Barring covert early morning missions to claim a spot on the Coke lawn, the average Riverbender’s day starts when gates open at 4:30 p.m. For Ben “Uncle Ben” Gaddy and the other members of the Local 140 Stagehand Union, however, that’s the halfway point.
At 3 p.m., Gaddy was five hours into his shift as he helped prep for Unum Stage closer Dangermuffin. Gaddy said his day probably wouldn’t end until midnight.
“[At the end of the night], we feel worn out, but you get up again to do it the next day anyway,” he said. “We do it because of the love of what we do. You get to meet a lot of interesting people. Every show that comes in is different.”
Tall and rail thin with a graying ponytail and drooping mustache, Gaddy has worked as a Riverbend stagehand for 12 years. He has attended the festival every year since its inception in 1982.
The quality constantly is improving, Gaddy said.
“We tend to top ourselves every year; Chattanooga has a lot to be thankful for in Riverbend,” he said. “The city has changed a lot over the years.
“I never would have thought there’d be some big party in downtown Chattanooga, but here we are.”
Down the street, Ringgold, Ga.-based guitar guru Wesley Crider arrived at the Tennessee Valley Credit Union Stage to soundcheck for his 6:15 p.m. show. In 2004, Crider won the International Thumbpicking Championship in Muhlenberg County, Ky., performing in the style of six-string legends Chet Atkins and Merle Travis.
Crider said he learned to play songs by Atkins and Travis by listening to his father’s records, which he slowed down by stacking coins on the turntable to reduce its speed of rotation.
“I learned probably 200 songs that way, wearing needles out and burning out motors on record players,” he said, laughing.
This year is Crider’s first performing at Riverbend, and he said he was grateful for the chance to show his stuff to locals for once.
“I’m really excited about it because I’m a local boy, and I usually have to travel way off to get to play,” he said. “It’s nice to be here close to home.”
By 4:20 p.m., Coca-Cola Stage headliner Brian Mc-Knight was wrapping up a 90-minute sound check for his 9:30 show, which he kicked off with “Shoulda Been Lovin’ You.”
When the gates opened at 4:30, McKnight’s fans flooded in to claim open spots from which to hear his soulful R&B crooning.
Tonya Tibbs and her husband, Arthur, snagged a spot on the right side of the hill at the rear of the Coke lawn. Tibbs said she hadn’t been to the festival in several years but jumped at the opportunity to see McKnight perform “Love of My Life.”
“I’m going to enjoy anything he sings, but that’s my favorite,” she said. “As long as he shows up, even if it rains or a tornado is coming, I’m going to sit right here.”
The weather cooperated, however, in stark contrast to the storms that swept the festival Wednesday.
McKnight was the star of the evening, but earlier, famed ’70s-’80s British hard rockers Uriah Heep attracted a crowd of thousands for a staggeringly loud concert on the Bud Light Stage.
The audience filled the entire parking lot fronting the stage as lead vocalist Bernie Shaw kicked off with the song “I’m Ready” off their May release, “Into the Wild.”
Fans expecting deeper cuts from earlier in the band’s discography weren’t disappointed. Shortly thereafter, Shaw announced it was time for the band’s 1973 hit “Stealing.” Before he kicked it off, however, he took a moment to set the appropriate mood.
“You people sitting down,” he said. “You can stand up. No one will steal your chair.”
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...