Archive for April, 2011
REVIEW: John T. Baker, “Woodgrain”
John T. Baker is a talented man.
Whether he’s pounding drums for Stolen Sheep, singing harmony vocals and shredding guitar for the Westside Daredevils or creating otherworldly sound textures as part of experimental ambient music collective, he’s a credit to the East Tennessee music scene, a go-to guy for local session work and just a hell of a nice guy all the way around.
Nowhere, it seems, is he more in his element than when he’s making straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll, which makes his new album, “Woodgrain,” all the more magnificent. It’s worlds apart from the ambient instrumentals of “Ohm,” released a couple of years back and steers clear of the electronic effects that burnished “Rainbrella,” his last traditional solo effort. This is the John T. Baker fans fell in love with in bands like Martini Age and The French Broads, the guy who can craft a song that’s so infectious it works its way into your head like bacteria into an open wound, resulting in a case of what I like to cleverly call “brain-grene” — the inability to get a melody, a line, a hook out of your head.
“Woodgrain” opens with the jangly, breezy “Drugs in the Water,” a quintessential Baker song — filled with bouncing acoustic guitar and sweet melodies wrapped around his environmentalist’s eye for socially conscious subject matter; in this case, all the pharmaceuticals flushed down toilets and into the nation’s water supply, meaning a guy who pours himself a glass ends up drinking “residue from someone else’s bout with San Francisco sex or Philly pain.”
Baker’s struggles through song are classic themes woven into every one of “Woodgrain”’s songs — from the social, like the aforementioned album opener or “Foreign Relations,” a sunny, upbeat-sounding song instrumentally speaking that simmers beneath the surface with Baker’s anger toward gun nuts and opinionated and overbearing jerks; to the self-reflective, like “Useful” and “Fair Exchange.” There’s even the tale of a violent love story — “Judith Hits Chapman” — about a woman’s struggle to keep her man-child on the straight and narrow.
The liner notes reveal that Baker plays just about everything on this record, including harmonizing with himself. Former V-Roys drummer Jeff Bills guests on one track, as does Westside Daredevil drummer Gray Comer (on guitar) on another; and econopop/Stolen Sheep bandmate George Middlebrooks (who designed a hell of a cover for the record) is all over the record’s final song, “Home.”
In a music scene rife with talent, Baker is one of those guys who flies under the radar — but does so just as capably as anyone who soars above it. He may not have the flamboyance or outrageousness or the brashness of some of his peers, but he’s got the chops, and that’s even better. He makes solid music worth hearing, and for those who may get a little uneasy around music that falls outside the parameters of what they consider “normal,” this is the John T. Baker record with which to get on board. It’s acoustic pop at its finest, and it’s the kind of album that makes you give a little prayer of thanks to live in a town so awash in talent.
John T. Baker CD release show
WITH: Econopop, Jake Winstrom, Greg Horne
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday, April 23
WHERE: Sixth floor of The Sunsphere, in World’s Fair Park, downtown Knoxville
HOW MUCH: Free
REVIEW: Quartjar, “42″
Randall Brown and co. come out swinging on “42,” the band’s new album. Literally. This is blues-rock, Brown’s forte, but this is no languid my-life’s-in-the-crapper-so-I’m-gonna-play-some-sad-slow-blues-licks-with-a-little-slide-on-the-side music. This is the kind of dirty, fast-and-furious stuff preferred by bands like the Black Diamond Heavies, only Brown can sing a hell of a lot better.
“Waitin’ on a Bus,” of course, is just the first track, and an indication of where this album is headed. As eclectic and quirky as “Years of a Monkey” was, a lot can happen in three years, and Brown has certainly found a groove that suits him well on “42.” Perhaps it’s the solid lineup — Tory Flenniken on drums and Malcolm Norman have been his partners-in-crime for a while now, and while Quartjar isn’t a band you’ll see out and about every weekend, there’s something to be said for solidarity and practice.
