“How you doing tonight?,” Kassa Overall asked the crowd at The Standard. “Yes I know,” he added, smiling behind sunglasses. It was noon but clearly he’d had a wild one that hadn’t ended just yet. While I was in bed by 1 AM, after two days of running around Knoxville, club to club, show to show, at Big Ears 2024, I knew how he felt. Figuratively, if not literally. Sure, this may be a fest where you’re as likely to see a string quartet or a jazz legend as an rap group or English indie rock band, but it’s still a marathon.

As for Kassa and his very talented group, this was a great ease-in to Saturday, the third day of the festival, with their mix of jazz, funk and hip hop where he and the three other members of the band switched places frequently, blending the sweet and skronky with serious musicianship and flow. Lively and engaging, they provided just enough of a jolt to wake you up while still going down smooth…a sonic latte if you will.

I kept my afternoon light, catching part of a screening of Laurie Anderson‘s fantastic 1986 concert film Home of the Brave, which was followed by a conversation between Anderson (who played a two-hour blowout show the night before) and music writer Ann Powers, and then hopped over to the Tennessee Theatre for a virtuosic duo performance of pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist Christian McBride.

Things picked up in the late afternoon. I stopped by Jackson Terminal, where UK electronic icon Charlie Dark MBE was spinning as part of King Britt’s Blacktronica mini-festival within Big Ears. It was almost like getting a masterclass in DJ, as he explained his approach to getting crowds to trust him at clubs like the legendary Plastic People, so that they would stay with him to take things into esoteric directions, all while playing classics from his DJ sets. Charlie is as eloquent a speaker as he is at matching beats.

From there, I caught Baltimore’s Horse Lords, who had the 1200-capacity Mill & Mine packed for their set of intricate, mathy instrumentals that pull from post-rock, prog, punk, krautrock, drone, jazz, etc. Their records can be “difficult” but it all makes sense live when they lay down their hypnotic, often pummeling, grooves…even when you can’t quite fathom how they’re doing it.

Then it was off to the Bijou to catch Beth Orton, who played a gorgeous set backed by a band that included Shahzad Ismaily (who produced her 2022 album, Weather Alive) and her partner Sam Amidon. While her set favored the elegant, windswept songs of Weather Alive, half her set pulled from other records and included “She Cries Your Name” (from her 1996 debut, Trailer Park) and the title track from 1999’s Central Reservation.

After a dinner break I headed back to the Bijou for JG Thirlwell, who was performing a special show where he reinterpreted songs from his FOETUS catalogue with an ensemble featuring strings and harp along with guitar, bass and drums. It was high cabaret with Thirwell, decked out in a white suit, belting out weirdo classic like “Oilfields” and “Cold Day in Hell” reimagined as orchestral bombast.

I was going to try and go see Roger Eno at the nearby St. John’s Cathedral, but things there were running late, so I decided instead to stop by The Standard for London indie rock group bar italia. It was interesting to see how much they’d changed on stage in less than a year, going from intentionally cautious and enigmatic to a band that seemed very comfortable on stage and not afraid to smile or even laugh. They sounded great too and had the crowd dancing out of the gate with “My Little Tony.”

It was then a mad dash, hitting the Mill & Mine for some of Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, where Marc joked that bassist Shahzad Ismaily (playing a Moog here) was part of every set at Big Ears, and was in fact playing two other shows at the same time he was on stage with him. Ribot was not far off from the truth; this was at least the seventh time I’d seen him on stage in three days (and the second that evening). I also popped in the Tennessee Theatre for a little of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy‘s set which was, for the three songs I caught, fantastic. Will Oldham is quite the raconteur, and told a funny story about having to by a Phil Ochs record as a kid via mail-order before covering his song “My Kingdom for a Car.”

It was then back at the Bijou for Shabaka, who was presenting compositions from his new flute-oriented ensemble and upcoming album, Perceive its Beauty, Acknowledge its Grace. Backed by harpist Charles Overton, bassist Burniss Earl II, vocalist Ganavya Doraiswamy, drummer Austin Williamson and Chris Sholar on electronics, Shabaka played a different kind of flute on almost every song. The performance, which began at 11 PM, was a bit of testing the audience’s patience; with all the amazing musicians on stage, for the first 45 minutes most numbers were just Shabaka and one other member in meditative fashion. When he finally brought them all together and let them cook, it was transcendent.

