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Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Leslie Jordan rides a Corvair around the festival to greet attendees on June 3, 2022. The exciting Riverbend Festival weekend kicked off on Friday and continues until Sunday.

After a two-year hiatus, the Riverbend Festival has returned to Chattanooga, kicking off its three-day music lineup on Friday with a tribute to the military and a celebration of actor and comedian Leslie Jordan.

A native Chattanoogan known for his vast social media following and appearances on TV shows like "Will & Grace," Jordan was the event's honorary host and appeared onstage alongside Mayor Tim Kelly, who presented Jordan with a key to the city and read a proclamation marking June 3, 2022, "Leslie Jordan Day."

"I think they made a mistake," Jordan quipped, drawing laughter from the crowd. "No, I'm so honored."

Jordan attended local schools, including Brainerd High School, and eventually enrolled in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

"When they sent me out into the world they said, 'Mr. Jordan, before you go to Hollywood or New York will you please learn to pronounce what your degree is in,'" Jordan said in his characteristic Southern drawl. "Because I was saying the-ay-ter."

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Leslie Jordan kicks off three days of music at Riverbend

Jordan then descended from the stage and hopped into a waiting car, which took him on a brief parade along Riverside Drive, ending at the event's VIP lounge on a pier overlooking the Tennessee River.

Before Jordan's appearance, the event began with a tribute to members of the military and the swearing in of 17 new U.S. Army recruits.

"I know you use the term, 'return to normalcy,'" Friends of the Festival Executive Director Mickey McCamish said Friday evening. "I think Riverbend is a superb example of that. To bring the Riverbend Festival back, it definitely says, 'Yes, we are returning to a level of normalcy.'"

McCamish said festival organizers have sold wristbands in 43 states, including Vermont, Hawaii and Oregon. Attendees also hail from four foreign countries.

Although the festival's footprint along Riverside Drive could have held about 40,000 people, McCamish said, organizers chose to sell a maximum of 15,000 wristbands for the event, which allows for more social distancing. The event also has fewer music acts and is shorter than the four-day festival that occurred in 2019.

Denise and Jane Camp have been fans of Jordan's since "Will & Grace" and were among the onlookers who rushed up to speak to him as he traveled through the center of the festival grounds.

Although they didn't recognize several of the bands on the lineup this weekend, which on Friday included Rick Rushing, Devon Gilfillian and Brothers Osborne, Denise and Jane Camp have been frequent attendees of the festival over the years.

"This is just so well run," Jane Camp said about the event. "I think the only thing that stinks is you can't have a chair."

"Me having arthritis, her being a senior and me right behind her, we can't get up off the ground anymore," Denise Camp said, suggesting that the festival create a designated section for seniors to sit.

Chairs, which McCamish said can be a barrier for first responders during an emergency, were among a series of items prohibited during the event this weekend, a list that included opaque bags, framed backpacks and coolers.

Security has been top of mind for organizers. The event comes a week after a downtown shooting that injured six teenagers, but Friends of the Festival board member John Sorrow said safety has been a long-term priority.

"We've actually outsourced a lot of our security to professionals, whereas in the past we had volunteer security along with county and city police," he said. "This year, we have a full range of services that we're paying for through that."

Festivalgoers emptied their pockets at the gate and passed through a phalanx of walk-through metal detectors. Police and security personnel were stationed at the entrance and could be frequently spotted throughout the festival grounds.

Stephanie and Lance Taylor had just arrived at the festival around 6 p.m. Friday and were still getting their bearings, but they were impressed with the music lineup and appreciated the shorter number of days.

This was their first time attending Riverbend in roughly 15 years, and they specifically pointed to artists like Jason Isbell, Cage the Elephant, Moon Taxi and Elle King as reasons for their attendance.

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd.

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