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Eye on the Scene

Up in smoke

Encouraged by the support of the 25 or 30 people who saw Benjamin Smoke at the Pilot Light last weekend, the Knoxville Film and Video Co-op is bringing the acclaimed Jem Cohen documentary back this weekend for an encore screening.

The film, shot in grainy color and black-and-white, is a profile of Benjamin, an enigmatic drag queen/speed freak/rock 'n' roll singer from Atlanta's Cabbagetown. Benjamin, who died from AIDS-related illness in 1999, provided throaty Tom Waits-esque vocals to the bizarro cabaret rock of the Opal Foxx Quartet and the gothic chamber rock of Smoke, and Cohen's film—a collage of interview footage, panoramic shots of Cabbagetown, and old photographs, all accompanied by music from Smoke—traces Benjamin's odyssey from rural Georgia, where Patti Smith's Horses first inspired him to sing, to Atlanta's underground rock scene and, finally, to the grim public housing apartment where he eventually died. A strange and sad journey that ends with a final poetic tribute from Patti Smith herself.

If you missed it the first time, you can still redeem yourself. Benjamin Smoke will show at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 1 at the Pilot Light. Admission is $5.

Local CD Review

Jason Sharp
Under the Backporch Blues

Under the Backporch Blues is a rarity, obviously a labor of love, a spare, simple CD of 15 acoustic-guitar blues tunes, new recordings of classics from the Piedmont/country blues tradition of the '20s and '30s, representing some of the late greats: Blind Boy Fuller (who influenced Knoxville native Brownie McGhee, who after Fuller's death replaced him as Sonny Terry's sideman), Blind Blake, Mississippi John Hurt, and the Rev. Gary Davis. The album is almost entirely the work of one musician, Jason Sharp, a LaFollette resident who has recently been playing in Knoxville venues. (His only accompaniment is apparently his colleague Sandy Garrett, on washboards.)

Sharp is an excellent guitarist of the elegant ragtime-influenced Piedmont style, which emphasizes plucking over strumming. Sharp plays beautifully and authentically, sometimes even sounding as if he's accompanying himself with bass or rhythm notes. You rarely hear playing like this except on scratchy 78s. And though the vocal recording is a little echoey, Sharp has a pleasant singing voice. Somehow that's the problem with the record.

He politely enunciates these lyrics, as if to be sure you don't miss a word on the first listen. Perhaps falling prey to the habit of selling historic music to youth by bringing out the raunchiest examples of it, Sharp opens the CD with three overtly copulatory anthems, "Keep On Truckin' Mama" (with the line, "What's that smells like fish, oh, baby," it was probably Fuller's most controversial song); Hurt's "Candy Man" ("He's got a stick of candy that's nine inches long") and "Hesitation Blues." And he enunciates it all perfectly. Half the fun of listening to those old songs is hearing a slurred double entendre and thinking, "did he say what I think he said?" then pulling the needle off and listening again. By contrast, Sharp's clear singing leaves no questions in your mind the first time.

It's an awkward question for any white guy, deciding to what extent he should imitate the accents, inflections, and expressions of the original black singers. Leon Redbone somehow made a career of doing ragtime double-entendre blues only after creating a bizarre persona of his own, a deadpan slur and a hat, mustache, and shades that masked his whiteness, but vocally, Sharp comes across as an earnest young student who may revere these lyrics just a little too much.

The guitar work is a different story, though. This delicate style isn't easy to master, but here, Sharp has obviously paid his dues in practice. Interestingly, when he was first hooked on this music, he didn't know that one of the greatest living practitioners of this style, Howard Armstrong, had grown up in Sharp's own home town.

The album also includes a couple of grittier departures, including Fred McDowell's "You Gotta Move" (once covered somewhat differently by the Rolling Stones) and Big Joe Williams's "Baby Please Don't Go."


Thursday: Tony Furtado Band with Robinella and the CC String Band at Moose's Music Hall. Furtado brings the world/funk/folk beat while CC takes on old-time/jazz/swing standards with a modern twist.

Friday: Sparky Rucker at Laurel Theatre. We love Rucker's brand of revolutionary folk, if you couldn't tell from Jack Neely's portrait a few issues back.

Saturday: Wicked Cow People with Serotonin and People of the Squares at Pilot Light. WCP has come back to K-town and there was some rejoicing.

Sunday: Be a fool. For some this is more work than for others...

Monday: The Birdhouse Show at Tomato Head. Thirty-three local artist build their best birdhouses. Pick the one your feathered friends would like.

Tuesday: Johnny Lang with Indigenous at Tennessee Theatre. White boy blues with American Indian rock.

Wednesday: The Diviners at Carousel Theatre. All-Campus Theatre performs a play about former pastors and young boys.

Emma "Never covered by the Rolling Stones" Poptart

March 29, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 13
© 2001 Metro Pulse