Chattanooga’s Live Music Scene – 7th Annual Riverbend Report Card

A Weird Year It Was - 2014

Friday, July 11, 2014 - by Bob Payne
Aunt Betty Thrilled Riverbend Audience
Aunt Betty Thrilled Riverbend Audience
- photo by Eric Johansen

Once again, Riverbend has come and gone, yet my semi-famous Riverbend Report Card is anxiously awaited by those that care about humanity, world peace, and the posi-traction rear axle. It’s my 7th annual report card and this year we report on the  33rd annual Riverbend.  I waited a few weeks this time to let the 2014 festival sink in a bit and to get a better perspective on things. Also, thanks to the Chattanoogan.com for their excellent coverage of the festival. Our coverage rocked, especially with the contributions from professional photographer Mark A. Herndon. The Times Free Press also gave good coverage. (Hey, why not give credit where credit is due – Barry Courter and Casey Phillips did an excellent job of covering the festival). I would love to see more regional and national coverage, like from Rolling Stone Magazine, CMT, and others.

As always, I will start with the music in my report card. In fact, I’ll start with the Coca-Cola Stage music and go from there. Opening night was a tad scary, as Gary Allan had cancelled a couple appearances in the days leading up to his Riverbend date. He was sick and it wasn’t looking good. Gary is a trooper and the doctors at Vanderbilt fixed him up enough to sing in Chattanooga. He has a very intense following and opening night, despite bad weather early in the day, was pretty darn good.

Saturday night was Widespread Panic night and it was one of Riverbend’s all-time biggest nights. That band has a dedicated following and they came to Chattanooga to see their guys play. The front gate sold thousands of one-day passes, something that has never happened before. Even though it rained and stormed towards the end of the show, the Widespread crowd stayed and embraced the weather like it was part of the show. Riverbend gets an A+ for this one. And for you goofballs that said “Widespread Who?” or chastised the festival for having an act that had no real radio presence – ha ha.

Sunday night had Buddy Guy, and a similar situation to the Widespread night – an artist who never had many big hits, but is among the best in the world at what he does. Once again, the Riverbend boo-birds were chirping about how idiotic the festival folks are with a selection like the world’s greatest guitar player. As it turned out, it ranked among the highest ever for a Sunday night show. Festival selection folks 2- boo birds -0.

Monday night was the Strut and Riverbend doesn’t really have much to do with that event, other than to help out with the music and stages. All I know is I didn’t take the money and I don’t know who did.

Tuesday night may have been the best bargain of the week, with a TobyMac concert for just $5 on a single day ticket. Heck, the Cody McCarver concert was worth 4 or 5 times the price of admission and you still got TobyMac on top of that. No brainer for an A+.

Wednesday was Boston night and another huge night for Riverbend, despite –you guessed it, the weather.  I didn’t spend a lot of time at the Coke Stage that evening, but everyone came away really hyped about the show.

Thursday was Justin Moore night on the Coke Stage and I thought going in would be a weak night. It turned out ok, as a zillion young girls came out to watch Justin sing.  Once again, the weather was terrible. I had the opportunity to introduce the All-Star Band on the Unum Stage that night. I thanked everyone for coming out and announced that it looked like our bad weather was done for the evening. 30 seconds later, the bottom dropped out and the skies opened up.

Friday night was another great night, with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts rocking the Coke Stage and yet another big crowd. Our stage personnel also reported that Joan Jett was a joy to work with.

Saturday night was Young the Giant and Fireworks. I would say the fireworks outdrew Young the Giant. I give Riverbend an A+++ for trying something new and fresh with the Chattanooga crowd, but I am not sure they ever got into the new indie rock band. What one has to remember is that Riverbend books some of these bands 6-8 months in advance. With a band like Young the Giant, they were hoping for a big bump from some TV appearances, some record sales, and some headlining spots at some big-time major festivals. It certainly worked for Dan+Shay this year and Florida-Georgia Line last year. It worked for Allen Stone this year. It didn’t work for Young the Giant. It’s a dice roll folks, and sometimes you come up with a great roll and sometimes you don’t. As I said, give Riverbend some kudos for breaking the old Country/Classic Rock mold and trying something new. Really, give them some big kudos. It takes a lot of guts to try something new over something tried and tested for 30+ years.

All in all, I give Riverbend an A- for the Coke Stage acts this year. I thought the Country acts were a tad weak compared to some they have had, but they hit pay dirt on the others.

The side stage acts were, as always, stellar. Let me tell you something about Jeff Styles. He is a bit quirky sometimes. He can be the poster boy for ADHD sometimes. But, he is an absolute professional at getting great acts for the side stages. He doesn’t come by it naturally or by luck. He works very hard researching acts, watching them, and learning about them. Sometimes his selections have to come with an explanation as to who they are. But if you trust him, as we all should by now, you know he is going to hit a home run a few times in each festival. He did it this year with Allen Stone, the New Orleans Suspects, Corey Smith, Robert Randolph, the John K Band, and several more.

Dixie Fuller also killed a few slots with some winners, as well. Dan+Shay, the Family Stone, and Midday Farm Report are just a few of the big drawing acts that he brought to the festival. I even had a good one or two, with Cody McCarver, the WannaBeatles, Willie Ziavino and the C.O.T Latin Band, and Rahsaan Barber & Everyday Magic. Mine were more from luck than Jeff or Dixie’s, though. Side stages – a solid A-.

