Fort Sanders Fest experiences growth spurt in year two

Celebration of local music to take over World’s Fair Park on April 27

Photo courtesy of Fort Sanders FestCultivating and curating a music festival of any sort requires – among many other things – time, energy, funds and support from both civic and private leaders. It is the kind of arduous work one expects only a seasoned team of music business veterans to be able to complete. So how is it that a local group of college students is on the precipice of successfully pulling off such a massive undertaking for the second year running?

When asked this very question, Mathan Gore, University of Tennessee senior and co-founder of Fort Sanders Fest, pauses thoughtfully, offers a sheepish grin and replies, “I…don’t know.” Collecting himself, he adds, “We just kind of sacrificed our free time to make it happen.”

Fortunately for Knoxville music fans, they did, and the fruits of their collective labor will be on full display from 2-10pm on Saturday, April 27, when 14 excellent bands grace two stages on the Festival Lawn of World’s Fair Park. Admission to FSF is $12 and you must be 18 to enter. Billed as a celebration of the music, culture and spirit of the student-dominated Fort Sanders neighborhood, the festival will feature a variety of vendors selling food, drinks, art and more.

Though the concept of this year’s festival is the same as it was last year, the location has changed. The Hill, Trevor Hill’s namesake pub that lays just a couple of blocks to the west of WFP, hosted the event in 2012. Gore remains grateful for all that the restauranteur did to help with the inaugural fest but cites a spatial need for precipitating the move to a different site.

“Nothing against them at all, but we’re trying to expand in every way,” he explains. “We have a capacity of 3,500 this year as compared to 1,500, tops, last year. I don’t know if we’ll reach that number, but we can.”

Gore credits several people for helping to make such lofty expectations possible. One is WFP liaison Dorissa Simpson, whom he says has been “a huge help and a great person to work with” in easing the transition to the new location. Another is Jimmy Buckner, executive director of the Scarecrow Foundation, the non-profit organization combating hunger that will receive all proceeds earned from the event. “He’s just been awesome,” Gore says.

Of course, Gore is quick to praise the efforts of his fellow students, as well. Though he is responsible for artist booking and legal matters concerning FSF, several others have factored significantly in planning, promoting and running the event. He also credits what is a remarkably strong advertising campaign and heavy social media presence for generating excitement about this year’s event.

What began last year as a joke has evolved into reality, this time complete with backing from myriad sponsors and a more-than-respectable lineup that includes local heavyweights Marina Orchestra, Hudson K, The Theorizt and Yung Life. Only two months of planning went into the 2012 edition, but the planning committee began holding meetings at the start of last summer in anticipation of this month. The result has been better organization, (somewhat) less stress and a focused effort to bring attention to artists who deserve exposure.

As Gore readily admits, the result has been worth the sacrifice. “Who else can say that they threw a music festival in college? Not too many…”

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Wooden Wand conjures magic on new album

Blood Oaths of the New BluesProlificacy is a tremendous asset for an artist to possess. An ardent desire to create can result in dazzling experimentation and often leads to great things in all mediums of expression. For some individuals, however, the pull is so strong that it manifests itself in an overall body of work that – while vast, diverse and frequently enthralling – ultimately is uneven.

Throughout his career, James Jackson Toth has been regarded in this manner by many a music journalist. Performing myriad styles of music under a variety of names (Wooden Wand, WAND, WW and the Vanishing Voice, etc.), the former Knoxville resident has been roundly criticized for letting his virtuosic instincts override his better judgment with respect to self-editing.

Still, a few others – myself included – would argue that such assessments are without merit; the discovery of pockets of brilliance alone is worth sifting through Toth’s extensive back catalog. The latest Wooden Wand album, though, seems to be uniting both camps in their appreciation of his work, and for good reason. With its 8 tracks clocking in at 41 minutes, Blood Oaths of the New Blues is a simultaneously sprawling and focused effort that features some of the best songwriting you’re likely to hear on any record released this year.

The opening two-song suite, “No Bed for Beatle Wand/Days This Long,” is a fitting introduction to the album. The first part, a tongue-in-cheek reference to Yoko Ono’s late-‘60s paean to John Lennon, languidly creeps out of the gate with boldly reverbed guitar strokes accompanied by xylophone arpeggios, its structure and tone indeed very much like a kind of postmodern blues. A seamless changeover to the second part reveals an equally enchanting track.

While it’s tempting to transcribe a couplet or two from the complement, it would be a disservice to the piece as a whole; suffice it to say that Toth’s mastery of language is on full display throughout the movement. And it is this command of words both written and sung that make Blood Oaths such a compelling listen.

“Outsider Blues” begins with an account of a narcotic-fueled road trip with a significant other to a music festival. Plaintively descriptive at the start, the narrative transitions once the drugs take effect to an introspective analysis of the relationship and the idea of settling down. “We never see our own hearts, that’s the truly weird part/We can’t assess any damage or survey the scars,” Toth croons, his character lamenting the realizations gathered during his drug-induced meditation. The disconnect between the physical and the perceptual remains until it is resolved in a moment of clarity at the festival. “I might have felt like I was safe then/But I know what I feel is just one version of real,” the character surmises in the end.

