Sitting on the patio of a Knoxville restaurant last winter, Saraya Brewer took notice of what was unfolding around her. The streets were alive with something called Big Ears, a festival that championed concerts by new and veteran underground acts, performance works and interactive exhibits.
Then the idea clicked.
Something like this could happen in Lexington, she thought. As a WRFL-88.1 FM disc jockey for more than five years, she was tapped into the sort of music she wanted to bring in, not to mention a source of funding. Big Ears, in turn, triggered ideas for using multiple performance venues and bills that mixed prominent (although decidedly non-mainstream) artists with local performers.
And to top it all off, there would room for a carnival.
Boomslang was born. The inaugural four-day Lexington festival started Thursday but gets into full swing Friday. By the time it ends Sunday evening with the regional debut of the groundbreaking Brazilian tropicalia ensemble Os Mutantes, Boomslang will have hosted more than 50 acts and performers at five venues.
"We started by putting together a list of bands we would love to bring to Lexington," Brewer said. "Since RFL had the funding in place to put on shows, we found it was actually possible to bring in bands like Os Mutantes. From there, more and more bands began contacting us. So it mushroomed into a much bigger baby than we first thought."
Already interested in playing Lexington before Boomslang was solidified was Faust, the immensely influential "krautrock" ensemble known for mixing psychedelic and prog-rock styles.
"I think a lot of people aren't that familiar with these bands," Brewer said. "But it is possible to be legendary and still be underground. Faust actually contacted us. Their agent really liked Lexington and wanted them to play here as opposed to any other cities that are close by. So that was the first big band that we secured.
"But we wanted to also include bands that were more up-and-coming and more popular with the younger indie scene. We wanted to introduce a lot of the younger crowds to the bands that are the predecessors but, at the same time, introduce crowds more familiar with Faust and Os Mutantes to some of the newer bands that are doing stuff that could be seen as being very similar."
Peruse the full Boomslang lineup and you will quickly come to an event that perhaps defines the festival's sense of artistic adventure, not to mention its temperament. It's called the Boomslang Carnival.
It's part music, part fashion show and part sideshow. Playing in the Buster's parking lot on Saturday, the carnival stems from a project that teamed the Lexington band The Ford Theatre Reunion — a sort of vaudevillian punk ensemble that dabbles in, among other genres, gypsy jazz and brutish, brittle folk — with the Lexington Collaborative Fashion Group.
"We've been working for a while with Sarah Jane Estes from the Lexington Collaborative Fashion Group," said Ford Theatre Reunion guitarist Eric Myers. "We started planning in the late spring to put on some kind of carnival in Triangle Park. Then Boomslang wanted to bring us on board, so all of this kind of grew from there."
On Saturday, the carnival will unfold in the Buster's parking lot with music performances mingled with models donning displays of circus-style attire. But the real fun comes after dark. That's when the sideshow cranks up with displays of fire-eating, snake-charming and blockheading — the carnival term for the act of hammering nails into one's nasal cavities. And what lucky soul has been assigned that task?
"Oh, that's me," Myers replied. "I love the aesthetic of all these performances — specifically the ones that are not illusion — like eating fire and swallowing swords. The reality is what fascinates me."
Brewer said of the carnival crew, "They haven't needed much direction from me. We just showed them the space they could use, and they took off with it."
Almost everything else lands in Brewer's lap. She said a mammoth volunteer crew helps. But logistics, schedules, last-minute cancellations and, in a few joyful cases, last-minute sponsors (like the Alltech Fortnight Festival, which signed on to co-present Faust) and band announcements (like the addition of the Boston post-punk band Mission of Burma to Friday night's bill at Buster's), fall to her.
"I've been multitasking like I never have been in my life. On any given day, I'm dealing with 16 different aspects of the festival. But I think it will be so neat if Lexington can pull something off like this."