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31 March 2010

Customer value & other virtues one might not expect in an avant-garde(ish) music festival: a particularly short attention span essay about Big Ears Festival & a trip down South I just took

Above photo of Nico Muhly and Mr. Doveman courtesy of the New York Times. All the rest except for the rockslide by me.

Apologies for being somewhat slack on the blogging front these last few weeks. Exciting activities among the family of musicians I’ve been working with the past few years have kept me away from computers more than usual. I spent much of the last week hanging out in the American South — a part of the country I rarely get to see — on the occasion of Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee. If you want a more traditional & informative take on the festival I’ll point you to this New York Times review and then, perhaps, to the press & internet chatter on Brassland’s Twitwire.

To frame things a bit my way, though, I’ll lead off with some pictures from the trip. (Excuse the shoddy color correction. I’m trying to get this post up in internet speed.)

First the inside of God’s Storehouse, a food pantry and thrift shop I stopped at somewhere near Greeneville, Tennessee.

And here’s a bit more local color from the same.

Greeneville was a natural stopping point as it sat about the halfway between my two destinations in the region — Knoxville and Asheville, North Carolina. The drive would have been shorter but the main interstate connecting the two cities has been closed since the fall on account of this rockslide.

Yes, it really is a bit different down there — as in the ubiquity of religion.

As in a variety of patriotism that’s hard for New Yorkers like myself to fully conceive.

Those last two images are from the town of Black Mountain, on the outskirts of Asheville.

I hope none of this comes across as some kind of snarky, Northeasterner-looking-down-at-the-Southeast bullshit. Take it, instead, as the build to my very glass-half-full message: Big Ears left me with a warm emotional glow. It gave me new hope about the possibilities of taking adventurous music deep into the interior of this country. I’ve been involved with this kind of thing before, as recently as last month at Denver’s Mile High Voltage festival, an event which I did not attend but helped get off the ground. And, in the major market of New York, I gave advice and aid for a few years to All Tomorrow’s Parties — and have been involved with Bang on a Can’s signature marathon event.

So, what made Big Ears work particularly well? Well, I was impressed with the thing artistically, sure — the way it seemed to reinforce the new aesthetic space I’ve been helping to create — but I think the key to making it all work came down to logistics. My detail-oriented, organizational side was left with the distinct impression that the promoters had all their ducks in a row. I imagine this was abetted by the fact that the scale of the thing — the biggest venue fit 1,500 people — is considerably smaller than Bonnaroo, the 100,000 capacity mega-event which they co-founded & run a few hours west in Manchester, TN. I’d gather having such a huge staff to call upon can only be an asset in pulling off a more intimate event like Big Ears.

Anyway, the topper to the whole thing was the fact that the festival took place in a part of the country so many of my blue state comrades write-off. I was awed by the way the festival made efforts to weave itself into the Knoxville community. The mayor wrote the introduction to the weekend’s program, and the vibe I got walking around town was less “weirdos gathering in a random city for music” than “all-encompassing street fair.” This thing was the real deal.

And well, there was the swelling pride of the whole thing. That New York Times article which I linked to above includes this particularly sweet pull quote about one of the artists I’ve championed the longest:

    Mr. [Terry] Riley also enjoyed a fair number of other people’s shows, especially the art-song band Clogs. (“They were the hit for me,” he said, beaming over breakfast on Monday morning. “Great performers, great writing. I’m going to buy their CD when I get home.”)

Nice. In a lot of ways, it felt like this festival could act as a defining event in the life of the Brassland label that I co-founded back in 2001.

So much for overnight success stories. Ah, those are overrated anyway…


Before signing off let’s go back to Asheville for a second, the first stop on my Southern tour. Regular blog readers may remember my fascination with Black Mountain College, a prior explosion of artistic community which called this region of the country home in the early and middle part of last century. Well, I got to see the thing itself. Whoot here it is:

I’m happy to report it’s now home to Rockmont, a Christian summer camp for boys. The main hall for the college now serves as Rockmont’s camp store. Thankfully it was a rainy early spring day and free of campers when I made my visit. The person that gave me the address for the site pointed out that when camp is in session, they don’t take kindly to random, arts-inclined strangers snooping around.

To prove I’m not just some art snob, I will end this post with some video of blowing shit up:

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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  1. On 2010-3-31 conrad said:

    What – no acknowledgment of rockslide-blasting as exploding-stereotypes-of-the-south metaphor?

    Looks like it was a great trip.

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