki Giovianni is a treasured American poet and civil rights activist who grew up in Cincinnati, OH, but spent summers in Knoxville with her Grandparents and sister. During the intro, I learn she was born in Knoxville, so this is like a homecoming, and the room is alive with energy and excitement. I highly recommend you check out the short biography on her webpage. It highlights the sense of humor and direct way of speaking that make her both entertaining and endearing. I confess, I wasn’t aware of her latest book of poetry, “A Good Cry – What We Learn From Tears and Laughter”, and now I can’t wait to check it out.

As I enter the theater, this is the first time I notice any kind of merchandise set up. I usually enjoy supporting my favorite artists by grabbing something from the merch table when I can, and I’m definitely curious. Turns out to be LPs of different eras of Nikki’s spoken word accompanied by music. I found the album with my favorite poem of hers, “Ego Tripping”, and snapped it up right away. Titled “The Truth Is On Its Way ”, it has Nikki singing her poetry with the New York Community Choir. It is a glorious album, and I hope you get a chance to hear it sometime.

At 78 years old, Nikki is vibrant and captivating. There is a nostalgia to her stories that connects the audience to a wisdom only available by experience. “The older you get, it’s all emotional”, she says, describing what it was like to see Gay St. and the neighborhoods she grew up in while traveling to the theater before her performance. She laughed at herself, saying that at her age, “I thought I could handle it”, but “the ride through town brought tears to my eyes”.

This reminiscence echoed Patti Smith’s spoken word from Thursday. Past memories shared, painting a landscape of emotions. In my reflection on both performances, there was a powerful energy between the audience and the performer while each revisited those old neighborhoods. Both Patti and Nikki transported the audience by whispering the beautiful mystery of life’s most basic routines via their storytelling.

Nikki’s stories about growing up between Knoxville and Cincinnati are fascinating. It is clear she was driven by a thirst for knowledge, books and writing. Further inspiring was the lengths she went to in order to access an education, during a time when few black women had that opportunity. And there were lighthearted anecdotes too, like an hysterical story about male slugs having two dicks… you had to be there!

Then she spoke about the dangers of banning books and ideas – passionately in support of literary freedom. She spoke in support of the transgender community. She talked about the tension and division between different cultures and races, and asked the audience, “When are we all going to get along?” In a heartfelt way, she recalls the importance of the Appalachian Mountains in the reconciliation between the North and the South. She tells us about her hope that in the future we will build on that tradition, imploring us to work towards coming together and celebrating our differences.

There’s a light in her eyes when she speaks that shows a passion for learning and teaching, for talking about the world and how things work.  In the spirit of cultural self-education, she tells us about her plans to learn Chinese and how to use chopsticks once she retires from her Virginia Tech faculty position. Or, she quips, when they “slide a pink slip” under her door, which she looks for every morning as she enters her office. The audience is captivated, laughing and crying as each story resonates with the simple truths of life in a most beautiful way.

Next, without warning, I hear “I was born in the Congo”, and I realize she is launching into “Ego Tripping”! I’m beside myself with excitement. The lyricism of this poem is transcendent and ethereal. I’m so grateful to hear it in person, and it provoked a heartily-deserved standing ovation at the end of her performance. It was such an uplifting experience to hear her speak in person, and I highly recommend if you ever have the chance, don’t miss it!

Nikki’s spoken word event blew me away with her wisdom and laid back command of the audience. I will remember it forever! But now it is time to get ready for my second goddess of the day – Meredith Monk! She is a pioneering American composer and performer, known for contemporary ensemble works that use extended vocal technique and physical movement to express the emotion of her musical imagination. Her music deploys unconventional singing, often without lyrics, but rather using syllables, sounds or repeated words that paint a musical portrait of the story.

I honestly never heard of Meredith Monk before I met Bob, but her unparalleled vocal technique paired with the originality of how she expresses her musical ideas had me hooked from the start. In the past, I even participated in a virtual group workshop led by her. It was extraordinary! And now I get to see her perform in person! She is slated to direct her works with a group called Bang on a Can All-Stars. And they are doing something called Memory Games! I’m super excited because I think we’re going to play some kind of game with the show! And make some noise!!

