Pellissippi State gives canceled Big Ears Festival new life with livestreamed concerts

A jazz band plays on stage while Pellissippi State faculty and students record them
Pellissippi State student Channing Huskey, not pictured, took this photo of Pellissippi State faculty and students recording a recent concert at the Bijou Theatre.

Pellissippi State Community College’s Media Technologies faculty and students are directing, filming, recording, photographing and engineering Sites & Sounds from Big Ears, a series of intimate concerts at the historic Bijou Theatre. 

The new livestreaming initiative fills a gap left when Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival was canceled due to coronavirus. The next concert, with the top-tier contemporary jazz trio The Bad Plus, will premiere at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 9. 

Tickets are $15 in advance and $17 on the day of the livestream. Those who purchase their tickets in advance or during the livestream also have access to a recording of the concert that will be available until 11:59 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 11.  

Big Ears Festival Executive and Artistic Director Ashley Capps reached out to Assistant Professor Mischa Goldmanwho has served as production manager for Big Ears at the Bijou for many years, to brainstorm how they could support artists and venues that had suffered severely due to COVID-19 closures. 

What they landed on isn’t your typical livestream, where the viewer experiences the concert from a fixed perspective, far from the stage. 

“Ashley wanted to make this very personal and engaging for the audience,” explains Goldman, who serves as program coordinator for Audio Production Engineering at Pellissippi State. “There wasn’t a concrete vision of how he wanted to do this, but I believe we were able to translate and capture Ashley’s desire to present a unique streaming experience.” 

Sites & Sounds from Big Ears livestreams concerts in a single take with a Steadicam — taking viewers down Gay Street, viewing the marquee out front, into the empty Bijou Theatre, backstage and, ultimately, up on stage with the artists. 

“It’s like a first-person experience,” Goldman explained. “You are up close with the artists, not sitting far back, and they break down the fourth wall, talking to each other and to the camera between tunes.” 

Big Ears and Pellissippi State piloted this approach during Sites & Sounds from Big Ears’ first concert – musician R.B. Morris on Aug. 21 – and received rave reviews from viewers. 

“A lot of streaming is flat,” Goldman said. “We got comments like, ‘I didn’t expect this. Wow.’ You are seeing the concert through the eyes of someone invited on stage with the musicians, and that provides intimacy.” 

Filming a jazz trio on stage at the Bijou Theatre
Pellissippi State faculty and students bring livestream viewers on stage with artists during Sites & Sounds from Big Ears at the historic Bijou Theatre. (Photo by student Channing Huskey)

Because of COVID-19 restrictions and concerns for safety, Sites & Sounds from Big Ears utilizes a very small crew. Big Ears Festival Managing Director Aaron Greenwald joins Capps as a producerGoldman is serving as producer and audio mastering engineer and is joined by Pellissippi State Instructor Jonathan Maness, recording and mixing engineering, and Adjunct Matthew Caldwell, director of photography/Steadicam operator and video editor. 

The Pellissippi State Video Production Technology and Photography faculty also selected four students to join them: Channing Huskey, still photography, and Logan MaddoxMichael Moore and Grant Robinson, assistant cameras. 

The students are receiving class credit for their participation. 

“This gives students real-world experience of how to put together a production like this: how to gather assets, how to work within the restraints of technology, how to work on tight deadlines,” Goldman explained. “The students have been very professional. They understand our safety protocols and have worked well with the artists.” 

Capps, the founder of AC Entertainment, which produces the annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester in addition to the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, is pleased with the result. 

We’re thrilled, in this most uncertain moment for the arts, to be able to work with artists about whom we care deeply, in venues that are part of the fabric of our city, and with the indispensable faculty and students from Pellissippi State Community College, an East Tennessee treasure, he said. 

For more information on the jazz trio The Bad Plus or to purchase tickets for the livestream, visit www.bigearsfestival.org/thebadplus. 

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