June 6-14 • 21st Century Waterfront, Chattanooga, TN
With the festival grounds still coming up for air after being clothes-lined by a brutal line of thunderstorms earlier in the afternoon, vocalist Chris Gomez was reminded of one fundamental truth about being a musician:
No matter what genre you're playing, someone in the audience will always, without fail, request "Freebird."
As he and his bandmates in the Victory Praise Band walked out for their 6 p.m. downbeat, someone in the umbrella-brandishing knot of listeners near the foot of the Volkswagen stage yelled out a request for Lynyrd Skynyrd's Southern rock standard. The request, which was probably tongue-in-cheek, given the evening's focus on Christian music, hit close to the mark for Gomez, who until last year was the longtime front man of popular local rock cover band Bud Lightning.
After a spiritual revelation last June, Gomez turned his life around, both spiritually and musically. For his new group's debut, he said, his goal wasn't to melt faces. It was to save souls.
"Out of five times playing Riverbend, this is my first time playing for the Lord," Gomez said, laughing. "I'm living proof that you can come out of the belly of the whale."
Last June, Gomez said, felt he'd found himself in an emotional abyss well below rock bottom. Estranged from his wife and still engaged in the kind of raucous behavior expected of a rock musician, he asked God, first with curses and later with heartfelt prayers, for guidance. When he woke up the next morning, he felt a sense of conviction and began making calls. His first was to his wife to ask if she was interested in reconciliation - she was - and the rest were to his bandmates and venue owners explaining that he was severing ties with the club scene.
In the last year, Gomez said, he's found a renewed sense of purpose and musical inspiration. Six weeks ago, he formed the Victory Praise Band, a 10-piece musical ensemble with members from three local church congregations, after receiving an invitation to play the festival.
"One of my big things [after I left Bud Lightning] was, 'How am I going to replace 40 songs on Friday night with four songs on Sunday morning?'" he said. "[But] it's a completely different type of musical fulfillment than I've felt ever in my life. I can honestly say that four songs on Sunday morning give me more fulfillment than 40 songs on 50 Friday nights a year, combined."
Despite the downpour that left the grounds soggy and the tent roofs bloated with water that had to be removed with forceful thrusts by squeegee-wielding stagehands, there was an air of determined enjoyment on both sides of the microphone.
"Don't worry about this rain," Gomez told the crowd. "Jesus loves us."
For all the ferocity of the weather earlier in the day, festival organizers shared Gomez's philosophy that the show must go on.
"I don't like to go down there and be afraid of rain all the time," said Friends of the Festival talent and production coordinator Joe "Dixie" Fuller. "If I just have straight down rain, I can play. If there's any possibility of me putting that show out there on that stage, that's what I'll do."
Despite a steady drenching for first hour of the evening, none of the evening's three stages were delayed by weather. By 6:30 p.m., the downpour had been demoted to a drizzle, and crowd members began stowing their umbrellas.
While still smaller than a standard Riverbend evening, the flow of guests began to swell, many of them heading to the Coke Lawn to set up camp for the TobyMac headlining performance. For his part, Gomez said he was less concerned with filling the lawn in front of his stage than convincing even one person to join him on a better path.
"It's been a complete and total life change, man," he said. "I've been partying for years - many, many, many years - and the more I seek God, it's like the more all those desires went away."
Contact Casey Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.