Maybe the Black Lillies Oct. 2 performance downtown in celebration of their latest album Hard to Please won’t go down in Knoxville history as the single biggest event ever to take place on the city’s venerable Market Square. But in a just World with a just God — one with discriminating taste in music — it would be all that and more.
And even in this wretched dimensional plane, where discord reigns and good men die like dogs in the street, it will rate as a more than tolerably significant event, seeing as how the Lillies are the biggest thing going in K-town now, bigger than Bill Haslam and Johnny Knoxville and David Keith and the Sunsphere put together, rolled up into one very tall and excessively phallic package.
In case you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last six years or so, the Black Lillies are an ace Americana outfit founded by Cruz Contreras in 2009, in the wake of his departure from another high-profile local Americana act, former Columbia recording artists Robinella and the CCstringband.
The story of the Lillies’ coalescence is the stuff of local legend now, the tale of how Contreras recorded the band’s debut album Whiskey Angel with a pull-together line-up in his own living room, played Bonnaroo and the Ryman Auditorium scant weeks after releasing that first platter. How the fledgling outfit hit the Road forthwith, played 38 shows in 40 days, dominated the festival circuit and garnered attention from everyone that’s anyone in the realm of American roots music.
They’ve been a DIY outfit from day one, the Lillies have, releasing each of their four platters on their own North Knox Records imprint, paying for the whole deal through a mix of crowd funding and shrewd money management. And yet without any sort of corporate backing, they’ve received beaucoup national attention — on the Billboard music charts and at awards shows and in the music media, Independent Music Awards and Rolling Stone recognition and inclusion on various Album of the Year lists from here to Sri Lanka, at least…
The aforementioned Stone has written the band up a couple of times, putting them on their 2014 list of “Ten Artists You Need to Know for Summer,” describing them as “genre-mashing roots music with an Appalachian anchor,” and “a co-ed ragtag group of Knoxville-based pickers whose songs bridge the gap between Appalachian folk, California folk-rock, bluegrass and jazz.”
Vanity Fair jumped into the fray, as well, praising Contreras’ lyrics as “measured and familiar, bitter but not jaded, reassuring — that you are not alone” in a recent short review. VF also interviewed the band and quoted Lillies chanteuse Trisha Gene Brady as saying that her aspiration as a singer was to be not so much Patsy Cline as “Jimmy Martin with tits.” Salute.
The Black Lillies’ new album — which has been available for streaming over at American Songwriter, in advance of the Oct. 2 release — is at once their most stylistically expansive and accessible release to date. Contreras has noted on many occasions that the band is product of its diversely experienced line-up — a line-up that has changed more than a couple of times in the last six moons.
An East Tennessee kid steeped in bluegrass and trad-country, Contreras went on to study jazz piano at the University of Tennessee. Former BL guitarist Tom Prior was a Grateful Dead aficionado; new pedal-steel ace Jonathan Keeney is another former UT jazz student who has dipped more than just a toe into the realms of cry-in-your-beer honky-tonk (Guy Marshall), reverent string band worship (Dixieghost), and balls-out rock (The JoJax).
New axeman Mike Seal, meanwhile, is fresh off a gig with acclaimed drummer Jeff Sipe’s fusion trio.
And that’s just a small hint of how Lillies past and present have contributed to the band’s broad, eclectic sound. Point is, there’s a whole lot brewing on every BL release. Check out the new record’s thumping country-rock title track, just ferinstance, or Trisha Gene on track three — “The First Time” — laying down a torch-song warble over a horn-laden Motown groove.
Or just come out to Market Square on Friday, Oct. 2. And get there early, because the opening acts kickstart at 5 p.m. That would include buzzed-about Nashville act Margo and the Price Tags, whose debut album is set to roll on Jack White’s (!) Third Man Records soon, and Electric Darling, the also-much-buzzed-about Knoxville band featuring former Dirty Guv’nahs Kevin Hyfantiss and Cozmo Holloway teaming up with dynamic frontwoman Yasameen “Yas” Hoffman-Shahin.
Bear in mind, too, that the Eve of All Hallows is almost upon us, and Preservation Pub/Scruffy City Hall will be celebrating in typical, inimitable fashion. But that’s for another time. First things first; the Black Lillies are back in town. Miss the Hard to Please album release party at your own peril.