Last Friday night was one of those great music nights we seem to have in Knoxville so frequently. Hudson K and a host of other Knoxville musicians did a Warholesque show at Scruffy City Hall that set a new standard for fascinating. I’ll have more on that another day. For me the evening started at Thompson Boling Arena and Volapalooza because I just couldn’t imagine missing the chance to see the Dirty Guv’nahs play the biggest house in their hometown.
It’s a good hike from downtown to Thompson Boling, but the early evening weather broke in a good direction after some earlier rain and people filtered out into the streets to begin the weekend in the city. The concert itself is an annual celebration of sorts set to let UT students blow off a little steam before finals. Knowing this as I walked toward the arena, joined by groups of students, it still didn’t occur to me that I’d be the only person over twenty-two-years-old at the show.
I tried to convince the student at the ticket office that I needed a press pass of some sort. No one seemed to be in charge and that request was denied in a fit of confusion at the question. I think I was lost when he asked for whom I would be reporting and I answered honestly, “Inside of Knoxville.” I guess a better answer would have been “the Knoxville News Sentinel.” Honesty did not pay. Hey UT: Inside of Knoxville is a thing! OK?
So, the upshot was I could bring the camera in but I would be the only person not paying the student admission of $5, but would be allowed entry for a cool $27.50. Ticket in hand, I walked toward the ramp near where some very loud college men stood making a ruckus of some sort. I ignored them and walked past, but stopped short when I heard over my shoulder, “Hey photographing man, do you even know who the Governors are?”
I turned to face the guy and said, “First of all, it’s the “Guv’nahs,” not the “Governors” and I’ve been seeing them play since they played Barley’s.” I wish I’d thought to add that he was probably just out of elementary school when I saw my first show with James and the boys. It wasn’t necessary. His friends started laughing outrageously, pointing at him and high-fiving me. Apparently I’d earned my spot in the middle of the frat party.
The Delta Saints had started playing by the time I settled into a seat. They get kudos for several reasons. First, their band name is about as good as you’ll get in the south. Nothing says “south” like “delta” and “saints” is so evocative of southern gospel roots that the name just pops. The band also has good stage presence. The bass player has great dreads going on and the keyboard and guitar players look like they came straight out of the 1960s. The lead vocalist is talented, but needs a “look.” Or not. They were good, but seemed aware that the Guv’nahs were looking over their shoulders. The crowd responded pretty well to them.
As for the crowd, I’ve mentioned their age: very young. It’s hard to estimate crowd numbers and with most of the crowd on the main floor with no chairs in that cavernous arena it was particularly difficult, but I guessed around 5,000. I’m not so sure how many of them actually knew who the “Governors” are. The organizers of the event seemed determined that the crowd would bat beach balls around during the shows and continually pumped them out into the audience. I guess they were nervous good music wouldn’t be enough to hold the young people’s attention.
The nattily dressed Guv’nahs took the stage and launched right into “Fairlane” off their “Somewhere Beneath These Southern Skies” CD. The sound was impeccable and everyone settled right into their groove. Oddly, that was part of the problem. The groove seemed so well worn that it seemed to come at the cost of some of the spontaneous exuberance that used to inform every show. I thought the band would be ecstatic to play the biggest arena in the city after starting out on some of the smallest stages in crowded bars. It’s what drew me there, but it didn’t seem to impress the band.
The set was pretty modest in length – I think around forty-five minutes – because they were not the headliners. As such we didn’t get so many covers other than a brief Stevie Wonder interlude. Other classic songs had to be jettisoned to make room for a number of the songs off the new “Hearts on Fire” CD. The new material seems a bit more muted with more ballads, introspection and country-flavored sing-alongs. Each of those elements have been present in their music from the beginning, but they dominate the new disk in a way it never has before.
The show was very professional and polished, but I missed the craziness. I missed Cozmo’s afro, sun glasses and extended guitar solos. I missed Michael’s solos. I’ve seen Cozmo play his sun glasses off and James crowd-dive into a group of a dozen people (he hit the floor at Barley’s). And I missed some of that. Still, it’s hard to expect the same kind of connection in an arena that we felt in a small bar in the Old City.
It’s probably a good evolution in a lot of ways. They are playing sold out shows in many places and just concluded a successful tour. The slight change in style may be what’s needed to take them to the next level. It does feel as if they are one single away from exploding.
Being the ace detective that he is, Shaft filed a report from the next night in Athens, at the Georgia Theater. The sold-out show, with warm-up Cereus Bright, featured two extended sets by the Guv’nahs, lots of covers and all the old standards, as well as plenty from the new album. Interestingly, he said the crowd knew all the words and sang along all night. While they made a point even in that show of how much they love Knoxville, it is clear they aren’t simply our band, anymore. And that’s a good thing for them.
Buy the new CD. You’ll find yourself humming along and lyrics like these from “Morning Light,” will get stuck in your head, “All I get is this one little life, you see, what I want is the freedom to just be me.” Here’s hoping they are feeling that freedom and continue to play it out for years to come.