That was mostly my night, but I did also hit Jackson Terminal to see rapper Roc Marciano before returning to Mill & Mine to catch a few songs from Mexico’s Son Rompe Pera, who are punk in attitude but apply that to a unique fusion of marimba, Cuban danzón, jazz, ska and more. It was easy to get swept up in their enthusiasm and energy and the crowd was going bananas. But after 12 hours of music, it was time for bed.

Saturday also featured: Herbie Hancock giving a career-spanning performance at Knoxville Civic Arena, which earlier in the day also featured big sets from Kronos Quartet (celebrating their 50th anniversary) and Digable Planets; plus The Messthetics with James Brandon Lewis, Sons of Chipotle (John Paul Jones & Anssi Karttunen), Armand Hammer, Fred Frith, Cedric Burnside, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Dave Holland Quartet, and more. Photos from Big Ears Day three are in this post.

Big Ears 2024 wraps up today with performances from Jon Batiste, Silkroad with Rhiannon Giddens, Thurston Moore & John Paul Jones, a trio performance of John Medeski, Joe Russo and Marc Ribot, Evan Lurie’s Quintet with Bandoneon, Samora Pinderhughes, and more.

Check out recaps from Big Ears so far here.

Steve Keene (photo: Christian Stewart) christianstewart_steve_keene_BE24-2 Steve Keene (photo: Christian Stewart) Ross Bustin_Kassa Overall_BE24-6 Kassa Overall (photo: Ross Bustin) EliJohnson_Mehldau&McBride_BE24-1 Brad Mehldau & Christian McBride (Photo: Eli Johnson) CoraWagoner_KronosQuartet_BE2024-3 Kronos Quartet (photo: Cora Wagoner) CoraWagoner_KronosQuartet_BE2024-17 copy Kronos Quartet (photo: Cora Wagoner) horse lords - mill and mine big ears Horse Lords @ Big Ears 2024 CoraWagoner_BethOrton_BE2024-12 copy Beth Orton (photo: Cora Wagoner) Beth Orton (photo: Cora Wagoner) Beth Orton (photo: Cora Wagoner) Beth Orton (photo: Cora Wagoner) Beth Orton (photo: Cora Wagoner) Beth Orton (photo: Cora Wagoner) Beth Orton (photo: Cora Wagoner) BillieWheeler_CharlieDarkMBE_BE24-7 Charlie Dark (photo: Billie Wheeler) BillieWheeler_CharlieDarkMBE_BE24-8 Charlie Dark (photo: Billie Wheeler) CoraWagoner_JGThirlwell_BE2024-6 JG Thirlwell (photo: Cora Wagoner) jg thirlwell ensemble bijou JG Thirlwell + Ensemble @ Big Ears 2024 CoraWagoner_JGThirlwell_BE2024-8 JG Thirlwell (photo: Cora Wagoner) Herbie Hancock (photo: Cora Wagoner) Herbie Hancock (photo: Cora Wagoner) Herbie Hancock (photo: Cora Wagoner) Herbie Hancock (photo: Cora Wagoner) TarynFerro_RogerEno_BE24 Roger Eno (photo: Taryn Ferro) bar italia (photo: Ross Bustin) bar italia (photo: Ross Bustin) Colin Stetson (photo: Ross Bustin) Colin Stetson (photo: Ross Bustin) Bonnie 'Prince' Billy (photo: Eli Johnson)-4 Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (photo: Eli Johnson) Shabaka (photo: Cora Wagoner) Shabaka (photo: Cora Wagoner) Shabaka (photo: Cora Wagoner) Shabaka @ Big Ears 2024 (photo: Cora Wagoner) shabaka bijou big ears Shabaka @ Big Ears 2024 The Messthetics w/ James Brandon Lewis (photo: Ross Bustin) The Messthetics w/ James Brandon Lewis (photo: Ross Bustin) Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog (photo: Ross Bustin) Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog (photo: Ross Bustin) Roc Marciano (photo: Andy Feliu) Roc Marciano (photo: Andy Feliu) Ross Bustni_son rompe pera_BE24-5 Son Rompe Pera (photo: Ross Bustin)Original Article