Knoxville continues to enjoy lovely spring weather: rain, wind, clouds, warm then cold temperatures and sporadic snow. It’s the kind of spring that makes you want to stay inside where it’s warm, which is what a packed house did on Saturday night at the Tennessee Theatre. After a year away, the Black Lillies returned home to celebrate the release of their new album, “Runaway Freeway Blues.” It was a special night of music and easily the biggest event downtown this weekend.
For starters, the set was a great design by Brian Prather, originally from Knoxville, but currently working in New York City. An old flat-bed truck parked on stage served as a platform for a horn section which joined the band for several songs. Numerous window panes hung at different heights behind the band and appeared to have candles somehow attached. I’m not sure how they did it. Another platform held drummer Jamie Cook and bassist Robert Richards.
I asked Chyna Brackeen, manager of the Black Lillies and the force behind Attack Monkey productions how in the world they got that huge truck on stage. She said it was the number one question she’s gotten for the last two days. She said, “The truck was an ordeal. There is a scenery lift at the theatre, but the doors are off-center from the exterior loading dock doors. So, while the truck had a couple of inches of clearance to get in the doors, we had to angle it absolutely perfectly to fit through the loading dock doors as well as the lift gate. That took quite some time. The real challenge, though, was when we got it upstairs …
“First, there was a support beam immediately behind the lift so the truck couldn’t be backed out onto the stage. Secondly, we weren’t allowed to have gas in the engine while it was in the theatre, so even if we could get it past the beam, we weren’t supposed to drive it. We attempted to push it sideways, but it weighed about 4200 lbs so that was a no-go. Then we got a tire jack and some wood and tried to jack it up enough to shift the center of gravity and get it angled. The jack was for a regular car, though, and not strong enough . . . Eventually we managed to shift it enough to get it past the beam, then put it into neutral and push it into position. It took about 12 people to get the truck in place.”
Langhorne Slim opened the show and I really enjoyed him. I’ve heard him a couple of times before and I felt this time out his show was a bit more polished. He performed solo, though he does have a band that sometimes backs him. His voice reminds me of Stevie Forbert and his lyrics sometimes remind me of Leonard Cohen which I think I might have realized even if he hadn’t done a Cohen cover in his set. The songs do begin to sound similar to each other, which was Urban Woman’s observation.
The Black Lillies took the stage after a brief intermission and began the show with the same high energy that would mark the entire performance. They were introduced by WSM DJ Joe Limardi who declared that the band, scheduled for their fifteenth Grand Old Opry performance this week, is no longer a Knoxville band, that they are very much a national band. Joined by both a fiddle player and a banjo player, as well as the brief set with horn players mentioned above, and sporadically by Ian Thomas on harmonica, the sound was more complex and a bit bigger than would otherwise have been the case.
The band has been touring very hard for the last couple of years and it shows. Not that they have bags under their eyes, but rather that they are extremely comfortable with each other musically. I think they’ve gotten better at their instruments, which means Tom Pryor has gone from amazing to something like other-worldly, and the vocals have gotten better, as well. Cruz seems more confident than ever as a front man and Trisha Gene Brady’s vocals are as excellent as ever. I’d love to hear even more from her as the band goes forward.
The new material blends beautifully with the old, but also seems to mark a sound that has really found itself. While it is difficult to classify the music in any meaningful way, it seems to my ears to have settled more into a country side of Americana with a little less of a bluegrass or folk emphasis than some of the earlier material. Happily, if it’s country, it has a classic country sensibility with a modern twist. I think Hank Williams would like them, but I’m not sure their sound has much to do with a lot of other contemporary country hit makers. It’s refreshingly honest and unpretentious while being anything but simple.
They played for over two hours and left no portion of their repertoire untouched. By the end the near-capacity crowd was on their feet dancing to the music and wishing it to go on forever. Cash joined the band on stage for a bit of crazy-dancing with Trisha. Cruz encouraged the crowd to join them at Barley’s for an after-party and I’m sure a large segment did just that. What a great time to enjoy music in this city of ours. Here’s hoping the Black Lillies have many successful years ahead of them. And if you don’t have their fine, new CD, get it today. You’ll be very pleased, I promise.