As entrances go, this year is gonna have to work hard to top John Paul Jones‘ at the Tennessee Theatre on Friday afternoon as part of the 2024 Big Ears festival. The lights dimmed in the historic venue as strains of Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time is Gonna Come” played over the speakers, but the stage seemed empty. Applause first came from the balcony and then the lower decks as the former Zeppelin bassist rose up from the pit, Phantom of the Opera style, playing the venue’s antique 1928 Wurlitzer Theatre Pipe Organ. Once everyone realized what was happening, the place erupted in applause. “I just couldn’t resist,” he later told the crowd, absolutely beaming.

I didn’t know what to expect from this show going in, and it seemed neither did he. “I’ve never done anything quite like this before,” he admitted to the audience. “I could’ve sworn I booked a band!” This was JPG solo, performing mostly Zeppelin songs instrumentally on a wide variety of instruments and it turned out to be the most fun show of the fest so far. After the pipe organ intro, he headed to the grand piano for a classical treatment of “No Quarter.” Then he strapped on a three-necked, custom-made mandolin/guitar/bass combo, and using a loop pedal, played a very cool version of traditional spiritual “Down to the River to Pray” (memorably used in O Brother Where Art Thou?). He grimaced when he hit the headstock of that three-necked beast on his microphone, and told the crowd again he was kind of winging it. When tuning, he quipped “I used to have 30 guys to do this stuff!” Hey was very funny, and very charming.

This was a loose show, kind of like being invited to John’s basement studio where he was excited to show off all his toys, which included another custom-made instrument, the collapsible lap steel, that folds in half for easy storage on planes and on which he ripped out a version of “When The Levee Breaks.” He also played an “isolated bass” version of “Ramble On” which “gets rid of the unimportant stuff like guitars, drums and singing” and was inspired by a YouTube rabbithole. There was also a lovely rendition of “Going To California” on mandolin, a piano improvisation, and more. Jones should definitely take this show on the road.

John Paul Jones @ Big Ears 2024 (photo: Andy Feliu)

Friday was when Big Ears really got cooking, with talks and film screenings starting in the morning and performances at most venues kicking off at noon all over downtown Knoxville. In an effort to see more of the artists at each show (and with drizzly weather), I did a little less hopping-around than Friday night and ended up spending most of my time at the Tennessee and another historic theatre, the Bijou, which was just down the street. That’s where my Friday started with Trevor Dunn’s Trio-Convulsant avec Folie À Quatre, where the Mr Bungle / Fantômas / Melvins / etc bassist’s trio with guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Ches Smith were joined by Folie à Quatre, a string and winds quartet made up of Carla Kihlstedt (violin/viola), Oscar Noriega (bass clarinet), Mariel Roberts (cello), and Anna Webber (flute). It was discordant, complicated, loud, pretty and unique.

I was back at the Bijou later in the afternoon for one of Big Ears 2024’s star attractions, André 3000, who is presenting four “New Blue Sun: Live” shows at the festival. As André explained to the audience, this wasn’t exactly a “show,” as we were there to witness and experience he and his collaborators (drummer Carlos Niño, guitarist Nate Mercereau, keyboardist Surya Botofasina, and percussionist/keyboardist Deantoni Parks) improvise, work things and out and find a groove, much like they did on his album from last year. “What you’re here for tonight will never happen again,” he said. I wasn’t expecting André to talk at all, but he did a lot, and was a funny, convivial host of this evening of spiritual jazz where he encouraged the crowd to express themselves too. (There was a little hooting and hollering but this was a respectful late afternoon crowd.) He explained how he went from being a rapper to “a guy seen playing a flute on Instagram,” discovering the instrument by accident one day on the beach and being transformed and obsessed by it. If André is the novice in a group of pros, his enthusiasm mostly made up for any shortcomings. They were all clearly into what they were doing, and the simple but effective lighting complimented the vibe that got louder and wilder as it went. There were rumors Friday’s show would have special guests (Shabaka? Laraaji?) but it was just the five of them. André also told the crowd that more recordings would be out soon.

Chocolate Genius | photo: Cora Wagoner

The other big show I saw on Friday was Chocolate Genius, the alter ego of Downtown NYC great Marc Anthony Thompson, which was also at the Bijou. This was a rare Chocolate Genius, Inc performance which reunited him with some of his regular collaborators, including John Medeski on keyboards and Marc Ribot on guitar, and early in the show he brought out his daughter, Zsela (who is also performing at Big Ears), to sing with him. Over the course of the night, Thompson switched between guitar, piano and just the mic, and he had the crowd in his hand the whole time, ever the suave — if often profanely funny – raconteur.

It was a rainy night on Friday and due to a mix of scheduling and poor packing on my part, I did not make it out to Civic Auditorium (a bit of a hike from the rest of the Big Ears venues) to see Laurie Anderson and Sex Mob. Instead, I went to Irish pub The Jig & Reel for one of the festival’s surprise secret shows, a free-flowing jam hosted by Sam Amidon and featuring Beth Orton, Joe Henry, Marc Anthony Thompson, Marc Ribot, Stuart Bogie, and more performing off-the-cuff covers of Woody Guthrie, Arthur Russell, Roger Miller and more.

Other things I caught on Friday: Hermanos Gutiérrez, the duo of Ecuadorian-Swiss brothers Alejandro Gutiérrez and Estevan Gutiérrez, packed the Tennessee Theatre for their set of chill, jammy, vibey guitar instrumentals not too far from what Khruangbin do; Warp Records artist Slauson Malone 1 (aka Jasper Marsalis, son of jazz great Wynton Marsalis) who vacillated between jazzy R&B and punk aggression (his cellist kept up with both); and I made time to stop by the RED Gallery, where prolific artist Steve Keene (who you may know from the cover art of Pavement’s Wowee Zowee and Apples in Stereo’s Fun Trick Noisemaker) is painting up a storm the whole weekend.

I also saw Molly Lewis who, if you’re unfamiliar, is a whistler in a very ’60s exotica kind of way and whose knowingly kooky, charming and very L.A. set (originals and covers, like Boy George’s “The Crying Game”) felt like an unsolicited audition for David Lynch. That impression may have also been due to venue Jackson Terminal’s varnished wood interior, which felt like The Great Northern Hotel from Twin Peaks. In any case, Lynch should definitely cast her in something if he ever makes something again.

Other Friday performances included Rhiannon Giddens, Kristin Hersh, Christian McBride, Molly Tuttle, Bitchin Bajas, claire rousay, Jana Horn, Joan Shelly, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Joanna Sternberg, Carl Craig, and more.

You can check out photos from Friday, including a few of Laurie Anderson’s set, below, and read our recap of Thursday’s Big Ears kickoff here.

Saturday is another bounty of exciting shows, including Herbie Hancock, Shabaka, Kronos Quartet, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Beth Orton, Sons of Chipotle (John Paul Jones & Anssi Karttunen), Colin Stetson, Digable Planets, JG Thirlwell, Roger Eno, bar italia, Armand Hammer, Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, Roc Marciano, The Messthetics w/ James Brandon Lewis, and more.

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