That’s the thing that rises to the surface after repeated listenings to “42″ — this is a crackerjack blues-rock commando team, with Flenniken laying down licks that allow Norman to get in the pocket and bang away on some nice bass grooves, while Brown tops the hill and leads the whole unit into the breach. Whether he’s shifting gears and throwing down a gritty, skittering run as a song like “In the Thick of It” momentarily shifts gears or bringing out the heavy rock guns for the track “Noble Rhino,” Brown is more intense here — concentrating on the power of rock ‘n’ roll to batter fans into submission as much as he is making them laugh with a clever turn of phrase.
He doesn’t sacrifice that sly wit — “Not a Cowboy,” if anything, is a love song in reverse, with the protagonist (Brown, presumably writing to his beloved Becky) talking about everything he’s not; and “Someday (I’m Gonna Die)” is atypical Brown — ruminations on death delivered with the casual sort of laid-back vibe you get when you meet the man in person. Even on a bruiser like “Noble Rhino,” he takes the time to give a nod to the great beasts of the African plain, including the tortoise.
Humor in whatever form has been an East Tennessee tradition dating back to the days of Smokin’ Day and the Premo Dopes, and Quartjar carries that on with admirable flair. (It’s no wonder that Smokin’ Dave front dude Todd Steed opted to cover Quartjar’s “Crosstown Waltz” on the WUTK-FM “ReDistilled” compilation a few years back.) But when it’s employed as part of rock ‘n’ roll, the music has to be more than good, or else the funny stuff falls flat and feels awkward. It’s a testament to Brown’s personality and skill that “42″ still is funny while seeming more serious — and certainly heavier — than the band’s last album.
The album closes with two interesting tracks of note — “My Green Heaven,” a shambling, sprawling epic that’s equal parts Neil Young and The Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends,” and the instrumental engine-gunner “18 Miles to Maryville / What If?,” which, if somebody ever makes a “Smokey and the Bandit”-style road movie taking place strictly along Alcoa Highway, should definitely be included on the soundtrack.
IF YOU GO
Quartjar CD release event
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 3
WHERE: The Disc Exchange, 2615 Chapman Highway, Knoxville
HOW MUCH: Free
Bad news from the TV on the Radio website:
“We are very sad to announce the death of our beloved friend and bandmate, Gerard Smith, following a courageous fight against lung cancer. Gerard passed away the morning of April 20th, 2011. We will miss him terribly. There will be more information as it becomes available.”
The band cancelled five shows, April 20-26, in the Midwest. It’s a huge blow to an extremely talented band, which just released the new album “Nine Types of Light” earlier this month. I had the pleasure of seeing the band at The Bijou Theatre in 2008, when The Dirtbombs opened; in preparation for that appearance, I was honored to interview Smith. I reprint that here for your reading pleasure. R.I.P., Mr. Smith.
Sounds of ‘Science’: TV on the Radio brings brilliant new album to the Bijou
Hip, trendy, on the cutting edge — TV on the Radio can be considered all of those things.
Which makes it a little strange to hear bassist/keyboard player Gerard Smith talking about his woeful lack of a musical radar.
“I’m a habitual late-comer to music,” Smith told The Daily Times during a recent phone interview. “I slept on Neutral Milk Hotel. I slept on The Flaming Lips. It’s a little maddening at this point, and I guess I really should do something about my attention span. It’s kind of funny, though, given the art that takes place in this band — it makes it harder to hear as much music that’s available.”
“Art” is one way of describing the music made by Smith’s band. The New York-based five-piece just released its third full-length album, but already, TV on the Radio is on its way to becoming one of the most-respected indie bands out there. The group’s 2006 album, “Return to Cookie Mountain,” topped a number of year-end best-of lists — ranked No. 4 by Rolling Stone, No. 2 by Pitchfork, No. 1 by Spin, among others — and based on both critical reception and fan reaction, the follow-up — “Dear Science,” released last month — will probably follow suit.
Whether TV on the Radio will one day rank up there in terms of influence and brilliance as the Lips or Neutral Milk Hotel remains to be seen. But such places of posterity aren’t positions that Smith and his bandmates aspire to achieve. For them, the studio is a laboratory, and the creations concocted there become these Frankenstein-like monsters that explode onstage as barely controlled chaos.
“We’re all contributing to this thing that turns on a really strange axis,” Smith said. “I think that’s a weird benefit from our friendships and our age. I think everybody and their brother has lead guitar syndrome at some point in their musical careers — you want to take the spotlight, to go for a solo, to pull a little Kirk Hammett or Jimmy Page or (Yngwie) Malmsteen.
