No one recalls exactly how or from where it came — except for a few “Marietta Manufacturing 1953” markings — but it’s been center stage at the Riverbend Festival for almost 25 years. Actually, the 196-foot long by 50-foot wide barge is the music extravaganza’s center stage.
It’s still another week until the opening act will hit the Coke Stage at Riverbend, but the barge has been parked in front of Ross’s Landing Park since May 16 as staff works day in and day out to transform the old freight carrier into a state-of-the-art venue that can hold today’s most rockin’ sound and light systems.
Staff Photo by Lori Yount -- The Coke Stage at the Riverbend Festival, seen from Ross's Landing Park on Wednesday, is a 55-year-old barge that each year undergoes the three-week long transformation into a music venue.
“It’s a very unique system,” said Joe “Dixie” Fuller, production and talent coordinator for the festival who has managed the Coke Stage for 16 years. He said the barge stage has sparked interest in Cleveland and Nashville, too.
The barge, which the Riverbend Festival bought in 1984 from Chattanooga-based Serodino, spends most of the year just a little down the Tennessee River at the shipyard for the shipping company.
A few weeks before the festival — this year it was May 13 — Serodino hauls the barge out from storage and places it across the river from Ross’s Landing near Stringer’s Ridge until festival organizers are ready to set it up.
On May 16, a tow boat brought the barge across the river, and the festival crew secured it by sticking metal poles through the barge and deep into the mud beneath the river.
Then the magical metamorphosis begins.
Four computerized motors, synchronize the raising of the barge’s grid, whose arc is covered by the cream-colored tarp, on screw jacks. The first year, they used cranes.
The process takes about an hour, and the crew bolts the grid in. During shows, it will support 30,000 pounds in lights, speakers and video screens.
Staff members also roll out the black “scrim” covered in Riverbend Festival stars, which provides a festive look to the barge and blocks musicians and VIPs from the masses as they mill on the lower deck before shows. VIPs, which are usually festival sponsors and high-profile community members, can buy drinks at a bar or even receive massages.
New this year on the lower deck, is an air conditioning system for the tent where obliging musicians after they step off the boat that brings them to the barge to meet and greet VIP’s.
Mr. Fuller said artists of all levels of fame tend to enjoy rocking the barge, claiming he’s “never seen an artist leave the festival without a smile on their face.”
Art Garfunkel notably enjoyed his first Riverbend performance, said Chip Baker, executive director of the festival.
“He said that if he knew it was this fun, he would’ve done it a long time ago,” Mr. Baker said.
New to the upper deck, where the bands perform, is a reinforced stage costing about $4,000, Mr. Fuller said.
“It’s a big year with high-end pieces,” he said, referring to big rock acts, such as ZZ Top and The Black Crowes, that have heavy, expensive equipment.
There’s a tarp on a roll at the back of the upper deck to throw over such high-end equipment within 1 1/2 minutes if weather becomes too inclement and starts soaking the stage during a show. But it has to be pretty bad.
“We’re a rain or shine show,” Mr. Fuller said.
During the nine-day festival, the about 75-person stage crew will work 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. and sleep what little they can at a nearby hotel, Mr. Fuller said. They have “script meetings” on the upper deck before the festival to coordinate the Coke Stage with the plans of the five other stages at the festival.
But the long hours are a good “working vacation” with what feels like “family,” Mr. Fuller said.
“The same crew comes back every year, same faces,” he said. “We get a chance to get together.”
When the final applause falls on the final act of Riverbend, the crew will work until 2 a.m. to break down the barge stage as much as possible. Later, they’ll put the final touches on readying it to go back to the shipyard for hibernation until next June, unless rented out for another engagement.