Big Ears, Boomslang, and Best of Bluegrass: the Boom of the Multi-Venue Music Festival

By Matt Gibson
Special to UnderMain

It was around hour seven of waiting to see Radiohead at Bonnaroo 2006 when I almost lost it.  Seven hours of standing in the same ever-shrinking patch of shadeless grass, a constantly growing mass of humanity closing in, closer and closer, until there wasn’t even enough room to sit on the ground.

Simultaneously growing more claustrophobic and bored, I stood there longer and longer – eight hours, nine hours, ten hours – no beer runs, no bathroom breaks, no way to exit the crowd, even if I needed to.  All this to see Radiohead… and I was still 150 yards away.

Such was the tale the whole weekend.  I got to see some great bands under terrible conditions, from far away, while hungry, thirsty, and sunburned.  It was an endurance event, and I endured – but wasn’t it supposed to be about fun, not just surviving the experience?

Well, if you’re not prepared (or just unwilling) to battle the crowds of thousands for a distant glimpse of your favorite acts, there is a festival alternative: the multi-venue music festival.

Showcase multiple locations in a city’s downtown and provide people with high quality, small scale, intimate shows.  Make the experience something greater than an endurance contest and instead show off the diversity of a city’s live music venues, theaters, and restaurants.  Find yourself five feet from a performer instead of 500 feet away.  See a national headliner for free.  Think about a different model of what “festival” means.

I attended the Big Ears music festival during its inaugural year in 2009.  The Knoxville-based festival targeted underground rock, electronic, and contemporary composers and presented everything from Philip Glass in a historic theater to one-man-band Fence Kitchen at a hole-in-the-wall dive bar.  As I was seated just feet from Pauline Oliveros on the floor of the Knoxville Museum of Art inside a ring of sixteen surround sound speakers, I thought about how unique the experience was, about how the unconventional setup allowed for a subtlety to the music that an outdoor festival stage can’t provide.  Even nicer was the fact that I wasn’t standing at the back of a trash-littered field; I was right there in the experience, literally inside of an all-encompassing field of sound with Oliveros and her accordion at the center.

Later that weekend as Michael Gira commanded the Bijou Theatre with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a bottle of whiskey (which he shared with the crowd), I thought about how there’s never any silence at an outdoor festival.  Sure, there are breaks between bands (sometimes very long breaks), but there’s never the peaceful, quiet attention that genuinely puts the music first.  As the trio of Mark Linkous, Scott Minor (both of Sparklehorse), and Christian Fennesz suspended time during the festival’s closing performance, I sat back in my comfortable seat and drifted into the ether.  It was inspirational weekend to say the least.

Fast-forward eight months to October of 2009 when Lexington’s WRFL 88.1FM launched their Boomslang: A Celebration of Sound & Art.  Based on the Big Ears multi-venue model, Boomslang was a three (or sometimes four) day series of concerts all over Lexington’s downtown.  From Cosmic Charlie’s to Busters, Al’s Bar to Embrace Church, Natasha’s to the Green Lantern, the Kentucky Theater to the Downtown Arts Center and even more spots in between, Boomslang was a Lexington venue showcase like the city had never before seen.

Each year provided new emerging acts paired with seasoned underground veterans.  Local and regional bands played alongside national and international touring acts.  Each year brought three more glorious days of carefully-curated sonic curiosities.  Performers came from all over the country and as far away as Iceland, France, England, Holland, and Brazil.  For one weekend in the Fall, WRFL brought the underground to the bluegrass presenting anywhere between 30-60 bands in a mind-bending marathon of music.

Boomslang even spawned its own genre-specific events: Queerslang and Doomslang, targeting the LGBTQA and Heavy Metal populations respectively, which became highly-anticipated annual events in their own right.  The Boomslang fire was burning bright and attracting more attention each year, but alas, programming for the underground & alternative culture is a task of diminishing returns in what is still a fairly conservative city, and Boomslang struggled with relatively low audience potential.  Perhaps there was some way to adapt the multi-venue format of Boomslang and redirect it to a larger audience…

Instead of marketing to a small population of deep-digging music specialists, why not a concept that connects with Kentucky’s much larger musical past?  Enter the Best of Bluegrass Festival in June of 2013.  An outreach project of the Lexington Area Music Alliance (LAMA), Best of Bluegrass (BoB) is four days of bluegrass music performed live across downtown Lexington in the week leading to the Festival of the Bluegrass at the Kentucky Horse Park.

In celebration of Kentucky’s rich history of bluegrass music, BoB intends to help Lexingtonians engage with the best local, regional, and national bluegrass acts and energize folks about one of Kentucky’s most recognizable contributions to American culture.  In LAMA’s effort to engage all Lexingtonians in the festivities, all of the BoB shows are free, supported by community and business donations, and organized by volunteers from Lexington’s music community.

Best of Bluegrass is organized by a volunteer steering committee comprised of musicians, media and advertising professionals, promoters and venue owners, and representatives of local government, tourism and downtown organizations. On the other hand, Boomslang was organized by a combination of college students & community volunteers and ultimately became too large of an endeavor to remain sustainable.  Producing a festival of Boomslang’s proportions while simultaneously going to university, working a job, and running a radio station required an enormous effort from WRFL’s directors and volunteers (not to mention budget), and in 2013, after five over-the-top years of ecstatic joy, Boomslang was retired.

Then things came full-circle.  Six months after the last Boomslang Festival, and after a three-year hiatus itself, the Big Ears Festival returned to Knoxville in March of 2014 in its best incarnation yet.  It was a fantastic array of talent spanning from renowned New York composer Steve Reich to Japanese noise artist Keiji Haino.  Cuban jazz from Marc Ribot was a tasteful contrast to a minimalist performance of Alvin Lucier by Stephen O’Malley (of SunnO))) ) and Oren Ambarchi.  Performances by rock legends Television and John Cale made underground music buffs swoon.  The four-call standing ovation at the end of Sunday’s sold-out Steve Reich concert was the icing on the cake of a delicious weekend of music.  Boomslang was gone, but Big Ears was back.

And now we are fast approaching Best of Bluegrass 2014.  From June 9th-12th downtown Lexington will transform into a steaming hotbed of bluegrass music featuring the Grammy Award-winning Steep Canyon Rangers, the Lonesome River Band, Kentucky’s Dale Ann Bradley, and rising stars Town Mountain and The Roys.  Importantly, local bluegrass bands are also featured in venues around town.  Events at Natasha’s Bistro, Southland Jamboree, Willie’s Locally Known, Parlay Social, Red Barn Radio, Thursday Night Live, Paulie’s Toasted Barrel and Al’s Bar are all free to the public.

It’s a chance to see some exciting live music and find out about the venues that sustain our local music scene all year long.  No ten hour waits in the sun, no standing in the rain, and you can return to your air conditioned home when it’s all done; it’s the kind of summer music festival I can handle.