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Now Hear This: The 2022 Big Ears Festival Was a Major Success

The most recent rendition of Big Ears Festival, which ran from March 24 – March 27, 2022, has come and gone leaving behind unforgettable remnants of guitar picks, pages of poetry, and plenty of wonderful memories. This year’s mega cultural crossroads featured a cavalcade of diverse musical genres —everything from punk rock to fusion to the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra –offering something for everyone who attended.

What is Big Ears Festival?

Long known for its powerful and eclectic foothold in the infinite world of arts, Big Ears Festival, held annually in downtown Knoxville (the pride of East Tennessee), effectively mixes indie rock, classical music, alt rock, jazz, metal, spoken poetry, and avant-garde films meticulously compiled in a dizzying, four-day feast of the senses. The event has grown big – and it’s only getting bigger.

In fact, in any given year since its 2009 inception (officially created by Ashley Capps, founder of AC Entertainment) eventgoers are treated to a magnificent array of concerts and films and colorful performances by some 200 artists and entertainers.

That inaugural 2009 edition of Big Ears Festival featured a blistering list of talented (if not household) names which included Antony and the Johnsons, Burning Star Core, David Daniell, Fence Kitchen, The Necks, Wendy Sutter, and scores of other local and nationally touring acts.

Perhaps the exception to the relatively unknowns was the smart inclusion of keyboard minimalist, Philip Glass, widely regarded as one of the most respected composers of the late 20th century. The renowned and (to many) esoteric Mr. Glass is synonymous with the hypnotic repetition of a simplistic yet melodic style.

All in all, the superbly inclusive event was an instant smash hit with audiences who could pick and choose from a host of musicians and poets as they jumped from show to show -- making Big Ears ’22 a true excess of genres and art forms.

The critics loved it too. Said The New York Times, "…. It’s one of the world’s greatest music bashes.”And in 2010, Rolling Stone Magazine lauded the vast event as "arguably the classiest, most diverse festival in the country.”

Who Played Big Ears Festival in 2022?

The lineup of 2022 was spearheaded by none other than Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Patti Smith, whose name and tuneful influence is spoken in the same breath as other luminary rock legends such as Bob Dylan, the Doors, and the Grateful Dead.

Hatched with the seeds of punk, Smith continues to shatter the barriers of styles and categories with her cherished, non-gender contribution to rock, poetry, and fusion.

Ms. Smith was joined on this year’s Big Ears main tittle card by fellow New Yorker and sax aficionado, John Zorn; another performer whose live act is something to behold. The O.G. “J.Z.” might be best known for his eye-opening 2011 effort, “The Hermetic Organ” which brought him back to his original, go-to musical passion: keyboards.

Other artists who played Big Ears Festival in 2022 included Meredith Monk, Moses Sumny, Kim Gordon, and Joe Henry, as well as Andrew Cyrill, 70 Dollar Bill, L.Rain, MSSV, and Nadia Sirota, who -- amongst dozens more -- performed on a plethora of clever, makeshift stages; i.e., at restored theaters, old churches, refurbished warehouses, and vintage museums.

No single aspect of the festival speaks to the distinctive and inherent charm of Big Ears more than the non-traditional venues made available by organizers thinking way outside the box.

More specifically, these Big Ears venues have a wide range of capacities: from over 200 people at the Old City Performing Arts Center to 1600 at the Tennessee Theatre. Despite the somewhat hippy vibes of the festival, there were, however, established, governed rules.

The most notable red flag pertained to crowd size --- certainly no big surprise in the current climate of Covid. The lyrical law was succinct: “… Once a venue reaches capacity” concert goers were not allowed to enter – a sure sign of safety and compliance.

What Other Events Are at Big Ears Festival?

Though music is the front’n’center core and DNA of Big Ears, there are several other methods of art to embrace and admire. For example, with the awesome Writers & Poets segment there was an over-abundance of profound prose from the likes of Saul Williams, Marcus J. Moore, Hanif Abdurraqib, and Cornelius Eady, to name a few, plus a cool bevy of informative panel discussions.

According to Big Ear’s central website, the enduring poetry production is “… a compelling program of readings and performances by several of the most celebrated poets, essayists, and writers working today. This exceptional gathering for Big Ears 2022 brings deep connections to music and art, the Black experience, and the Appalachian region where the festival is based.”

