KNOXVILLE, TN - It didn't take long after my arrival at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville last weekend for me to realize that this was no run-of-the-mill music festival. After picking up my wristband, I wandered next door to the landmark Tennessee Theatre, where the Kronos Quartet - this year's Artists-in-Residence - were finishing up their all-Terry Riley set with pipa master Wu Man. Then, in one of those magical moments that only seem possible at festivals, they were joined onstage by Riley and Laurie Anderson, each of whom told stories while Kronos improvised. Prior to that moment, I found out later, Riley and Anderson had never met in person, much less performed together. (Anderson was in town to perform Landfall with Kronos the following night.)
As I listened to Riley's rambling story about John Cage at a baseball game, I thought to myself: Where am I? How is it possible this is happening in a place not named New York, L.A., or San Francisco?
Turns out that Knoxville (pop. 180,000), aside from being home to the University of Tennessee and its 30,000 students and faculty, is also the home of AC Entertainment, best known as the co-producer of Bonnaroo in nearby Manchester, TN. AC Entertainment president Ashley Capps, who started Big Ears in 2009 (there was a hiatus from 2011-2013), applies the same basic formula here that he uses at Bonnaroo: pile together as much interesting, wow-inducing music as you can within a set amount of space and time in order to build a critical mass of energy and excitement. Add unannounced DJ sets, jam sessions, and a satellite festival, and you spin the whole thing into a wild frenzy.