Knoxville is the perfect little-big city. Full stop. Nestled in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, Knoxville sits right on the Tennessee River and acts as a gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We have it all – a beautiful downtown, an endless variety of great locally owned restaurants and shops, mountains in the distance, country back roads and a former professional wrestler as county mayor.
There’s something for everyone here and that makes it incredibly unique. There’s rich Southern heritage and an enormously conservative Christian population while simultaneously boasting pretty happening metal and punk scenes and political representation that often surprisingly leans blue. Our city is big enough that something interesting is happening in all corners of the town every week yet small enough to make it simple to navigate and find quiet places.
Music is a big part of the culture in Knoxville with jazz nights being hosted around town each week, venues dedicated to hip-hop, a dive in the Old City that specializes in taking the acts that don’t fit in anywhere else and two of the most immaculate, historic theaters you’ve ever entered right on the main drag downtown. If you want to see an orchestra, there’s one playing this weekend. If you want to see a touring classic rock or folk band, there’s one playing somewhere. If you want to hear a local band belt out cover tunes, head to Market Square on any Friday or Saturday night and you’ll be satisfied. And if you want metal – we have that, too!
Growing up in an area where metal concerts not only didn’t happen but were prevented from ever happening was a buzzkill for a budding metalhead like myself. My taste in rock music progressed, of course, but the process was slow since the only way I could be exposed to new rock music was MTV. We wouldn’t get a modern-rock radio station until I was in high school but even then the music – much like what I was exposed to on MTV – was very mainstream and bubblegum, even the “harder” stuff.
Not to take away from the bands I was introduced to this way – namely Slayer, Metallica, Anthrax, Green Jelly, Mötley Crüe and White Zombie – but the airwaves were dominated by Top 40 ballads with singalong choruses and nothing that ever challenged the listener.
High school introduced me to our favorite local record store (now closed), Dad’s CDs. I befriended several of the employees and would be introduced to a variety of more extreme versions of rock including (but not limited to) Black Metal (Mayhem’s Deathcrush), Death Metal (Cannibal Corpse’s Tomb of the Mutilated), Horror Punk (the Misfits’ Static Age) and Grindcore (Napalm Death’s Fear, Emptiness, Despair).
In college I dove deeper into these genres and found an appreciation for versions of metal that got progressively more and more extreme. Black Metal especially stood out to me as I dove into the likes of the OGs Venom, Pentagram, Bathory, Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, Mercyful Fate and Kreator to the infamous Norwegian Black Metal acts like Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone, Emperor and Immortal. The classics were a logical jumping off point for me since they were direct descendants of Thrash, my favorite style of metal, but the Norwegian Second Wave gave me everything I needed in a scene.
It was theatrical with the imagery, facepaint and fire; it was incredibly heavy and lo-fi; And it was scary … but then it got really scary when Varg Vikernes (Burzum and formerly Mayhem) assisted in the burning of as many as 50 historic churches in Norway … then some time later murdered the head of the BM scene in Norway – Euronymous – by stabbing him … 23 times.
Thrash metal can talk about war and history and partying … while Grindcore and Death Metal can speak of violence and other subjects so grotesque that it’s hilariously comic book in nature … but suddenly Black Metal became legitimately dangerous. And while I don’t condone the burning of churches or the murder of anyone, really, I can’t help but appreciate an art form that has the ability to be that genuinely frightening. I love feeling a little tense while experiencing art and there isn’t much out there that does it quite like Black Metal.
To tie these things together, Knoxville is a small Southern city that is friendly to all types of metal. Your more mainstream acts commonly come through to either the Bijou or the Tennessee Theater (Ghost, In This Moment and Amon Amarth to name a few) while medium-sized venues like the International (now closed, formerly the Valarium and Blackstock) and the Concourse often hold your higher-end mid-tier extreme metal acts like Cannibal Corpse, the Acacia Strain and Lorna Shore. Smaller venues like Open Chord and the Pilot Light are known for hosting even more obscure touring bands so whatever tickles your fancy, there’s a venue in town who will host them if they can get booked.
I loved going to see shows at the Concourse when it was Downtown. I’ll always remember seeing Mutoid Man open for BORIS, seeing a guy get choked out by security while the Melvins played their Doom/Punk cover of the Beatles’ I Want to Hold Your Hand or witnessing the spectacle that is Mac Sabbath. The parking sucked and there were annoying support beams more-or-less right in the middle of the pit (that I was never in, for what it’s worth) but it was admirably scruffy, much like the city where it was built.
I was heartbroken when I learned that it, along with its counterpart the International, had closed permanently during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately for me and my fellow mid-tier-extreme-metal-loving fans of the Marble City, the Concourse found its feet again and reopened in a shopping center in North Knoxville. I was fortunate enough to see a show there last week and it was a bad-ass Black Metal concert.
When I arrived at the Concourse at 4328 N Broadway in Knoxville, I was pleased to see that the parking situation was a proper parking lot. In the previous iteration of the venue, parking was under the Western Ave. bridge in an unmarked gravel lot riddled with potholes and large rocks protruding from the most inconvenient places. If that general parking was full, you’d have to pay $5-$15 to park in a fenced-in, gated lot that ran parallel to the venue along Ramsey St. To make it even better, this show was on a Tuesday night so attendance was going to be relatively sparse for an extreme metal show. I was able to park merely 30 yards from the entrance to the venue and even pulled straight through into the next spot like a pro.
