Archive for March, 2012
Confession: I’m an idiot.
The lovely Zoe Ruth-Erwin, Knoxville expatriate now living on the West Coast and bandleader of the indie-rock project Little Red Lung, reached out to me several months ago. She was in the middle of recording “Little Red Lung,” a self-titled EP that follows up “Get on the Boat,” which she recorded before she left East Tennessee in the fall of 2010. She was excited about the new material, and while I fell in love with her gossamer voice back then, I never managed to find time to give it a listen.
Now, I have. And I’m a moron for not doing it before now, for it is a thing of beauty, filled with magic and labyrinthine twists and turns that defy expectations.
Ruth-Erwin first came to East Tennessee from Los Angeles after striking up a friendship with Senryu genius Wil Wright. Wright was on tour at the time with Physics of Meaning; the two stayed in touch, and Ruth-Erwin, who also works as a photographer, stopped through Knoxville to see Wright during a photo tour of the South. She liked it so much she stayed, joining forces with Wright’s merry band of artists and scenesters (Senryu drummer Steven Rodgers and band friend/collaborator Cecilia Miller both provide their skills to the latest Little Red Lung release) and she quickly established her photography business on a local level, and she took up music again.
Upon moving to Knoxville, she hadn’t tried writing a song in several years. Even then, the thought of performing them in public was terrifying — crippling stage fright had, in her past, led to bouts of nausea both before and after a show. But in Knoxville, she built up her confidence at Senryu performances — singing at many of them, accepting Wright’s encouragement and bonding with the other musicians in his circle. And after a couple of Little Red Lung releases in East Tennessee, she went back to Los Angeles, and the fruits of her labor are wondrous to behold.
The new EP opens with “50 Fingers,” a shuffling march that seems to draw inspiration from Rasputina or My Brightest Diamond or any number of other female-fronted projects that rely on a quirky combination of cabaret and vaudeville to craft a mood as much as a song. A sense of unease rests just below the surface, and the listener gets the impression that Ruth-Erwin is hiding something sinister behind her crocodile smile.
That unease transforms into urgency on the plaintive “Ink Blot,” the EP’s high point, in my opinion. “Your better half is on parade / internal organ pop display / stars just as deadly as the day …” — I’m still wrapping my head around the song, but I close my eyes upon listening and get the sense that Erwin is trying to tell me something VERY. IMPORTANT. And she’s getting frantic about making me understand. Things slow down on the languid “Rare Bird,” and “Fangs” drifts ethereal before transitioning “Into a Landfill,” the next song. Again with that beautiful urgency, and by “Strangling Tree,” the album’s closer, that sense of unease so prescient from the beginning has grown into a complex tapestry of shadows. Ruth-Erwin offers you her hand, but you’re almost afraid to take it.
Throughout endless listens, I kept coming back to a number of comparisons — the aforementioned Rasputina and My Brightest Diamond … Tori Amos … Wye Oak … but nothing fits, exactly. Trying to determine a point of reference for Little Red Lung is like searching for that elusive fit in a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle: You can find dozens that almostbutnotquite line up the way you want it to, but not the one you need.
And perhaps that’s a good thing, because it means Ruth-Erwin stands alone, on her own. She’s part of a full band these days, but it’s still her baby, and it paints her as complex and emotional and artistic a woman as ever. She’s the mysterious beauty who intimidates and captivates, the girl you don’t quite understand but can’t stop thinking about. Hopefully, she’ll find an audience on the West Coast that feels the same way, because those of us who know her and love what she does back here in East Tennessee would accept her back into our fold immediately and with great joy.
Sundown in the City circa 2010, courtesy of the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corporation’s website
I can’t remember the last time I attended a Sundown in the City concert.
It may have been the summer of 2007, when local favorites (mine, at least) Dixie Dirt opened for the Drive-By Truckers. DD wasn’t long for the scene, and they were pulling double duty that night — first at Sundown, later at Barley’s Taproom in the Old City.
I remember it was hot and crowded and intense — so much so that we cut out a few songs in the DBT set. Good as they were, it just felt wrong. I believe a great band that’s playing its heart out should have the attention of those in attendance, and even five years ago, it was obvious that Sundown had become a destination as much as a concert.
