By Joe Rector
It had been a while since I’d ventured to the Bijou Theater, and Amy had never been there since we moved back to Knoxville from Cookeville in 1974. The other night, we made a go of it and attended a concert at the theater, and good Lord, it was a different kind of experience.
In the last century, the Bijou aired what I assume were B movies. While the Tennessee and Riviera theaters ran the big-name movies, the Bijou aired such things as Hercules movies starring Steve Reeves and movies based on Edgar Allan Poe stories that featured scary man Vincent Price. In the 60s and 70s, the Bijou ran out of gas and cash and began airing a different kind of movie. That genre appealed to some strange characters and vagrants looking for a place to sleep without being hassled by police. Its doors were boarded up for a while until a group decided to re-open it with a variety of events.
Amy and I traveled to the theater and ate at the Bistro. The food was good, and the place became crowded with a mixture of young and old patrons. We ate, talked, and, most of all, people watched for a while. After a brief walk on a glorious spring evening, we lined up to enter the Bijou. Other than the airport, this was the first place I’d been scanned for weapons. The man doing the job paused with alarm at my left ankle until I told him that I was wearing an ankle brace. He stood, met me with a frown, and said, “Okay.”
The night’s headliner was Paul Cauthen. Our decision to attend was based on the fact that the singer is my first cousin’s grandson. No, I’d never met the man, but I grew up around his dad and aunts and remember his mom’s visits to our house. I believe in family support, even when I don’t know the relative.
The opening act was less than entertaining. It consisted of a singer/guitar player and a drummer. I’m not a music critic, so don’t take my word, but the performance might have been titled “Variations on a Key.” That’s because every song the man performed seemed to be in the same key; he hit the same licks on the guitar as his hand slid up and down the neck, and each song ended with an awkward adagio. During his set, I understood a total of about six words he sang. It was as if he sang into a mic covered with a sock. The drummer’s movements reminded me of John C. Reilly in “Stepbrothers.” The biggest round of applause came when the man announced he had enough time for one more song.
By the time Paul stepped on stage, the seats had filled magically, and the noise level was up a notch. I was surprised at the dedicated and excited fans that greeted the group. By then, I’d also noticed that the place had only a handful of “gray-hairs.” This crowd of fans was more the age of my own kids. My wife and I looked more like chaperones for this group, but no one could ride herd over this bunch. The most obnoxious fan sat behind our balcony seats and let out inebriated squalls and yells. Others added the same as the night went on and the alcohol flowed.
The longer I listened to the music, the more I liked it. Each song was unique; tempos varied; key changes were introduced, and musicians showed their mastery of the instruments. Oh, some of the lyrics, which I could understand this time, were a bit raunchy, but they were nothing I’d never heard after 30 years of teaching and years of playing in a church softball league.
Amy and I passed on the encore performance. My hearing wasn’t functioning, and I just wanted a bit of fresh air. I’m glad to have seen kinfolk perform. Paul Cauthen gained two new fans that night. My ears are about back to normal now, and I thoroughly enjoyed a night on the town. One thing is for sure: this event was nothing like a Mighty Music Monday at the Tennessee Theater.