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Mike McGill at Steve Wildsmith

Steve Wildsmith

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Some parting thoughts on love and community and Waynestock 3 …

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There was a moment during Waynestock 3 when the tragedy that spawned this whole beautiful thing came rushing back.

Kevin Abernathy was on stage, singing his heartbreakingly gorgeous song, “Love Alone.” It’s a track that first appeared on his sophomore album, “Beautiful Thing,” and one he re-recorded for his most recent solo effort, “Some Stories.” It’s also the song he played on stage at The Bijou Theatre during Andrew Bledsoe’s memorial service.

Working the front door with Andrew’s dad, Wayne — the guy for whom Waynestock is named — I caught a glimpse of it in the man’s eyes, which brimmed with tears. It wasn’t the only time he got emotional over the weekend — his remarks to the assembled crowd before the all-star jam that brought Waynestock to a close included a few as well — but it was a reminder of how Waynestock started.

“There would be laughter, bouncing off the walls … smiles in photographs up and down the halls … if you could live on love alone …”

The tears, however, were few and far between.

This year’s Waynestock rose money for the Community School of the Arts. Although the past two Waynestocks were held in response to tragedies — the death of Andrew in late 2010 was the catalyst for Waynestock 1, held in early 2011, and the death of beloved local musician Phil Pollard in late 2011 was the driving force behind last year’s event — this year was different. As one of the organizers, I freely admit my uncertainty of how well another Waynestock would be received without such visceral pain driving the momentum.

It’s human nature, really. When Andrew died, those of us who love Wayne wanted to do something, anything, to help our friend. Everyone we asked, from Daniel Schuh at Relix Variety Theatre (the gracious home of Waynestock since the beginning) to the musicians who played that first year to the sponsors who helped get the word out to the donors who gave of their time and equipment, agreed to take part without hesitation. The folks who came to see the music gave generously above and beyond the $5 cover. After such a weekend of magic and beauty, it seemed impossible that we could repeat its success.

But we did, last year. Again, tragedy was the catalyst, but remembrance and love became the legacy. And while there was no single beneficiary, no fallen friend or loved one, to whom Waynestock was dedicated this year, love remains the post-Waynestock emotion that best sums up the whole weekend.

“Tangled up in kisses, on the side of the road, still running on empty with a million miles to roll, if you could live on love alone …”

The doors opened Friday night to a dedicated group of Con Hunley fans who had driven all the way to Nashville and arrived four hours before he was scheduled to take the stage. Warrior-poet Black Atticus charmed and entertained, and Abernathy was the perfect lead-in to the night’s big event.

Every act who took the stage at Waynestock made fans of those in attendance who’d never heard them before, but the act that brought in the most people was Con Hunley, backed by Mic Harrison & The High Score. For Mic and the boys, it was a big deal; family members came to see them share the stage with an icon, and they were in fine form. Mic and guitarists Robbie Trosper and Chad Pelton provided killer licks and sweet backing vocals for Con’s amped-up brand of country soul, and when they opened the show (after Mic and the boys warmed up everybody with “The Colonel Is Dead”) with a rousing, juke-joint inspired version of “Livin’ on the Funky Side,” the exhilaration was palpable. Con’s older fans felt rejuvenated (and even got their balladeer fix on with a few of his slower-tempo numbers), and fans of the local music scene were content to watch in wonder as history was made with Hunley’s return to Central Avenue.

It was the sort of magic that defines Waynestock, and it would be repeated throughout the event. The Rockwells, absent from the local scene for a few years now (save for a single performance last May), were as enthusiastic as the dancers that crowded the stage during their set, with mild-mannered Tommy Bateman peeling off one killer pop-rock lick after another and Jonathan Kelly managing an impressive leap mid-song that would have made Pete Townsend proud. The Mutations, performing in front of a screening of the 1967 Peter Fonda flick “The Trip,” kept the dancers happy, with Harold Heffner getting down among them for a fired-up and impassioned version of Sam Cooke’s “Twistin’ the Night Away.” Yak Strangler, featuring Andrew’s brother, Rylan, on drums, wrapped up Friday night, and with winter weather moving in throughout the day on Saturday, the turnout for night two appeared, at first, to be in doubt.

