The Daily Pulse:

Third First Night flies

For days, the third attempt at a sort-of family-oriented New Year's Eve festival known as First Night, seemed headed for the Perfect Storm. The weather was foul, chilly and wet, with a dangerous fog that some drivers may have mistaken for a symptom of severe intoxication. Worse, the Vols were playing in their first bowl game in two years, with a new coach, and a retiring star defensive back, against a ranked regional team, in a game that looked like the Vols last best shot at credibility. The assumption was that no Knoxvillian could walk out on their ESPN on a night like that. 

When they didn't show up for a downtown party, I was going to write a eulogy and suggest they rein it in next year, do it again, please, as we should in the hometown of the guy who invented the American New Year's Eve, but try something less ambitious. Just two or three venues, maybe, not seven or eight. As it is, though, all I can say is carry on.

The people who did show up were a different kind of a crowd. Last night may have been your only chance to see what Knoxville looks like if you strip out all the Vol fans and everybody who's in bed by 11. Many of them looked like Unitarians maybe, or visiting cappuccino urbanites in dark stylish New York clothes, combined with an interesting mixture of foreign professionals. Very few--I looked several times--blaze-orange garments. In all, it was a fine turnout despite the odds. 

It would have been impossible for anybody to see everything, which was kind of a shame, because it was a night of variety and unusual performances of a sort we don't get to see much in the bars. The YWCA alone boasted two venues, the gym and the front ballroom, which hosted singers Rachel Pearl and Sara Schwabe, would be an elegant space for 50 or 100, with better lighting. We didn't even get up to TVA, or to the History Center--the Arnstein, overcrowded original venue, was shut down by the fire marshall--where Asheville's astonishing Runaway Circus had people talking all night. 
The Holy Ghost Tent Revival, a young beardy grassy intuitive rock band with a trombone and a headlong rhythm and no set style, played an inspired, manic show to more than 100 at the Tennessee--the Greensboro-based band, which has been around a good bit, said it was the most beautiful venue they'd ever played.
Jason Ringenberg played a solo acoustic show to at the Visitors Center. His old band, Jason and the (Nashville) Scorchers, was the closest thing Southern punk, or punk-era rock, had to a pop sensation. In those days, when he was collaborating with fan Michael Stipe, he an idol to Tennessee youth and was later credited as one of the inventors of alt-country. The fact that only about 20 showed up to see his solo show is one of the evening's few disappointments. Maybe there's too much overlap between the Jason crowd and the Go-Vols crowd. 
Ringenberg, who had just done a better-attended kids' show as his alter-ego, "Farmer Jason," is still a showman; his unusual show consisted of long engaging stories about the Civil War or the early days of vinyl and then twisting into a frenetic song: one a tribute to guitar legend Link Wray, one an old Scorchers song like Harvest Moon, from his great 1983 EP, Fervor, with its apt refrain, "sickness has now become style." The brash young cowpunk now seems an amiable craftsman, speaking with the authority of a guy who makes racing boats for a living, confident you're going to pay attention. But when he's playing he seems tetched, given to sudden movements and odd stances, holding a guitar in places you've never seen it held before. His mechanically unlikely alligator-boot dance is sort of a Tennessee Moon Walk.  
It has to be said the Visitors Center doesn't work perfectly for late-night events. Off on its own at Gay and Summit Hill, it's not close enough to Market Square or Gay Street's other attractions to make it feel as if it's part of the festivities. The coffee bar was open, but the room has a gloom to it at night when the gift shop and the closed and the big window of the WDVX studio, the reason this stage is here, is dark. A DJ and live broadcast would have seemed fitting, especially for this legend of Americana. As it was, the big empty window and the empty chairs where our favorite authorities of Americana usually sit makes whatever happens here seem lonesome and forlorn. 
By 10:30 or so, Market Square itself was looking something like Sundown, and by 11:30, it's easy to believe there were three or four thousand people there, not counting the skating rink, which as that moment seemed kind of in the way.
In Phil Pollard and his large Band of Humans, First Night seems to have found its house band. With four horns, a xylophone, congas, and Phil's stream-of-consciousness sacrilege, they are untouchable for sheer reckless festivity, which is what we're looking for on a New Year's Eve. Phil always does something you didn't know he could do; this time, who knew, he was breathing fire, without obvious concern about his Lincoln beard. Sara Schwabe, in town from Arizona, where she's halfway through a graduate program, and who had already performed two gigs, joined in late in the set with harmony and scat. 
Part of the fun of a Band of Humans show is watching slack-jawed innocents who've never encountered them before. No band has ever had more fun on stage. And the actual ball drop came off much better than last year; if it wasn't all that dramatic, the fireworks were.

They wrapped up at the main stage by 12:15 or so. At that point, Dishwater Blonde, featuring departing member Cozmo Holloway, was still playing hot funk to a packed and mostly youthful house at the Square Room until about 1:00. It looked like they could have kept playing, and the Square Room could have sold about a thousand dollars worth of more beer and champagne, but the Square Room's strict about closing promptly. Even before the band's encore, would-be visitors were being turned away at the front. The usual bars were just getting started. 

When accounting for the Tim Lee show at Sullivan's, the Scott Miller show at the Bijou, and several other NYE parties, it's easy to believe there were 10,000 people having a big time in downtown Knoxville during the fourth quarter of the Vols bowl-game loss. A subject that did not come up within earshot of this reporter last night.

Comments » 1

  • January 03, 2010
  • 9:39 PM
jim writes:

Just out of curiosity, what are your top 2 new year’s resolutions or goals?

If you missed the 3rd Annual First Night in Downtown Knoxville, you should make the 2010 event one of your top picks this year. We welcome your participation to one of the most fantastic "New Traditions" to hit Knoxville in a long time.

For all who missed First Night this year, I might suggest that you talk to someone you know who attended the event.

It's true that it would be nearly impossible to see all the venues offered during the First Night Event but this is entirely by design. The First Night attraction can fulfill the needs of everyone, somewhere within the parameters of the Downtown. From children to young adults, from teens to grandparents, First Night Knoxville has something for everyone.

In addition to the YWCA, The Square Room also featured Sara Schwabe and Her Yankee Jass Band from 7:00 to 8:00, and then it was Blair Crimmins and the Hookers from 8:15 – 9:45. Both were viewed by a packed house of First Night "pin bearing" participants.

At 10:00 however, The Square Room opened its doors to feature Dishwater Blonde as an “after party” to the First Night Event. Dishwater Blonde was contracted by our booking agent to play till 1:00. The band had full control of the well engaged crowd and the ability to play a one, two or ten song encore. Mr. Neely was very correct in saying that “they looked like they could have kept playing” well into the morning and he was equally correct in writing that “we could have sold about a thousand dollars worth of more beer and champagne”, but as most of you know by now, we are not a bar, but a venue that celebrates music. Due to both capacity issues and to be fair to the participating patrons that paid a $15.00 cover to attend this energetic event we might have had to turn away a few “would-be visitors” at the encore. I would like to mention to the readers something that was not included in Mr. Neely’s article is that both the band Dishwater Blonde and The Square Room donated all the proceeds from this event to KARM (Knoxville Area Rescue Mission).

As for me; hosting First Night at Café 4 and The Square Room confirmed the fact that the loss of a few pounds and spending more time with my family are two items that I need to have at the top of my new year’s resolutions. Here is wishing us all a healthy and prosperous 2010.

I hope to see you next year Downtown on December 31st.

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