“I think that’s the importantw thing about being in a band and the most difficult thing — trying to make it all gel without it becoming cacophonous. That’s something we’re always in danger of falling into, but we just have to work our way through it and come up with a way of serving the song properly.”
TV on the Radio rose up out of New York in 2001, starting out as a two-piece — producer and multi-instrumentalist David Sitek and vocalist Tunde Adebimpe. The pair released “OK Calculator” — a reference to Radiohead’s groundbreaking “OK Computer” — before guitarist/vocalist Kyp Malone joined the band, and although the band’s sound has shifted radically since that early demo, the idea behind TV on the Radio was born in vision of its creators, Smith said.
“They had already kind of formulated an idea and a sound, and you can her that on songs like ‘I Hurt You’ — the early formation of the band’s vocabulary — and it’s just been developing since then,” Smith said. “It’s been steady building over time. It hasn’t been an easy development, but it’s been really fortunate for all of us to make our contributions equally.”
In 2003, the band released the EP “Young Liars,” and drummer Jaleel Bunton and Smith joined shortly thereafter. The album was an immediate critical hit, and with Adebimpe and Sitek at the helm, the band evolved radically over the course of the next three records — “Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes,” “Return to Cookie Mountain” and “Dear Science.” A lot can be interpreted in Adebimpe’s cryptic, Michael Stipe-esque lyrics, but according to Smith, there’s no overall theme or statement to the most recent album as there is just a continuation of a creative process.
“Even from way before I was in the band the way they bought things together was a lot of happenstance, and so was the construction of ‘Young Liars,’” Smith said. “Those guys are not really planners, and those of us who are have to live with that, but the way they get things to unfold is definitely a strength that they have.
“When you’re in a band, there are so many things involved with the recording process — you sit down, you star writing, you work on sketches that turn into a piece of art, but I don’t think there’s so much of that in this band. I think the ideas grow out of this band’s influences and experiences, and I think time will inform that.
“I think it’s difficult to sort of have something in mind when you set out to make a piece of art, whether it’s a painting or a sculpture or an installation or a piece of music,’ he added. “It seems to me that working like that would be so limiting.”
If anything, the sounds of “Dear Science” defy expectations and preconceptions. Whereas “Cookie Mountain” was a brooding, moody album, “Dear Science” announces its intention from the first track, “Halfway Home.” It’s a driving, skittering slice of musical ADHD, with frenetic beats and crashing hooks underlying Adebimpe’s smooth, R&B-tinged vocals.
From the bounce of “Dancing Choose” to the slow burn of “Shout Me Out” to the malevolence of “Red Dress,” there’s an energy level that’s maintained on “Dear Science.” It ebbs and flows, but it never ebbs for long. It may be the band’s most accessible album to date, as well as one of the most bombastic and intense records put out so far this year.
It wasn’t an easy thing to make, Smith said. The band’s democratic process, he said, occasionally seemed as if there were too many cooks in the kitchen.
“Sometimes it’s a little too much of a democracy,” he said with a chuckle. “I think it’s so democratic sometimes that it’s almost to a fault. It’s definitely one of those things that’s helped to keep this band afloat. We all have a level of effect for each other’s work, but when it comes to songwriting, I’m always going to be mindful and wary of what (Sitek’s and Adebimpe’s) feelings are.
“I try to contribute in small ways and try not to be overwhelming, mostly because I don’t want to ruin a good thing. ‘Young Liars,’ to me, is one of my favorite records. I like to elaborate on what’s pre-existing and add a little depth to the song, if I can.”
It’s been almost four years to the day — April 26, 2007, to be exact — since The Dirty Guv’nahs got their first ink in a local entertainment publication.
That was in The Daily Times Weekend entertainment section, we’re proud to add — for the band’s opening slot at “The Shed” at Smoky-Mountain Harley-Davidson in Maryville, where Mic Harrison and The High Score headlined the show. What a long, strange trip it’s been for the band, which has combined the Southern blues-rock-and-boogie of The Black Crowes and the Rolling Stones into a recipe that’s made it one of the most successful in the East Tennessee music scene.
