Big Ears Festival 2024: A Path Through

Charting A Course Through Big Ears Festival 2024

by John Diliberto 3/7/2024

Calculating FOMO at BIG EARS FESTIVAL 2024

I am mapping out my course through the Big Ears Festival 2024 taking place on March 21-24 in Knoxville, TN.  In the first full hour of the festival I already have three conflicts. Should I see pianist Tord Gustafson who goes from 6-7:15pm, Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus from 6:15-7:30, or Zoe Keating from 6:45-8:00? They all overlap and it would be impossible to see a full set by any of them if you want to see all of them. This conflict will happen dozens of times at Big Ears Festival 2024.

You have to understand the expanse of Big Ears to know what you are up against. There are over 200 performers across four days in eleven venues, separated at their extremes by 1 mile, a 25-minute walk (from The Knoxville Civic Center to the The Point.) Concerts are happening simultaneously with staggered start times. It’s impossible to hear everything. You’ve got two choices: jump in and out of concerts, leaving half-way through one to get to the start of another, or the reverse, staying till the end of one concert only to come in half-way through the next.

At Big Ears Festival, FOMO will Kill You.

Instead, fuck FOMO. Last year I made the decision to see concerts in full. I would get there at the beginning. I would stay until the end and I would absorb the arc of a musician’s live artistry. Now if it really sucked, I would leave. And if a concert ended and there was a time gap before my next selection, I might jump into another show, but I found that making the hard decisions led to a more enriching experience.

So here’s my planned trek through Big Ears Festival 2024.

That first hour I talked about: I’m going with Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus. I haven’t seen Threadgill in decades and I wouldn’t see him at this show. Threadgill is a featured artist at the festival in multiple performances but some, like the Very Very Circus, are repertory groups. They’ll perform the saxophonist’s music, but he won’t be playing on stage. I’ve seen Zoe Keating many times, including playing live for Echoes, and she is one of the premiere looping cellists, but I’ve never seen pianist Tord Gustavsen. He specializes in a very cerebral and spare brand of jazz that marks ECM records in recent years. I’d like to see him, but I’m thinking the Very Very Circus, with some great musicians, will be a wild show. So that is my pick.

After Threadgill, I’m again conflicted, this time between Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, the phenomenal Swiss minimalistic ensemble who I’ve seen a few times including live on Echoes, or Charles Lloyd, who I don’t think I’ve seen since about 1974 at the Empty Foxhole in Philadelphia. I’ll go with Charles Lloyd from 9 to 10:45.

At 10:45 I’ll jump quickly to see guitarist Fred Frith, another musician I followed closely in the 70s and 80s but haven’t seen since, except with John Zorn’s Naked City.  His performance with a trio and visual artist working live, sounds like it could be fascinating, and it’s in one of my favorite venues at Big Ears, The Bijou Theatre. That ends my first night.

Friday, March 22

This is the first full day of Big Ears.

I’m going to start with the Trevor Dunn Trio at noon. He’s a phenomenal bassist in the John Zorn circle of musicians and usually has a great trio. But I will skip out of that early to catch ALL of Eli Winter’s set. He’s a phenomenal guitarist whose music lives in the cracks of genres. He could be my new personal discovery at Big Ears. His set ends at 2:00pm at which time I’ll jump to the Tennessee Theater to hear John Paul Jones, the Led Zeppelin bassist and utility player. He’s gone in a lot of musical directions since then, and lately he’s been doing ear-splitting improvisational music on mandolin.

From there I’ll see Henry Threadgill 3:30-4:45pm. He will actually be playing live in a quartet. He’s going to be in the 2400 seat Knoxville Civic Auditorium, which seems a little surprising since the last time I saw him with AIR was in the 100 seat Empty Foxhole.

From there I’ll trek to the 5:30 show by Kristin Hersh, a singer and song writer I’ve loved since her days in Throwing Muses. The end of that show puts me right in place to catch Brad Mehldau and Christian McBride 7:00 to 8:30. From there it’s one of the “must-sees” for me at the festival, the 9pm show by Laurie Anderson with Sexmob. She’ll be performing something of a retrospective set, playing songs I don’t think she’s performed in concert for decades.

After Laurie I’ll take the long trek then to the Mill and Mine to catch the second half of King Britt’s Blacktronica series which will include performances by Suzi Analog and Carl Craig. That ends at 2:00am, and that is my Friday.

Saturday March 23

Could there be a better way to start your day than at noon with Trio Mediaeval? That’s where I’ll begin in St. John’s Cathedral. From there I will jump over to the Tennessee Theatre for the 2:00pm show of Kronos Quartet who will be assaying 5 decades of music. I’ve seen them so many times since my first concert with them in 1980 in San Francisco when they performed George Crumb’s “Black Angels for Electric String Quartet” and a piece by electronic artist Patrick Gleeson. By the way, there will be a screening at Big Ears of a documentary on Crumb, one of the most underrated 20th century composers.

After a classical start, I’ll take a dinner break and then go see Dave Holland, the legendary bassist, at the Tennessee at 5:45pm. I’ll catch all of that then run over to Digable Planets at the Civic about a third of the way through their 6:45 set.

