Knoxville's homegrown rising stars, The Dirty Guv'nahs, heralded audiences with a set of swaggering, soulful tunes Friday night at Capone's in Johnson City.
Named after the mythic mafioso himself, who purportedly utilized the small Appalachian town as a "Little Chicago" during Prohibition, Capone's made a fitting setting for the band. Playing on a stage guarded by kitschy plastic models of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, the connection between these icons and the Guv'nahs' American feel was apparent.
"We have played at this venue a bunch of times, and it's always a great crowd," lead singer James Trimble said. "We have a lot of good fans at ETSU, and this has always been a fun place to play."
The Guv'nahs, all six of whom grew up either in the Knoxville or Nashville area and graduated from UT, have garnered much local acclaim for their Southern sound and considerable stage presence.
Kevin Hyfantis, keyboardist and harmonicist, said he believes the classic sounds and artists of the South provide much to be musically inspired by.
"It's where all the great music came from," Hyfantis said. "It's what's influenced everybody, like The Rolling Stones, for instance. They're steeped in Southern music. It's the music that just moves us, that rhythm and blues."
Southern influence has continued to be instrumental to the band and the music industry at large due to its deeply-rooted legacy in authentic emotion, Hyfantis said.
"It's the soul and the pain," he said. "A lot of it was originally slave music or church music and comes from a place of deep sorrow. I love some classical music as well, but it doesn't have the same pull. It's the soul behind the music that gives it its magic."
Trimble notes that although these classic Southern sounds have proved hugely influential to the making of the band, the Guv'nahs' tunes are not to be confused with country music.
"We love Southern music but that doesn't mean we're a country band, which is kind of a hard place to be," Trimble said. "It's okay to be Southern and soulful and like rock music with no intentions of being on a country radio station. I don't think they'd want us."
Trimble cites the band's sense of camaraderie as being another visible trait of their Southern heritage.
"Nobody in our band is looking to be a solo superstar," he said. "We're very much a 'we're all in this together' kind of band. I really think that's something that comes across to fans."
The band members' genuine friendship was certainly evident on stage Friday.
Secretive grins indicating inside jokes and laughs were exchanged throughout the show, including when audience members pelted guitarist Cozmo Holloway in the face with dollar bills during "Blue Rose Stroll"'s line, "If you got a dollar lay it down."
Hits like "Baby We Were Young" and "Fairlane" ignited much cheering and dancing from the crowd, and the band members, who frequently reached for beers between songs, appeared to have as much fun as their audience.
The surprise covers of the night, "Proud Mary" and the encore-concluding "Satisfaction," demonstrated the band's dedication to soulful rock, a sound they plan to explore more directly in their upcoming and as-of-yet unnamed EP, which is set to be released in early 2014.
"Musically, I think it's a little less Southern rock than it has been in the past," Trimble said. "It's still soulful rock music. One of my favorite lyricists of all time is Bill Withers, and I think maybe now more than ever, I've tried to harness some of that. Simple messages, just trying to get more and more simple. It's hard to be simple and say something, and I'm just trying to get us closer to that, at least lyrically."
Hyfantis, who formerly played for Knoxville's The Black Cadillacs before accepting the Guv'nahs' invitation, said he believes Trimble's songwriting efforts are paying off.
"There's going to be a lot of new influences and new sounds," he said. "I've known these guys for a while, and it's just an evolution. They're just becoming better writers and that's the main thing I see in the new material. They're growing, which is what you'd hope to see in any band."
The Dirty Guv'nahs will next play in Knoxville on New Year's Eve at the Tennessee Theatre. Tickets are $32 and available on the Tennessee Theatre's website.