While sitting around in the man cave I noticed that the calendar was reading February 29th. After a quick calculation (requiring all fingers and a few toes), I realized that today would be only the 17th time I had observed Leap Day in this whirlwind that we call a lifetime, and decided that, on a day that’s a little different, it would be fun to do something different.
Last week I had a friend mention to me that she had taken some out of town friends to the Blue Plate Special in Downtown Knoxville and that everyone loved it – a comment I had heard several times from other people. I’m thinking “Well, I’m from in town and I’ve never been, and this is the day to go”. Off I went.
The Blue Plate Special is an event sponsored by Radio Station WDVX (89.9 FM), a listener supported station which celebrates what it calls “roots” music, meaning a mix of Bluegrass, Americana, Classic and Alternative Country, Western Swing, Blues, Old Time and Appalachian Mountain Music, Bluegrass Gospel, Celtic and Folk music. This station began as a small operation, broadcasting out of a trailer on a lot outside of Knoxville, and grew as word of its programming was spread by listeners.
The Blue Plate Special is held Monday – Saturday from noon to 1pm and is broadcast live from the WDVX Studio inside the Knoxville Visitor Center, and features performers from around the world. The broadcasts reach a sizeable portion of the Southern Appalachian Region, but can be heard everywhere on the WDVX website.
I arrived on Leap Day at around 11:30. I was greeted by a young lady at the entrance to the Visitor Center, who welcomed me in and, greeted just as quickly, by a volunteer who was steering guests to the seats in the small studio on the left side of the room. While waiting I walked around to view the display of Blue Plates at the back of the stage which was marked as the Blue Plate Special Wall of Fame. Living in East Tennessee, where this type of music is part of your fabric, I recognized a few of the names on the wall, but was a little ashamed that I did not recognize more. I’m certain that a few of these artists and groups are legends in these parts.
At around 11:55 the DJ, a truly Southern lady named Red Hickey (love the name) began to warm up the modest number of visitors in the audience. We were told that the numbers of attendees would grow just as soon as the lunch hour began, but for now, we needed to sound large and lively when the show began.
At exactly 12:00, Red gave out a big welcome to the crowd, and pointed her finger to us as a cue. We shook the walls!
Red then introduced today’s first artists as Freddy and Francine, a vocal group from Los Angeles. Red announced that these two were on tour and would next be appearing in Birmingham, Alabama, New Orleans, and then finish their tour with a stop in Arlington, Texas. They had performed last in Nashville. After the show, I spoke with Francine who told me that Arlington was actually her home.
Red told everyone that she knew their names were not really Freddy and Francine, but actually were Lee Ferris and Bianca Caruso. When asked how the name change came about, they gave us the story, but I’m not sure I got it all. Trust me when I say the names didn’t matter…these two could sing.
Their music is described as Americana/Soul. They write their own songs and give them a folksy touch that, to my ear, is a unique blend of country and soul that would have a great appeal to a country music audience. Their voices were in perfect harmony. Lee (Freddy) played the guitar and Bianca (Francine) did a lot of the vocal work in the four songs performed this day. Her voice is strong and comes from deep within. In the first two numbers she displayed a wide range and I put in my notes that parts of the songs had a somewhat slow and mournful quality to them that I absolutely loved. I would describe Lee’s voice as leaning a little more to the country side than hers. This is understandable. He had once toured the world for three years as Carl Perkins in a performance of “Million Dollar Quartet”.
The audience loved their performance and gave them round after round of grateful applause. I made a video of a portion of one song and have shared it on the right side of the Easin’ Along home page. It’s a bit shaky, but I had no tripod and no lights of course, but I think you’ll enjoy it.
I hung around after the show and was able to speak to Bianca for just a second to express my appreciation and wish them well on the rest of the tour. She was nice. I bought a CD of their first album, The Forest and the Sea. This album contained two of the songs they did for us including today’s first song, “I Don’t Wanna Go”, which was truly special.
The second group on today’s Blue Plate Special was a group from Knoxville named the “Scruffy City Syncopators”. The name is a mouthful, but Red made it through the introduction and we applauded both the band and Red warmly.
We learned that this group had been together for about a year and they are primarily a dance band. They describe their music as “swing”. There are five people in the band, and all appeared to be in their late 20’s or early 30’s.