In addition to numerous presentations of the spoken word, there is also the cinematic side of things. Many fest fans had the privilege of seeing ‘first shown’ films such as (the much anticipated) “Blackalachia,” “A Dancer’s World,” “One Day Pina Asked,” “Quarry,” “Buckjumping,” and many other silver screen examples of groundbreaking film work.

For other indigenous highlights of the festival, one couldn’t possibly overlook the long, eager queues waiting for shows at two popular Knoxville hotspots, namely, the Pilot Light (which, this year, featured -- among others -- Dead Rider, Eve Maret, Ice, and Okapi), while over at Boyd’s Jig & Reel, audiences were treated to the imaginative musical stylings of Tift Merritt, Brian Blade, and the Alex Leach Band.

When show coordinators are invariably asked, what other events are at Big Ears Festival?, rest assured they’ll point you toward that one-two punch of historical and iconic, 8-6-5 watering holes: the Pilot Light and Boyd’s Jig & Reel. Here are other fascinating cultural activities to consider aside from its music and films:

  • Exhibitions
  • Literary readings events
  • Various artistic workshops
  • Markets and shopping
  • Multi-discourse events and more

How Much Does Big Ears Festival Earn?

At the end of the day (four of them to be exact) the Big Ears Festival of 2022 was a major, money-making success. With top-notch planning and a few headliners to perform, the series of shows had a major, positive effect on the local commerce scene.

Final reports for this year’s Big Ears raked in an exceptional, financial boost of over $36 million – feeding a needing economy.

Much of that success is attributed to traveling fans curious as to what Knoxville’s culture and art scene had to offer. It’s worth noting that over 72% of fest going visitors were from all over the good ol’ U.S. of A.

In the same vein of how much the Big Ears Festival earned in 2022, and on a more personal note, the festival provided an additional 377 full time gigs boasting nearly $13 million in labor income from a highly skilled and effective festivals job force.

Here are some other fun financial facts according to bigearsfestival.org:

  • The total direct expenditures for all operations of the festival exceeded a whopping $20 million.

  • Aside from the many job opportunities provided over the four-day stretch, a grand total of $16 million was pumped into sales and incomes for many local businesses.

  • A breakdown by “sector” showed $9.1 million for Food & Beverage, $4.6 million for Hotels, and $1.9 million for Amusement & Entertainment, again, according to The Big Ears Festival website (which knows all).

What Else is Going on in Knoxville, Tennessee?

For many adventurous Big Ears fans, their long-awaited, well-planned getaways include much more than just the festival. In short, there’s much to do in this storied American city.

Knoxville, home to about a million residents, features some epic tourist sites such as Great Smoky Mountains Park and Dollywood, the lavish, kid-friendly, and inspired playground of the indelible Ms. Dolly Parton.

The pride of “the Volunteer State” has miles of winding trails and long, manicured greenways to the effect of 4500+ acres of protected space – making it super friendly grounds for both hikers and bikers alike.

Downtown Knoxville, the actual setting of Big Ears, has several award-winning, locally-owned bars and restaurants to choose from, in addition to some fine hotels and modern-day shopping options.

Two historic hotels -- both high choices for visitors -- include The Bijou, built way back in 1909, and The Tennessee, officially constructed in 1928. Both lodging houses sit alongside clubs, churches, and industrial spaces, all utilized by Big Ears for its exciting festival performances.

[Bonus Fact: Knoxville was founded in 1786 and named for Secretary of War Henry Knox.]

What are Highlights from Previous Big Ears Festivals

Now into its 13th year -- as you can well imagine -- there are a surplus of memorable moments in films, readings, and musical performances to choose from. As the festival continues to gain in popularity, so do the accolades.

Consider this evaluation from one of the artists who performed there; country/blues musician Rhiannon Giddens who chimed in with: “…This festival not only crosses boundaries, it completely ignores them. It dances over their graves.” Well said.

Here, then, are some of the noted and historically great highlights from previous Big Ears Festivals:

2010

After finding its sea legs, during the first year (in 2009), by the next year the shows were already evolving. For many, the highlights in 2010 consisted of a unique film experience featuring an inventive exhibition/companion piece to “The BQE.”

For those unfamiliar, the BQE is “… a mixed-medium artistic exploration” by Sufjan Stevens, who (according to his website) brought in this “cinematic suite” inspired by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway -- hence BQE -- and the Hula-Hoop.

Commissioned by Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), the BQE soundtrack was originally performed in the Howard Gilman Opera House in celebration of the 25th anniversary Next Wave Festival in October of 2007. But, according to many, it was the Big Ears performance that put the piece on the map.

