Big Ears Festival Day 3: Knoxville Reaches Critical Mass With Packed-Out Shows

Courtesy of Matthew Allen

In five years, the annual event has grown tremendously without mainstream or urban recognition.

Saturday, the last full day of Knoxville, Tenn.'s boundary-testing Big Ears fest, was the day it became impossible to ignore just how big this event has become in five short years. "It's gotten exponentially bigger every time," a local had said the night before, as he complained of clinical claustrophobia in a lobby stuffed with people who'd been briefly shooed out of the Bijou Theater's main room.

You say you thought you'd pop by that early Mary Halvorson show after a leisurely lunch on Market Square? Good luck: Though no household name, Halvorson is a guitar star on the avant-garde scene, and the small room where she was booked became standing-room-only about 20 minutes before showtime. A long line formed outside of those hoping to get in at some point mid-set; inside, Halvorson offered a one-woman, all-covers repertoire that ranged from Ornette Coleman to Duke Ellington.

Anthony Braxton, Halvorson's sometime bandmate, knew well enough to get to her show early: The previous day, he'd been pleasantly surprised to fill the Broadway-sized Bijou to capacity. He's huge in Europe, but here, the saxophonist wondered if all these people had confused him with another Anthony. At least that's what festival director Ashley Capps told a fan who was rushing between two venues that had already hit their fire-code limits. Braxton was probably dumbfounded on Saturday, when Twitter could attest to the shocking lineup outside his trio's show.

At least at the Philip Glass/Laurie Anderson event, fans knew if they'd get in or not: Hot-ticket shows at the Tennessee Theater (like Andrew Bird the night before) were not included with a Big Ears wristband and required separate admission.

Clearly, the fest is reaching the point at which it's no longer reasonable for attendees to expect to be able to wander from one show to another, sampling the work of artists they don't yet know while being sure of catching their must-sees. And this is before the fest has even caught on among the big-city folk who tend to ruin things for locals as an event gets famous.

Strike up a conversation with a fellow concertgoer here, and you're very unlikely to hear he's from Los Angeles or New York. You'll meet a college DJ from Kalamazoo; young parents from Ohio, taking their first trip away from their toddler; a Detroiter whose girlfriend bought him tickets as a thank-you for taking care of her kids for a month. Or maybe Anna Roberts-Gevalt, a Baltimore folk musician whose group Anna & Elizabeth would make an excellent entry on the Big Ears 2017 schedule.

Those of us who moved away from small towns to be closer to the weirdo culture we love may sometimes forget not everyone took the same route, and that throughout the country there are devotees of drone-metal bands, austere minimalist composers, way-out jazz musicians and sound artists who simply defy categorization. For the last few years, Knoxville has been an easy-to-reach place for Southerners to see the fringe-dwelling musicians whose records they collect, and to do it among people who don't reek of hipper-than-thou attitude. Here's hoping Big Ears can keep delivering that experience when the urban hordes find out about it.