Even when things went wrong this weekend at Waynestock 2, they felt so very, very right.
Granted, there were few difficulties or problems as the three-day tribute to/fundraiser for the family of the late Phil Pollard took place at Relix Variety Theatre in “Happy Holler,” that beautiful neighborhood of North Knoxville where hipsters shop at the new Three Rivers Market and hookers walk the cracked sidewalks. In fact, the only real problem I can think of is the inability to Skype in Matt Morelock, Phil’s best friend and an honorary member of the Band of Humans, who wrapped up the weekend with a ramshackle jam filled with more joy and exuberance and barely controlled chaos than a traveling carnival.
The band wanted to bring Morelock, who left for Hawaii earlier in the week, into the fray courtesy of an Internet connection. Matt was primed, the technology was tested, the setlist was worked out. As with anything technological, however, there were hiccups — the inability to remove the curtains covering the giant screen at the Relix, for example, or the difficulty Matt had in hearing and seeing the band, which opened its set in near darkness to accommodate Matt’s dim image broadcast onto the curtains behind them.
Everyone was hoping for a cool addition to the song — Matt on ukulele, playing in time to the music of his bandmates thousands of miles away. What we all experienced went beyond cool and into the arena of the surreal, a glorious trainwreck of bizarre that showcased Morelock’s bearded face, a dozen feet across, bobbing in wide-eyed frenzy almost-in-tune, occasionally hanging up in a frozen comical expression while the band played on.
Somewhere, Phil Pollard was doubled over laughing and applauding. It was a moment that was so crazy and so-very Phil.
Phil’s presence loomed large in life; it only made sense that even in death, his mischievous nature pervaded throughout the weekend. How else can one explain that, of all the raffle prizes given away — from Bonnaroo passes to an autographed guitar — that Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, who stopped by for a few hours on Friday night and purchased two raffle tickets, wound up with a portrait of Phil drawn by a homeless man? It was a seemingly innocuous raffle prize, one that probably would have meant nothing to someone at the concert simply to hear good music and hoping to win something cool. But Phil had a point to make, it would seem, and the drawing — brought to Morelock by a man who asked only that it be raffled and the money given to Phil’s “babies” — went to the mayor. The crowd roared with approval when her name was read, and I’d like to think that Phil Pollard’s visage, hanging in the office of a progressive mayor who supports the arts and garnered the adoration of so many of them in her bid for election, is some kind of sign.
The entire weekend, it seemed, was one big sign — that when something bad happens, we in the Knoxville music scene know how to make it right. Like last year, the tribe was gathered, the instruments were brought out, and grief became celebration. All three nights were sublime, and though it may sounded hackneyed to say so, every single act that graced the Waynestock stage brought a particular piece of magic to the tapestry of events that healed and consoled even as it entertained.
The little moments are the things I’ll remember about Waynestock — last year and the two nights I attended, Friday and Saturday, this year. Sara Schwabe and Her Yankee Jass Band, scatting through “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and other tunes that started off Friday night with a touch of class and grace … The Lonetones, opening their set with a gorgeous song (”Top Hat”) that seemed so imbued with Phil’s spirit that the painting of him, brought by his widow, Dawn, and set on the front of the stage in a place of conspicuous honor, seemed to shimmer in the footlights … R.B. Morris, toasting Phil and two other tough losses this week, Ed Corts and Rocky Wynder, with such resounding emphasis it surely summoned their souls to the festivities as well … bringing Tim Lee to the stage to end his set with a rousing, barn-burning version of “Riding With O’Hanlon” … Whisk-Hutzel madman Will Fist power-stroking through a guitar solo on “Get There First” during the Tim Lee 3 set that Lee’s goatee seemed to smoke … and the zany insanity of King Super and the Excellents‘ frontman Dave Bowers, howling his way through Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone,” his Afro waving like wind-driven tree branches every time he jumped or head-banged or danced, of which he did a lot. By the time LiL iFFY and the Magic Hu$tle crew took the stage, spitting gangsta-wizard rhymes over DJ Tom Ato’s atom-smashing beats, the night seemed impossible to top. But then came Saturday.
The wise-ass country-rock of The French … the urgency and utterly cool hip-hop/rock combination of The Theorizt … the always capable Todd Steed, leading the Suns of Phere through familiar numbers and a few Smokin’ Dave surprises that delighted long-time fans … Senryu, whipping us into a frenzy with “I Am A Battering Ram,” a song I screamed along to so loudly I started to lose my voice. Recalling favorite Waynestock moments is a little like sitting around with friends after a particularly engaging, mind-blowing movie, deconstructing it bit-by-bit, recalling favorite parts, re-enacting favorite lines. By the time Pollard’s family addressed the crowd and Scott and Bernadette West of Preservation Pub came up to introduce the Band of Humans, the weekend was already, by unanimous acclaim, a success.
In the beginning, it was unclear if the Humans would perform at this weekend’s event. We, the organizers, wanted them to, and I think many of the members themselves wanted to do it. But the band was so much Phil’s baby, his lifeblood, that doing it without him seemed to them, I think, almost impossible. No doubt, the pain of their loss was still stung, even over the weekend, but in the end, they agreed to play. And I think … I hope … they go into a new week so very glad they did.
It was beautiful madness. At one point, I counted 13 people on stage, among them members of The Lonetones, Schwabe herself, Black Atticus of The Theorizt and Jack Rentfro. The latter two, along with Bowers of King Super and even Phil’s oldest daughter, filled in for the big man on certain songs, and Bowers and Atticus delivered a blistering turn on “Land of the Living” that could not be denied in terms of power, beauty and truth.
We all come from the land of the living, and Phil’s song taught us to treasure that. Yes, we mourn his passing — as we do that of Rocky, Ed and Andrew Bledsoe, the festival’s namesake — but we gathered to celebrate his life, his enormous spirit, his bottomless well of talent. The magic that was Waynestock last year was very much alive this year, and as Sunday night begins to fade into Monday morning, I find it still impossible to fathom.
How, exactly, did we get so lucky? How did we wind up with such a beautiful scene, filled with so many people of equal parts talent and heart? How did East Tennessee become such a bastion of brotherly (and sisterly) love? I do not know, but I am so very, very grateful and humbled and honored to be a part of it.
Driving home down rain-glistening Central Street after the final night of Waynestock 2, my wife and I drove past Southbound in Knoxville’s Old City, a patron sat on the sidewalk. Two of Knoxville’s finest stood over him, one offering a towel, the other taking notes. Those standing in line gaped in curiosity, and as we navigated those hopping from one side the street to the other, I saw that the front of his shirt was covered in blood. I pitied him, not for his busted nose, but for the fact he would never know the serenity and bliss those of us at Waynestock were feeling that night. I pitied whatever anger and conflict he had been a part of, because that negativity seemed so counter-intuitive to what we all at Waynestock wanted — for ourselves, for Phil’s family and for everyone in our beautiful little city.
If I sound like I’ve devolved into maudlin hippie-esque drivel, I apologize. It is not my intent for something that feels so sacred to be painted with a saccharine recall that renders such a telling of the weekend’s events as unrealistic. I assure you, it is not. Ask anyone who was there … and make plans to be there next year.
Because we will do this again. Right now, I’m running on enough good will and love to do it again next weekend, although of course that’s a lofty and impossible expectation. But it will happen again; of that, I’m certain. I want it. Anyone who was there wants it. And more importantly, those who have passed on would want it. We owe them, but more importantly, we owe ourselves such opportunities on a regular basis to circle the wagons, take care of our own and show each other and everyone else in our community the better angels of our nature.