Those who stayed at home missed a hell of an exotic set from Saturday’s two openers, the Gypsy jazz-influenced Kukuly and the Gypsy Fuego and the klezmer band Dor L’Dor. (Dor L’Dor dad/bandleader Ken Brown even brought out the shofar, the traditional Jewish ram’s horn pipe, for the group’s finale.) Johnny Astro and the Big Bang steered everyone back to the middle of the road with some straight-ahead American rock ‘n’ roll done to perfection, and the Americana outfit Guy Marshall proved that it’s East Tennessee’s answer to the beloved and long-running Murfreesboro band Glossary. Sam Quinn and his Americana power-trio co-horts — Tom Pryor and Jamie Cook of the Black Lillies — were the perfect lead-in to the grand finale.

“Too bad the heart has to have a mind, to tell it what to do when the eyes are blind …”

And once again, art and community and love were elevated into something else. Magic seems too hokey, too generic, to describe it, but what other word fits? What other word accurately captures the wonder of seeing the Tim Lee 3 (Tim and Susan Bauer Lee with drummer Chris Bratta) sharing the stage with Greg Horne, Mike McGill, Kevin Abernathy, R.B. Morris, Black Atticus and Jodie Manross? Atticus flowing smooth the lyrics of R.L. Burnside’s “Snake Drive” while the band powered behind him like a growling muscle car … the boogy-woogy honky-tonk of McGill and the rest howling through his original, “Women, Whiskey and Pain” … Sam Quinn, grinning like a madman and watching the Lees blister through his haunting takes on Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” and “Cortez the Killer” … Manross and Morris, trading lead as well as Bonnie Raitt and John Prine ever did on Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” … the whole damn family, wrapping up the night with a gloriously ramshackle version of Morris’s “Distillery” … that’s the stuff that Waynestock is made of. That’s the juice.

That is magic.

“There’d be no children troubled in their sleep, nothing else desired, nothing else to need, if you could live on love alone …”

After the house lights went up and the instruments were packed away and the last drinks poured, those of us who conceived of this thing felt like exhausted children on Christmas night. We take no credit for the creation of that magic, and like everyone else who walked away amazed and grinning and wearing those “did-that-just-happen?” expressions of slack-jawed joy, we recognize that Waynestock is so much more than just us. It’s so much more than Andrew Bledsoe and Phil Pollard, who no doubt were in the house and dancing and grinning along with the rest of us over the weekend. It’s so much more than the assuaging of grief and the remembrance of those departed and the banding together to overcome tragedy.

It is about celebration. It is about unity. It is about beauty and music and lifting up what is so good and right about this beautiful, brilliant and occasionally bizarre scene. It is about raising a flag in Happy Holler and declaring, “WE ARE KNOXVILLE.”

If we could live on love alone, then we would never have to leave Relix. The kegs would never run dry and the bottles would never dwindle. The sound would never be muddied and the instruments would stay tuned and the infinite possibilities of musical mayhem would play out for the rest of our days.

Love alone, unfortunately, isn’t always enough. And in a way, that’s OK, because Waynestock then becomes this bubble, this magical (yeah, yeah; there’s that damn word again) world to which a door is opened once a year and everything good about who we are as musicians and music lovers and human beings who call Knoxville, Tenn., home manifests itself in vibrant, vivid ways. Shutting that door for another year — and knowing there’s no guarantee it will open again — is bittersweet, but something tells me this will happen again. Part of me screams that it must. It’s too good, too special, to not revisit.

Besides, the key is simple … love. It opens the door. Love alone is all that’s needed to get back to the place that Waynestock shows us is possible. Love alone … well, sometimes it is enough.