It didn’t used to be that way. When it started as a single concert in 1997, the free concert series drew large but respectful audiences, and it’s fair to say the series had something to do with the revitalization of downtown Knoxville. 15 years ago, downtown after dark wasn’t exactly a desirable date destination, to say nothing of bringing your young kids down there.
Now, it’s a hub of activity at all hours of the day and night. Restaurants, venues, retail spaces, residential buildings have come together to give Knoxville a sort of urban sophistication that’s still quaint, given the city’s size, but also incredibly cool. And that coolness began with the music.
As a music writer, it’s been an incredible experience to document. I’ve interviewed dozens of artists who came to play Sundown, from Steve Winwood and Gillian Welch in 2004 to Sleater-Kinney in 2005 to Little Feat in 2006 to George Thorogood, Ozomatli and the Avett Brothers in 2007 to Jamey Johnson, Grace Potter and Arrested Development in 2009. Looking back on those names, all I can think about is how blessed we were to get such diversity — and such up-and-coming artists before they exploded.
Perfect example — The Avetts. They’d only started playing Knoxville a couple of years prior, doing occasional free shows at Preservation Pub, but they’re such genuinely good dudes and burn with such passion for music that they’re undeniable. The folks at AC Entertainment saw that early on, and this year, they’re one of the headliners for Bonnaroo. They’re getting ready to put out their second major-label release produced by the iconic Rick Rubin, and the last time they came to East Tennessee, they filled up Smokies Stadium.
Is it any wonder, then, that as the schedule grew from a few concerts early on to more than two dozen at the height of the series that people started coming? They came for the music, and they helped make downtown a destination, and then everybody was coming to downtown just to be downtown. Market Square turned into a sea of people on Thursday nights, and while many businesses didn’t mind, a few did — along with the people who had moved to the area and had to contend with traffic, drunks and throngs of people milling around in what amounted to their backyards.
I remember looking around at everyone on that particular evening. Hundreds were paying rapt attention to the bands … but hundreds more were wandering around, poking their heads in various shops, talking on cell phones, looking for their children, who seemed to be turn loose like crazed ferrets to roam the downtown landscape at will. “Too big,” I thought. “This thing is too big.”
Maybe it was … but it was good for Knoxville. And even though I never made another Sundown show, there was something reassuring about the idea that, if I so choose, I could head over on a fine Thursday evening, see some great live music and still be home in time to watch the 11 p.m. news.
This morning, AC announced that Sundown’s time had come to an end.
“… after having initially scaled back to five bi-weekly events two years ago, it has become clear to us that Sundown in the City simply no longer fits its Market Square home,” company founder Ashley Capps says in a press release. “With that in mind, AC Entertainment is electing to look towards the future. We will, of course, continue to book and produce the great shows and programs at the Tennessee Theatre and the U.S. Cellular Stage at the Bijou Theatre. We are also looking forward to putting our time, energy, and resources into bringing new festival concepts to life in downtown Knoxville in the near future. And…who knows? We may ultimately find a way to reinvent Sundown at some point.”
Facebook, et. al. was abuzz with word of the cancellation, and it was almost as if a collective “Awwwww …” went up from everyone. No doubt, many people who loved Sundown during its early years found themselves turned off by the event’s growth into a social hangout more than a concert, and others, I’m sure, hated that their favorite off-the-beaten-path restaurant or bar turned into a subway station on Thursday nights in the spring and summer. But aside from a vocal few, we loved Sundown — the music, certainly, but also the fact that the music was happening in the middle of downtown Knoxville.
What a town. And even though the city center is a big boy that can walk on its own these days, I’m sure many people will find themselves with a lot of time on their hands on Thursday nights this spring, and more than a few who happen to be on Market Square will stare wistfully toward the stage and wonder when the music might start up again.
Brent Thompson (left) and Lauren Lazarus, cutting up on the set of “11 O’Clock Rock”
Major bummer: After News-Sentinel business reporter Carly Harrington broke the news today that Internet broadcasting company Knox ivi has ceased operations (its offices at 17 Market Square have already been cleaned out, apparently), condolences are pouring forth for the two hosts of the show “11 O’Clock Rock.”
