Knoxville: Center for the Avant-Garde
Nobody really knows what to expect from the Big Ears Festival, scheduled for a cross-section of downtown and center-city venues just a little more than a month from now. The lineup, set to perform at the Bijou Theater, Pilot Light, and the Square Room on Feb. 5-7, includes some of the biggest names in contemporary boundary-pushing music: Philip Glass, Michael Gira, Ned Rothenberg, The Necks, Dan Deacon, Matmos, Antony and the Johnstons. However, none of them—with the exception of Glass—are the kinds of artists who regularly fill seats in mid-size cities. This isn’t the kind of music AC Entertainment, the principle organizers of the event, book for Sundown in the City, after all. Most of the Big Ears artists play small clubs to tiny but dedicated crowds, even in big cities.
Will people in Knoxville pay $195 for a festival pass? Will enough people come from outside of town for the event to break even?
Best-Case Scenario: Big Ears could be an avant-garde version of Bonnaroo, with an international audience flooding downtown Knoxville for three days of experimental music, lectures, seminars, and performance art. Knoxville gets positive reviews for its progressive culture in Artforum and Philip Glass accepts a position in the University of Tennessee’s music department and moves into a Gay Street condo.
Worst-Case Scenario: Nobody comes. The national press will make fun of us for the paltry local attendance, and we finally learn the answer to the age-old question: If a minimalist composer performs in an 800-seat theater and nobody’s there, does he make a sound?
Can an Old Dogwood Learn New Tricks?
The Dogwood Arts Festival promises to make some creative changes this year. It’s being planned for the first time by its new director, longtime media whiz Lisa Duncan, who quit her job at Scripps to take the Dogwood helm. The festival will be about a month long, from April 2 to May 1, but the downtown parts—the most festive parts of the festival—will be on two weekends: the Market Square artisans’ exhibits will be ready just after you get your taxes signed, Thursday through Sunday, April 16-19. The annual Dogwood Arts Festival Parade will be the following Friday, April 24.
Best-Case Scenario: Knoxville finally gets the local arts festival it’s always needed.
Worst-Case Scenario: Hand-painted saw art fills Market Square again.
A Whole New ’Drag
It’s been more than 10 years since the original Superdrag lineup released an album. The four original members—singer/guitarist John Davis, guitarist Brandon Fisher, bassist Tom Pappas, and drummer Don Coffey Jr.—were actually only together for two albums, the 1996 debut full-length Regretfully Yours and the 1998 follow-up, Head Trip in Every Key, both released by Elektra. Pappas left the band after Head Trip; Fisher stuck around for In the Valley of Dying Stars but left before Last Call for Vitriol. That album, with Sam Powers on bass and Mic Harrison on guitar, turned out to be Superdrag’s last statement before they went on what looked to be a permanent hiatus in 2003.
Following the success of a 2007 reunion tour, a 2008 performance at Bonnaroo, and a low-key appearance on WUTK’s compilation Re-Distilled: 25 Years of Knoxville Rock, though, the original four went into the studio to record one more time. The result, Industry Giants, is scheduled for release in March on the band’s own label, Superdrag Sound Laboratories.
Best-Case Scenario: Industry Giants finds Davis, Fisher, Pappas, and Coffey rejuvenated and focused, just as they seemed to be during the 2007 reunion tour. Support from local radio and touring gradually builds up buzz for the album on college radio and MP3 blogs. Solid songwriting, consistent hooks, and a more mature perspective sell Industry Giants, and Superdrag becomes a feel-good hit.
Worst-Case Scenario: Who sucked out the feeling?
Sunrise for Sundown
Nobody goes to Sundown in the City anymore because it’s too crowded, right? The free weekly concert series on Market Square has been one of the defining events of Knoxville’s downtown renaissance, but it’s started to engender some grumbling around downtown in the last couple of years for the size of the crowds—upwards of 10,000 people on occasion—as well as its conservative lineup of fresh-scrubbed singer/songwriters and jam bands, and lack of space for local artists.
Best-Case Scenario: Encouraged by the success of Big Ears, AC Entertainment takes a chance on the Sundown schedule and books Steve Reich, Solomon Burke, Tricky, and MGMT—and people still come. The Tenderhooks have a breakthrough local showcase opening for the New Pornographers and sign to a major indie label.
Worst-Case Scenario: George Thorogood comes back.
More Festival, Less Rossini
The Rossini Festival: Poor Gioachino Rossini, the center of the first several years of this astonishingly popular opera festival, seems less and less a part of the festivities, and this year may not be much different. The only opera scheduled for the Rossini festival is Leoncavallo’s popular sad-clown opera Pagliacci. But Rossini would probably get a kick out of the Italian Street Fair—mounted on Gay Street and Market Square, it’s the most popular part of the festival, and maybe the most popular arts-related day of the year—which will be held on Saturday, April 25, from noon to 9 p.m. The celebration of food, art, wine, and food (did we mention food twice?) drew 40,000 last year.
Best-Case Scenario: The Knoxville Opera Company benefits monetarily from the festival and dodges the economic bullet that took out Chattanooga’s and Baltimore’s opera companies.
Worst-Case Scenario: It won’t be enough.
It’s not just a hippie festival anymore. Metallica, Pearl Jam, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and Kanye West headlined the 2008 edition of Bonnaroo, the weekend-long summer music fest started by local promoters AC Entertainment in 2002, and The New York Times had full and up-to-date blog coverage. But those jam-band roots are still showing, with a reunited Phish rumored as one of the big acts for this year’s festival, to be held June 11-14 in Manchester, Tenn. It gets better for those of you not inclined to shell out $300 bucks for Phish, though: Bruce Springsteen is also rumored to be scheduled for Bonnaroo.
Best-Case Scenario: Bonnaroo continues its trajectory toward pop with a Sunday-night performance by Beyonce and Jay-Z, who join Springsteen for an encore of “Born in the U.S.A.” Ashley Capps becomes mayor of Manchester for the weekend.
Worst-Case Scenario: Phish brings the hippies back.
The Music Scene: Keep On Keepin’ On
Biologists would tell you that diversity is the key to the life of an ecosystem. There’s plenty of it in Knoxville’s music scene. Stalwart veterans from the 1980s and ’90s like Todd Steed, R.B. Morris, Scott Miller, Robinella, and Mic Harrison are still around and young bands like the Tenderhooks and Royal Bangs are attracting the attention of industry insiders outside Knoxville. The city even has a bestselling modern rock band in 10 Years. Singer/songwriters, avant-garde improvisation, jazz, blues, power pop, roots rock—almost any night of the week, in venues all over town, you can find some local performer or band doing some of that. Local hip-hop takes a little more work, but it’s there, and for the really extreme stuff—hardcore punk and metal—you have to wait for the increasingly rare all-ages matinees scattered around town. You won’t find much pop country, but there’s plenty of the hard stuff, from straight honky tonk to old-time mountain music and bluegrass.
Best-Case Scenario: People resolve to go see more shows and clubs sell more beer and stay open. Kids start bands for the usual reasons—sex and free beer—and stick to it for even better reasons, like friends, community, and maybe even record deals.
Worst-Case Scenario: The economic shitstorm reduces disposable income, bars and clubs get shuttered, and the kids have nothing better to do than spray paint your garage. So get out there and show a little support. It’s for your own good.