If Gran Torino wasn't the biggest name to emerge from Knoxville as a full-time touring act, it certainly had the biggest roster. The nine-piece horn-driven outfit came together in 1995—a combination of ex-Bearden High School buddies and University of Tennessee music program recruits—and within a couple of years, members had quit jobs and school to hit the road for 200-odd dates a year.
"We were trying to replicate a Tower of Power kind of thing," says Torino frontman Chris Ford, now the proprietor of Sweet P's Barbeque and Soul House on Maryville Pike and a member of the Bijou Theatre board of directors. "The idea was to create a rock band with R&B overtones, a rock 'n' soul act.
"Once it took off, we lived out there on the road. And I think that's what inevitably killed us."
The band broke up in 2003, after several members married, and entertainment dollars declined in the somber wake of 9/11. The parting was amicable but still painful for Ford. So when fellow members of the Bijou Theatre board approached him about a Gran Torino reunion/benefit show 10 years after the fact, he was the only hold-out.
"At first, I just said no, that's not possible," he says. "But then I talked to some of the guys—we've all kept in touch—and they liked the idea. So I reconsidered. And the Bijou has been cool about it, about letting us do it the way we want to do it. So that was that. Everyone is pretty excited. It's going to be a lot more fun that I thought."
Which means the show will afford those who missed them the first time around an opportunity to see why Gran Torino was one of the hottest bands on the Southeastern college circuit at the turn of the millennium.
All told, G.T. did the rock road-warrior trip for half a decade, hitting a high of 260 shows during one year of that period. They also released four albums, the last one, 2002's The One and Only…, on the small Redeye Label. Ford says the band flirted with larger labels throughout their career but never received a sufficiently lucrative offer. With nine mouths to feed, he says, "We were holding out for the big deal."
But if a nine-man outfit wasn't the best business model, it certainly made for a powerful live rock revue. Led by Ford's charismatic and voluble rap-singing, the band, with its jazz-trained horn section, played with both precision and inexorable groove, mixing old-school soul with the jam-band aesthetics of the mid-'90s.
And with time, the band learned to write songs that were nearly as memorable as its frenetically juiced live act. "When we started, everyone was into jamming," Ford says. "It was more about chops and playing the shows, less about songs. Toward the end, crafting songs became something we took pride in."
The upcoming Bijou show will be much like Gran Torino performances past—all nine members from the band's final incarnation, playing at least two and a half hours of music spread across a couple of sets, featuring favorites from every year of the band's career.
"We're trying to do it like the old shows as best we can," Ford says. "We want to give people their money's worth."
It all raises the question of whether this will simply be a one-off for the band or the beginning of a full-fledged reunion. Ford admits that he has been reticent about the whole affair, but circumstances have prodded him enough that he's left that door open.
"One of my stipulations for doing the show was that it would be one and done," Ford says. "But, of course, once the guys start hanging out again, things happen. And opportunities are already coming our way—more than I would have expected.
"Right now, there aren't any plans for playing beyond this one show. But who knows? We'll see."