Jeff Barbra gracefully bows out of The Drunk Uncles

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The-Drunk-Uncles1The Drunk Uncles: (From left) Jeff Barbra, Mike McGill, Eric Keeble, Gordy Gilbertson and Aram Takvoryan

Jeff Barbra and The Drunk Uncles have parted ways, but both parties are reporting the split is amicable, mutual and in no way reflects any sort of bad feelings or bad blood.

Barbra, a Blount County resident who’s been working as a singer-songwriter, most often with his wife, Sarah Pirkle, for years, formed the Uncles with another local tunesmith (Mike McGill, who’s also doing the solo thing and playing as part of the Barstool Romeos with Barbra’s brother-in-law, Andy Pirkle), told us he simply feels led in another direction.

“It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, and it wasn’t an easy decision,” Barbra said. “But it’s like my pappaw used to say: If you can’t do something 100 percent, you shouldn’t do it at all. I’m just going where my heart leads me and trying to do what feels right.”

According to Barbra, the increase in church performances and house concerts with Pirkle has fanned the flames of his desire to have a conversation with fans. He and Pirkle were saved and joined a local church a couple of years ago, which led to the creation of last year’s gospel album, “Family Singing.”

“When we play in someone’s basement or in a church, you get to talk to people; really talk to them,” Barbra said. “A lot of times, that leads them to wanting me and Sarah to tell our story, which is as rewarding as anything I’ve ever done.”

In addition, the Sunday morning radio program “In the Spirit,” which he and Pirkle co-host for WFIV-FM i105, has brought the couple additional opportunities and is taking up more time, something he’s not complaining about at all.

According to McGill, the Uncles will soldier on, although the loss of Barbra will be a heavy one. At this time, there are no plans to mothball the retro-c0untry outfit, although carrying on will mean reconfiguring how the band — which includes bassist Aram Takvoryan, drummer Eric Keeble and fiddler/vocalist/songwriter Gordy Gilbertson — does so.

“We will fulfill all of our obligations, which includes a May date at Toot’s (Little Honky Tonk in Downtown North Knoxville) and another show in June,” McGill said. “Eric will probably play some electric (guitar), and I may, too. And Eric and Aram will both be singing, at least on harmony, to fill in that hole. We’re not sure how it’s going to work — we may have a couple of different drummers filling in — but the Uncles will go on.”

The band’s new album, which began last year at Music Row Studios, is still on deck as well, McGill said, but there’s no timetable for its completion — or whether it’ll be re-cut to reflect the band’s new lineup. Barbra’s songs, as well as his studio contributions before he left the band, are still planned for inclusion.

Both men say their friendship is intact, and neither rules out a return to the stage with the Uncles by Barbra, either as a guest or at some point down the road. For now, however, they’re focused on doing what’s best for them as individuals, and while it won’t be the same for them — or for the rest of us, for that matter — whenever the Uncles play “On Tap, In the Can or In the Bottle” or “Drunk Talkin’,” it’s with relief and admiration that we wish both parties the best on their new journeys.

“It’s a little sad, no doubt,” McGill said. “Going back to when Jeff joined White Oak Flats (the Sevier County-based show band that was a predecessor of the Uncles) and us playing together through the Uncles, we’ve had a lot of fun, and we’ve become more than friends; we’ve become brothers. We wish him nothing but the best, and we respect that he feels led to do something else.”

“No band is bigger than friendship,” added Barbra, who said that his resignation is effective immediately. “Those guys are still my best buddies in the world. We’ll still see each other, and we’ll still hang out and pick a little bit. But this is what I feel called to do now. I have no regrets, because playing with the Uncles and watching people get up and dance and have a good time was a whole lot of fun. But I’m looking forward to seeing where this new calling takes me.”

Written by wildsmith

April 16th, 2012 at 3:08 pm

The Drunk Uncles to send off 2010 in style, look ahead to productive 2011

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w-drunkunclesPhoto courtesy of William Foster

The Drunk Uncles may not be any more sober than fans have come to expect, but like all experienced drinkers, they might be getting a little more philosophical while in their cups.