I immediately noticed I was in the right place – not just by the letters spelling out the venue’s name emblazoned on the top of the building but because there was a line of 30-40 people clad in black t-shirts and battle jackets waiting outside. Cigarette smoke filled the air so I took one more deep breath inside the car before stepping out to join my fellow concertgoers.
Heavy metal is a scene that is both beautifully passionate and contradictory. The larger side of this coin boasts how metal exists as a scene for folks who don’t fit in anywhere else – the outcasts and freaks who don’t adhere to societal standards of decency, conformity and beauty. The other side of the coin, however, requires the metal fan to wear the proper uniform for a show. Combat boots are everywhere, unnatural hair colors and stylings are applauded, smoking is almost required and if you don’t have a black t-shirt, you’d may as well go back home.
I’ve always thought the t-shirt scene at metal shows was an intricate circus of status and authority within the scene in and of itself. Any metal or punk show you go to you’ll see the classic Sabbath, Ramones and KISS t-shirts, usually worn by the middle-age-or-older attendees who aren’t terribly concerned about the opinions of others. But then there are the guys who so desperately want to be the edgiest guy there who has decided to wear either the most profane t-shirt or the logo of the most obscure metal band. Metallica? Get that shit out of here. Czech Death Metal outfit Morbider? NOW WE’RE TALKING … but you know, we’re NOT talking because you’ve probably never heard of them (I had to look them up.)
As for myself, I chose to go with dark gray jeans (my go-to), my Docs (also a staple) and my Cannibal Holocaust t-shirt. This was my way of saying “I don’t own any Death Metal, Black Metal or Grindcore band shirts (anymore) but I still like extreme shit so please respect me.” I don’t think anyone cared.
I stood in line with my friend Andrew, watching the people and wondering what, exactly, any of them did for a living. As a skinny young man got in line behind me with his stringy, neon-green hair and long-sleeved Cannibal Corpse Eaten Back to Life tee, I thought back to how I wondered the same when I had gone to see The Reverend Horton Heat (supported by the Legendary Shack Shakers and Split Lip Rayfield) several years back at the Valarium. I was the only person not decked out in Rockabilly attire – every man had his hair slicked back and was wearing some kind of oversized bowling shirt with flames on it while every woman looked like a classic pin-up of some kind. Where are these people during the day?
I’d later see the same guy in the pit during the evening’s second band’s set. He had briefly moshed whilst carrying a can of beer. After his short moshing session, Cannibal-Corpse-shirt green-hair kid did a spin move to remove himself from the pit before crushing his beer can up against his head and strutting off confident someone had seen him (me) and thought it was cool (not me).
The lineup that night consisted of three bands: Knoxville’s very own Summoner’s Circle, and Polish black metal bands Hate and Batushka. The “pit” (if you can call it that) only existed during Hate’s set and consisted of two people who stayed mobile for the entirety of the set and a small handful of people who came and went at various times. The permanent pit members were a medium-sized man with long, curly hair with an obscure metal band t-shirt paired with short-shorts and black fishnets and a young woman with short hair and baggy pants who held her own despite being knocked down a time or two.
There was also a young man of small stature who came and went in the pit but his role appeared to be instigator. If the pit died down a little, this guy would jump in (holding his beer) and randomly slam into someone to get them to start moshing. Once the pit grew to three-to-four people, this guy would step out and walk away, patting himself and other people (literally) on the back for getting the party going again. At one point he lightly tapped me on the chest as a form of self-congratulation.
As the pit grew more active, security flocked over to casually watch the tirade in the event they may need to step in. I didn’t know there was security despite their uniforms, but I did notice an extremely small person standing to my left wearing a blue polo. Thinking I may be blocking their view of the stage, I moved a bit to the right, prompting them to move to their right as well. Again, I feared I may have been obscuring their view so I moved again and so did they. Turns out it was a security guard who was trying to watch the pit from the left side and each time I moved, I was continuously blocking their view. My bad, little dude.
As the show continued, I noticed many people vaping. Most venues do not allow such behavior but I’ll take vaping over cigarette – or weed – smoking indoors every day of the week. Vaping and vape enthusiasts annoy me frequently since so many people feel the need to inhale copious amounts of vapor and exhale it around the room like an obnoxious dragon. But this night I was happy about it. As the clouds of piña colada wafted under my nose every few minutes, I thought back to all the Vans Warped Tours and other Punk/Ska shows where personal hygiene isn’t important to many patrons. I hate people who vape indoors but I hate when people forget to wear deodorant more.
And then it happened – the worst BO smell I’d encountered in a very long time. I nearly gagged when it first struck my senses and the beer in my belly immediately began bubbling. I frantically looked around to see who the guilty party was only to find a young man with bleach-blonde hair and an equally blonde beard chowing down on what appeared to be a chili dog from the venue’s snack bar.
The Concourse apparently serves food. And it smells like rank body odor.
As headliners Batushka finished their set, I relished in the fact that I had just been to a metal show on a Tuesday night and drank some beer but I wasn’t buzzed and knew I’d be home by 11:30pm. I’m not built for shows that go (or worse: start) later than that so I took my freshly rocked ass home with my heavy metal fancy tickled and a little more pride in my heart for this funky little city I’ve gotten to call home for the last 13 years.
A few photos from the night below. All three bands were wonderful. If you’re a Knoxville-area metalhead and you haven’t caught Summoner’s Circle yet, do yourself a favor and attend a future ritual. They NEVER disappoint!