The Black Lillies aren’t much to look at. The five members of the unassuming ensemble wouldn’t stand out in a crowd.
Listening to performances by the quintet, however, can be remarkable. The Black Lillies played almost two hours of soulful country and rock Wednesday for an audience of more than 100 at Knuckleheads.
The band from Knoxville, Tenn., is best known for its regular appearances at the Grand Ole Opry. Their music has much more in common stylistically with tradition-minded members of the Opry than with slick contemporary hit-makers.
The Black Lillies have shown steady improvement over the course of three studio albums. The engaging material from a forthcoming release performed Wednesday indicated the band is headed in a funkier and even more engaging direction. The band downplayed its roots in bluegrass and placed an increased emphasis on rhythm and blues and classic rock.
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A string of cover songs that concluded the outing encapsulated the Black Lillies’ nostalgic orientation. The quintet played rollicking versions of The Band’s “The Shape I’m In,” the O’Jays’ “Love Train,” the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” and the Zombies’ “Time of the Season.”
The Black Lillies’ influences also were evident on the band’s original material. “Smokestack Lady” is in the country tradition of frisky trucker songs. “Ruby” is a retelling of the Kenny Rogers hit “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” while “Lonely” is a keyboard-driven rave-up in the style of Little Richard.
Several couples danced to many of the 20 selections and lots of people clapped along to an endearing rendition of Utah Phillips’ down-and-out transient song “Walking Through Your Town in the Snow.” Yet many in the unusually sedate audience didn’t demonstrate much enthusiasm. Loud chatter during ballads and awkward silences between a few songs seemed to unnerve frontman Cruz Contreras.
Disinterested members of the audience may have felt as if the Black Lillies were simply rehashing stale formulas. While the band is eminently likable, an occasional lack of originality is the band’s glaring weakness.
Musicianship certainly wasn’t lacking, however. Tom Pryor’s pedal steel work was excellent and the handful of lead vocals delivered by Trisha Gene Brady were delightful.
Each virtuosic display was delivered with striking nonchalance. While its unglamorous persona is part of its appeal, the Black Lillies’ modesty failed to disguise its considerable worth.