(NOTE: This is a metaphor. The Drunk Uncles are not, in fact, a bunch of drunks.)

As the slimmed-down old-school country outfit prepares for its final show of the year at Southbound Bar and Grill, 106 S. Central St. in Knoxville’s Old City, next Thursday, Dec. 23, the guys — guitarists/songwriters Jeff Barbra and Mike McGill, bassist Aram Takvoryan, fiddler/songwriter Gordy Gilbertson and drummer Eric Keeble — are rethinking how they go about music and looking ahead to a new album in 2011.

“We had a practice the other day in my living room, out of necessity, so we said, ‘Let’s not set up a full drum kit, let’s not break out the electric guitars — let’s jam on some new songs,’” Barbra told The Daily Times this week. “We worked on some originals from Mike and from me, and we sat down and got more done and had more fun than we’ve had in a year. We put down six new original songs and got a list of 19 songs to pick from for the new record.

“We started digging the sound of Mike and I taking leads on the flat-top, swapping back and forth. It leaves more room for vocals to breathe and be out front. When you’re playing electric, by the end of the night everybody’s on 11, and you have to scream the vocals to get them out there.”

In fact, Barbra said, the band is seriously considering doing more low-key shows in that vein — acoustic guitars, Keeble using brushes and a snare, adding some different elements — like his and McGill’s lifelong love of bluegrass — to change up the sound and get out of that rowdy bar band niche that the boys have done so well for several years now.

“It’s nice to do something different, and we’ve all loved bluegrass and played it since we were kids,” Barbra said. “That doesn’t mean we’re not gonna do the country thing — we still love that, and we’re still going to plug in and play the hardcore stuff. But I think we can make that jive with doing some more acoustic stuff and some more bluegrass stuff. It’s not going to turn into this jammy, hippie-sounding thing. We’re not going to turn into Phish — although I wish I had their money.”

Some of the change has to do with the loss of pedal steel from the band’s sound — former member Brock Henderson left the group to focus more on his own band, The Brockefellers, and while the guys dabbled with fill-in steel players (as well as local harp maestro Michael Crawley on harmonica for a few shows), finding a permanent replacement has been rough, Barbra said.

“Everybody’s busy — if you play pedal steel in this area, you’ll never go without work,” he said.

Satisfied with their sound, the guys are also more at peace with the business side of things. After releasing “Smashed Hits” in 2009 — a phenomenal concept record that featured a number of covers and a handful of originals built around a band playing in a bar — the time seemed right for the Uncles to go places. And they did, for a while — playing some out of town dates, capitalizing on the momentum of the CD and earning ink for shows like the Rhythm N’ Blooms Festival held earlier this year, when during their show at The Bijou Theatre, they threw cans of beer to thirsty audience members after the venue’s bar shut down before the Uncles had finished playing.

“We’re all kind of on the same page these days,” Barbra said. “We sat down and just jammed, and it was like, ‘Alright, let’s not over-think things. Let’s not think about any business crap, let’s just sit down and jam on some songs.’ And when we did it was like, ‘Oh hell — that’s why we’re together.’ We figured out we all like the same music, and we’re all going for the same thing.”

In January, the guys hope to get back into the studio with local wizard (and Moonshine Cherrys drummer) Scott Rader at Music Row Studios in Maryville, the same guy who recorded “Smashed Hits” as well as “Walking Tall Through High Weeds,” the solo album released earlier this year by Barbra’s wife, Sarah Pirkle.

“We love working with him, and this time I’d say it’ll be a more traditional record,” Barbra said. “We’re rolling right now with eight to nine original songs, and we may have four covers and a few hidden tracks.”

IF YOU GO

The Drunk Uncles

  • PERFORMING WITH: Van Eaton, Andy Pirkle
  • WHEN: 9 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 23
  • WHERE: Southbound Bar and Grill, 106 S. Central St., Knoxville’s Old City
  • HOW MUCH: $7
  • CALL: (865) 474-1038
  • ONLINE: http://www.thedrunkuncles.com