John Shearer: Back To Riverbend

Friday, June 15, 2018 - by John Shearer

Until Thursday night, I had probably not been to the Riverbend Festival since about 1999 or 2000.


When I worked at the old Chattanooga Free Press in the 1980s and ‘90s, there were several nights I covered the headline acts and wrote front-page stories about them.


And because the paper was a sponsor or media partner and employees received two free admittance pins, I also went other nights, especially when I was single.


But not long after I left the paper, I quit going. Initially it was because I was trying to save expenses when I went back to school, and later because we lived in Knoxville for 12 years.


We moved back last summer just before the festival began, but I did not make plans to go then. However, that started me thinking that I wanted to reconnect with some of my Chattanooga past, so I decided to go this year – at least for one night.


Because I was out of town earlier this week, I did not go until Thursday and just randomly picked that day. However, I had seen the rapper and high-rhythm singer Flo Rida perform on the NBC “Today” show before and liked his songs, so I figured he would be bearable.


Little did I know that his concert would be a lot more energetic and fun than it looked on TV – even for this 58-year-old concertgoer.


After finishing supper and knowing I needed to head down soon to Riverbend, I was actually kind of dreading it after a full day of various activities. In fact, I would probably not have gone if I had not earlier bought the pass.


I could not talk my wife, Laura, into going with me, so I headed out the door alone a little after 7.


I had seen that the longtime local group Overland Express was playing at the Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union stage under the Riverfront Parkway overpass, so I wanted to see them.


Walking to the festival site from where I parked for free in front of a meter by the County Courthouse, I was admittedly a little self-conscious wondering if anyone my age still went to Riverbend.


When I arrived at the entrance on Power Alley, I realized security was much different and tighter from when I last went, probably before 9-11. I had to raise my hands as I went through, and a woman checked me with a metal detector.


I also had a wrist-band pass that was checked with a scanner, and it was obviously different from the charming old admission pins that became collectors items for me and countless others.


Once inside and still feeling a little self-conscious, I began the long walk up to the TVFCU stage. My unease was not helped by the fact that most of the people I passed seemed to be about 40 years younger than I was.


Around and near the stage, I did see 3 or 4 people I knew, so I felt a little better – or at least realized I was not the youngest. One improvement this area had from when I last went was that it had cool fans blowing.


After enjoying Overland Express for a few songs and trying to imagine listening to them in the old Yesterday’s bar where they often used to perform, I walked back to the central festival area. I sat down on the corner of a large metal stage where a new Chevrolet truck was parked and watched the 1980s-style rock band, Aunt Betty, on the Chevy stage 100 yards away opposite the Coca-Cola Stage.


With the large residential building standing there in front of a lawn, it was certainly a different setting from the days of past concerts, when a large smokestack from the old Kirkman High days stood nearby. By the time Flo Rida would come on stage, some of these residents would be on the balcony in a scene similar to fans watching Chicago Cubs baseball from nearby buildings at Wrigley Field.


While this band was good and I was enjoying the quality act – even though I prefer 1960s and ‘70s rock music – not everyone in the big lawn area apparently was. Not only were they not dancing and swaying to the music, they were not even looking in the direction of the group.


They had apparently come early to find a place near the big video screen on the opposite corner of the lawn from the stage to watch Flo Rida, and they were already camping out there. (Another video besides Aunt Betty’s live performance was being shown).


After Aunt Betty finished and the Flo Rida starting time of 9:30 approached, I decided to continue to sit by the Chevy truck, already more tired than I remembered being as a Riverbend attendee 30 years earlier.


It was getting dark, so I started feeling a little less self-conscious and could people watch more freely. Also helping me was I heard the familiar Neil Diamond song, “Sweet Caroline.” Now that was a song from my era!


A little after 9:30, a person announced that the big screen above the Coca-Cola Stage was not working and he was sorry. What else can you say? But a number of people began moving over past me to get a view of the other big screen.


I kept trying to get a Braves baseball update on my phone but I was having trouble. Probably like when I have been in Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, so many nearby people are trying to use their phones at once that it is hard to get a signal.


As the time moved toward 10 p.m.. there was still no sign of Flo Rida. Flo Rida was evidently being Slow Rida.


But at 10 p.m. he did show, and I was floored with being entertained, or Flo-Ored, to use his vernacular.


First to come out were his band and two female dancers, the latter of whom looked like they were not wearing a whole lot. As the late humor columnist Lewis Grizzard might have written, they looked half ‘nekkid.’


But then he came out and quickly dominated the stage in a highly entertaining manner.


He played my favorite song of his at the start – “Good Feeling.” (Yes, I did have to look up the name of it!)


And then he quickly sang two or three other songs in his very high-rhythm and totally entertaining way.


By this time, I had moved to my Coca-Cola Stage viewing spot of old along the sidewalk by Riverfront Parkway.


However, I quickly realized I was one of only a few people over the age of 22 standing there. Not only that, but during one of his very up-tempo songs, some young male attendees began break dancing and doing flips as a clapping circle of people opened and gathered around them.


Some of the spontaneous dancers were white and some were black, and it was a neat scene of racial harmony and fun.


They were dancing kind of like that FBI agent was last week when seen on TV in a bar before his gun fell out and went off, but thankfully no firearms were allowed here.


Suddenly amid all this, I was feeling like I was 22 again as I at least gently swayed to Flo Rida’s makes-you-want-to-dance music.


After about 40 or 45 minutes of being totally mesmerized and entertained, much more than I thought I would be, I decided I better head back home at a decent time.


So I started making the long walk back up to near the Courthouse, and my aching legs started telling me I was no longer in my 20s.


But I still continued to feel a little younger again emotionally as I could still hear his now-distant music reverberate off the buildings.


There is nothing like a little music to soothe the soul, and to me it had been worth the admission pass – and the trip to the festival on a hot night!

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