Thursday, July 29, 2010

From Knoxville With Love

Over the past week I’ve been listening to two new albums from bands located in Knoxville, TN. My family’s life is intertwined with both; and were it not for that fact it would have been easy (I’m sorry to admit) for me to overlook both. As it turns out, both records have been a delight, albeit in rather different ways.

Ben Howard is my first cousin once removed, son of the woman who was the nearest thing to a sister when I was growing up. He plays keyboards and handles website duties for the Christian indie band, Standing Small. Ben has been associated with the group for years, but not originally as a performing musician. He started as a roadie and soundman and merch guy, and eventually worked his way into the fold – becoming the right hand collaborator of Ryan Fletcher, the group’s guitarist and lead vocalist. These guys have day jobs. That hasn’t prevented them from playing the upper South and Midwest church and Christian festival circuit. Strangely, the farthest east they seem to come is Greenville, SC, and for some odd reason I have never been in Knoxville visiting family when the band was onstage.

Standing Small: Ryan Fletcher, Corey Goins, and Ben Howard

In fact, I hardly ever see Ben himself. We maintain contact via Facebook. He sneaked me an advance copy of the band’s new album, Asleep at the Oars, Dreaming of Freedom, (available for free download for a limited time) via zip file. I unzipped and loaded it into my iTunes, and have played the record incessantly while working at my desk. This is in every sense a “concept album.” A recurrent, rise-and-fall piano theme is reworked through the breadth of the recording. The music hinges itself to dramatic changes in modulation and tempo. At times the drums are bombastic. There are no ostentatious guitar leads; yet, Fletcher’s acoustic rig peaks through the swirling wind and clouds of percussion and keys like the mast of a tall ship. His voice rings out like the beam of a lighthouse (like Coldplay’s Chris Martin, Fletcher frequently employs the falsetto). In keeping with the general theme of the album – a frail band of unsalty believers huddled on a vessel blown across the treacherous Tiberian Sea of life – the lyrics are understandably introspective, confessional (“Call in The Troops”), nearly desperate. On “Oh Brother” the vocals are downright plaintive. Halfway through the record it’s not at all obvious that the crew will reach its destination. And the analogy of Jonah (“Man Overboard”) makes clear that our valuables – including our own self-preservation – have to go in order to lighten the load and retain seaworthiness. But in the end it is a sovereign Hand that calms the waves and awakens the crew from their doldrums.

Alseep at the Oars is poignant, but not overbearing. It’s a perfect record for a long drive, or a time of reflection staring out a window. Or at a computer screen…

Our unlikely association with the Dirty Guv’nahs began at a baby shower. Our friend Jill Andrews invited us to her special day, and among the first guests to walk in was a strapping young man wearing a New Zealand All Blacks warm-up and sporting dark glasses and a ‘fro a la Hyde from That Seventies Show. He reached out his hand and drawled, “I’m Cozmo.”

It turned out that guitarist Cozmo Holloway was transitioning from his old band, a funk group called Dishwater Blonde, to the Dirty Guv’nahs, a household name in Knoxville. For three years running “the Guvs” have been voted K-town’s best band. Their Southern rock rumblings were felt all the way up in Woodstock, NY, where the legendary Levon Helm (of The Band fame) invited the Guvs to come record their new album, Youth is in Our Blood, just before Christmas of 2009.

At the baby shower my wife and I told Cozmo that if his band needed a place to stay when visiting Charlotte to give us a call. To my initial chagrin that call came back in the winter. I had misgivings about keeping a half-dozen 20-something year old rockers in our home, given that their show would end past midnight and they wouldn’t return to the house until the wee hours of the morning (what would our elderly neighbors think?). The band arrived on a Friday afternoon before I got in from work. I saw the “Blue Bullet,” a Ford van older than any of the band members, with its trailer parked in my spot in front of the house. When I walked through the door it was as if I had never met a stranger. The Guvs were all perfect gentlemen. They ate supper with us, helped clear and wash dishes, played Wii with our kids and a game of “Family” with us, and thanked us profusely for the hospitality. That night I never heard the band come in. They tip-toed into the house at 3:00 am and went to the upstairs guest rooms. The next day they arose for a late brunch and bassist Justin Hoskins told us the bizarre story of how they acquired their name (too long to go into here). They gave us t-shirts and bumper stickers.

They came back for another stay at our home in the late spring, christening our house their “B & B” in North Carolina. Both times their shows were too late in the evening for our family to attend. At the conclusion of their second visit they gave us a pre-release copy of their new album.

At first glance the Guvs seem to wear all-too-obvious influences on their rolled up sleeves: the Black Crowes, John Mellencamp, perhaps a dash of Hootie & the Blowfish; but I’m not sure any of those artists really inspire their sound. On closer listening they are reaching for something higher. With Holloway and Michael Jenkins’ twin guitar attack on songs like “Wide Awake” and “New Salvation,” there are shades of Dickie and Duane (or, if that seems a bit lofty, perhaps Jim James and Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket); certainly, Chris Doody’s simmering organ summons memories of Idlewild South.

Ultimately, what made the album stick for me was our belated opportunity to see the band perform live at the recent Bele Chere festival in Asheville, NC. I was completely unprepared for the explosiveness and unabated energy the Guvs bring to the stage – especially in Jenkins’ and frontman James Trimble’s relentless histrionics. It was hard to believe these were same gentle souls who rate among the best house guests we’ve ever hosted.

Bele Chere, Asheville (July 25, 2010). My family is on the front row to the far left (our daughter's red hair and younger son's orange shirt are clearly visible)

But I knew, the first time I saw Cozmo at that baby shower, that something was definitely cooking.

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