Megan, the only female, was the principal vocalist. Jeremy, a clean cut young man resembling a banker, was the guitar player. Chris, who hid behind Megan, was the drummer, and Ashton played bass. Hunter, the saxophonist, was the real star of the show. During each song he would let loose with long rips on his instrument that appeared to be very technical to the uneducated (me). The best compliment he got came from Freddy and Francine from the first act. They sat beside the stage and cheered loudly after each sax solo. Hunter was good.
I would describe Megan’s voice as having a blues quality reminded me of some of the songs recorded by Billie Holiday back in the day. Their first song “Goody, Goody” was followed up by “I Didn’t Like it the First Time – The Spinach Song”. Their music was fun, and while they called it “swing”, I would describe it as more like some of the Big Band music of the 40’s and 50’s being played by a small band. I think it would appeal to a very wide audience. It certainly appealed to this one…there was a lot of toe tapping around me.
In an instant, one hour of the Blue Plate Special was over.
I couldn’t believe how fast time had flown. Red Hickey was announcing lineups for future shows. I had just enjoyed a very pleasant lunch hour and definitely wanted to come back. So I did…on Wednesday.
Two days later, I parked a little closer to the Visitor Center. It was a cold day and I was fending off a cold, so I was being a little careful about staying out of the elements.
The sign at the entrance told us that today’s entertainment was to be provided first by Jonny Monster, who was to be followed by a group known as Lara Hope and the Ark-Tones.
Today’s audience was a little larger than Monday’s, and I wasn’t sure if it was because more people were familiar with the artists or if the cold weather had driven a few more inside. Nevertheless, Red Hickey didn’t have to work as hard to get a big sound from the crowd and, on her cue, we gave it up big for Jonny Monster.
Jonny is a man of few words, but he gives good guitar. His vocals remind me of Richie Havens with a touch of gruffness that I really like. His guitar playing was amazing. During the first break, Red asked him a few questions. We learned that he is from Kingston, NY but now lives in Knoxville and is “starting over” (we never learned what that meant). He has a band that plays music inspired by Johnny Winter who Jonny has followed since the age of 10. He describes his music as Rock n’ Blues, because it blends aspects of both the blues and rock and roll. He says he plays fast. I am a witness to the truth of that statement.
Red asked him about who taught him his guitar skills and he replied that he learned some from his father, but that he was primarily self-taught. Then he said the thing most amazing to me. Jonny said “I can’t read music, I just hear things and do them. My technique is terrible”. I would give anything to be that terrible. I have posted a video of Jonny’s guitar playing on the Easin’ Along Facebook page. Please go there and witness some amazing stuff.
The last group on Wednesday was Lara Hope and the Ark-Tones, coincidently, from Kingston, NY, the same hometown as Jonny Monster.
Lara is a very attractive singer who wears wide rimmed red glasses. I checked the website for the Ark-Tones and she is wearing those glasses in every photo, so this must be her trademark. Lara explained that the Ark-Tones had been on tour for seven weeks and usually they would still be in bed on a day like this, but they would do their best for us at this hour and work up to the high notes after a bit. This was going to be fun.
Their music is Rockabilly, Rock and Roll, and Rhythm and Blues. Most of this day’s selection came from the Rockabilly genre which, to me, means country music at a livelier pace, but I am the farthest thing from an expert on music. I just know if I like it and I liked their music lot. Included in their performance on this day was “Luckiest Girl In the Town” which I think was a reference to the recent marriage of Lara and Matt (bass player). They also gave us a great song with a great beat titled “Honkey Tonk Merry Go Round”. Both songs got everyone in the audience jazzed up and there was a lot of toe tapping around me once again.
In addition to Lara, vocalist, and Matt on bass, there was Chris on guitar and Dave on drums. Red told the audience that Lara Hope and the Ark-Tones would be appearing in Las Vegas in April at “Viva Las Vegas” which is the premier Rockabilly concert in the country. Lara said the group had never been to Vegas and they all were pumped. I hope they do well.
Once again, an hour passed by all too quickly.
Active Older Adulthood offers us a lot of choices and on this leap year day (extended) I think I made a great one. This choice may well become routine.
For now, with all toes tappin’, I’ll be Easin’ Along…