Downtown Dirt by Manhole: Big Ears in the Scruffy City (Hall)

big ears

Listen, my friends, and you will hear…

We are going to talk about Big Ears. And no, I am not referring to your goofus cousin Ralph, nor to a certain (very) local County Mayor. I am referring to Knoxville’s own Big Ears Festival, a quasi-annual event sponsored by local promotions guru Ashley Capps, he of A.C. Entertainment fame, father of Bonnaroo. And I am also talking about its auspicious debut over in our fab little corner of Market Square.

Capps started the fest in 2009, with Jason Boardman of Pilot Light and Steve Molinski of KMA, as a means to showcase off-the-beaten path musical artists—weird, wacky, wonderful singers and players hailing from the queer side of the musical spectrum. And by queer, I mean “odd”, Jake—what you do after quitting time is your own damned business.

The first couple outings were a veritable smorgasbord of sonic eclecticism, featuring the likes of Philip Glass and Neil Hamburger and Negativland and Joanna Newsom and Vampire Weekend and Sufjan Stevens and… Hell, I could go for another three paragraphs or so, but you’ve got the Interwebs, same as I do. And life is too short. Point is, it was a grand and ambitious undertaking: Rolling Stone lauded v. 2010 as “arguably the classiest, most diverse festival in the country.”

Now, there was something of hiccup in the proceedings, subsequent to ’10. But after a three-year absence, Big Ears is back. And v. 2014 looks to be the most intriguing line-up yet.

This year, performers like ex-Velvet Undergrounder John Cale and Radiohead six-stringer Johnny Greenwood and NYC art-punk legends Television share top billing with minimalist composer Steve Reich and genre-spanning guitar mangler Marc Ribot. And if you are not at least a little bit impressed by that  sampling, then you are either (a) an unthinking philistine, or (b) clinically dead.

And that is just the merest taste of the 30-plus acts appearing at various area venues throughout the weekend of March 28-30. And here is the best news yet, Jake: a goodly number of those performers will take the stage at Knoxville’s newest and bestest music palace, our already-beloved Scruffy City Hall.

But here’s where it gets tricky: Due to powerful forces beyond our control, the specifics of who will play where, and when, are still a matter of some uncertainty. Although we do have a better-than-vague notion of how things are gonna play out that beautiful, cacophonic weekend of the 28th.  Just remember that you read it hear first.

Or so it is hoped. In any case, these are some of the artists you just might see—emphasis on the “just might” part, Jake, so no one can call me a liar—at Scruffy City over the first two days of the festival: guitarist Stephen O’Malley, founder of drone/metal/stoner icons Sunn O)))); reed player Colin Stetson, a touring member of Arcade Fire and Bon Iver; synth-industrial artist Vatican Shadow; the funk/Afro-beat collaboration of Hailu and the Low Mentality; electronic/psychedelic multi-instrumentalist Mark McGuire; singer-guitarist Bill Orcutt, late of influential ‘90s noise-rockers Harry Pussy; Norwegian singer, songwriter, journalist and literati Jenny Hval; electronica sophisticate Vladislav Delay; and the aforementioned Ribot’s Cuban-inflected dance band Marc Ribot y los Cubanos Postizos.

All that, plus the possibility of even more wild, woolly musical mischief at SCH come Sunday. Now, we should highlight what should be the feature acts from those first two days of (potential) Scruffy City performers—Friday’s Hailu and the Low Mentality, and Saturday’s Ribot y los Cubanos show. And by “feature acts,” I mean, get your beauty rest, Jake, ‘cuz they likely won’t hit the stage before 11 p.m., maybe midnight, depending on the restless, crazy flow of the day’s many acts.

The Hailu show is a dual treat, of sorts, inasmuch as it features Ethopian keyboard luminary Hailu Mergia, a star bandleader in his own country back in the day, ‘til hard times and a rough move stateside put his career on ice for some 20 years. Backing him is the Afro-centric American groove outfit Low Mentality. A recent Hailu/LM set at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right club “had the whole room dancing,” according to the New York Times: “The band’s funk was crisp and disciplined, informed by American soul but also at home with the rolling six-beat vamps of Ethiopian funk.” Salut.

As to the Saturday set, Marc Ribot—a mainstay of solo recordings by Tom Waits and Elvis Costello, among many others—is an esteemed guitarist/composer who’s been winning awards in high-brow music mags most people never read, for longer than anyone can remember. And his Marc Ribot y los Cubanos Postizos is freaky, nigh-indescribable fun—a sublime amalgamation of Latin big-band, ‘70s fusion, and adhesive, danceable grooves.

Which isn’t to short-sell any of the day’s earlier sets. Hell, the opportunity to see a doom-metal demi-god like O’Malley, and a trash-rock potentate like Orcutt, right here at 32 Market Square, may leave me too pooped to pop by the time the evening’s headliners roll around. But that’s just me.

As for the rest of you @#$ers, I would advise you with all due haste to hustle over to bigearsfestival.com and snag a pass or two for the weekend’s shows–$65/$75 for single-day passes, and $175 for all three days. The passes give you free reign to visit any and all of the participating venues.

That is all for now. Be here next time, for further adventures. We will kick ass, and chew bubblegum. And the bubblegum is already finished.

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