Brent Thompson and Lauren Lazarus anchored the company’s flagship show for almost 600 episodes, no mean feat when you consider they were on the air for an hour each day, five days a week. It was a laid-back, conversational format, and it introduced many web-browsing individuals to some great regional, local and national bands.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to put a spotlight on our local music and arts scene here in Knoxville, to represent it to the rest of the world and also be a welcoming ambassador for this city to folks who came and played here,” Thompson told me this afternoon. “I love the role of representing Knoxville and East Tennessee as a whole. Music and arts are what I live for, and in the next life I’ll be doing the same thing.”
Thompson declined to go into specifics, but he pointed to the long-suffering economy as the main cause of the company’s decision to fold.
“Look at TV, print and radio — the media industry has taken a hit, and we were the newest kid on the block,” he said. “In different times, or in a different town, we might have succeeded. As it is, we put in a lot of hard work, and we thought we were close to turning a corner, but we just couldn’t get there. We had a super incredibly talented team who did a lot of good work. A lot of heart went into that show.”
One of Thompson’s fondest memories is the April Fool’s Day episode where everyone involved with the company — and along Market Square, it seemed — was in on the joke. Pranksters called Thompson the night before and informed him the next day’s musical guests had canceled, and thus the plan was set in motion.
“I came in, and the replacement band was just awful,” Thompson said with a chuckle. “They were couldn’t play, they couldn’t pull it together, they acted like a couple of crackheads. Then, I happened to go over to Latitude 35 — we were doing some work with them at the time — and a big fight broke out, and they started accusing us of stuff. It was just crazy.”
Once the cameras started rolling, the “band” sounded even worse than it had during soundcheck. Thompson instructed producers to cut to commercial and went to confront the guys … but the cameras were still rolling. Finally, they let him off the hook.
“It was just hysterical,” Thompson said.
Cheers, good sir. You were a good sport and an even better host, and you and your partner-in-crime, Ms. Lazarus, will be missed.
The show’s website will remain online for the time being, and there are plenty of clips on the show’s YouTube channel as well. In the meantime, Thompson and Lazarus are both looking for additional acting opportunities, and Thompson continues to pursue his music career. He plays next at The Well, 4620 Kingston Pike, on March 22.
Shovels and Rope — Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst
Last week, we told you about the first month of shows coming up at “The Shed” at Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson, 1820 W. Lamar Alexander Parkway in Maryville, and we mentioned the “Free Concert Fridays” series that we’d blogged about several weeks ago.
Now, SMH-D, The Daily Times and Cherokee Distributing have the first three Free Concert Friday performers locked in. They include:
- April 13: Local country-rockers Mic Harrison & The High Score
- May 11: Shovels and Rope, a duo featuring singer-songwriters/husband-wife Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent
- June 8: Jenna and Her Cool Friends, a local lounge-blues combo featuring several area all-stars
The concerts will continue through September and will feature local and regional artists performing an early set in a family-friendly environment meant to mimic Knoxville’s Sundown in the City festivities.
“We are excited to partner with The Daily Times and Cherokee Distributing to bring this free concert series to Maryville, and the surrounding communities. The series is absolutely free, open to the public, and a great way to meet new friends and kick off the weekend.” said Scott Maddux, Owner and General Manager of Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson and The Shed, in a press release.
For more information call the dealership at 977-1669.
Modern rock trio Chevelle will perform Thursday (March 8 ) at The Valarium in Knoxville, and in interviewing drummer/co-founder Sam Loeffler for last week’s Daily Times Weekend section, he reminisced on shows past in Knoxville.
In 2010, he remembers, Chevelle came through with Shinedown, 10 Years, Puddle of Mudd and Sevendust as part of an arena tour that ravaged the Civic Coliseum; that night, Chevelle bandmates Pete and Dean Bernardini headed over to The Valarium to see the Smashing Pumpkins play. And the last time Chevelle rocked Knoxville, some shady T-shirt vendors came up empty-handed, he recalled with a laugh.
“We were sitting outside the tour bus in lawn chiars and we saw all these bootleggers running back and forth, selling T-shirts and stuff,” he said. “We found out later on where they had stashed their shirts, and we took all of them. They were selling them for $10 per shirt, and our merch guy was blown away. He wanted to find them and asked who they used to print those shirts! They were these nice five-color designs, and probably cost $6 to make.”