Bringing It All Back Home

R.B. Morris at the Bijou Theatre

Bringing It All Back Home

The Big Ears Festival launches a virtual performance series Friday with R.B. Morris at the Bijou Theatre.

by jesse fox mayshark • August 20, 2020


R.b. Morris performs at the bijou theatre on Aug. 11. (Photo by channing Huskey)

Ashley Capps admits that in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, he was skeptical of the potential for streamed concert performances.

What: R.B. Morris and band
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 21
Where: Streaming
How much: $10 (tickets here)

Capps, the founder of both A.C. Entertainment and the Big Ears Festival, saw the proliferation of home videos by musicians of all kinds as at best pleasant diversions, placeholders until live music could return.

“A lot of the streams that I would see, quite frankly, were rather painful,” he said. “They were victims of technology glitches or they just fell short of the mark in various ways.”

Friday, Big Ears will present the first of what it promises will be a series of ticketed, streamed events, featuring Knoxville singer-songwriter R.B. Morris performing with his band at the Bijou Theatre.

So what changed?

“I started seeing people do things that were really interesting,” Capps said. “That were different, that didn't try to recreate the concert experience but instead tried to create a new experience with this new technology.”

Also, he adds, after sitting out the spring and a good chunk of the summer, “On a personal level, I think I was just feeling like I needed to start doing something.”

Five months is a long time for Capps to have been dormant — the longest since he started booking shows 40 years ago. In the decades since, he has promoted thousands of concerts and events, ranging from small club gigs by jazz artists to the enormous Bonnaroo festival, which has been drawing throngs to Manchester, Tenn., since 2002.

A.C. Entertainment, where Capps still has a senior director role, is now owned by concert conglomerate Live Nation. But Big Ears, the wide-ranging music and arts festival that takes over downtown Knoxville each spring, spun off as an independent nonprofit a few years ago.

The festival was canceled this past March along with pretty much everything else on the arts and culture calendar. Planning continues for next year’s festival, although Capps acknowledges that at the moment everything about large public events remains uncertain because of the pandemic.

But in the meantime, he said, the new streaming series — called Sites & Sounds — will offer some continuation of the festival’s love of both music and venues. Big Ears has always been built around great performance spaces: the historic Bijou and Tennessee theaters, St. John’s Cathedral, the Standard and Mill & Mine, and sometimes site-specific performances in unusual places. The composer John Luther Adams presented his outdoor piece Inuksuit at Ijams Nature Center as part of the 2016 festival.

“One of the things that I found that was lacking from a lot of streams was atmosphere, a lack of ambiance, the sound quality, the ability to do something interesting with the lighting,” Capps said. “It felt like a shame not to capitalize on what these theaters offer as a visual experience.”

For the first event, it made sense to work with someone local. Capps is a longtime friend and fan of Morris, a former Knoxville poet laureate who released his latest album, Going Back to the Sky, in January. It is a collection of songs written during and inspired by what Morris has called his “youthful adventurous education,” traveling through the American West.

“It’s an absolutely fantastic record,” Capps said. “And the band’s fantastic and everyone lives in Knoxville, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch. We weren’t asking people to travel and risk their lives, so to speak, during the pandemic lockdown.” 

So it was that on the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 11, Morris took the stage at the Bijou along with guitarist Greg Horne, bassist Daniel Kimbro and drummer Hunter Deacon. The theater was empty except for the technical crew and a small number of media observers.

Morris and the band ran through a set that features most of the new album along with a few other songs, while cameraman Matthew Caldwell roamed the stage in a single continuous take, zeroing in on the different musicians at different points and also panning the theater.

“Perhaps the most beautiful way to experience one of these historic theaters is from the stage looking out, and the audience seldom gets to have that experience,” Capps said.

The video captured during the performance has been only lightly edited, taking out a few tuning breaks. What the audience for Friday’s stream will experience, Capps said, is different and in a lot of ways more intimate than a normal concert. The viewer is onstage with the band, watching them interact with each other, both during and between songs. And the band members are all turned toward each other rather than toward the empty seats.

“There’s a very real spontaneity to everything that I think is really true to the music,” Capps said, “and also creates this very unusual and engaging experience.”

Tickets for the streaming are $10, and Capps said the response has been encouraging. He expects at least several hundred people to tune in — and of course, also unlike a normal concert, there is no upper limit on the size of the potential audience. (For those who can't make the Friday viewing, it will be available on demand through the weekend.)

Big Ears is using the streaming platform noonchorus, which specializes in performance videos. “I think people will be very pleased by the quality of the experience and also the uniqueness of the experience,” Capps said.

Plans are underway for more events, in and around Knoxville as well as elsewhere. Big Ears has a far-flung constituency among musicians and music-lovers, many of whom have crossed oceans to come to Knoxville for the festival. Capps is excited by the prospect of extending the Big Ears umbrella to places that can’t be reached in more physical ways at the moment.

Announcements will be forthcoming in the near future.

“In September, we’ve got potentially a pretty busy several weeks,” Capps said. “Artists wanting to do things that are actually taking place in New York or Nashville or London. But also in some instances we do have artists who specifically want to play at the Bijou, and they are coming to town. And then we've got some artists that are talking about some site specific work in those nontraditional venues, like quarries and parks. All of these things are being discussed.”