The Sun is Setting in the Western Sky (Sundown in the City: The Controversy)

So far I’ve used this space to talk about interesting people and happenings downtown. That’s the main purpose of my blog. Of course, downtown isn’t without its various controversies, and while I’m generally happy to report what happens in a straightforward manner, sometimes I’ll have to express an opinion or two. Sundown in the City started in 1998 with a concert by the V-Roys, beloved band of yore in our little city. Reported attendance was around 2,000 on Market Square. It’s gotten bigger. Much bigger. Crowds of around 10,000 have been reported several times: Steve Winwood and George Thorogood come to mind. Last week’s show with Blues Traveler and the Dirty Guv’nahs may have surpassed even those numbers.

That’s good, right?

Spider people before the concert. They said they did it because it was fun!

Wayne Chisholm and friend introduce the Dirty Guv’nahs.

Well, it depends on who you ask. Concerns have been expressed regarding underage drinking. There was a stabbing near Market Square after a show a few weeks ago. There was some online discussion that two groups of young people fought at the intersection of Union and Gay. This week brought a raft of complaints online. It’s hard to measure the veracity of some of the claims made. One person lamented that he couldn’t make it through the traffic to Market Square to take his children to Marble Slab. OK. There was discussion of public urination. Maybe. Then there were many complaints about the crowding. I’ll grant that. There were complaints about the price of beer and complaints that beer is available at all. Some of the people who are behind the event, such as Ashley Capps appear to be suggesting that maybe Sundown has had its day. Maybe it served the purpose of getting people downtown and now it is time for it to fade away.

So what to make of all this? I feel I have a legitimate perspective on this one because, while I missed that original V-Roys show, I’ve probably attended at least 80% of the concerts since. I was at the Steve Winwood show, the George Thorogood show and I was there last Thursday night. When my wife and I decided that after nearly thirty years of driving downtown, we would move here, one of my thrills was the idea that I would be able to walk to Sundown in the City. I was disappointed when they announced a scaled back schedule.

(Above: Man watches from third floor construction.)

Girl soaked with beer – yet still she smiles!

While I love Sundown because I love music, I would be the first to agree that not everything that comes with the package is pleasant. The music is audible from our new home even though we’re a couple of blocks away and I understand how some residents might not like that. I’ve had near misses from cigarettes being waved about by drunken fans – both young and old. I’ve had beer splashed on me. I’ve been crashed into by exuberant dancers and often I’ve been hot and tired of standing. For a combination of these and other reasons, a number of my friends no longer attend the shows. I understand that. So why do I continue to attend?

Because sometimes the music moves me in a way that makes me feel the same thrill, the same resonance in my soul that I’ve felt from the time I was very young and fell in love with Hank Williams, then Elvis Presley and, ultimately Bob Dylan. I love discovering a new sound that speaks to me like I found with Trombone Shorty earlier this year and Dishwater Blonde last year. I still take the walk to Market Square because I love the whole sloppy, young, old, gentle, rude, hedonistic, considerate mess that is ten thousand people in a small spot. I love the crowds even more when they are a blend of races like when the Neville Brothers or the Wailers have played – and as increasingly is happening at random concerts this year. Where else do our different racial communities mingle on that scale? That’s a reason for celebration. I haven’t loved the music every time. I haven’t always had a good time. But I keep coming back for the hope of that transcendent experience that only live music can deliver.

So what about the problems? Well, what would make someone think they could bring the children to the Square on a night when two major rock bands (and a better local one :-)) are playing downtown and expect the experience to be like any other night? Would you wander downtown on a UT game day and expect it to be an ordinary Saturday? I’ve never had any problem with traffic because I always came downtown around 5:00 or as close to that as work would allow. In all my years of spending time downtown and in living here I’ve never seen anyone urinate in the street (though that’s a better place than some others I could think of). The jostling and sometimes ignorant behavior is something that I expect in a crowd that big. My friends who have decided they don’t think it is worth the price have chosen to stay home. That seems like a good choice for some of the people I’ve seen comment online.

I’m not sure what the future holds for Sundown. It doesn’t appear likely to continue in its current form. Maybe it isn’t necessary. Downtown seems to be thriving (Cynthia Moxley even suggested recently we may be as cool as Ashville! )and I don’t think the absence of Sundown will change that, although its presence has probably been more helpful than not to this point.

I do believe that, in a bigger way, we have to decide what we want and recognize what we have. Knoxville has been a town that is starting to look suspiciously like a city. When you live, work or play in a city, there are certain messy realities. Do we want a Disney version of a city? Is that even possible? If we want a vibrant, colorful, thriving city, we have to understand that there are commensurate difficulties. We have to embrace the goodness and work with the problems, but let’s not expect it to be the sleepy place it had become. It’s now something much more interesting and exciting.