Chattanooga Now City Beat: Music festival landscapes are ever-evolving

Chattanooga Now City Beat: Music festival landscapes are ever-evolving

April 4th, 2013 by Barry Courter in Chattnow Music

While Five Nights in Chattanooga was not the official first Riverbend, it did start people talking about how a festival like Riverbend could be used to attract large numbers of people to downtown and the venues it offered. The Nightfall series shares a similar origin.

The downtown area at the time was far from the vibrant place it is today, and people were looking for ideas to bring people back. While neither of those two events can lay full claim to the revitalization of downtown, they did and continue to play a big role.

When the first Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival was announced in 2001, people around the country questioned the wisdom of hosting such an event on a working farm in Manchester, Tenn.

Seriously, why put on a festival with national and international-level talent on a 700-acre piece of land about halfway between Nashville and Chattanooga? The property had no electricity, no water, no sewer system and no easy access.

As more details came out and people learned that Bonnaroo was going to be a four-day camping event dominated by jam bands, even more people questioned the wisdom of staging a "hippie-fest" in the middle of rural Tennessee.

Before Riverbend and Nightfall, to see live music here, you pretty much needed to see a show at the Tivoli or Memorial Auditorium or visit a local nightclub. Now, you can watch and listen in old warehouses, fast-food restaurants, on street corners, at art galleries, in churches and in people's living rooms.

Riverbend allows people to see around 100 acts over its now nine-day schedule. Bonnaroo does the same in four days, but it also has become more than a place to see a lot of bands. It has become a rite of passage for young people coming out of college and high school and for older folks who want to capture their missed Woodstock experience.

It has also opened people's minds to discovering new music and artists and to traveling to other festivals. I run into lots of local people who plan to attend Hangout in Gulf Shores, Ala., or Forecastle in Louisville, Ky. What's interesting is that people are shopping for not just the lineups, which are similar enough, but the Festivals' extras. Do you prefer tent camping in the VIP section on the farm to a hotel at the beach, or is the somewhat smaller size and urban setting of Forecastle more appealing?

The old image of trust-funders packing up the VW bus to follow the Grateful Dead for months on end has been replaced by empty-nesters loading up the RV for a weekend of festival fun.

Contact staff writer Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.