The Pilot Light is a music venue in the Old City neighborhood of downtown Knoxville, on Jackson Avenue almost directly across from the now-closed Patrick Sullivan's.
Lots of bands that I am in no way hip enough to recognize have played there over the last 12 years. Other more recognizable names have graced their stage as well such as The Black Keys, Bon Iver and Best Coast (all Bonnaroo faves).
Next door to the Pilot Light is Hot Horse Music, a record store that also sells musical instruments. It made for the perfect merch location for comedians Neil Hamburger, Todd Barry and Brendon Walsh after I saw them perform stand-up comedy at The Pilot Light on Aug. 22. That was my first real experience seeing a show at the venue. Prior to that, I had wandered in on a Saturday night when they didn't seem to have any bands booked, and ended up leaving because only a handful of folks were in the bar (which would have made it tough to review). However, the experience did reveal the dependence the venue has on live entertainment.
It isn't hard to walk right past The Pilot Light. The only thing that would make you even think it was a bar or a music venue or anything would be the gaggle of cool kids out front smoking cigarettes.
On the evening I chose to come in, a guy I had recently met in comedy named Will Johnson had clued me in on a last-minute event he had put together via Facebook. The event was a "talent" show featuring whatever someone was willing to bring to the stage. I found the concept to be very interesting, especially when I learned that they would have a stand-up comedy open-mic that was set up in one of the bathrooms. Just the thing you need when you have to go ... punchlines.
The Pilot Light's name at first made me think it was a Christian venue. Primarily because I am an idiot and I was confusing that connotation with "Light House," which often IS some type of Christian venue. I arrived at the front door and made my way inside with my comrade Grady Ray. When you walk in the bar you notice a bar to your right (and when the room is not already packed out, that's where the guy who takes the money is often stationed). Behind the bar was a row of beers that represented what they had for the evening. To the right of that was a clear glass cooler containing a variety of "tall boys." At the opposite end of the bar is the sound board. To the left as you stand at the front door is a smaller stage looking area in the window, then booths that go almost all the way to the front. A few bench seats are placed in front of these booths and in front of the sound board as well.
Grady and I had a seat at the bar and ordered a few beers before taking in a seemingly improv comedy sketch by Christian Cox and Alan Bajandas. They both were sitting on chairs on the stage facing each other talking randomly in character voices bouncing back and forth off of each other and in and out of different characters. Grady and I were quite amused. In our rigid world of stand-up — where we are so used to set-up, punchline delivery — it is always intriguing to hear someone make folks laugh in a different way. Eventually I ended up heckling someone who was on stage from the bathroom open-mic and a group stand-up comedy friends of mine all showed up to support the event.
Summarizing the Pilot Light: It gets quite a few things right. It is a music venue, first and foremost. It knows what it is, there is no identity crisis where each month they are trying a new "thing" to be known for. They book bands I have never heard of ... however, the shows often sell out, which means owner Jason Boardman has his finger on the pulse of what is cool in the music world. Also, they don't try to dazzle with flashy design and gimmicky tricks to lure people in. People come to the Pilot Light to see the bands; they don't do it because of 25-cent chicken wings until 6 p.m.
It's a dive bar for sure, all the way down to the band bumper stickers actually affixed to the toilet seat.
Back in the day it would have been considered a "punk rock" music venue, but with the rise of skinny jeans and dark rim glasses with no lenses, I don't think anyone can say that about any venue.
The Pilot Light is a true live-entertainment venue. It has everything from new indie bands to nationally touring stand-up comedians. It is a treasure in the city of Knoxville and a true attachment to the mantra "Keep Knoxville Scruffy." Because at The Pilot Light, they do just that.
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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