Relocated Moon River show in Chattanooga a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ series of events

Contributed Photo by Roger Ho / Drew and Ellie Holcomb entertain fans waiting to get back into the Moon River Festival during a rain delay Sunday.
Contributed Photo by Roger Ho / Drew and Ellie Holcomb entertain fans waiting to get back into the Moon River Festival during a rain delay Sunday.

After rains and thunderstorms washed away a year’s worth of planning Sunday, Moon River Festival organizers managed to put together a mini-concert at a new location with a different staff in just under three hours.

It all came together with quick-thinking professionals and a willing group of musicians, city officials and fans. AC Entertainment President Ted Heinig said watching it all come together “was a once-in-a-lifetime thing that we will all talk about for years to come.”

Things started rolling a little before 4 p.m. Sunday when festival co-founder Drew Holcomb started asking promoters whether Memorial Auditorium might be available should the rain force the cancellation of the rest of the day’s events. The event had been put on hold and the site cleared around 2 p.m. because of thunderstorms.

“At that point, we still thought we were going to get things restarted,” Holcomb said.

A little after 4 p.m., Tivoli Theatre Foundation Executive Director Nick Wilkinson began assembling his team with Courtney Keene, director of events, and Sam Fort, senior technical director for the foundation, to make it work.

Fortunately, the sound system and lighting had been left in place inside the auditorium when Fort had left for vacation 10 days earlier.

“Philip Jones with PLJ Audio is probably the one who saved it more than anyone,” Fort said. “We could not have done it if we’d had to put together a sound system.”

Jones immediately headed to Memorial when called and began setting up monitors and mics and ran the soundboard for each act — all without the chance to do a proper soundcheck.

“He mixed it on the fly,” Fort said. “It was all pretty exciting.”

Keene was about to head out to dinner and then to Moon River when Wilkinson called her.

“I thought it was a joke when he called,” she said.

As late as 5:45 p.m., most people at the festival and at Memorial thought the weather would clear and the event would resume. Around 6 p.m., Wilkinson said he felt like Coolidge Park was about to reopen and told his team to stand down, and he called Mayor Tim Kelly to coordinate arriving together to enjoy the festival at its original location.

“His wife, Ginny, answered and said, ‘Uh, hold on. I think things have changed. Here’s Tim,’” Wilkinson said.

At 6:03 p.m., Heinig called and officially let Wilkinson know Moon River wanted to come to Memorial.

“Nick said, ‘You got it, buddy. I gotta go,’ and he hung up on me,” Heinig said.

Wilkinson called his staff to tell them it was back on.


At Coolidge Park around 4 p.m., Holcomb and wife Ellie had grabbed a guitar and played an impromptu set for folks gathered along River Street near the park’s entrance waiting for things to reopen. He liked the idea of moving to Memorial.

“There are a lot of frustrated people,” Holcomb said.

Once Memorial came into play, he sent word to artist managers on Sunday’s schedule and immediately heard from Local Natives that they were in. Sammy Rae was next, and then JP Saxe, who had also gone out into the waiting crowd to perform.

Holcomb said Abraham Alexander reached out to him later to say he would be there, but that he was also trying to rally friends Charley Crockett and festival headliner Leon Bridges to join the makeshift lineup. Some artists, such as Keb’ Mo’, had already left, Holcomb said.

  photo  Contributed Photo by Jenn Devereaux / Abraham Alexander, Charley Crockett and Leon Bridges perform during Sunday night’s rerouted concert at Memorial Auditorium as part of the Moon River Festival. Things moved from Coolidge Park to Memorial because of thunderstorms and heavy rain.

Crockett confirmed just as the show began, and Bridges sent word he’d be there about midway through, Holcomb said.

“I want to shout out to them because they knew they were walking into a dumpster fire,” Holcomb said. “This was throw and go. This is not the way you want to sound and not the way you want to look, but they showed up.”

He said artists were backstage borrowing guitars because their equipment was packed in their tour buses.

Holcomb said it helped the artists on the bill are predominately singer/songwriters who don’t generally have highly produced shows with lots of lighting, sound and special effects.

“And, we knew we were taking advantage of the fact that these people love to play,” he said.


There is a lot of planning that goes into shows for any of the acts on the bill, Heinig said.

“Let’s say Drew and I book a show here in town,” Heinig said. “We’re booking it four, five months out. With this, I called Nick at 6:03 and said, ‘Hey, Drew wants to do a special show at Memorial.’ What an amazing, amazing team they have to in two hours and 27 minutes have a staff for concessions, ushers, security, everything in place.”

Heinig said a lot of things had to fall right for it to happen the way it did, but he added that in many ways, it happened because of relationships built over the years. Everyone involved was familiar with each other, but it still took a lot of things going right.

Heinig said he’s never seen anything like Sunday’s impromptu concert anywhere else and credits “so much cooperation among so many people.”

“If Drew doesn’t lead the charge because he cares so passionately and if our team isn’t there to support and if the city and Mayor Kelly aren’t 100% supportive and if Nick at Memorial doesn’t want to work that night and bring his team in, it doesn’t happen.

“And then all the people within each of those teams did what they did,” he said. “It took a lot of effort.”

Keene said nearly every staff member from bartenders to ushers who was called showed up to work and some came once they heard what was happening.

“Even backstage,” Keene said. “We were told we needed food for 10 people, then 50. It was pretty amazing as people did what needed to be done.”

Wilkinson said he didn’t know whether to expect 50 or 100 people, but when he walked from his office at the Tivoli to Memorial after getting a contract drafted for the show, “it looked like a Widespread Panic crowd.”

He estimated about 3,000 fans attended the Sunday show.

“It was just an incredible night,” he said.

Heinig also pointed out patrons who bought one-day tickets for Sunday would get full refunds and two-day ticket buyers would be refunded not only half of the ticket cost but also half the associated fees as well.

Contact Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354. Follow him on Twitter @BarryJC.

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