Todd Steed and the Suns of Phere
(59 points; see the complete list)
It would be easy to call Todd Steed the class clown of Knoxville’s music scene. But it would be cheap, and a disservice, too. Easy, because he’s funny as hell, both as a songwriter and as a performer—when your best-known songs are “Right-Handed Love,” “Ethiopian Jokes,” and “North Knoxville,” it’s a difficult tag to get out from under. But cheap, because it ignores the enormous generosity behind Steed’s songs. The local people and landmarks that pop up in his work are never stereotypes, no matter how much fun he gets out of them. And lately it’s been even less about laughs—Knoxville Tells, his first album with the Suns of Phere, from 2002, is his most explicitly local album (song titles include “Radio Towers,” “Feel Like the Sunsphere,” “Kenilworth Lane,” and “The World’s Unfair”), and it’s funny, but it’s also one big 16-track ode to a place he loves. The Suns’ latest disc, Eskimo Hair, is about everywhere except Knoxville, a reflection of Steed’s lifelong wanderlust. There’s barely a joke on the whole thing, and the few that show up are delivered with a sardonic sigh that Steed’s rarely let out before.
I’ve yet to see any performer so quick on his feet, so witty, so clever. It takes a quirky mind that never stops churning to make up songs on the spot and to make them entertaining, and Todd has an uncanny knack for both commentary and color.
At various times, I’ve had to defend all of my favorite picks here to friends—being popular or good opens you up to attack, invites it in fact. And I could find justifiable reasons to criticize everybody on this list. But it seems that more people don’t get Todd Steed than anyone else in Knoxville I can think of. For someone so beloved in this town, he sure has a lot of people who talk shit about him. Truth is, the guy can’t sing particularly well. And he’s as much an entertainer as he is a musician. His mastery of stage banter is the best I’ve ever seen. When I hear him improvise lyrics, my jaw always drops—does he really make this shit up on the fly? Jesus. He’s an incredible performer, no doubt, but I declare him fit for this list because I happen to think he’s one hell of a songwriter. (And you know what? I like his singing too!) He fires off lines that to me are pure poetry. Perhaps a poetry only heard in bars like the Longbranch, but if comic books can be art and literature, then Todd Steed can be a damn fine poet and a great guitar player, which he is. I first realized this about a year after I’d moved to town, listening to him at Manhattans, playing “Hurry Up Five O’Clock.” It was a Friday evening, I’d gotten off of work not long ago, and I sat there enjoying a beer. Todd perfectly nailed the mood I’d been in a few hours before during that slow grind toward punching out. Todd is smarty-pants world traveler, but as a musician he’s a working-class hero and that spirit bleeds through all his songs. He’ll never get rich on his music. He’s just the guy who gets up and sings at the neighborhood bars after his day job, but that perspective is one that I need in my life. Some of his songs are dumb jokes that were never all that funny. (I hope to never hear “Tenncare Buzz” again.) But songs like “Five O’Clock,” “I’m Going Out,” “New Knoxville Girl,” “You Must Be From Nashville,” and “North Knoxville” are just perfect expressions of both the melancholy and joy of being alive.