Adventures in Music Tourism
Try the kinder, gentler—and more interesting—festivals
Mercury Rev, the influential band with Buffalo roots, in concert at Big Ears 2019.
Photos by Don Kreger
If the words “music festival” conjure up images of standing around an enormous yet overcrowded field with tens of thousands of heavily intoxicated teenagers and glamping glitterati for hours on end watching one superstar act after another, you might technically be correct, but the Bonnapaloozachellas of the world are not the only option.
There’s an entirely different model out there, too: The smaller scale, multi-site fest, typically rooted in a particular theme or genre, that tends to take over a medium-sized city for several days drawing both artists and audiences from around the world who are there to listen to and engage with the music (and, frequently, other art forms, including film, technology, standup comedy, or visual art, for example). The jazz world has employed this model for decades; we need look no further than downtown Rochester to find an example (June 19-27, 2020). In many ways, the closest thing we have locally is the Infringement Festival (July 23-August 2), which annually offers hundreds of activities in dozens of venues over the course of eleven days—although its uncurated, anything-goes nature gives it an entirely different flavor than what I have in mind.
To really get the world-class festival experience, you’ll need to hit the road—and that’s precisely where the fun lies. Once you find a festival that suits your particular interests, you’ve got a road trip to plan—plus an ideal opportunity to explore the host city from the inside. Instead of baking underneath the sun on the outskirts of town, you’ll be visiting intimate theaters, nightclubs, museums, art galleries, churches, brewpubs, and public spaces in the heart of the city. The two weekend-long examples below are well worth your time; each is roughly a day’s drive from Western New York in a fascinating midsize Southern city that is probably not already on your radar. Each has a specific focus (in this case tending toward the eclectic and experimental) that proves to be remarkably flexible, and a great way to see both major figures of a given genre and often equally astounding up-and-comers. Best of all, you’ll find yourself in an alternate universe where music-loving locals and visitors alike become fast friends, sharing recommendations of acts and hotspots to check out.
BIG EARS FESTIVAL
March 26-29, 2020
The line outside a performance at Knoxville’s Church Street United Methodist Church during Big Ears, 2019.
An overflow crowd watches the a capella group Roomful of Teeth in the atrium of the Knoxville Museum of Art at Big Ears 2019
While the title may strike you as odd, it turns out to be perfect for the concept: dazzling sounds from across the sonic spectrum, including jazz, classical, electronics, avant-rock, and folk, accessible to anyone with an open mind. As we went to press, confirmed acts for this year include Patti Smith, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, the Kronos Quartet, Terry Riley, Kim Gordon, Thundercat, Anthony Braxton, Steve Coleman, Meredith Monk, Damo Suzuki (of the pioneering Krautrock band Can), Devendra Banhart, and Jason Moran, along with plenty of collaborations and side projects.
serpentwithfeet performs at Big Ears 2019.
Visual artist and musician Lonnie Holley leads his audience on a walking tour of downtown Knoxville during Big Ears 2019.
Bluegrass supergroup Uncle Earl in concert at Big Ears 2019.
Durham, North Carolina
April 16-19, 2020
Syrian wedding singer Omar Souleyman (left) at Moogfest 2017. Souleyman was one of several artists from countries singled out by President Trump’s notorious “Muslim ban” who were invited to perform in protest of the policy.
British dance music pioneers 808 State stage a rare reunion at Moogfest 2017.
Named for synthesizer pioneer (and onetime Buffalo businessman) Robert Moog, this annual four-day affair celebrates electronic music in the broadest possible sense, from pioneers of the 1960s and 70s to cutting-edge rock, dance, hip-hop, and experimental artists from around the world. As if four evenings of concerts into the wee hours were not enough, the days are filled with film screenings, art installations, workshops, talks (by engineers, composers, and historians), and panel discussions with featured musicians. As of this writing, it’s not clear whether there will be a Moogfest 2020 or not (this article suggests the organizers are taking at least a year off, but the official website currently makes no mention of that and encourages folks to purchase tickets).
A specialty of both Moogfest and Big Ears is all-night marathon performances. Here, audience members prepare for Laraaji’s midnight-to-7 a.m. concert in a boutique hotel at Moogfest 2017.
R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe in conversation at Moogfest 2017. In both 2017 and 2018, Stipe created outdoor video installations projected on a building in downtown Durham, featuring some of his first music as a solo artist.
Former Labelle vocalist Nona Hendryx performs inside a high-tech costume during the world premiere of a “digital opera” created in collaboration with computer scientists and engineering students at Moogfest 2017.
1. If you want to explore a genre or geographic region not mentioned here, or you only have a specific window of time available, give the comprehensive search engine at musicfestivalwizard.com a try.
2. Plan your trip as soon as possible in order to get the ticket package you want and confirm lodging. Many fests put early bird tickets on sale at significantly discounted prices as soon as a given year’s event is over; you won’t know who’s playing yet, but the gamble is generally worth it if you trust the programmers’ taste.
3. While a festival pass typically enables you to enter multiple shows going on simultaneously, it’s a good idea to study the schedule well enough to have a Plan B and even a Plan C in mind, since concerts featuring big names in small venues tend to fill up fast; don’t fret, though, because an unknown artist can often turn out to be as earth-shattering as the one you missed.
4. If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll be kept busy throughout the run of the festival, so if your schedule and budget permit, consider staying a day or two after it ends to explore the region’s non-musical attractions.