Then I have a real quandary. Herbie Hancock has a 9:00pm set with his current touring band that includes trumpeter Terence Blanchard and guitarist Lionel Loueke. At the same time Roger Eno will be playing at St. John’s Cathedral with the ACME Orchestra. That may be a gameday call. I love Roger although I think his recent music on Deutsche Grammophon has been a bit too restrained, i.e. tepid. But he is a longtime favorite.

Whichever one I pick, and I’m leaning toward Eno, I’ll then move on at 11:00pm to Shabaka, the incredible British saxophonist who has blown my mind at previous Big Ears shows.

At 12:15am, I’ll call it a night.

Sunday, March 24

Ah, the last day of Big Ears. I know I will be exhausted, but sad that it’s coming to a close.

I’m going to start early with Kenny Wolleson, best known as a jazz drummer with artists like Bill Frisell, Norah Jones, John Lurie, and John Zorn. But he’s going to be presenting something different called Kenny Wollesen’s Wolle-Sonic Massage. I’ll let the press release describe this one.

Wollesen has created hundreds of musical instruments ranging from simple one-sound foley-like instruments (“angelic grinder” & “rattlers”) to more complex multi-sound instruments (“arcade grip” & “sleep grinder”.) Some instruments are percussion instruments that are hit, scraped, or rubbed. Some are stringed instruments that are plucked or bowed. Some are activated by wind or light (“whirly grinder” & “cat grip”.) Many instruments are crank activated thus creating a continuous repetitious sonic groove (“bambingo” & “rain grinder”.) Traditional percussion instruments like bass drums & zithers are also a part of the massage but played in unconventional ways with extended techniques.

Typically during a Wolle-Sonic Massage performance the audience lays down on yoga mats and a gaggle of massage performers (usually around 10-12 performers) surround the audience while playing the instruments.

That sounds worth getting up early for at 10:00am.

After that comes the first conflict of the day. From 1pm-2:15pm are separate performances by the Rhiannon Giddens-led Silk Road Ensemble, the group originally led by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and a repertory trio performing the works of Henry Threadgill’s AIR.  AIR was one of the greatest improvisational trios in jazz in the 1970s and 80s with its original line-up of Threadgill, bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall. Threadgill won’t be playing but the group consists of some great musicians. Saxophonist Marty Ehrlich takes Threadgill’s role while drummer Pheeroan AkLaff fills McCall’s drum seat. It’s rounded out by bassist Hilliard Greene.

If that wasn’t enough of a conflict, overlapping from 1:30pm-2:30 is The Harvest Time Project: A Tribute to Pharoah Sanders. Pharoah was one of the great musicians and composers in both the free and spiritual jazz movements.

I’m seeing a lot of Threadgill at the festival so I think I’ll catch the Silk Road Ensemble.

From there, I’ll try out Matt Mitchell’s set at 2:15. He’s a pianist in John Zorn’s circle of musicians. Then I jump over to Henry Threadgill himself, playing in a trio with pianist Vijay Iyer and percussionist Dafnis Prieto from 3:45-5:00pm.

There might be a quick dinner gap in there before trekking to the Mill and Mine, for John Paul Jones and Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth. Who knows what that’s going to sound like, with these two sonic explorers. But I want to know.

Jones and Moore go from 5:45pm to 7:15 so I will have to duck out of that early so I can catch all of the 7:00pm show of Andre 3000’s final of five separately-ticketed events at Big Ears. His album, New Blue Sun, confused a lot of ears when he went from being a rapper superstar with Outkast to a flute player, sitting somewhere on the ambient jazz new age spectrum.

I will end my night, and Big Ears Festival 2024, at the Mill and Mine with the 8:45 show of John Medeski, Joe Russo, and Marc Ribot, three monster musicians.

That’s my projected path through Big Ears 2024. It follows much more of a jazz track than I would have expected, mainly because there aren’t as many alt-rock, electronic or new classical performances this year as there have been in previous Big Ears Festivals. And it’s all subject to change. There are several Special TBA Performances listed in the schedule, and more usually pop up that could divert me from the planned path. And I could just change my mind. To adapt a Yiddish adage: Man plans and Big Ears laughs.

(Watch for my posts on Facebook at , Instagram and Twitter/X where we are @echoesradio. And I’ll write up a Festival review afterwards.)

  5 comments for “Big Ears Festival 2024: A Path Through

  1. I would lose my mind trying to pick artists to view in full. FOMO indeed! Have a great time and bring back the gems from that event…

    • My 4th year attending and several friends whom I go with only due full sets. I get, and I do see quite a bit of the sets in their entirety, but sometimes I feel as if if it’s more important to experience an artist I’ve never seen, even if it’s for 30 minutes, than to not see them at all. Especially if the venue locations work. Often several artists will literally be playing across the street fork one another, so it’s easy to accomplish this. Good podcast with Ashley, too. My only complaint, and it’s minor and something that John also pointed out, is they seemed to havr overlooked alternative rock this year. Cheers.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.