June 6-14 • 21st Century Waterfront, Chattanooga, TN
June 12-15 • Manchester, TN
Sometimes, being the best-kept secret is a good thing, but after almost a decade of presenting under-attended, free extracurricular programming, Riverbend organizers say they wouldn't turn down some time in the spotlight.
This is the ninth year organizers have presented Bend Unplugged and Artist of the Day events, which feature short afternoon sets at local businesses by performers who appear at the festival that evening.
Jeff Styles, assistant talent and production coordinator, said the shows were created to take advantage of Riverbend's drawing power to drive traffic and dollars to businesses that complained the festival's dominance of downtown hurt their sales.
The problem, Styles said, is that few people seem to be aware of them or know when they're taking place.
"These aren't small artists," he said. "Real music fans stumble across us every year. People discover us for the first time and say, 'Why didn't I know about this?'"
This year's Unplugged and Artist of the Day shows have featured acts such as Midwestern reggae-rockers John Wayne & The Pain, Tennessee indie outfit The Black Cadillacs and teenage country pop ensemble JetSet GetSet.
At noon Thursday, Georgian multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Zach Deputy prepped for his Artist of the Day show on the sidewalk outside Big River Grille. In a seat wedged between a monitor speaker to his left and a condiment cart to his right, Deputy ripped through a 30-minute set of five to six songs showcasing his falsetto vocals, nimble guitar riffs and a sound that split the difference between soul, funk and reggae.
Including the handful of passersby whose attention he managed to hook, the crowd for the Savannah-based singer never exceeded 15 people, but he wasn't bothered by the empty seats he faced.
"When I close my eyes, I don't know where I am anyway," he said, laughing. "When I first started playing music, I was hiding from people. I was playing for myself, and I was afraid to do it in front of anybody. Even to this day, when I sing and close my eyes, people just melt away."
Those who heard Deputy's set, however, were enthusiastic in their praise.
"The guy has incredible range, vocally and as a guitar player," said Terry Adamson, who listened to the performance while eating lunch at Big River with his friend Scott Smith of Carrollton, Ga.
Both men lamented that Deputy wasn't heard by more people to help drive attendees to the Tennessee Valley Credit Union Stage for his set at 9:15 p.m., roughly concurrent with Coke Stage headliner Justin Moore.
For the last six years, Adamson and Smith have driven to Chattanooga for Riverbend and always make sure to attend the Unplugged and Artist of the Day sets, but they said they're often surprised by how few people show up.
"I don't think enough people are taking advantage of this because it's such a unique opportunity to eat well and listen to good music and to get to meet [an artist] one-on-one," he said.
Downtown restaurant 212 Market hosted Sunday's Artist of the Day show featuring indie folk trio Bombadil. The Market Street restaurant hosted Riverbend shows every year since the program's inception, including a set in 2010 by Grammy nominee Joan Osborne that drew about 100 people, one of the largest crowds for an Artist of the Day.
While the free shows are a nice gesture, co-owner Sally Moses said they don't quite erase the financial shortfall caused by Riverbend's closure of downtown streets.
"We try to make the best of a bad situation and embrace it," she said. "Riverbend brings a lot of people downtown to see how beautiful our city is, but we're at least 75 percent off [during the festival]. People don't want to sit in traffic."
Helping bolster attendance to the afternoon programming will require a bit more work on the part of downtown businesses, Styles said.
A talk show host on WGOW-102.3 FM, he said he does what he can to promote the shows, but at least some share of the responsibility belong to the host venues. If they don't make an effort, he said, the result will be empty seats.
"If [businesses] really push it, it will do very well," Styles said. "If they don't, which is sadly the case very often, it won't."
Moses had a different suggestion for easing Riverbend's impact on downtown businesses.
"They could move [the festival] to Hamilton Place," she said, laughing.
Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.