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Rhythm N' Blooms Takes Root in Knoxville

Various venues, Knoxville, Tenn., April 7, 2018

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

Some locales are synonymous with the festivals they host. Montreal, of course, with the Montreal Jazz Festival. Glastonbury and the Isle of Wight give their names to theirs. Austin opens its doors to South By Southwest. Nashville provides the same courtesy to the annual AmericanaFest. Telluride welcomes both a blues festival and bluegrass festival that both bear its name. The list goes on and on.

Knoxville, Tenn. belongs in the above category, and while some might might not be aware of its affinity for music and history, the fact remains that this beautiful city that's located in East Tennessee - part metropolis, part small town environs -- hosts a series of festivals throughout the year, with two in particular, Big Ears and Rhythm N' Blooms, falling within three weeks of each other.

All are eclectic, but it's Rhythm N' Blooms, which took place the first full weekend of April, that's become the festival to watch. Conveniently spread throughout Knoxville's historic Old City, it features an array of eclectic artists - the venerable Booker T. Jones, The Mowgli's, Deer Tick, Dr. Dog, The War and Treaty, Paul Thorn, Lilly Hiatt, Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, Anthony da Costa, Glass Magnet and the Young Fables, among them - playing in a variety of venues, seven in all, conveniently within an easy stroll of one another.

"Rhythm N' Blooms is a festival that's just as much about the city of Knoxville as it is about music," the festival's website accurately attests. "The festival honors the identity and spirit of our rich East Tennessee history while providing a premium listening environment for top-notch musical performances. Knoxville's story has always been set to music. Rhythm N' Blooms highlights that soundtrack and celebrates the crossroads of this city's varied music history by showcasing popular national acts alongside the finest musicians East Tennessee has to offer."

The varied nature of Rhythm N' Blooms reflects the city's passion for performers and its singular bond with their sounds. In the Old City itself, the variety of venues allow for artists of any standing to find a seemingly perfect place to perform. The Pilot Light, Barley's, Love Shack, Pretentious Beer Company and Boyd's Jig & Reel offer more intimate environs, while the nearby Jackson Terminal gives audiences room to sprawl. However it's the main stage known as Cripple Creek that provides the main draw, with the festival's headliners sharing their wares on a stage situated underneath a highway overpass that conveniently provides shelter when needed the most.

Indeed, climate conditions were less than advantageous over the weekend, and with unseasonable cold and incessant rain intruding on audience and artists alike over the first two days, endurance was essential. Most of the musicians took the necessary precautions and dressed accordingly for their appearances at Cripple Creek, while those fortunate enough to perform indoors, noted repeatedly that it was best to be inside listening to music than to suffer the ill conditions nature was offering outside.

Like most festivals, there were opportunities to see most of the artists multiple times, although the groups that appeared at Cripple Creek tended to be headliners who did single shows. However, Rhythm N Blooms is also well known for its so-called "Secret Shows," which often provide an additional opportunity to catch those bands, although they're always unannounced.

Still, there was something to be said for the jubilance that a Cripple Creek performance could provide. Whether it was the soulful sounds of the legendary Booker T., the celebratory soul of the husband-wife team The War and Treaty, the exuberant modern pop of The Mowgli's, the anthemic roar of Deer Tick and Dr. Dog, or the gospel revelry of Paul Thorn and the McCrary Sisters with their Mission Temple Fireworks Revival, the energy and enthusiasm never wavered, even in the midst of sometimes torrential downpours and water spills that found their way down to the crowd from the roadways above. Dancing, shouting and singing along were, as always, duly incited by the festival and its festivities, and despite a sometimes bitter wind, the regimen was never relinquished.

Still, those who sought refuge from the weather and needed a respite found any number of mellower options. Indeed, Rhythm N' Blooms welcomes singer/songwriter types, and Beth Snapp, the Brother Brothers, Sarah Potenza, David Francisco, Caroline Spence, Penny & Sparrow. Hayes Carll, the Young Fables, Carly Burrus and Max Gomez easily and literally fit the bill.

Gomez was spied Friday night after his earlier performance, unsure of where he had just played or even where he was headed next, but fortunately, the Old City is so compact, he even managed to make it to a pop-up radio performance the next day.

Canadian troubadour Corb Lund wasn't scheduled at all, but he did a surprise set at Barley's and later made a cameo with his buddy Hayes Carll. Penny & Sparrow marvelled that the audience actually remained hushed and attentive, given that their two man, one guitar format called for the same quiet reverence one would have accorded Simon and Garfunkel early on. Yet given the duo snappy repartee, they also offer hilarity and humour.

One more thing worth noting. Few festivals offer opportunity to hear two strikingly different renditions of Prince's "Purple Rain." Booker T and band's version on day one held true to the original, but the Young Fables' mellower read proved that when an occasion calls fall, folkies can soar as well.

The Festival was held April 7-9, 2018.

Lee Zimmerman is a freelance writer based in Maryville, Tenn. He also expounds on music on his web site, Beyond the Music.