St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Southern Skies Festival, World's Fair Park, Knoxville, May 2023
The second annual Southern Skies Music Festival produced by Dogwood Arts, with music curated by the Dirty Guv’nahs, endured some rough initial weather to deliver an excellent musical product. The artists selected by the Dirty Guv’nahs ranged in musical styles but consistently delivered quality music from each of the two stages. The festival, expanded to two days in its second year, looks to be a long-running staple of Knoxville spring music season.
The festival, held on the World’s Fair Park Performance Lawn, included vendors, lots of artist merchandise, a range of food trucks, two stages, and a beautiful display of guitars decorated by local students. For those who remember the long-ago, amazing Hot Summer Nights series held in the same spot in the 1990s, one thing notably did not appear: An ocean of mud. With the amount of rain that fell on Saturday, the re-emergence of that feature might have been expected. The city’s revamp of the lawn, including extensive drainage served festival-goers very well.
As for my journey through the festival, I have to admit I couldn’t bring myself to wade into the downpours and periodic thunderstorms of the morning and afternoon on Saturday. One of the great advantages to living downtown is the privilege of sitting dry at home until the radar says outside is a go. Sometime around 5:30 the radar looked clear enough that I ventured out. Unfortunately, I no doubt missed some great music. On the up side, there was only one brief shower during the later shows.
I arrived to a fun set by Auburn, Alabama band The Stews. Friends of the Dirty Guv’nahs, the band plays in a similar style of rock, strong on melody, and features a killer guitar player. They later joined the Guv’nahs on stage to great effect.
The Guv’nahs? Well they just keep rolling. A little more grey around the edges, hair trimmed a bit shorter perhaps, but still rolling along. Maybe they’re aiming to play their own version of Rolling Stones, a band they love to cover. The first time I heard them at Barley’s sometime in the mid-2000s, a Rolling Stones cover band played across the street and, simply because they could, they shifted into a Stones song that blew the other band away. That may have been the same night that James dove into the crowd, which promptly parted, leaving him sprawled across the floor of the bar. They may be too old for that bit these days.
The Guv’nahs brought their best game on both nights, serving as the penultimate act each night, prepping for the headliners. Happily that worked out this year with both bands present and accounted for, unlike last year when Blues Traveler had a bout with COVID-19 and cancelled. The Guv’nahs introduced a bit of their new material off their new album “Roots,” and it carried on the thread of their music, seamlessly fitting into the set as if it had always be a part of the show. While the band is great in concert, they deserve kudos both for their great musicianship, as well as consistently solid songwriting over the last fifteen years or so.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones closed the night and I got smacked by my first Road to Damascus experience. I’d heard about the dynamic show, had listened to some of the music, viewed some of the videos, and had people describe it to me, but there is nothing quite like the live experience. The band sounds great, working in their soul tradition with forays in various directions, but the man out front makes all the difference. Paul Janeway’s voice is a national treasure and his dynamic stage presence transforms the concerts into a secular worship service.
Urban Girl and Urban Daughter joined me for the second day, reprising our grouping from last year’s festival. Urban Girl wrote about the experience for this website then, but made no such offer this year, more ready to chill at the end of a hard school year. Her contribution was to suggest that the family should start the day with brunch at French Market, which we did and it proved to be the perfect start to the day.
Our musical day started under crystal blue skies to the sounds of Ben McLaughlin. He’d started as we walked in and immediately reminded me of Jorma Kaukonen, followed closely by Billy Bragg. His soft, soulful folk, with a healthy serving of social consciousness was a perfect way to ease into the festival. His “This Machine Kills Fascists” sticker on his guitar made clear he knew from where he came.
Doc Robinson (a band, not a person) followed and we enjoyed them, as well. They upped the ampage a bit, but not too much. I’ve listened to them a bit since the show and really enjoy their recorded work. Cece Coakly offered up some excellent songs on the north stage. Based in Nashville, I haven’t been able to find a recorded trail, but I’d expect one to emerge. She’s a real talent.
Jackie Venson, who made a point of shouting out her hometown of Austin, Texas, played a set on her teal Les Paul, accompanied by samples of herself and a drummer. To say the girl can play doesn’t come close to covering the topic. She’d later trade licks with Cosmo Holloway and stand her ground. Immensely talented, she’s not only recorded albums under her own persona, but also that of DJ Jackie, in which she spins her music through samples into entirely new compositions. She played the after party show at Barley’s.
Hometown favorite Cruz Contreras played the north stage as the lead-up to the Guv’nahs and delivered his expected fine set. Playing both guitar and keyboards, Cruze’ voice is one of the most recognizable and warm instruments in the city. His set included his more recent work, as well as selections from The Black Lilies. Perennial Knoxville musical presence Sam Quinn played base and added harmony vocals.
After the night two set by the Dirty Guv’nahs, rock/blues powerhouse Grace Potter planted her flag on the south stage to end the night. Which is as it should be: Who would want to follow that? Her domination of a stage from entry to exit can stand with anyone. That she has the musical chops to back it up and a voice like no other puts her on a rare level even for successful musicians. This was my second time to see her live (the first was documented here in 2015).
Her career has more range than most people can dream, with numerous acting credits, nominations and awards, and musical expression that wanders far afield from her standard blues-rock. She’s had successful on-going collaborations with Kenny Chesney, as well as the Flaming Lips. My favorite is her duet with Willie Nelson, “Ragged Company.” She blew the stage off to end the festival.
I’ve included the full complement of photos below. Enjoy. And check out these great artists.