Vacationist League musical duo’s longevity stems from friendship and experience
By Steve Wildsmith firstname.lastname@example.org
It was an inauspicious start to what’s turned out to be a beautiful musical partnership — singer/guitarist John Tilson was waiting at one venue, and Brandon Beavers was at another.
They waited on one another, until finally Tilson — who happened to be at the correct locale — started the show solo. Beavers eventually showed up and didn’t say a word, setting up and joining in without missing a beat.
That pretty much sums up how Tilson and Beavers have worked ever since — a synergy that requires little verbal communication, at least when the two are on stage, creating a groove that links their instruments and anchor’s Tilson’s voice. It’s a style they’ve perfected over the course of 15 years and five albums, including their most recent, “Algorithm and Blues,” released last month.
“I feel like we can play in that way I really like the best,” Tilson told The Daily Times during an interview at Vienna Coffeehouse in Maryville, where the duo performs on Saturday night. “It’s still tight, but it’s still loose. Over the years, I’ve really noticed that our arrangements have become more and more integrated. Brandon’s parts no longer seem extemporaneous, and my songs no longer seem to lock him out.”
More importantly, it’s fulfilling — and for a guy who got his start in the local music scene more than 20 years ago, that’s saying a lot. Most musicians who came of age with Tilson — who teaches high school math at Central High in Knoxville — have burnt out and faded away altogether or put away their guitars for something that pays better.
A few of his contemporaries are still playing, and as long as he’s able, Tilson will probably do the same. After all, the birth of his son, moving to Germany with his family and all of the other milestones of his life couldn’t take him away from performing.
He grew up in Kingsport, singing in church choirs and playing trumpet in the marching band through college. He thought about trying to juggle both, but “singing and playing the trumpet might have been compatible for Louis Armstrong, but not for me,” he said.
Around 1986, he came to Knoxville, where he and boyhood friend Dave Kenney formed The Swamis. At first, they made up songs to sing over instrumental records; later, they decided to play the music themselves, taking cues from such eclectic musicians as Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. During that time period, Tilson earned a degree in physics from the University of Tennessee, but his heart was always more into the music.
“I was writing songs in the margins of my lecture notes and having marginal success with both endeavors,” he said. “OK, I said that for the pun, but we’ll call it true.”
By 1992, he was married and his son was born; a year later, The Swamis ended. He considered starting or joining another band, but the whole parenthood thing didn’t seem to mix well with rock ‘n’ roll.
“I didn’t want to hang out in people’s basements all night long, and I couldn’t find a group that wanted to hang out in mine,” he said.
Around 1995, while working at Raven Records (an institution on the Cumberland Avenue “Strip” owned by Blount County resident Jay Nations, who’s about to re-open the store in Bearden as a vinyl/collectibles shop), the late guitar god Terry Hill introduced Tilson to Beavers.
“I put out a CD in 1998 called ‘Pleasure Map,’ which was several years worth of stuff, and Terry played guitar on some of it,” Tilson said. “At the time, he mentioned that there was a guy from around the neighborhood he thought I might get along with.”
Beavers, a multi-instrumentalist who’s also a member of the Gypsy-jazz outfit Johnson Swingtet and a long-time member of the Knoxville Persian Music Ensemble, was the perfect counterbalance for Tilson.
“He’s all over the place in a good way,” Tilson said. “Just recently, he started playing Chinese classical music with Chinese musicians. He brings a lot of spices to the Vacationist League.”
Although Tilson didn’t necessarily intend to turn Vacationist League into a live performance project, the songs he started composing — solo at first, then with Beavers’ contributions — demanded otherwise.
“I just continued to write songs,” he said. “I felt on one hand that I didn’t really want to play live music out, but the songs wanted to be played out. There’s something communal in the act of creation, and once it’s out, you can’t ignore it.”
The duo cut “Unjust Intonations,” an EP, in 2001, and Tilson promptly left the country. His wife was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, and so he and his family lived abroad in Berlin for a year. When he returned, he and Beavers picked back up, but at first it seemed like they brought some bad luck with them whenever they played.
“I remember we played once at Musician’s Friend, and there was this massive electrical storm that took out all of the power in West Knoxville,” he said with a chuckle. “Another time, we were on the radio at WUTK-FM, and we did an entire 60-minute interview only to find out later that somebody didn’t push the right button or something, so it never went out on the air.”
For “Algorithm and Blues,” the two cut the album in the chapel of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Knoxville, where Tilson spent 20 years singing as a tenor soloist. It was a different experience for Vacationist League, and the pair made good use of the room’s natural acoustics to get a warmer sound, Tilson said.
“It’s not a concept album, but there are lot of themes that partner one song with another,” he said. “One of the things I’ve noticed is that now that I’m in my mid-40s, I don’t have the same types of concerns that I did 20 years ago. There are little sadnesses here and there in the songs, too, built around the whole empty-nest thing and my son going off to college.
“These are stolen moments from busy lives. Neither Brandon nor I have all sorts of time to devote to Vacationist League, but we can come to it, take the lid off, open it up and explore it for a little while, then pack it up and put it away. It blooms every once in a while, but the rest of the time it just lies dormant.
“Ultimately, I think it has to be a little bit happy-go-lucky and under-the-radar to be what it is,” he added. “It’s not super-impressive music or anything, but for listeners who spend the time with it, I think it rewards them with something extra.”