When thinking of where the best music festivals are taking place today, Knoxville, TN might not be the first, or even the tenth, city to come to mind. However, in an age where festivals are ubiquitous and most seem to be a copy and paste of each other, Big Ears Festival in Knoxville dares to be something different. With an extremely eclectic lineup of international bands and artists, Big Ears has something for everyone. From established acts and artists ready to be discovered, Big Ears includes jazz, world music, avant-garde, chamber orchestras, spoken word and rock, making it a festival for lovers of all things music. After two years off, due to the pandemic, this year’s sold-out festival is returning March 24th-27th at various venues around downtown Knoxville. Here’s our recommendations of some of the best acts to check out this year:
Patti Smith – Thursday 6:30-7:45 @ Mill & Mine and Friday 7:30-9 @ Tennessee Theater
Patti Smith is often referred to as the “punk poet laureate” as she often fuses rock with poetry. Festival-goers will get the chance to see her perform twice. Thursday night will find Smith performing her acclaimed “Words and Music” set in which she reads from her poetry and memoirs as well as performing stripped-down version of songs. Friday night will treat fans to her performing with her band in a set encompassing her entire career. As Smith is a rock icon with a celebrated catalogue of music, her performances are not to be missed.
Kim Gordon – Friday 10-11:15 @ Tennessee Theater
Best known for her role as bassist and singer in Sonic Youth, Kim Gordon has delighted fans over the past few years by releasing her debut solo album No Home Record as well as her memoir Girl in a Band. This year finds Gordon touring with her band in support of No Home Record. Fans of the album, as well as those curious about it, would do well to catch her set as it will likely include most, if not all, the songs from No Home Record.
The Music of John Zorn – Saturday & Sunday @ Bijou Theater (various times)
Saxophonist John Zorn has become an iconic composer in the American avant-garde scene. Having released dozens of albums over the past four decades, his works span a variety of genres ranging from jazz interpretations of classical music to punk interpretations of jazz compositions. Saturday and Sunday at Bijou Theater (as well as an organ performance at First Baptist Church) will see eight performances of the music of John Zorn performed by an all-star cast of performers.
Sparks – Thursday 9-11 @ Tennessee Theater
The large cult following for Sparks probably includes your favorite artist/band. Making music since the 60s, Russell and Ron Mael have a made a long career of genre-switching albums that have influenced countless bands. Throughout the past five decades that they have been creating music together their biggest flaw has seemed that they are always just too ahead of their time. Many of their albums have had huge influences and they have recently been the singular focus of the documentary The Sparks Brothers, which has broadened their appeal with a whole new generation of fans.
Moses Sumney – Saturday 7-8:15 @ Tennessee Theater
Moses Sumney topped many year end lists with Aromanticism in 2017 and with good cause. His songwriting combined with his Prince-like falsetto vocals was recipe for success. The follow-up album grae was just as good, if not better, and Sumney has gone on to collaborate with many musicians, including Bon Iver and Solange. His performance at Big Ears promises to be dynamic and beautiful.
With so many great artists to see at Big Ears, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Artists like Low, Yves Tumor, Animal Collective and Sons of Kemet are just a very small handful of what Big Ears is bring to Knoxville this year. The biggest problem for festival-goers this year will be deciding which performances to skip. Attendees can attend panels at Jig & Reel or the Old City Performing Arts Center, interviews at the Big Ears Green Room, and intimate performances at Pilot Light. For those that didn’t manage to get tickets to the sold out festival this year, there will also be a slew of free activities open to the public taking place at World’s Fair Park.