Pat CarterThere’s always been something special about Bristol. In Northeast, Tennessee this town has the most vibrant downtown scene in the Tri-Cities and I always enjoy hanging here on the weekend to hear great live music by local bands and musicians.

A few weeks ago, I made the trip in the rain to catch Ablazing Grace at O’Mainians pub and even though there was a downpour, State Street was radiant as the street lights and neon melted into a dazzling display on the street that separates two states. The night was early and we had planned on an interview with the band and before the night was over we had a great time and experienced a hell-ova rock-and-roll show from these hard-core artists.

I’ve always wanted to try the “Shang Hai Restaurant” on State Street. It surely stands out Downtown with its colorful paper lanterns and oriental decor on the Virginia side of State street. I parked the Jeep and shook the rain off my hat at the front door and was surprised to see no-one around. The buffet had plumes of steam drifting from underneath the steel servers and after a few moments alone, I was started by Aaron Bushing (aka “prettynoose” from The Buzz ) who was grabbing an egg roll for the band while they were setting up stage gear. O’Mainians is across the street from the Shang Hai and we spoke a few minutes before this a hostess directed me toward a table in the back.

The food at the Shang Hai was Ok. I’m not a big fan of Chinese buffets, but I ordered a Sapporo and finished up a book I was reading about Cascading Style Sheets (Thrilling). There was a loud woman behind my firing off a blistering combination of Cantonese into a cell phone and a few people who behaved like family were cleaning up as the day was about to end.

I put my book back in the Jeep and grabbed the Nikon and walked back across the street and bumped into Pat Carter coming out the front door of O’mainians. At 6′ 7″, Pat stops traffic no matter where he goes and he greeted me with a warm welcome. He’s the lead singer for Ablazing Grace and he seemed excited about the night too. They had been promoting this gig as a live DVD recording on their Myspace website and had two opening acts tonight including Richard and Greg Houser and ‘Rebel’ from South Carolina.

O’mainian’s is a decent venue and I like the upstairs, but the two-flight staircase has gotta be a real bitch for any band with lots of gear. Inside the door, Tom Bettini was running back and forth with cords and cables trying to get his bass rig set and Scott Thomas had just finished a sound check of his drums. Phil Davis was running sound and talking back and forth with the band through the monitors as he got ready to do the final sound check.

There was pretty good crowd already tonight and it wasn’t long before Matthew, Jared and Carson showed up with all our video gear. Crystal and Lauren were in tow too and I immediately decided on cognac for the evening and bought the girls a couple of drinks. It’s nice to have to not worry about the cameras and our guys were doing a great job setting up a spot for interviews in the back of the club.

O’mainians is a long narrow venue with a stage on the North end and a bar in the middle separating a small lounge with couches and chairs in the back toward the rest rooms. We picked a spot in the back where there were two barber chairs and I kidded the guys telling them the shoot looked like a bad ‘Sweeney Todd” episode. The pink barber chairs looked like they had been doused with Pepto Bismol. Against the hardwood floors and the aluminum vents, this made for a decent backdrop for interesting interviews with the guys in Ablazing Grace.

Tom Bettini was up first and as usual, he was smoking his hand rolled cigars and talking about his friendship with the band, offering advice to young musicians to “go to med school.” Tom is a rock and roll veteran who plays bass for Ablazing Grace and another local band Citizen Kane and he’s always worth his weight in gold with colorful sound bites.

Scott Thomas is the drummer for the band and his long full beard and barrel-house laughter makes for a warm personality on and off camera. Scott talked and laughed with Jared through his interview as several friends rolled into the bar.

Kevin Jackson was there with his girlfriend. He’s one of the region’s first-call fiddle players and we always enjoy sharing a drink and telling tales about the music scene. We first met with Reagan Boggs and he’s just started a new group with Jason Crawford called “Wolf Creek.”

Greg Smith and Richard Houser (together called “Houser and Company”) were scheduled to open for both bands tonight and they were just beginning to play their acoustic set of original blues songs laced with a few covers as Pat Carter sat down with Jared. His “Werewolf University” t-shirt, Batman cap and bold on-camera presence was good to watch and Bentley had fun with the tall commanding front man joking about his “hand gestures.” Pat and drummer Scott also play in one of the most notable metal bands ‘Omega Tribe‘ and together with this band, they stay very busy in the Tri-Cities.

Steve Gilbert and Mitch Clark round out the band on guitars and they bring multi-dimensional style to the rock and roll formula of Ablazing Grace. Seasoned with Heavy Metal and Southern Rock riffs they lay a gritty foundation for this band from Bristol and seem equally enthusiastic about their current efforts.

After the interviews, Lisa Bettini joined our group and I always enjoy sharing a cognac with her and talking to her about life and liberty. Since all the guys were working with their tech toys of video and music gear, I had a table of gorgeous ladies to share a few moments of time as Lisa, Lauren and Crystal talked with me as ‘Rebel‘ started to perform.

Rebel is an original rock band from Greenville, South Carolina and were joining Ablazing Grace for a Bristol performance in exchange for the stage in their hometown. Ablazing Grace makes the South Carolina pilgrimage every few months or so and are building a good following with this relationship. They have a hard-driving sound with a cocky front man that delivers a power pack of hard-core music with a scattering of Southern Rock arrogance. All and in all a good show, but everyone was there to see Ablazing Grace.

When the band finally got their gear ready, the crowd was thick and we took our spots in front to capture images of the band. This is a unique room too because as the sound gets louder, the old wooden trusses underneath O’mainians seem to bounce with the kick drum.

Ablazing Grace is a powerful force in the Tri-Cities and have one of the most polished original rock and roll sets of any band around. What’s refreshing about their music is the originality of their set list. I’m almost certain I never heard any cover song and they never patronize the audience in any way as they deliver a cutting edge set list garnished with lyrics of vengeance, vicarious lifestyle and down and dirty blood and guts. It’s not a music for the timid, but you can easily hear their songs on pop-rock radio because they have memorable hooks and succinct riffs that leave you wanting more.

Pat Carter continues to keep his favor as one of the most powerful male vocalists in the region and it’s a thrill to watch him pace the stage as he growls, soars and punches his way into crowds that continue to grow at each performance. The band’s fans continue to grow and if this was any indication of the two years these guys have been playing music together, I’m sure we’re still yet to see great things for Ablazing Grace.