Although the lyrical content is most impressive, “Dome Community People (Are Good People)” is a psychedelic, instrumental stomp that serves as a powerful reminder of Wooden Wand’s association with Swans’ Michael Gira. Elsewhere, songs like “Dungeon of Irons” and “Supermoon (The Sounding Line)” are indicative of Toth’s strength as a composer. The former is a smart, taut country rocker that builds to an emotional crescendo thanks to a marriage of swirling keys, crunchy lead guitar and lilting background vocals. The latter contains many of the same elements, but the addition of a lap steel evokes imagery of a great Western expanse and is the perfect lead-in to the next tune.

“Southern Colorado Song,” Blood Oath’s standout track and first single, recounts the true tale of the Dougherty gang, a family of fugitives who left a trail of wreckage from Florida to the Centennial State in 2011. Behind a wall of threatening stabs of electric guitar, thumping percussion and high-pitched synths, Toth grimly sings about the siblings’ last few hours of freedom before being captured by the authorities. Presented from a first-person perspective, he remains objectively matter-of-fact, refusing to editorialize. Instead, he lets the music and the retelling of the story relay the gravity of the situation. It’s an effective trick and one that immaculately encapsulates Toth’s ability as a wordsmith.

Prior to Blood Oaths, Wooden Wand’s most recent material was Briarwood, a short set recorded with a who’s who of musicians from Birmingham, Alabama. It marked a step up from past efforts in terms of production quality, as vibrant songs like “Scorpion Glow” and “Winter in Kentucky” practically leapt from the recording. Many of the same players returned for the new album, which is similarly rich in tone. More than anything, Blood Oaths is a refinement of that sound, just with more deliciously strange embellishments (such as the tape hiss signifying a frazzled mind on the aforementioned “Outsider Blues”).

“No Debts” is ideal as a closer in that it exudes an air of finality. What is initially fairly shocking about the track, however, is just how happy Toth sounds on it. For someone known for jumping from genre to genre with reckless abandon, a simple acoustic ballad extolling the virtues of having achieved financial security seems like something of an outlier. But, as is the case with the majority of Toth’s songs, deeper meaning can be gleaned from the lyrics. Symbolic also of contentment in love and station in life, the song is a fitting conclusion to a wonderfully solid and fulfilling album – the best and most definitive in the Wooden Wand archive.

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Yo La Tengo continues remarkable run with excellent Fade

FadeConsistence and reliability are traits rarely found among indie rockers. Only a handful of artists have been able to sustain careers for longer than a few years, and many who have still produced some real clunkers along the way. So why is it that a band like Yo La Tengo is so easy to overlook?

Now approaching its third decade of existence, the Hoboken, New Jersey, trio has remained a model of consistency for virtually that entire time. But for some reason, Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew have largely flown under the radar despite cranking out album after album of excellent material. Fade, their latest full-length and the thirteenth overall, marks yet another milestone for the dependable group.

Fade lacks the kind of sonic exploration that characterized Yo La Tengo’s output in the mid-to-late aughts, but these ten songs benefit from light touches of psychedelia, bright orchestration and subtle electronic tinges. The result is a hypnotic set that is as warm, inviting and intimate as the double whammy of I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. The record’s first half, however, is bookended by two lengthy, fuzzed-out tracks (“Ohm,” “Stupid Things”) that feature chugging rhythms and thrashed drumbeats.

Kicking things off, “Ohm” gradually builds up steam, a dirty guitar lick appearing midway through before giving way to repeated callback vocals. “Is That Enough” synthesizes doo-wop, a vaguely ‘70s-era piano run and strings reminiscent of Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter into an immediately likable ditty. A funky lead riff, electric keyboard and snappy percussion lift up “Well You Better,” and layers of distorted guitar meld with syrupy singing on “Paddle Forward.”

Strong contender for Fade’s best song, “Stupid Things” begins in innocuous fashion. A clean solo by Kaplan rings out; moments later, McNew’s dissonant bass line propels the groove in a jarring direction. It’s no secret that Yo La Tengo’s early material was heavily indebted to the Velvet Underground, and here that band’s influence is unmistakable. Hushed, reverb-laden vocals and erratic, extended noodling follow before washing out abruptly.

Featuring slightly more in the way of experimentation, the album’s second half arguably is better than the first. “Comelia and Jane,” in particular, is outstanding, with heavenly brass and Hubley’s vocal turn pushing the song skyward. Traces of both Lambchop and Broken Social Scene can be heard in the ethereal “Two Trains,” and protracted closer “Before We Run” swells to a grand finish with strings, brass and traditional instrumentation.

Reading the band’s lyrics, one does not detect a sense of profundity. How its members are able to mine emotional depth in such simple phrases is wondrous, but it seemingly lies in their delivery. A line like, “Honey, that’s ok/If we’re getting old/If we’re not so strong/If our story’s told” on “The Point of It” would be in danger of sounding saccharine were it sung by a lesser artist, but Kaplan provides the words with the soft embrace they need to be effective. And in an album full of what essentially amount to love songs, the players make domesticity sound more appealing that perhaps it should – a trick a flashier band than Yo La Tengo would have a hard time executing.

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