For proof, look no further than where the guys are performing this weekend — two nights headlining The Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville. They’ve come a long way since that 2007 interview, when the members were barely a year old with only a four-song EP to their name. And while they wouldn’t have traded all the work since for anything, they’re glad they didn’t know then what they do now, singer James Trimble told us during a Tuesday phone interview.
“We actually talked about it recently, and it was like, if we’d known how much work it was going to take, we might not have stuck with it,” Trimble said. “If we knew all the information on the front end, it would have been hard to say, ‘That sounds like a great way to spend the next five years.’ But we’re so glad we did it, because it’s just going real well. It’s still a long way to the top, but I think one day we’re going to be doing just this and not have to work any day jobs.”
That dream is far and away beyond anything the boys envisioned when they first came together in 2006 as a last-minute addition to an Old City music festival that featured Sister Hazel as the headlining act. Back then, the guys didn’t even have a name; they took one from an exuberant audience member, Guv’nah Justin Hoskins told us in that first interview.
“We had sort of tossed around some band names, but we couldn’t decide on anything, so we played it nameless,” he said back then. “At this show, though, there was a guy in the front row. He was really tall — probably about 6-foot-5, and he was on crutches. And he was just going crazy; you would have thought he had known us for years. We kept asking each other if one of us knew him, but nobody did. And the local news was out there (in the Old City, where the band opened for Sister Hazel) covering the concert, because it was a benefit show, and they were interviewing some people about it.
“And they talked to this guy while we were playing behind him! He kept referring to himself as ‘the Guv’nah’ — ‘I’m the Guv’nah,’ he’d say, and then he said, ‘This band is so dirty, I’m going to go home and burn my own house down.’ We didn’t ask too many questions, but we liked the weirdness of it all. The story was just too good to pass up, so when we started debating a name again, we thought, we have to name our band after this guy.”
That first EP followed quickly; winning a battle of the bands contest at the University of Tennessee earned the guys studio time to record their debut full-length, “Don’t Need No Money.” That album led to a steady string of shows around the area that gave the Guv’nahs street cred and a reputation as performers who pour everything they had into a live performance, and for their self-titled sophomore effort, they elected to work with noted producer Dave Barbe in Athens, Ga. After opening the Foothills Fall Festival in downtown Maryville in 2009, they headed to Woodstock, N.Y., and the recording studio of Levon Helm (drummer for The Band) for “Youth Is In Our Blood,” released last spring.
Along the way, the Guv’nahs have been named “Knoxville’s Best Band” three years running in the Metro Pulse readers poll, sold out The Bijou Theatre three times (including their most recent stint, a New Year’s Eve gig there) and made a kick-ass video for the song “Baby We Were Young,” from which the most recent album takes its name. It features comedian David Koechner, members of the band Paramore and WBIR-TV personalities, among others, daring the guys to do things like skydive, race around Bristol in their tour van and destroy their equipment with flaming arrows.
“The next level for us involves doing some self-made recordings,” Trimble said. “We’ve done a whole lot in the last five years, and we’ve learned a lot about everything – writing songs, recording music, the music industry. We’ve basically realized we can record some music that is really, really high caliber on our own. With not as many people buying music anymore, I really think that’s the answer than trying to continually record.
“We just spent a few nights at a cabin in Townsend, recording a couple of new songs. We might release four or five of them as an EP by the end of summer, or we might keep them and record a full-length. We’re just kind of listening to them and figuring it out as we go. Going up to Levon’s was an absolute dream of an experience, but it was also insane, logistically, trying to get six people up there.
“We’ll see what happens, and we’re hoping to release some kind of new music by the end of the summer,” he added. “We’ll be doing it ourselves, and it won’t sound like a Nashville studio, but we’re not a Nashville studio band.”
In the meantime, the guys are focusing hard on this weekend. It’s a challenge, Trimble said, covering the spread on two nights worth of ticket sales, but already they’ve sold roughly 1,000 tickets over them both.
“There are a couple of hundred tickets left to each show, but selling 1,000 was our goal, since we couldn’t do any more than 750 before,” he said. “Our big goal is to play The Tennessee Theatre in the fall.”
