It was a nice 6 hour drive to Pensacola Beach and the weather there was fantastic – in the high 80’s and sunny, with that great Gulf breeze. It’s a nice place to have a music festival if I say so myself. I hit the jackpot with my hotel selection – the Hampton Inn on the beach. It is right next door to the festival site and I can actually sit on my balcony and see the main stage. Also, the room for the working press and media is in this hotel, so that was a plus too.
Parking, like every big festival is a nightmare. Luckily, the Hampton Inn makes each person entering the parking lot show proof they are staying at the hotel.
Bingo – I had a great place to park, 50 feet from the entrance of the festival. Most folks had to park wherever they could find, often miles away and a long, long walk to the site. Entrepreneurs were charging $25 to park in the lots close by, so Chattanoogans haven’t much to complain about with $5-10 parking rates. (Actually, and I have said this many times, Riverbend fans should park for free at Finley Stadium and ride the $1 shuttle bus to the site) The shuttle bus for DeLuna was $33 for the three day weekend. Chalk one up for Riverbend on parking.
There were 4 stages assembled in a small area covering about as much space as from our Coke Stage to our Bud Light Stage. Some sound did bleed over from time to time, but not too bad. Their main stage was big, but right down on level with the crowd. They beat Riverbend on that one easily. Riverbend's antiquated barge is way too high up and removed from the fans. Score one for DeLuna - a big one.
One thing I noticed immediately was the police – all six of them. You just didn’t see much of a police presence at DeLuna Fest, and they didn’t seem to really need them. They had some volunteer security and a few paid security folks, but for the most part it was pretty light. Perhaps charging $200 brings out a different crowd. Sure, I saw a few drunks, but not many. All in all, it was a well behaved crowd. Score another for DeLuna, as it really was a nice crowd of about 25,000 – but roughly a quarter the size of a good Riverbend crowd.
Concession prices were similar to Riverbend’s – perhaps a tad more. They didn’t have to deal with the silly tokens, so score another for DeLuna. Riverbend prices are a 10 % less, so give us a point on that. Beer was $5, Cokes, water, and such were all $3. The food concession prices were all similar to Riverbend, as well. Riverbend may have a better selection, so we will give the Chattanooga festival another point for that, too.
The music selection was definitely rock oriented, with Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and a few other hard rock bands. They appeased the country lovers with Dwight Yoakam and the big time Zac Brown Band. Forgetting for a moment about genres, DeLuna hit a home run with their headliners. Those give them the “cool” factor that Riverbend only gets on its side stages. Most of the DeLuna’s side stage acts have appeared at Riverbend on the side stages recently, so it is a tie on that one. (Bands like Honey Island Swamp Band, Ivan Neville & Dumpstafunk, Blackberry Smoke, and Fishbone *) The headliners Riverbend gets are good, and often current, as well, but these festivals like Hangout and DeLuna get the big name-big draw bands that Riverbend simply cannot afford at $32 for nine nights. Chalk up a point for DeLuna, but with an asterisk.
I really liked Trampled by Turtles – a festival circuit favorite. Dwight Yoakam was really good. Eddie Vetter still has a great voice – in fact he came on stage with opener Gaslight Anthem and sang a couple tunes with them. Dave Grohl still screams on almost every Foo Fighters song. A really cool event happened when the Foo Fighters brought Joan Jett on stage, sang happy birthday to her and gave her a cake. She then performed her hit Bad Reputation with the Foo Fighters.
Fishbone rocked Pensacola, just like they rocked Chattanooga at Riverefront Nights a couple of weeks ago. They had a very early opening day slot and a very small crowd at 4 p.m. on Friday. Guided By Voices, another main stage act on opening day need to be guided to the voice coach. With the lead singer noticeably singing out of key, the crowd wandered off to hear something else.
Other than Foo Fighters, the big draws of the day were Reggae master Jimmy Cliff and classic rocker Joan Jett. Both had great crowds and they each put on a good show. I really, really liked Jimmy Cliff. He was just cool.
One part that won’t interest most readers, but was of interest to me was the media/press in attendance. We get our local news media out to Riverbend, but DeLuna had press from all over the place. They had a hotel conference room set up for the media, complete with wi-fi, tables and chairs for writing stories, and even a complimentary open bar each afternoon for an hour. They treated the press great and it paid off, as visitors from all 50 states attended the DeLuna Festival. Pre-festival publicity from these visiting media was evident, as was the coverage during the event. Chalk one up for DeLuna.
One area that Riverbend blows away the DeLuna Fest is with the video walls. Riverbend rocks with theirs, and DeLuna’s were just so-so. They had a couple mid-size screens on two of the stages, but video quality was nowhere near the Riverbend standard. Score one for Riverbend. Riverbend has better sound systems, also. The main DeLuna Stage was a good line-array system, but the volume faded in and out – like a channel was overheating or something. During the Foo Fighters set, the system went out completely 4-5 times, with the only sound was coming from the on stage amplifiers from each musician – no front of house sound at all. That brought a few choice words from Dave Grohl that would have had Riverbend officials on the radio apologizing the next day. Riverbend employs the best in the business and spares no effort or money in getting the best equipment. Score one more for Riverbend.
One area that bothered me, but not the other 24,999 people at DeLuna Fest was the “no-chairs” policy. There is no fighting over chair placement – there are none allowed. You stand or sit in the sand or on the pavement. I sat down on a curb for a while and thought I was going to have to push my Life Alert button – help, I’m on the ground and I can’t get up. However, I would say the crowd is made up of 25-35 year olds – probably 90 % at least. I am a tad older than that. A good compromise would be to allow chairs for anyone with an AARP card. Yeah, that works. Chalk one up for Riverbend. (Although the Riverbend chair policy is still wacked!)
The setting is beautiful; right on the beach. The crowd was beautiful, too. There were a lot of bikini-clad women there. Chalk up another for DeLuna, for that matter. Riverbend’s site is nice, too. It is right on the river, with the city skyline for a backdrop, and the mountains for a nice vista. It’s hard to compete with a beachfront, though.
In my opinion, Riverbend does just fine. Leave it alone, except for one night. One night should be “cool” night. My Morning Jacket, Pearl Jam, Metallica – somebody big should come play on “cool” night. Maybe it should be on Sunday or Thursday night, which have been traditionally slower than the other nights for Riverbend the past few years.
The fact is Riverbend does pretty well. According to published reports, Riverbend would rank near or at the top in the entire world with over 650,000 in attendance annually. (http://www.cnbc.com/id/42150834/The_Worlds_s_Biggest_Music_Festivals) It is probably the heaviest attended festival in the U.S., helped partially by its 8 day length. However, Riverbend is never mentioned as the biggest, or even on the list of top 20. Why? Is it from a lack of self-promotion or is it “walk softly and carry a big stick”? Or, is it “let the big sleeping dog lie”? Who knows? Whatever the reason, Riverbend stacks up against the best of them, but there is always room for improvement.
By my count, Riverbend and DeLuna Fest are tied. The tiebreaker goes to price - $32 for 9 nights, versus $200 for 3 nights. Riverbend wins 7-6. But, keep in mind that they are very different animals and it’s a little like saying a cougar is better than a whale.
Email Bob Payne at firstname.lastname@example.org or catch him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/davrik2000 .