Monday, June 9, 2014

Riverbend: The Wal-Mart of Music Festivals

The Riverbend Festival began last weekend. The annual summertime event in Chattanooga is more than 40 years old. It has grown into a (sorta) 9-night monster event occupying mad acres along the riverfront.

Riverbend. Where people reserve the best spots with
lawn chairs and prevent anyone from standing
up and, y'know, enjoying the concert.
"I can't believe I'm going into Wal-Mart. I can't stand this place," my wife says every time she goes into Wal-Mart. Which is more than she would like to admit. Riverbend is exactly like that for most Chattanoogans.

Listen, I know it's kinda mean, but it's true. It's the best music festival Chattanooga can get, the big box music chain that tries to be everything to everyone but just seems kinda sleezy and cheesy.

Music Midtown is more like Target. Jazzfest is more like Whole Foods and Costco combined. SXSW is like the most awesome but most expensive farmer’s market/flea market bonanza the music world has ever known. Bonnaroo is like… huh? I lost my train of thought, but this Boo-Berry is delicious!

But back to why Riverbend is the Wal-Mart of music festivals.

First, the crowd frequently looks as if it were pulled from a People of Wal-Mart photo collage. Some of the people who pile into the riverfront like sardines to eat London Broil on a Stick for $8 are so notoriously disturbing in their fashion sense and lack of decorum that recently ran a couple of stories about a favorite people-watching pasttime called Riverbend Bingo. The best and most accurate quote about the game: “If you didn’t hit bingo within 30 seconds most nights, you weren’t near the site."

Second, the food. The London Broil reference is gp hardly a joke. The prices are steep and the food offered is at best - at absolute BEST - a crapshoot aiming toward "decent enough if you're drunk and hungry." The food in Atlanta is consistently better, at least by a smidge, and surpisingly comparable in price to Riverbend cuisine, a fact which should surprise anyone who knows these two cities, because you can get a fancy IPA in Chattanooga for $3-4 in most places, but you’re lucky to find Bud Light for less than $4 in Atlanta, and you’re likely to pay $5-7 for anything fancier. Although I’ve never been to Jazzfest, I can only just promise everyone to trust me on this: the food there is a dozen times better than anything Riverbend could imagine in its wettest festival dream.

Finally, and most importantly, the music. At other festivals, if you want to get a primo spot for the featured act, you better get there early, and you better push and shove and prepare to sweat and be generally miserable. But at Riverbend, you can just show up after lunch, drop a few folding chairs off in an open spot, and fully expect those chairs to be there waiting for you whenever you come back. It is, simply, a bush league (Busch league?) way of saving seats, the kind of thing only old people could believe is a good idea, because it basically guarantees that few people can enjoy the music standing up. And if it’s a sit-down concert, it’s going to generate sit-down excitement. Which is an oxymoron. You can't be excited sitting down. Unless sex is involved. Which I hope to God isn't the case at frappin' Riverbend, because ew gross.

The other venues get the Chili Peppers or Springsteen. We get Joan Jett and Boston. They get Arcade Fire and Imagine Dragons. We get Young the Giant. They get Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt. We get Gary Allan and Justin Moore.

Almost eveyrone sits. No one gets within a stone's
throw of the performer. Good times.
This downgrade is financial. Riverbend is a smaller town and a smaller festival. There’s a reason Trader Joe’s isn’t in Chattanooga. So I’ll forgive Riverbend of this crime. The crime of weaker name power pales in comparison to the time limit main acts are given. With the rare exception this year given to Widespread Panic, who was permitted to play for three hours in the hopes they might finish a single song, Riverbend limits the main stage to 90 minutes, which means maybe 80 minutes of music once you account for the disappearance and return for a requisite and half-hearted encore.

Finally, the featured act is, at best, 200 feet away from the closest spectator. You can either stand on a hill and see the performance “eye to eye” from half a football field away, or you can stand at the bottom of the ginormous stage and get a crick in your neck for the slight chance that one of the musicians might spit or sweat on you from high above. Or you can watch on a screen. It is in every sense of the word, counter to everything that is supposed to be awesome about a staged music experience.

Some people work pretty darn hard to make Riverbend a decent experience. They're like those Wal-Mart managers who really really care, who want to have the best Wal-Mart ever, who believe deep in their hearts that this Wal-Mart will be better, will be More Than Wal-Mart. It's an uphill climb, and I respect them for trying. They've got a long way to go, but I'll keep my fingers crossed.

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