published Thursday, September 19th, 2013

In Tune: Why JJ's Bohemia has stepped up its game

Since I moved here in 2007, JJ's Bohemia has been one of the trump cards I pull out when making a case for the legitimacy of the local music scene to out-of-towners who have decided to be argumentative.

Sure, now we attract our fair share of national acts thanks to Track 29, and Rhythm & Brews is generally good for cool artists. In terms of pure indie cred, however, JJ's is our set of Buddy Holly glasses, our owl necklace.

With the exception of a semiannual holiday sprucing up, however, very little about JJ's has changed since 2006. Not that that's a bad thing. The underground set like its dingy, exposed brick trappings just as much as we do, so why change?

In recent months, however, names have been popping up on the venue's schedule that undoubtedly have perked the ears of music-savvy locals. These are indie heavy hitters: Shovels & Rope, Meat Puppets and Deerhunter, which kicked off its spring tour at JJ's.

The future is just as bright, with YouTube sensation Turquoise Jeep playing there Saturday, Kishi Bashi making an Oct. 3 appearance and indie rocker Kurt Vile playing there on Nov. 12.

These are big names, indeed. Bigger, in fact, than a 100-odd-capacity venue like JJ's seems to warrant, cred or no cred. They're accompanied by necessarily heftier ticket prices, too, about double the venue's usual $5 to $7 cover.

I reached out to owner John Shoemaker to find out what was going on. He says this is all part of his plan to step up his game and dip his toes into the musical equivalent of big-game hunting, with all its accompanying rewards and dangers. In short, he's decided to take more risks.

"I guess the demand has been there for bigger bands, and people are willing to pay $15 to $20 cover," he says. "A lot of this has come from Track 29. I feel like they've raised the bar [for us], as a city."

Cramming these bands into a bar like JJ's can sometimes be a bit uncomfortable, like a fat kid squeezing into a pair of skinny jeans. Sound engineers can't do much more than scratch their heads at the house sound system, and the venue's green room is -- well -- the side of the stage.

Nevertheless, these bands get a thrill from playing the occasional dive. After all, Shoemaker says, Deerhunter approached him, not the other way around.

Whatever the reason these bands are agreeing to grace our little local dive, I, for one, am happy to slum it up with them. How about you?

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...

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