Open Ears And Open Heart: A Review Of Big Ears From A Guy Who Wasn't Trying To Go To Big Ears

Written by Baker Donahue - Merch Guy

Yo La Tengo? Kamasi Washington? Boogarins? Sun Ra? Do any of these names sound familiar? I sure as hell had no idea who any of these acts were before this weekend’s annual Big Ears Festival. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of Big Ears, their website does a tremendous job of laying it out for us: “Big Ears Festival is a dynamic, interactive experience that explores connections between musicians and artists, crossing all musical genres while interfacing with film, performance and the visual arts.” However, this article has not been written to describe the concept of Big Ears, but the experience itself. 

I sort of fell ass-first into Big Ears. I was asked to help work a merchandise stand and do tedious jobs throughout the weekend. I love festivals, I love community, and I love Knoxville, so I figured I might as well participate. One problem was I didn't recognize a single name on the bill and every attendee looked like my freshman year geology professor. Whatever. I was getting paid. 

Home base was located at The Standard on Jackson Avenue. My task was to sit there for hours on end selling merch and answering general questions. Little did I know, I was in store for some serious sound.

My first dose of Big Ears was a five-hour experiment titled Drones, an experience created by Lou Reed and operated by his long-time guitar tech Stuart Howard. Imagine the THX sound bit at the beginning of movies. Yeah. That was essentially it. There were five guitars, five amplifiers, and one dude controlling the insane amount of reverb created by these powerful instruments. This was a place for people to meditate and focus on the energy of the sound. Here I found that if you listen to anything for long enough you would eventually start to like it... or go insane. 

Entering day two, I had a slightly greater appreciation for what Big Ears stood for. They’re reaching a smaller niche of festivalgoers, the ultimate hipsters. The audience this festival attracted was one I had never witnessed before, and it seemed there were two separate groups for each show. The first were the diehard fans, those who bought an LP before the show and talked my ear off about how “life changing” this group was going to be. The second group consisted of those who were there to just to broaden their taste and experience something new. Each act and audience that came along with it taught me something new about listening/experiencing music. I found that it doesn't really matter who's playing. If enough people are passionate about a certain performance I can certainly give it a listen too. 

This may come off as a bunch of hippie bullcrap, but come day three I found myself staying at the shows in between shifts, listening, experiencing, and feeling. I found myself in conversations with people from across the globe, ranting about their favorite performances, from the most insane jazz trio to the most elaborate artwork, people were sharing all of their thoughts and feelings the festival had provoked. I eavesdropped conversations consisting of elaborate plans to create new art, new music, and new friendships.

Big Ears unexpectedly became this inspirational experience to me. From the back of a merch stand, I was inspired. I was inspired to go write this article, to create a new song, to put my electric guitar against my amp and see what sounds come out.