2013

Front and center on the Big Ears ’13 music scene was an eclectic group of performers including the legendary John Cale. For many, Cale, a Welsh born musician, composer, singer, songwriter and exalted record producer (with six decades of big-time genius under his belt) is a true blues hero.

His embryonic days in the world of rock and roll were spent with Velvet Underground in the late 60’s. Many called the Underground one of the 3rd best acts of the 60s – just behind the Beatles and James Brown.

Another huge treat awaiting the Big Ears crowd was Jonny Greenwood, the lead guitarist and keyboardist of the alternative rock band Radiohead, who performed solo. Steve Reich, Wilco’s Glenn Kotche, and Television were also included on that year’s musical ticket.

In addition, Dean & Britta presented their multimedia show “13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests” -- while Marc Ribot brought in three collected projects: a solo performance featuring music to accompany Charlie Chaplin's The Kid (screened while Ribot performed) plus a set with his Cuban-based band Los Cubanos Postizos.

2015

Things got trippy in ’15 when the show’s producers ushered in Kronos Quartet, a foursome who’ve managed to stay together with a “rotating membership of musicians for almost 50 years.” San Fran based K.Q .first made a name for themselves by mix and matching Mozart with the likes of Jimi Hendrix. “Purple Haze” on a cello? Sign me up.

That year also included the enigmatic Laurie Anderson, best known to her loyal fans (over many decades) as a “daring pioneer.”

2016

Suddenly establishing itself as a mainstay for contemporary artists, Big Ears began to see some returning players grace the stages – coming back for more.

This year’s lineup included the aforementioned Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass along with Yo La Tengo, an indie rock band who doesn’t exactly sound like they’re from Hoboken, New Jersey – but they are.

2019-2021

The 2019 edition of Big Ears featured a banjo virtuoso (you don’t hear that very often) by the name of Béla Fleck, an innovative string man whose styles seamlessly cascade over bluegrass roots to jazz, classical, rock and various world music genres.

Other acts that year included the jazzy Punch Brothers, with their crossover flare combining licks of bluegrass and classical, Bill Frissel, a well-known American jazz guitarist, composer, and arranger, as well as Richard Thompson and Mountain Men.

Unfortunately, the lineups of 2020 and 2021 included no one, seeing as though both festivals went on hiatus to contain the spread of Covid-19.

More on Ashley Capps, the Festival’s Founder

Ashely Capps seems more committed and excited as ever as the festival continues to grow and grow. According to a recent article on Capps with blanknews.com, “…We intend to offer people a nice selection of opportunities.” It’s something that wasn’t possible with pandemic “rainouts” in 2019 and 2020.

Capps confessed that his attention to Big Ears in 2022 was more intense. He seemed more into it, as if there was more to prove. “I wanted to open a new space and explore some new frontiers,” he said. “It’s always tempting to keep on keeping on, to keep doing what you’ve always done, but it’s also very time consuming, and it doesn’t leave you the psychological space to throw yourself into new adventures.”

He then goes on a metaphysical tangent saying, “Do I just keep plugging away here, or do I take a step back, breathe a little bit and see what new possibilities are there?”

The latter, he says, suited his temperament – because challenging himself in so many ways … professionally and musically … is what has made so many of his ventures successful.

Big Ears is a prime example.

Time For Some Merch

There’s plenty of Big Ears merchandise to go around. Whether you’ve been to the event or are going in the future, you’ll want to proudly display the logo. Simply hit bigearsfestival.org, the official website, and start clicking.

Fun collectables include short sleeved t-shirts, sweatshirts, posters, mugs, and other branded items shelf-ready for your bedroom. The purchase you make not only gets you some cool gear, you’re also chipping in to support some fine folks worthy of praise and pay.

When is Big Ears Festival 2023?

Because life whips by in a flash, it’s never too early to start looking forward and planning next year’s festivities. It was just announced that Big Ears 2023 will take place Thursday, March 20 through Sunday, April 2, 2023. It won’t be long now until the planning begins. So get that GPS set and ready for Tennessee.

Summary

If you’re thinking What is Big Ears Festival?, you might want to consider the above prophetic summation by Rhiannon Giddens who, in perfect terms, describes the event as a festival without rules. Is it music? Is it art? Is it poetry? Happily, it’s all the above and more.

With a flavor like no other festival in the country, the folks in Knoxville have created a wonderful annual event where literally anyone can find something or some one – a musician or any other artist - to truly cherish.