While the Big Ears Festival was top priority for many concertgoers this weekend, the local public and pilgrims alike were treated to a taste of Knoxville’s response to the titan which descended, with not one but two full festivals, along with a chariot race thrown in for good measure.
For the downtown sporadic non-stop party KnoEars, the idea to offer a free alternative to Big Ears’s admittedly pricey fare ($250 for the Inner Ears pass) not only came from frugality, but a personal reappraisal of what exactly is independent and original in music. For some of the planners, Big Ears’ overall aesthetic was off-putting.
“We’d like to thank Ashley Capps for putting on a shitty festival, so that we could put this on,” said Senator Will Fist, a local musical practitioner of “sonic healing,” and co-founder of KnoEars.
Over the three days, locals’ acts performed in improvised settings, along with encouraging the community at large to join in and create. Beginning in the back of a panel van outside the Knoxville Museum of Art while Big Ears kicked off inside, KnoEars provided a guerilla option that was all free, all weekend, often at the sight of a concurrent act with Big Ears.
Prior to the kick off of the counter-festival, the lineup and schedule was intentionally shrouded in mystery. Like Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, the planners’ only stipulation was that you have to get on the bus, on van in this situation. A few hours before it began, an official Facebook group popped up, and a few photocopied schedules appeared in windows on Jackson Avenue.
For some locals who attended events at both festivals, the disparity between the two festival crowds became all too apparent.
“When Joanna Newsom asked how many people were from here and only 10 percent raised their hands, I realized how important (KnoEars) was,” Amy Jordan of Knoxville said. “It’s good to see Knoxville get attention, but I think a lot of people felt slighted.”
On Sunday, the Pilot Light became a scene of a 15-band bill, beginning at 5 p.m. and continuing well into the night. Where Big Ears accentuated the avant garde, often embracing beauty and fragility, KnoEars championed ferocity and raw power. The Vaygues, formerly known as the Bitter Pills, ripped through a memorable set, while controversially-named pop punks Dude Fuckin’ Whatever gave a wave of ‘90s alternative wave with their own particular edge.
“Do you like Nirvana?” asked Brandon Biondo of the Twinkiebots and Cool Runnings. “Do you like the Pixies? Then you’ll love them.”
Across town on Saturday, another set of local independents geared up for the Big Asses Festival, featuring the likes of Yung Life, the Criswell Collective and Hulga Joy, a recently formed supergroup featuring members of the now-defunct Dance Machine and fronted by local singer-songwriter Madeline Ava.