Thursday, April 10, 2008

Gibson Brothers at WDVX FM in Knoxville

Downtown Knoxville (see also here) is clean and interesting with lots of building going on and an obvious interest in its own growth. Jerry Butler drove us around, pointing out landmarks, especially the hotel where Hank Williams overdosed before later dying in his car. We stopped for a visit at the Mast General Store, which is a fun place combining elements of gift shop, tourist attraction, and first-rate store. The Knoxville Visitor Center is across the street and WDVX FM radio has a studio in the visitor center. Five days a week, WDVX sponsors The Blue Plate Special, a live musical performance there at noon. The best bluegrass, folk, and country acts are scheduled through these events as well as local and regional groups. WDVX programs an eclectic Americana mix, which is reflected in the Blue Plate Special programs.

Matt Morelock
The Visitor’s Center is located on a busy corner in downtown Knoxville. It has a small parking lot, but that fills quickly. There’s a public lot behind the Mast General Store, and it’s quite convenient to park there and spend a few minutes in the store before crossing the street to go to a Blue Plate Special. The Center itself serves several different purposes. There’s an information desk, a gift shop, a well-stocked coffee bar, a radio studio, and a performance area seating about seventy-five people for live music. Bundled together, the Visitor Center becomes a lively, even joyful, place for people to gather each day at lunch hour for a free performance.

The Gibson Brothers
We arrived during sound checks and warm-up to greet our friends The Gibson Brothers, find seats, and get situated. For those who haven’t discovered them yet, the Gibsons feature two brothers, Eric usually on banjo and Leigh on guitar, whose stature in bluegrass music has been steadily rising through the last several years. They first received national attention through their recognition as Emerging Group of the Year in 1998 by the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) although they made their Grand Ole Opry debut in 1993. After a few setbacks, the Gibsons joined Sugar Hill Records and have recorded three straight number one albums. They are noted for their close and exciting brother harmonies, their deeply thoughtful lyrics, and their excellent musicianship. Both brothers are accomplished song-writers as well as excellent musicians. Their current band has been together for three years, and is perfectly set up to support Eric and Leigh’s singing as well as to create instrumental settings of power and intricacy. Mike Barber, on bass, has been with the band since its inception. His rock solid bass beat and excellent taste form one of the foundations for this band. Rick Hayes, on mandolin, has a background in rock music as well as other genres, and contributes good mandolin breaks as well as a powerful back beat with his strong chop. On fiddle, Clayton Campbell’s soaring solos, contain just the right wail of loneliness or chirp of humor that punctuates musical points made on the banjo or guitar.

The seats began filling up with a group of students from the University of Tennessee, lunch-timers from offices surrounding the studio, as well as friends and fans of the two featured bands. As air-time approached, on-air host and sound engineer Matt Morelock told the fast-assembling audience how to sound like a huge crowd for the radio audience even though there were only seventy-five or so people in the room. WDVX broadcasts on two rather low power frequencies to the area, but it streams on line broadcasts world-wide and has a large international audience. I began listening to WDVX several years ago on my computer, often from about 4:00 AM until breakfast. During these early hours, the station introduced me to a range of bluegrass, alternative country, and old time country musicians, many of whom have become my favorites. Matt raised his arms for a cheer, introduced Todd Steed and Suns of Phere, and the fast-paced hour was on.

Todd Steed and the Sons of Phere

Todd Steed
Todd Steed and the Sons of Phere are an Indie folk-rock-jam band from Knoxville, based solely on the music they played on this single noon-time performance, I’d say they’re funny, a bit quirky, and wickedly improvisational. Todd created a song dedicated to Candace Parker, the star of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team that had won the NCAA national championship only the night before that was amusing and brought happy cheers from the crowd. His song North Knoxville was funny, focusing on neighborhoods and the people who live in them. On his MySpace page, he says he’s fascinated by various versions of the south, and the songs he chose for this performance caught that interest. The instrumentation (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, guitaron (Mexican bass guitar), and corrugated box with brushes) create an interesting and slightly unusual sound. While not to everyone’s taste, this band enjoys its work and brought smiles to the faces of many in the audience. They stream samples of their work on both the pages linked above.

Eric Gibson

Leigh Gibson
Mike Barber
As is their habit, the Gibson Brothers hit the stage hard and delivered half an hour of their unmatched sound. Two characteristics of this band are intensity and energy. Both were immediately evident and quickly communicated to the responsive crowd. They opened with Tom Petty’s “Cabin Down Below,” the opening track on their new CD Iron and Diamonds, containing seven of their own new songs. A rousing bluegrass version of this rock song, it captures much of the essence of a Gibson Brothers performance. They followed right away with the title song “Iron and Diamonds.” This song has all the best elements of a Gibson Brothers composition: nostalgia for a lost period, respect for working people, a somewhat unusual choice of topic, and haunting melodies punctuated with perfect pitch harmony and rich instrumentation. Without seeming to rush, they continued, offering a couple more new songs as well as Gibson Brothers favorite, “Callie’s Reel,” and closing Jimmy Rogers’ “Blue Yodel #4.” They received a standing ovation. The audience was excited, and eager to purchase CD’s and T-shirts, newly designed for the Iron and Diamonds tour. All in all, this was a wonderful early afternoon of music. We headed for Nashville, elated at what we had heard and looking forward to the next couple of days.

Clayton Campbell at YeeHaw Junction

Rick Hayes