Sheltering and working from home during a novel coronavirus pandemic gives a person time to not only think about the many things that have and will be cancelled, but also time to reflect on things that have happened. In early May, while sitting in my home office and staring at a collection of wristbands, photographs, posters and memorabilia from past music festivals I've attended, I started coming to the realization that events like Riverbend, Bonnaroo and maybe even Moon River very likely will not happen this year.
But, it also reminded me of some pretty great moments I've experienced over the years. For example, back in 1985, my good friend and roommate John Sellman said, "We've got to go see Jason & The Scorchers at Riverbend." The festival was a couple of years old, and for Chattanooga at that time, a pretty exciting and progressive idea. It was a chance to see a new-to-us band like Jason & The Scorchers, but also huge acts like the Pointer Sisters and Roberta Flack. Chattanooga didn't get a lot of shows back then, and certainly not a lot of new or big-name acts.
That Scorchers show was memorable for several reasons. First, it featured a band that would become known for its raw energy and sound that would eventually be known as cow-punk. Secondly, it rained. Hard. But lead singer Jason Ringenberg grabbed an acoustic guitar and sat on the front of the small stage situated on Riverfront Parkway and played to a small but very appreciative crowd.
As is often the case, there weren't a lot of people there as I remember it, but I've had dozens tell me over the years it is among their most memorable musical, and certainly Riverbend, moments. In fact, Chattanooga Times Free Press Managing Editor Alison Gerber told me one day out of nowhere that it is among her husband's favorite Riverbend memories. I was kind of shocked that he was there, but also that he remembers it as fondly as I do.
Ringenberg made a lot of very loyal fans that day because of his attitude, but one other thing we all remember is that one of the stage crew, in an effort to be helpful, grabbed a broom and used it to push up the tarp draped over the stage, which was filling with water. Anyone who has ever done this knows what happened.
All of that water came pouring down — on Ringenberg, who casually shook his now-soaked hair and flipped his guitar over to drain the water out of the sound hole.
So, imagine my complete surprise when just a few weeks ago, my co-worker Ben Benton asked me if I remembered the show when J.D. Souther got doused with rainwater at Riverbend.
"Do you mean Jason & The Scorchers?" I asked.
"Yeah, OK. My buddy Randy Ledford was the guy who dumped the water on him," Benton told me.
As comedian Steven Wright says, "It's a small world. But I wouldn't want to paint it."
That memory is forever etched in my mind as a festival favorite, but the biggest one for me was not only seeing Paul McCartney at Bonnaroo, but being one of just a handful of official media types allowed to photograph the first three songs.
The bigger acts at the festival in Manchester are selective about who and how many photographers are allowed in the pit. And they take this very seriously. I saw a bodyguard nearly rip a young man's arm who was secretly filming the Childish Gambino show last year.
I didn't think I'd get the nod back in 2013, so I didn't give it much thought, but when I opened my emails at about 3:15 that afternoon, there was one saying I'd been approved and needed to stop by the media tent for my pass by 3 p.m. Thankfully I wasn't the only one who was running late, though running in sandals in dirt and gravel is not advised, by the way.
They marched us in about 20 minutes before the show. I walked in behind then-Gov. Bill Haslam, through a crowd that was as packed in as I've ever seen. When it was over, I mindlessly wandered back to our campsite and spent the next several hours that night and the next day just talking about it with people like Mike Dougher and Brad Steiner. We all talked about how emotional it was standing in a crowd that probably approached 100,000 people from ages 8 to 80 singing every word of "Hey Jude." Steiner watched a young man propose to a girl as fireworks erupted as "Live & Let Die" was being played. I don't care who you are, that's a powerful memory.
The following morning, I sat with Bonnaroo co-founder Ashley Capps for an interview, and he told me that show was a personal and career highlight for him, as well. Being able to present one of his idols was as meaningful to him as it was to me, a lifelong Beatles fan.
Sometimes the memorable festival moments are just that: a song or a special moment. But sometimes, they come from seeing someone you've long admired. Just being able to see acts like James Brown and Ladysmith Black Mambazo in person at Riverbend or John Prine at Bonnaroo, for example, are big moments. Seeing Brandi Carlile join Prine for a song and seeing him so happy performing — and later realizing it was his last ever performance — makes it that much more special.
But for me, discovering a new favorite act has become even more meaningful. I was not familiar with My Morning Jacket back in 2008 when I wandered over to their show on the "Which Stage" at Bonnaroo around midnight. I stayed for about two hours, until the rains sent me back to camp. They played for another two hours, I understand.
Upon returning home, I found whatever music of theirs I could find and played it on repeat for months.
I still do.
One of my favorite, still-can't-believe-it-happened moments at a festival didn't even involve music. I found myself at a panel discussion in the media tent at Bonnaroo in 2011 that featured Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's fame, Richie Furay of Buffalo Springfield, producer Daniel Lanois, basketball legend and activist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and a few other people.
Few people are as iconic as Abdul-Jabbar, still the NBA's leading scorer and most decorated MVP. Furay has a place in history as well simply because of his song "For What It's Worth," which you hear in every movie and documentary about the '60s.
As if seeing Abdul-Jabbar in person wasn't enough, at the very end, Lanois said, "Richie, I gotta ask. 'For What It's Worth'? You couldn't come up with a better title?" Furay waited half a second and then replied, "It's better than 'There's a Man With a Gun Over There.'"
That McCartney show was not the first or the last time I've been brought to tears by a performance. In fact, the last time was at the Brandi Carlile show at Bonnaroo the day after her guest spot with Prine in 2019. It was Father's Day, and her songs and stories of missing her wife and kids were unbelievably moving and heartfelt. I was hardly alone standing in that field with big giant tears rolling down my cheeks. I'm not a big crier, by the way, but music can be very emotional and powerful.
The year before that brought back-to-back-to-back Bonnaroo performances that also opened up the waterworks for me and the people with me. It started with The War & Treaty when husband-and-wife duo Michael and Tanya Trotter had everyone in the audience hug each other after Michael's gut-wrenching story of dealing with his own PTSD and of learning that a fellow veteran had committed suicide months after being raped.
We left that show and cried again as Mavis Staples talked about "being there" as the Civil Rights Movement got underway, as she introduced the song "Freedom Highway." Just imagining the history she has seen and been a part of was very emotional.
That show was immediately followed by watching Nile Rodgers rip through "a few of the hits I've been involved in," partnerships with people like David Bowie, Madonna, Daft Punk, and of course, Chic. The legendary hit-maker's show did not disappoint, but what was most powerful was his story of being told he had cancer and that the prognosis was not good. He then had the 60,000 or so people in the audience hold up their lighters or cellphones as he announced that he was cancer-free.
As the three people I had spent the day with all wiped tears from their faces, one said, "I'm done for the day. I need to go back to camp and just sit for while."