IF YOU GO
The Dirty Guv’nahs
PERFORMING WITH: Moon Taxi (on Friday), The Features (on Saturday)
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 22 and 23
WHERE: The Bijou Theatre, 803 S. Gay St., downtown Knoxville
HOW MUCH: $16.50 advance/$20 doors/$28 for both nights
The Dirty Guv’nah, “Wide Awake”: Right-click here (choose “Save Link As” or “Save Target As”)
The Dirty Guv’nahs, “We’ll Be The Light”: Right-click here (choose “Save Link As” or “Save Target As”)
The Dirty Guv’nahs, “Saguaro”: Right-click here (choose “Save Link As” or “Save Target As”)
The Dirty Guv’nahs, “Brown Little Bird”: Right-click here (choose “Save Link As” or “Save Target As”)
Buy “Youth Is in Our Blood,” the band’s most recent album, and other Dirty Guv’nahs merchandise: Click here
As a father, I worry about a great many things when it comes to my boy.
From very real concerns about school bullying and addiction to insane ones regarding asteroid strikes, I worry. Maybe that’s just me; maybe it’s part and parcel of being a parent. Regardless, I have to rein in my overactive imagination when it comes to nightmarish visions regarding his future.
One of those completely inconsequential worries, at least in the grand scheme of things, is that he may never know the unadulterated joy of the record store experience.
In today’s age of digital downloads, file sharing and iTunes, it’s completely plausible that a number of young people have never set foot in one of this area’s last remaining brick-and-mortar bastions of music, The Disc Exchange. When they can sit in front of a computer and download an album in 5 minutes, why should they make a trek to the foot of the Henley Street bridge, where DE sits at 2615 Chapman Highway? In a world that turns on immediate gratification, why wait for such a trip to listen to the new release by their favorite bands?
I’ll tell you why — because if you love music, there’s nothing like stepping into a store like DE. You’re immediately hit with a sense of reverence, and I like to think it’s something akin to what a Muslim feels upon approaching the gates to Mecca. I don’t say that to belittle a religious experience by the devout, because for those of us whose lives are centered around music, such a trip is a religious experience.
I can remember discovering Raven Records as a teen, back when it was tucked into a corner of “The Strip.” I’d start looking forward to Saturday trips down there on Sundays, because we’d hit Collect-a-World for comics and Raven for music. Back then, I was intimidated by the vast collection of cassettes and vinyl of all genres, so exotic-sounding to my young ears that I’d yearn to buy something new but, ultimately giving in to fear, fall back on a Doobie Brothers cassette or an old album by The Doors instead.
I could have asked the employees, but they were just as intimidating — smug and superior in their knowledge of all things rock, and I envied them for it. After all, they had a right to be smug, because they worked in a damn record store, which to a 16-year-old kid was just about the coolest job one could ever have. I still feel a twinge of that envy any time I visit DE. I’ve worked in retail, and I’ve worked in a music store, and there’s something intoxicating about picking out an obscure favorite, blasting it over the store’s stereo and grinning when customers come up to the counter, blown away by what they’re hearing, and ask, “What is this? It’s so good!”
In a store like Disc Exchange, whatever you hear, they have in stock … and then some. DVDs, posters, shirts, cool/collectible/offbeat trinkets and gadgets that should be sitting on my desk … they have it. Listening stations where you can cue up the latest releases and test-drive them … got those too. In-store performances, music magazines, instrument guides … check, check and check.
And more importantly, they have what your soul needs, even if you don’t know what it is. The soundtrack to your life, your heart, your relationship … your good times and bad times … your celebrations and periods of mourning and melancholy when you want to just wallow and play the same sad song over and over and over … they have all of those things. You can flip through the merchandise … read the liner notes … hold a disc (or a piece of vinyl) in your hands and admire the art and the colors and everything else that goes with it.
Have you ever noticed what a new CD smells like? It’s indescribable. It’s the smell of chemicals and ink and plastic, but it’s so much more — it’s the smell of possibility. You won’t get that from a digital download, no matter how pristeen it sounds. You have to hold it in your hand to fully appreciate its power, and stores like Disc Exchange allow you to do that.
