The Black Lillies Cruz Through CD Release Concert

Black Lillies sold out Bijou debut of “100 Miles of Wreckage”

Excitement built for months among local music lovers for the sold out Black Lillies CD release concert at the Bijou. I first heard about it last fall when I saw the band open for the Steel Drivers at Cumberland Caverns. Each time I’ve heard them, they sound more polished than the time before. I’m tempted to say they are tighter – and they are in the sense of being more comfortable with each other – but it’s almost as if knowing each other better has allowed them to play a bit looser, with a little more abandon. As much as they were very good last fall, they’ve taken a major step since that time and now seem very comfortable headlining at the Bijou.

The New Familiars with Ian Thomas sitting in

The show started with Charlotte based band, The New Familiars. There’s is an interesting amalgamation of southern rock and roll with an Appalachian sensibility. Sometimes sounding like a jam band ala Phish and sometimes sounding like a British Invasion band (complete with puzzling British accents) they were at their best when rocking hard and wailing harmonies. The crowd seemed to give them a warm reception.

A snaggle-toothed Cash charms the crowd between sets

Between sets the best entertainment in the house was provided by Cash Contreras who called from the balcony to his “daddy” (Cruz Contreras) and his “mama” (Robinella) and to individual band members and various friends. Apparently the excitement of working the room from the balcony finally wore him down because by the time the show started and Cruz said something to him, he was passed out asleep in grandma’s lap, only his little cowboy boots visible as they extended over the balcony railing.

Black Lillies, Bijou, Knoxville, January 22, 2011

The Black Lillies took the stage with a couple of extra members. A banjo player joined them for the beginning and other segments of the set and Billy Contreras sat in for much of the night on fiddle. The new and old songs flowed together beautifully and highlighted a band feeling comfortable in their own skin. The new album is “100 Miles of Wreckage” and rather than attempting to review the new music, I’ll defer to our local review master, Wayne Bledsoe, who reviewed the album here. The songwriting is the star, shining a light once more on what contemporary country music could have become. Equal parts Americana/Folk flowing through the country sound gives the band a fresh approach to a worn and frayed genre.

Black Lillies, Bijou, Knoxville, January 22, 2011

Highlights for the night went to individual performances. Tom Pryor on electric and steel guitar gives the band its muscle and keeps the sound from becoming more pure folk. A phenomenal player on either instrument, for my money, his time is better spent playing electric guitar and I wish he would get out from behind the pedal steel. He seemed more on the verge of establishing his rightful place in the center of the mix than when last I saw the band. Trisha Gene Brady certainly isn’t shy about claiming her piece of the action. Her backing and lead vocals are a real treat. She also seemed to be the crowd favorite, with many people calling out to her and bringing her roses. Again, my opinion, her voice is so amazing, I wouldn’t mind hearing her share more lead vocals. Billy Contreras, Cruz’ brother, is equally impressive on the fiddle. At one point after playing a solo, Cruz advised the audience not to “try this at home.” Good advice, and here is my opinion, again: Get the boy in the band full time. He adds so much possibility to the sound with his versatile playing that it could only help.

Cruz Contreras of the Black Lillies

Finally, Cruz, of course, is the centerpiece to the entire operation. It’s almost hard to believe this is the same quiet, behind the scenes guy who backed Robinella. He’s still certainly not a domineering personality, always seeming to happily share the attention, but he’s found his own way to front a band, with his self-deprecating humor and soft southern charm. He also provided another highlight by playing the beautiful grand piano for a couple of songs.

Black Lillies without amplification, Bijou, Knoxville, January 22, 2011

As the show wound down, the band took their turn at standing front stage, singing and playing without amplification, in the acoustically stunning Bijou. I’ve seen two other artists attempt to do this. Robert Earl Keen failed miserably to quieten his drunken rowdy fans. The Dirty Guv’nahs did much better at their New Year’s Eve show. This, however, was as good as it gets. The band played “Go to Sleep Now” lightly and the vocals rang out and the crowd actually listened. It truly was a great moment, but don’t take my word for it, check out the video below. It includes the “don’t try this at home moment.”

Afterward, encores were played and everyone was invited back onto the stage for a rousing finish to a warm evening so intimate it felt like a thousand of your closest friends gathered in the living room for a little sensational music. Pick up their first album, Whiskey Angel and get the new one as soon as possilbe. Here’s to much, much more from this exceptional band.