The Weather – (C-) For the crowds at Riverbend, the weather was pretty good, most of the time. It was much cooler this year, but we had 2 ½ inches of rain during Riverbend, versus the normal 1-inch for the week. As far as the festival operations go, the weather was bad. People tended to show up later, waiting to see if the rain would affect the Coke Stage acts. The stage crews had to work twice as hard, constantly covering up equipment and lowering stage roofs. Since the weather is not something anyone can control, don’t put too much stock in the low grade.

Concessions – (A) Beer and food at Riverbend is a great deal, relatively speaking. A 16oz beer costs less at Riverbend than at 31 of the 32 major league ballparks, and even less than a Coke at some movie theaters. I went to the theater to see the movie  “42” and two cokes and a popcorn were $19.00. At Riverbend, they would be almost half of that amount. They also found a good replacement for my old favorite – Thibadeaux’s Chicken on a stick. This year it was good! Really good.

Operational Stuff – (A-) Last year I suggested that Riverbend enter the 21st Century and go to wristbands. They did! They went with a barcoded wristband that was scanned upon arrival and exit to the festival. For being the first time out, the program went very well. People wore the little Riverbend pins on the shoes, their hats, their belts, their lapels, their pockets, and all over. The armbands were on the left wrist or the right one. Easy to find. When snapped together properly, they don’t fall off. Pins were still available as collector items only.

I also suggested last year that while we are entering the 21st century, they could do away with tokens, too. Just sell refillable “gift cards” in increments of $10-$25-$50-$100. They are much easier to carry, and are easy to hook up to an accounting system. A short-term investment for a long-term goal is what they call that, I think. Keep taking the tokens, but just don’t issue any more. The “token” booths at the festival would just become gift card issuers and validation points.  The festival could then track the sales by time-of-day and see which acts really bring in the concession sales and which ones just bring in the people. They get the A- because they didn’t follow my suggestion to go with gift cards instead of tokens, but hey – one step at a time.

The IATSE Local 140 stagehands do a wonderful job at Riverbend, as do the volunteers, staff, and other workers. They are the hardest working crews in the business and nobody does it better. Period. End of story. The stage managers, Ray, Bob, Bob, Hayes, and Warren are the bomb – they rock. Did I mention the IATSE Local 140 stagehands? Well, they are worth mentioning twice. You could find a crew for less per hour, but they wouldn’t do half the work in the time frame as our guys and gals. They are true professionals – well trained, safe, and easy-going.

Dixie Fuller’s assistant, John Crawford, fought chemo treatments, radiation, and cancer this spring to help out again this year. He is one heck of a man, and he says it looks like he has this thing whipped, so look for John for many more years. He’s tough as nails, but has heart the size of the Coke Stage. Not too many people qualify as my hero, but John Crawford is one of them.  

Overall (A-) I would give Riverbend a A- overall grade this year. They really tried hard to bring a quality and varied lineup. It represents a great value. Could it be better? Yep – lose the tokens and continue small price increases for better acts. Eventually the price of admission will be high enough that parents won’t buy their 15-year old kids a wristband and ask Riverbend to babysit them for 5 hours each night. Could it be worse? Darn tootin’.

Parting Thoughts – The city of Chattanooga is lucky to have Riverbend. Most cities would kill to have an established festival that puts a half a million people in the downtown area over a 9-day period. I watched most nights as the festival closed and the “traffic jam” took less than an hour to clear the 10 square block area. The festival in Manchester screws up traffic for a hundred miles and two days. Many people that complain don’t even go to the festival. Some even say that nobody goes – because it is too crowded…lol.

Riverbend boo-birds say we have too much Country and old, tired rockers at Riverbend. This year, they had 2 Country acts, 2 Classic Rock acts that brought in huge crowds, the greatest Blues guitarist in the World, a new Indie Rock band, a Christian rapper that’s at the top of the Christian rock game, and one of the world’s top touring jam band acts, Widespread Panic. There were 80 other acts, as well. So, for the 33rd time, Riverbend was a success by all measures.

Hundreds of workers, from electricians, carpenters, truck drivers, and stagehands all look forward to the income from Riverbend week. Concession owners, many of which return year after year, hire local workers to staff the food stands.  Riverbend’s outreach program takes Riverbend performers to local restaurants and venues for lunchtime performances, free of charge.

My favorite part – watching the tribute to Dixie Fuller as Riverbend celebrated his 30th anniversary with the festival. He is a special person, embedded with more knowledge of the music industry than almost anyone on Earth. Tour managers of the big acts at Riverbend almost always rest easy when they find out it is Dixie Fuller that is Production Manager for the festival. His name in the business is that good. Dixie is Riverbend.

See you at Riverbend 2015 in about 48 weeks!

In the meantime, send me your thoughts on Riverbend. What would you do, specifically, to make it a better festival? What would you change? What do you like about it? Email Bob Payne at davrik2000@yahoo.com or www.facebook.com/davrik2000.

Buddy Guy At Riverbend
Buddy Guy At Riverbend
- Photo2 by Mark A. Herndon

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