I hope … I pray … they remain around, because I want to take my boy there when he gets older. I want to watch him wander the aisles, fascinated by everything he sees. I want to see him discover TV on the Radio (his favorite band at the moment) and all of that group’s early work for himself. I want him to buy posters that’ll piss his mother off or a T-shirt that earns a withering glance from a teacher.
I want him to know the majesty of music in a way iTunes will never be able to convey.
To that end, going to Record Store Day — which begins as soon as the doors to Disc Exchange open at 9 a.m. on Saturday, April 16 — is a good way to ensure that happens. It’s a nationwide celebration of independent record stores, and a number of bands are coming to the Disc Exchange on Saturday to be a part of it. It’s absolutely free, and a number of exclusive, Record Store Day-only releases by Fleet Foxes, Nirvana, Foo Fighters, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and a whole lot more will be sold (everything from 7-inch to 12-inch vinyl to limited edition CDs and more).
So show up. Be a part of. Support. The Disc Exchange needs it, but more importantly, the kids like my own need it, even if they don’t know it yet, either.
Here’s are the details for Record Store Day Knoxville at the Disc Exchange:
- 2 p.m.: Sam Quinn
- 3 p.m.: Kelsey’s Woods
- 4 p.m.: Hayes Carll
- 5 p.m.: Straight Line Stitch signing
- 6 p.m.: Mr. Mack
- 7 p.m.: Coolrunnings
Company of Thieves will also perform; time TBA
Food: Remedy Coffee available at 9 a.m., Campfire Hot Dogs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Frussies at 2 p.m.; Yazoo Beer will be sold as well.
The store is planning a sidewalk sale including CDs, DVDs, vinyl and boutique products, and if logistics work out, a film will be screened as well.
Dogs, toddlers, blankets, beer, barbecue, baseball … the only sign that Sunday afternoon at the Knoxville Botanical Garden was something other than a family reunion was the stage.
As Rhythm N’ Blooms 2011 came to a close, the conditions were ideal — warm weather and a backdrop of flowering trees and green grass rolling away to the east behind a bandstand where some incredible music was made. Whether it was the one-man powerhouse that was Joe Pug or the bombast of The Whigs or the refined honky tonk of Diamond Doves, the sounds that brought the festival to a close were sublime. And that doesn’t even take into account the crowds or the final act of the night, The Felice Brothers.
That crowd … man, that crowd. Everywhere I went throughout the weekend was an occasion to stop and talk for a minute with friends old and new. Sometimes, it was just a greeting, like when Scott Miller took a break from his soundcheck to shout a friendly profanity my way. Other times, it was the opportunity to stand side by side with Benny Smith of WUTK-FM and Rusty Odom of Blank Newspaper and drink in what we were seeing and hearing unfold before us.
On Sunday, from our vantage point at stage right, beside a friendly pit bull pup named Babycakes and a shaggy Golden Retriever who was keen to bury her snout in an impromptu run to Chandler’s, I was struck once again by how much I love this job that I do and the people with whom I work in the local music community. On a blanket near the back, local songbird Jill Andrews played with her son, who toddled up to doggies and friends wearing an oversized pair of blue noise-blocking headphones to protect his delicate eardrums from the amplified sounds of musical celebration.
I watched him and wondered if he’ll ever fully appreciate, the way that her fans do, what a local treasure his mother is. Her set on Friday night at The Square Room was a remarkable thing of beauty, a glimpse at a career that goes deeper into the emotional and spiritual ponderings of her own heart to mine those depths for the rest of us. As good as her and her work with the everybodyfields and her self-titled EP were, her forthcoming full-length — “The Mirror,” due June 7 — is a work of unrestrained boldness. The expression “singing her heart out” comes to mind, because such a cliche is the only thing that works. Watching her sing those songs, the cords in her neck pushing against her skin from the effort, you could see … could hear … that those songs were coming from a place of pain and life and everything that goes along with it.
It was certainly a highlight of the festival, but not the only one. Immediately following, Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside threw down an Americana hurting by way of Portland, Ore. With her perky little feet-shuffling and bobbed haircut and Buddy Holly glasses, you’d expect a voice that sounds chirping and sweet and high-pitched … and you’d be wrong. Ford belts out jazz-inflected rockabilly with the swagger of Wanda Jackson or Rosie Flores, and she makes it seem effortless. Tearing through her set like a musical tornado, she would have been a hard act to follow — had the next act not been the whimsical and charming Erin McKeown, who held her own as a girl with a guitar, some great stories and a stage presence that demanded attention.
