the month in me: March 2024

A big display of balloons and lights that say BIG EARS.

Caution: adventurous music.

I’ll be honest, I don’t know what happened the rest of the month. March was all about Big Ears.


Did I write code this month? Surely. Again, I don’t remember.


This is the third year my friend Kai and I have gone to the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee. I don’t ever want to stop.

Mostly it’s a festival of music. It is willfully eclectic, with a lot of jazz and noise and experimental sound, and folk, and “new music,” and rock and roll, and electronic music, and poetry I think? And movies? I first heard about it in 2019, and it felt like the 2020 lineup was programmed personally for me: my favorite songwriter, my favorite pianist, guitarists and drummers and new music ensembles and so many more artists I loved, or was curious about, or had never heard of but they sounded exciting! Kai and I bought passes, bought tickets, booked an Airbnb, and, well, turns out March 2020 was a bad time to schedule a music festival.

So was 2021. But in 2022 they came back with everything I most wanted from the 2020 lineup, plus my favorite guitarist, my favorite drummer, artists I’d seen and loved, artists I’d heard but never seen, and more, and more, and more. By halfway through the weekend it was clear we were going to come back every year. And, so far, we have.

It’s in the nature of Big Ears that you miss shows that all by themselves would have been enough to get you there, because they’re all happening at the same time, at a dozen venues around downtown Knoxville. In 2022 I missed one of my last chances to see Low. In 2023 there was a whole lineup of early 2000s indie folk, Iron & Wine and the like, and I missed all of it. Enjoying Big Ears is a process of letting go, and also of being open to what you gain in return. That band you’ve loved since you were 20 is at capacity, so you walk down the street and have your world transformed by a solo organist you’ve never heard of. You’d like to tell people you saw the hot new singer-songwriter, but you’re too lazy to walk all the way to the Bijou, so you stop into Jackson Terminal for a bit of whatever’s playing. Or just go down the street for a cardamom latte at Jacks.

This year I had my highest success rate yet, and I still missed Beth Orton, Kronos Quartet, most of the Blacktronika lineup, and headliners like Jon Batiste, André 3000, Adrianne Lenker, and Digable Planets. I’m blissed out anyway. Everyone’s Big Ears is different. Here are some personal highlights from mine:

  • Two shows by Third Coast Percussion: One featuring their propulsive, intricate arrangements of commissioned compositions by electronic artist Jlin (who also sat in on bongos!), and another with music by Philip Glass, an original, and “the craziest piece we’ve ever done” – more choreography than percussion, provoking thoughts about what is and isn’t musical performance.
  • Jason Moran and the Harlem Hellfighters: A big jazz ensemble playing a multimedia suite in moving tribute to James Reese Europe, a WWI bandleader (literally – they were in the 369th Infantry).
  • Kassa Overall: His recordings are chop-and-sliced jazz rap, and sometimes his live band emulated that aesthetic, which I love, but also sometimes it was just four guys hitting things with sticks, which I might love even more. An amazing way to start a day of music.
  • Herbie Hancock: A top-notch six-piece band playing mostly music from his ’70s funk period, and really stretching it out – I think they played three or four songs over the course of two hours, plus an “overture” that covered the rest of his career. There was vocoder! There was extemporaneous philosophizing! I watched Herbie Hancock and Lionel Loueke trade screeching robot noises on keytar and guitar while they jumped up and down to the beat! This wasn’t the most energetic show I saw, but it was a strong second place, and the man’s 83 years old. What an inspiration!
  • The last ten minutes of Aoife O’Donovan: Her voice and guitar, backed by a bracing orchestral and choral arrangement, singing about democracy, followed by a sweet encore duet with bassist Edgar Meyer. The loveliest way to close out a wonderful weekend of music.

I missed her show, but my Special Jury Prize goes to a workshop where claire rousay walked us through her process for making prerecorded musique concrète…and then for doing it live, sampling other musicians, objects in the room, and interviews with audience members to work them into an organic tapestry of improvised sound. I loved it, and I want to figure out how to adapt those ideas for my own artistic practice. Man, music is great.


A trip to Big Ears is also a vacation in Knoxville – specifically in charming, touristy downtown Knoxville. After what’s usually a long slog through a Minnesota winter, I love this weekend in as a preview/reminder that spring exists. This year we didn’t have much of a winter (except, as it happens, the weekend when I was in Knoxville), so that emotional lift didn’t hit as hard. Still, it was good to see the dogwoods.

More than sunshine and green things, what I love about Knoxville on Big Ears weekend is the people. You walk around, you stand in line, you take a cab from the airport, and you talk with strangers about what you’ve seen and what you’re excited about. Locals and visitors all seem to have a relaxed openness that can be hard to find among my northern folk – and definitely hard to find in myself. But being there unlocks it. At the airport on Sunday, our new friend Liv said she feels like people come for the festival, and it takes just one interaction to flip a switch in their brains that says it’s okay to (my words, not Liv’s) be human with each other. I felt that switch flip.

Walking down to the old city, we were stopped by a man with a bushy salt-and-pepper beard who said, “I like your shirt! It looks like it has good graphic design.” We talked about graphic design and the band my shirt was for, and he told us he couldn’t afford to go to the festival, but he likes to come downtown while it’s happening just for the people watching, so we shared notes on people we’d watched. After a friendly goodbye, I said to Kai, “I can’t imagine anyone in Minneapolis starting that conversation, or sticking around for that conversation.” At least I can’t imagine me sticking around – at home, I say “Thanks!” and I keep walking.

Now I’m back, and I’m trying in small ways to be the guy who likes your shirt. And the guy who wants to hear about what brought you here. I know Knoxville isn’t magic; I know a lot of what makes me more open there is vacation brain. I’m just trying to bring some vacation home with me.

Also, I brought back some spring for you. You’re welcome.


We’re rehearsing for Family Funeral! I was excited by the cast when they announced it (not just because I’m in it), but now that I’ve seen how we play together, I’m even more excited to get it in front of an audience – which starts the first Saturday in May. Also, Two’s Company is playing at the Twin Cities Improv Festival! With more to come! April should be quiet, but I’m looking forward to a busy summer.