Last weekend's Rhythm N' Blooms was a worthwhile and successful event, based on what we saw of the music festival's downtown episodes. Most of these folks have played here before, in one guise or another, but this year's festival will likely be remembered for demonstrating the potential of a pretty remarkable street that we've overlooked for decades.
The festival's big top was a never-before-used space along East Jackson Avenue, just beyond the Old City, underneath James White Parkway, and it worked better than some of us expected. Improved with some asphalt-ramp touches, it served like a giant warehouse club without walls, but food and beer concessions along the sides. There was something surreal about the scene. Scott Miller and a few others filled it well. They're calling it the Jackson Avenue Viaduct Stage, a little bit of a misnomer, partly because Jackson doesn't have a viaduct, like Gay Street, Clinch Avenue, Broadway, and Church Street have viaducts. And Viaduct seems a little too old-fashioned a word to describe that lofty highway overpass. But Jackson Avenue Viaduct Stage does sound more charming than James White Parkway Overpass Stage.
Most of the festival's other venues were in the traditionally defined Old City—Pilot Light, Jig & Reel, Barley's Taproom and Pizzeria, Remedy Coffee, etc.—but the other new one was way over on West Jackson. Between the Viaduct Stage and the Standard, the festival stretched the Old City farther east and west than it's ever been stretched.
In the Standard, the performance space was the long western room, not the split-level space which has been used for most public events so far (this weekend, the smaller space served as a comfortable setting for the bars). Treated transversely, with the audience section wide rather than deep, the larger room seems an especially agreeable place to see a show; the multi-colored lighting, in particular, was ideal, and evoked old-fashioned dinner nightclubs, where the audience is almost as well-lit as the performers. Everybody seemed happy, and, in that light, pretty. Saturday night, Ben Sollee remarked on the space and its lighting, and avowed that it was one of the better warehouse-style spaces he's ever played.
The two poles at opposite ends of Jackson created an interesting phenomenon I'm not sure the planners expected. There were free trolleys running back and forth, but they were mostly empty. People, even Knoxville people, would rather walk.
Both Friday and Saturday, with a village of food trucks and the new Vagabond fashion truck ("A Roaming Boutique") parked near the Standard, Jackson saw a steady—and pretty jolly—stream of people, both audience members and featured musicians, walking back and forth, well past midnight. Which is remarkable, because it's pretty far, by Knoxville walking standards: half a mile, though it didn't seem that far, even in bad tennis shoes. Rhythm N' Blooms demonstrated a new-urbanist design principle, that people, even Knoxvillians, will happily walk significant distances if the stroll is interesting, and Jackson's pretty fascinating, with its odd alleys and 1890s Richardsonian architecture, especially when there are food trucks in its only blank spot.
I went to see Logan Brill at Barley's on Friday night, partly because I know her parents, and remembered her from our first meeting, when she was about 20 inches tall and a close chum of my daughter's at the old Citykids preschool at the downtown YMCA. Now much taller, the Farragut High alum has been touring all over the country, singing with a country-tinged rock band, and making some waves in Nashville, where she now lives. Her set would have been at home in Nashville, the city or the TV show, even with the inclusion of Radiohead's "High and Dry." She has a stage presence that's likely to guarantee her attention. The standing-room audience of a couple hundred begged for one more, but festival scheduling doesn't allow for encores.
Later Friday, American Aquarium played to a perfectly filled and perfectly attentive house at the Standard—every seat was taken in the big room, with only a few standees. They proved themselves to be an old-school country group, with an expressive lead singer in the Sonny James/Faron Young mold, recast as young Americana hip.
The next night, a much-bigger crowd—maybe too big—showed up for Ben Sollee, who followed a reportedly transformative show by Holly Williams, Hank's granddaughter. Hundreds were crowded into the room. If anyone claims 1,000 were there, I won't argue.
I'd interviewed Ben Sollee before his scheduled appearance at the 2011 festival, which he wasn't able to make due to an unscheduled volcano. Pop's most creative cellist made up for our disappointment with a 45-minute session at the Standard, in which the Lexington, Ky., native remarked on how much and how fast Knoxville has changed. He dedicated his song "DIY" to "the makers of this city"—its refrain is, "If you want something done right, you've got to do it yourself."
Then, at Pilot Light, I was privileged to see Willie Watson, who is a good deal more famous by his own name than he was when he was scheduled for Jackson's tiniest but dependably most surprising venue. One week ago, the former Old Crow Medicine Show principal had played under his own name for a national audience in the millions as the featured performer on A Prairie Home Companion, and the 1,000-plus attendees at St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater gave him a big ovation. He seemed perfectly comfortable with playing to a cheek-to-jowl house of about 90 people at the old Pilot Light. Singing and playing both guitar and banjo, he played an riveting acoustic solo show of his own songs and some very old covers, including Jimmie Rodgers' "T for Texas." I'd almost be ready to claim he's channeling Rodgers, who died in 1933, except that Wilson seems a good deal more intense.
Jackson Avenue as a half-mile-long late-night entertainment axis. Why didn't we think of it before?