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 for 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 anchors Tilson’s voice. It’s a style they’ve perfected over the course of 15 years and five albums, including their most recent, “Algorithm & Blues,” released last December.
“I feel that we play in a way I really like the best,” Tilson told The Daily Times during an interview at Vienna Coffeehouse in Maryville, where the duo performed on a Saturday night. “Tight in construction, loose in delivery!”
More important, 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 physics and mathematics at Hardin Valley Academy 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 the other milestones of his life couldn’t take him away from performing.
He grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee, singing in church choirs and playing trumpet in school bands and regional orchestras. He spent time as a boy soprano at the American Boychoir School in Princeton, New Jersey, and toured extensively through Germany and Austria with a European trumpet ensemble. He thought about trying to juggle both vocal and instrumental duties, but “singing and playing the trumpet might have been compatible for Louis Armstrong, but not for me,” he said. Instead, he bought a guitar.
Around 1986, he came to Knoxville, where he and boyhood friend Dave Kenny 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.
“I finally put out a CD in 1998 called ‘Pleasure Map,’ which was several years worth of songs. It’s a concept album and contains the first collaborations that Brandon and I worked on together.” 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.
“Brandon is an exceptional musician and brings great possibilities to Vacationist League. His range of expression is enormous, his creativity inspiring, and his musical lines are woven into each song in refined, integral, and unexpected ways ” Tilson said. “Recently, he started playing Chinese classical music with local Chinese musicians. I can’t wait to hear where that’s going to take us.”
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 themes that partner one song with another,” he said. “I’m in my mid-40s, and I don’t have the same concerns that I did 20 years ago (though I’m certainly less cynical now than I was in my 20’s). I’ve accrued half a lifetime’s worth of joy and sadness, which add burl and tarnish to the weary optimism. Our songs are written and played in stolen moments from busy lives. A Vacationist League performance is like a perennial garden—each song blooming in its season and then lying dormant until the next stolen moments.”