Across Market Square, the men (and woman) of Valley Young got the music started in Black Market Square before running into a technical snafu, but they quickly got back on track, and the harmonies of Annabelle LaFoy and Artemus James called to mind the rootsy feel of Fleet Foxes. LaFoy, in particular, was stunning to behold — her voice resonates with power, yet she executes with the deftness of a lifelong professional who knows not to blow her bandmates off the stage. With James in the driver’s seat and some songs that caressed the emotions of beauty and melancholy in equal measure, it was a great way to end night one.
Saturday began at John Black Studio with a performance by local three-piece Kelsey’s Woods, where singer/guitarist Dave Kennedy confirms he’s one of the most underrated songwriters in East Tennessee. The gritty murder told on “Santa Fe,” the Civil War ballad “Union Wine” … in a town known for its prodigious songwriting talent, Kennedy deserves to be ranked up there with them all, and when fiddler Shawna Cypher joined in on harmony vocals for the last song, I was once again struck by how many beautiful female singers there are in this area as well. (And seriously, how cool is upright bass player Russ Torbett? Not only can he slap with the best of them, his easy camaraderie with Kennedy makes the between-song banter even more entertaining.)
A struggle to find food delayed our attendance at another show until checking out North Carolina-based Big Daddy Love at Latitude 35. They describe what they do as “Appalachian rock”; it reminded me of Donna the Buffalo with a Southern bent instead of a zydeco one. Electric and acoustic guitar, bass, drums, banjo and the ability to home in on a groove, lock it in and sustain it throughout the course of a song that might or might not incorporate some extended jams — these guys know how to entertain, as the dancers who got down front can attest. It was one of the few shows of the weekend where, after the last song, I found myself wishing it could have lasted longer.
Moving back to Black Market Square led to an unexpected discovery — Light Pilot, an act managed by Knoxville expatriate Lenore Kinder (who at one time shepherded Dixie Dirt). Four young guys who look like they should be playing emo — and in fact sound like it at times, but given the bluegrass/Americana bent to the music, those plaintive harmonies make what they do all the more engaging, different and very, very good.
Which leads me back to Sunday, and the festival itself. So many fantastic discoveries like Big Daddy Love and Light Pilot exemplify what Rhythm N’ Blooms wants to accomplish — introduce music fans to hard-working, great-sounding bands that they may not otherwise get a chance to see or hear. Even for a guy like myself who gets paid to do this, I don’t know when I would have made time to see out a Kelsey’s Woods or a Valley Young show, even though they’re worthy additions to the local music scene. Putting them on the bill for Rhythm N’ Blooms made sense sonically, but it also added to the treasure trove of talent that was scattered throughout the area this weekend for visitors and locals alike to discover. All it took was a few bucks, a little effort and an adventurous spirit.
Because by the time The Felice Brothers took the stage … a few minutes before the beer truck switched off its neon lights and allowed the shadows to swallow up the edges of the Sunday festival grounds … it was a time of reflection on so much seen and enjoyed, so much absorbed and appreciated. By that time, Jill had left to get the little one home … Cruz Contreras, who sat in with Sallie Ford and performed with Robinella and the CCstringband on Saturday, had vanished into the crowd … Jonathan Sexton of Jonathan Sexton and the Big Love Choir, currently sidelined by a case of shingles, was nowhere to be seen … Sam Quinn, previously seen backstage hanging with some of the Felice boys, had moved on.
Most of the crowd pressed to the front, swaying as a unit to familiar songs like “The Big Surprise” and losing their collective minds as a new song like “Ponzi” swirled to a crescendo of man-played and electronically generated percussion, the guys wailing on their instruments and scream-singing the refrain with glorious abandon. Lying in the cooling grass, my head in my wife’s lap, I stared up at the stars instead of the stage, but that’s OK. I could hear it all … and more importantly, I could feel it — the band serenading this year’s festival to sleep, and all of the beauty that had gone on before.