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Some late notes about Rhythm N Blooms at the Botanical Gardens

The Knoxville Botanical Gardens, the site of the finale of the three-day 2013 Rhythm and Blooms Festival, is an East Knoxville Shangri-La. High atop a ridge, it affords a better view of the Smoky Mountains than any West Knox perch. On the other side of Wimpole Street are the old Druid round stone houses--actually, I think they date from the Truman administration--that once constituted the durable but unconventional plant purveyor known as Howell Nursery. And in the middle is a patch of turf that seemed, for several hours on a sunny Sunday, like a rock festival. The patch is not much more than an acre, but it was the perfect size for an event like this.
A couple varieties of beer were on tap, and three food trucks seemed to stay pretty busy. The crowd was civilized, if not altogether sober. Almost all had arrived via trolley. All day, KAT trolleys arrived with headings of places that seemed very far away from this green idyll: Market Square; Civic Coliseum. At the Botanical Gardens, there's hardly anything else to make you think you're in any sort of a city. It seems a rural place.

The rock festival is kind of a puzzle, to begin with just as a concept. Rock'n'roll is a high-key event. The whole idea is to get everybody aroused, stoked up, maybe dancing. A picnic is a low-key event. The idea is to relax, eat, drink, maybe doze off. It is, more or less, the Bonnaroo dilemma: Dance? Talk? Drink? Sleep?
Some attendees always seem more comfortable with the concept than others who might have grown up knowing music festivals just as an unlikely rumor from Woodstock or Newport. Lots of people bring blankets, lawn chairs, coolers. What are the rules? If you bring a bigger blanket, can you justly command more real estate? If you brought a folding chair, can you set it up in front of people who didn't? And there are no aisles. If you see a friend in the middle, can you step over lots of other people to go say hello?

I stayed afoot, and hung around the back, where the beer was. I missed the first act, Mike Farris, and was told it was a high point. But I caught St. Paul and the Broken Bones: not what you'd expect, unless you were expecting Otis Redding reincarnated as a chubby white guy in a tuxedo.

The offbeat, droll gypsy-groove Ragbirds, from Michigan; charismatic local songwriter Erick Baker; the wry, smart, carefully authentic songwriter Justin Townes Earle: All of them were fine performers who seemed to be enjoying themselves, and in an auditorium, or a nightclub, would have commanded the undivided attention of the crowd. That's unlikely to happen at the Botanical Gardens, with the Smokies lined up way off to the south.

The final act was Dawes, which after some extraordinarily careful sound-checking didn't start playing until 9:40. People had been standing up some for Earle, but they jammed in for Dawes, and I wondered what happened to all the folding chairs that had been in that tent most of the day. They're a good rock'n'roll band from California with a wiry, scruffy-haired lead singer-guitarist who sings as if he's earnestly trying to explain something, treading a careful line between dramatically expressive and cool. He seems an idol in the making, and judging by the number of people who were mouthing his poetic lyrics as he sang them, maybe he's already there.

As Dawes played, hundreds of fans, mostly under 30, were jammed in together so tightly, it was hard to squirm your way out. The Smokies, and the woods and fields were invisible, and it might as well have been a good-sized nightclub. But outside of that tight rectangle under the tent, where the crowd looked as if it were contained by invisible walls, the picnic part of the festival was still there. Still lounging on blankets in the grass out here were people who'd never heard of Dawes and maybe hadn't noticed they were performing. They sat under the stars and drank and ate taquitos and talked with their friends, maybe because they knew they wouldn't be able to do this again any time soon.


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