Six years and four Big Ears festivals in, the idea of an exclusive, tightly curated art-music festival in Knoxville still carries a certain novelty. Not only for the fans, artists, and journalists who descend on our under-the-radar city from all over the world, but also for music-loving locals who are used to driving to Nashville or Asheville when the year’s buzziest tours pass Knoxville by. However, to an ever-growing pocket of Knoxvillians, the challenging sounds of Big Ears are an easy fit with the city’s musical identity—and a weekend when downtown is flush with adventurous listeners is the perfect time to show off the local scene.
“I see Big Ears as an opportunity for people to see what’s happening here all the time,” says Jason Boardman, whose venerable Old City dive Pilot Light will again host its “indigenous companion” event, Hello City, on Friday and Saturday. “With the festival going on in town there’s a lot of excitement, and it’s great that there’s all these things people can participate in.”
The Hello City concept has been in place since the first Big Ears festival in 2009. This year, however, Hello City has been pared down to the essentials: two evening-long programs offering a cross-section of the area’s most notable underground acts, from Boardman’s out-rock supergroup White Gregg to the stunning solo guitar of Joseph Allred.
“Keeping it at the Pilot Light this year is a way of keeping it essential,” says Alan Bajandas, who helped Boardman coordinate this year’s event and whose band, Shriek Operator, is one of seven acts on Friday night’s bill. “Experimental, independent music in Knoxville has everything to do with the Pilot Light.”
The focused structure isn’t the only thing making Hello City 2015 an essential stop for out-of-towners; as with last year’s events, Big Ears pass-holders are welcomed at no additional charge, and, as of last week, Big Ears organizers began endorsing Hello City as a recommended companion to the main festival. But locals of all stripes are eagerly welcome, too—those without passes looking for a survey of Knoxville music or just a cheap fix of the Big Ears vibe can also get in for $8 either night at the door.
Hello City • Pilot Light • Friday, March 27, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, March 28, at 6:30 p.m.
Nick Huinker is fortunate to have spent the past 15 years living and covering Knoxville’s near-constant DIY music renaissance. Once a year he does his best to return the cultural favor as producer of the Knoxville Horror Film Fest; most of the rest of the time he’s of limited use.
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