Hahaha – that’s what assumptions do for you! First of all – there was no banging on cans. There were no memory games. But honestly, it didn’t matter to me. Meredith Monk is indeed the second goddess I witnessed today. The way she uses her singing technique is so powerful, and the vocal ensemble she works with do vocal gymnastics with ease. I remember my opera training and think it would have been awesome to be a student with her back in the day!

In addition, Bang on a Can’s percussion, strings (including electric guitar) and keyboards executed her complex, minimalist-tinged compositions with virtuosity, grace, and a deep understanding of both its seriousness and humor. The entire performance gets the symbiotic mind-body projection of how sound can be produced. Watching her work live is stunning.

However, it is apparent that her admittedly somewhat esoteric and abstract approach is not for everyone. Some people decide to leave – and other audience members grumble about how upset they are that the people leaving can’t appreciate the great art of what they are seeing. I find it kind of funny. It doesn’t seem to phase Meredith. It just serves to remind me that you do art for your vision – and Meredith has been and continues to be a visionary musician and composer for decades – an example of believing in yourself and carrying out your creative work. For me, she is absolutely revolutionary in technique and emotive impact, and I am grateful to have seen a live performance of some of her work.

After the show, I had to do my research, since I confess I never heard of Bang on a Can before, and I was really expecting something different! And it just goes to show how much music is out there to find out about! It’s so exciting, and one of my favorite things about this festival. The diversity of music genres and booking musicians who are at all stages of their career – you really can find a little bit of everything here.

So I learned that Bang on a Can All-Stars is pretty iconic in itself. Formed in 1992, it’s a contemporary classical music ensemble, which according to their website, is “Freely crossing the boundaries between classical, jazz, rock, world and experimental music”. In addition to working with Meredith Monk, they have collaborated with Steve Reich, Ornette Coleman, Burmese circle drum master Kyaw Kyaw Naing, Tan Dun, DJ Spooky. An impressive list for sure!

Despite their not having trash cans used for drums, I was not disappointed! The level of musicianship they displayed was virtuosic. There is something breathtaking for me to see people individually and collectively so dedicated to their art. It appears to happen so effortlessly, it almost makes you forget that it is people playing instruments they have spent their lives practicing for hours and hours, days and days. The life of a classical musician is not an easy one, but Bang on a Can definitely makes it an inspiring one!

After all this – fairly spent, we retreat back to home base yet again. I’m determined to rally back to the Mill and Mine for one last hurrah. I’m also daunted, and know I won’t be out late. In anticipation of next year’s plans, I contemplate the virtue of a hotel downtown vs. the very accommodating house we had which was peaceful at the end of each exciting but exhausting day of music. I push these thoughts out of my mind because I need to get my ass back downtown after a quick rest!

So the ONE thing I really feel I didn’t completely fulfill was a good dance party – and I’m determined to find one! Mission accomplished at The Krewe Du Kanaval Ball, which brought an all-star line up of NOLA & Haiti vodou music greats to the Mill and Mine. I arrive a little early again, and since things haven’t started yet, I pop over to see what is happening at the Jig and Reel around the corner. I happen to be in between music there as well, but I don’t mind, because there is space to grab a drink and chill for a minute before the dancing starts.

I run into another random festival goer – and those of you who know me, know I’ll strike up a conversation with anyone. So she also LOVES jazz and is looking for a dance party. I’m like, hey sister – let’s head on over to the Krewe Du Kanaval. There’s exactly that kind of thing happening soon! And we walk over together. The party is just getting started as we arrive.

The event starts outside in the tent while the main show is being set up on the indoor stage. No matter, the tent offers an intimate feel and everyone is mingling about while the first band, a NOLA ensemble with an alto sax player who is playing one the best freakin’ solos I’ve heard all weekend. This girl is oozing the sophistication and chromatic dexterity of jazz.  At one point, the musicians are mingling with the crowd as we all dance and sway to the beat. There is a conga line, including someone in a giant dancing bear costume. Extravagant costumery all around!

It was a true dance party celebration, but I really am exhausted now. It seems to be taking a long time for the indoors venue to be set up, so I decide to head home for the night. No regrets – you can only see so much at Big Ears, and I’m more than grateful for what I’ve seen already. My last real mission is to check out Bill Frisell tomorrow, so I head home and get ready for our last day. I would be sad except I’m pretty exhausted and very happy with what I got to see so far. It’s amazing to me that I could miss so much of the festival but still be so satisfied by my experience, but there you have it.

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