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What sets a music festival apart in this day and age, when festie kids can roam muddy campgrounds like ring (or glowstick) wraiths pretty much every weekend of the year? If you're at all like me, roughing it to listen to blasting bass has its charms but gets old fast.
Call me old-fashioned (or just old), but I much prefer the urban festival, where I can break up my day with some quiet time exploring a city or writing in a cafe or restaurant between shows. These festivals bring in a different kind of artist, too; the comforts of a performance in a historic theatre or a night in a hotel can summon some heavy-hitters. Host a festival like this in a place within driving distance of Asheville, and I'm there. Big Ears fits this bill, and it's truly got a little of everything--fantastic artists, beautiful venues, and a charming, "scruffy" city vibe. If you only go to one music festival ever in your whole life, make it this one.
This year's line-up continues the tradition Big Ears has set for themselves. The schedule is filled to the brim with creative, eclectic, groundbreaking artists who are either recognized for their talent to the point that they've become legendary or who are on their way to that level. I didn't think that the line-up could get any better than last year's until I saw this year's. Some old favorites are back, and the new faces are oh-so-exciting.
Shabazz Palaces. Photo courtesy of Big Ears.
Big Ears has hosted an artist-in-residence every year, and this year it's John Luther Adams, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Music and, just this year, a Grammy for Best Classical Composition (for his piece "Become Ocean," which he will be performing).
Laurie Anderson is a perennial favorite at Big Ears, and she's returning this year to perform with composer Philip Glass. Other artists returning from last year include Sam Amidon and Ben Frost.
Phantom Orchard. Photo courtesy of Big Ears.
Overall, though, the line-up is totally new. Last year's offerings were diverse in terms of genre and included everything from experimental electronica to classical to Inuit throat-singing, and this year the organizers have gone beyond that to include acts like experimental hip-hop group Shabazz Palaces, dream-weavers Phantom Orchard, and the Sun Ra Arkestra, who likely need no introduction. Asheville's talent is also represented with a performance from local Angel Olsen, whose amazing 2014 LP Burn Your Fire for No Witness collected numerous, well-deserved accolades.
Angel Olsen. Photo courtesy of Big Ears.
New this year is a film screening collaboration with The Public Cinema. The full details are still in the works, but a screening of Anderson's Oscar-shortlisted film Heart of a Dog is confirmed. Several of last year's performances had visual or even cinematic components (like Demdike Stare's live scoring of witchcraft docudrama Häxan), so a film series feels like a natural next step.
Also new is a series of shows at the Tennessee Theatre that cost extra on top of whatever pass you purchase and have reserved seating.
Last year's Big Ears was my first time in Knoxville, TN, and I have to say I was totally charmed by the city. It had a fantastic mix of older and younger generations and a vibe that was successfully college town meets industrial. The venues were all gorgeous, the restaurants were good, and I even made it out to the Ijams Nature Preserve, which was stunning and provided some much-needed quiet moments. When you're at Big Ears, try to set aside some time to explore outside of the festival. You won't be disappointed.
Tickets are on sale now. VIP weekend passes are already sold out, but General Admission passes are a relative steal at $135. Day passes are also available for $49.50 each. Special shows at the Tennessee Theatre will add $30 each to your base price.