Saturday Night in the City

One of my favorite things in the world is music. One of the reasons I love living downtown is the availability of music. I don’t know if Knoxville is unique in the quantity of the quality of our music, but I think we might be, for our size. There is a tremendous musical heritage which I may sprinkle in as I go in the coming months, but suffice to say that in its current state, there is too much great music for a regular guy to afford. Sometimes I can snag a deal, like when I saw B.B. King at the Tennesee Theatre in January, paying $30 for a $75 ticket. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet like I did last week when I paid $140 to see Neil Young. It was completely worth the money. But other times there is great music to be had on the cheap. Such was last Saturday night.

I almost didn’t go out. I had driven over 500 miles, round trip, to Birmingham that day. I felt a cold coming on. It was a steamy night that reminded me of the great nights of music in New Orleans when I was young. I put on my city cap and headed to Gay Street. My first stop was the S&W Grand which is a restored restaurant on Gay Street.

The prices tend toward the high end, but for the price of a drink or coffee and desert Donald Brown played his smooth jazz starting at 8:00. Donald is a local legend in the Knoxville Jazz scene. He played with Art Blakey and has recorded extensively playing the piano. The music was a perfect way to start the evening. He and his band hit a one intricate groove after another, with Donald trading lead with the saxaphone player. Bass and drums finished the quartet. Donald later introduced the drummer as one of his favorites, which must be a relief to Kenneth, Donald’s son, who plays the drums in the combo.

The music was excellent and a little bonus was seeing Edye Ellis grooving to the tunes. It send me back in time. Edye was a reporter when she came to Knoxville in 1982. That was the year I arrived and she was soon co-anchor of WBIR’s nightly news broadcast. The last time I’d seen her at a concert was in the mid to late 80’s at Ella Guru’s, Ashley Capp’s first local venture. The artist that evening was the lovely Odetta and Edye’s dinner companion was Alex Haley. A very classy lady. After the first set, I walked down to the Old City to the Crown and Goose where Slow Blind Hill pounded out the blues starting at 9:00.

The Crown and Goose is an affordable English Pub specializing in Fish and Chips. This evening they also served up very tasty blues. Slow Blind Hill has been performing in Knoxville for many years. I used to catch them at Border’s Books in West Knoxville. Sadly, their incredible trumpet player, Charlie Box, died several years ago. The re-shaped band brought in Henry Perry on harmonica and the sound shifted. The sound is still excellent which was obvious from the opening jam through chesnuts like “Sitting on Top of the World” and “Sweet Home Chicago.” Sadly, as is true in most such places, a few people listened, a few danced and most talked over the music or watched the hockey game on TV. Their loss.

At the conclusion of Slow Blind Hill’s excellent set, I walked down the street and around the corner to Barley’s Taproom and Pizzaria.
For a $5 cover charge, Robinella and her band would throw down their jazzy country-swing until well into the morning. The thing I like about hearing music at Barley’s is that I’ve paid a cover and I don’t feel obligated to buy anything else as long as I’m not taking a table, which I don’t because I like to be close to the music, as the photos below show. I had not hear Robinella since her split with Cruse and the CC String Band. I think her new lineup suits her better. She has added a trumpet player and that fits her jazz sound better than the mandolin she used to sing against. She was on her game with modest scatting accentuating the trumpet solos and her own specialized blue notes with a drawl informing classics and standards. I love her treatment of “I’m so lonesome I Could Cry.”

After listening to Robinella’s set, I walked back through the Old City. One of the interesting businesses in the area is a cereal bar.

The Knoxville Pearl Cereal bar seems to do a good business, but it almost seems like a child’s store in the midst of our grundgiest section of downtown. It had as many pierced and tattooed patrons as any other business in the district. Through the window I watched a guy and a girl playing on a crystal chess set. She was taking him apart.
To end the night, I walked back onto Gay Street and sat outside the doors of the S&W listening to Donald Brown. Inside I saw the saxaphone player from Aftah Party. There was also an older man in a white fedora. I thought I should know him, but I couldn’t place him. Looking through the window and hearing the muted jazz on a warm, humid night reminded me of standing as a child outside the window of Preservation Hall on Saint Peter Street in New Orleans and listening to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band play the classic dixieland. It was the best, but this was good. About midnight the music ended and I walked the three blocks home. I could almost hear a “saxaphone someplace far off play.”