Despite raining out in 2015, tonight's Bessie Smith Strut expands to larger area, packs in more vendors
When a powerful afternoon squall swept across M.L. King Boulevard during last year's Bessie Smith Strut, gusting winds and a torrential downpour put an end to the annual blues festival and community block party less than two hours after gates opened.
Anyone not under cover was drenched within seconds. Sets by blues musicians on several stages were cut short. Some barbecue stands and other vendors lost their tents and many of their customers, who fled the boulevard in droves.
Looking back, Friends of the Festival Executive Director Chip Baker characterized the evening as "a washout." The festival's talent and production coordinator, Joe "Dixie" Fuller, preferred more colorful language, describing the event as a "tsunami out of the sky."
While the rain was still coming down in sheets, staff with Friends of the Festival hastened to relocate inside the Bessie Smith Hall, where several of the evening's performers put on abbreviated concerts.
"I sent my sound guys in there and said, ' see if there's anything in there that's salvageable, that we can use to make this thing happen, to put a Band-Aid on it and make it work,'" Fuller said. "We had volunteers going up and down the street telling people that we took the music to the hall. Everyone else was just trying to pack up their stuff, sew up their losses and run."
The Bessie Smith Cultural Center doesn't have any exact figures for the financial losses to the vendors from the early shut down, but it was "significant," said Paula Wilkes, the center's director of operations.
"It was so early [in the evening] that it was probably a huge loss for them," she said. "We hadn't been going but for an hour, an hour-and-a-half when that happened. Many of them had food prepped. It was probably a significant loss for them because they hadn't gotten good into their sales."
Despite last year's soaking, the Strut is back tonight and, according to organizers, it's even bigger than before.
On Thursday, Wilkes said this year's crop of merchants and concessionaires already represented a 20 percent increase over 2015, rising from 21 to 25 vendors.
"We didn't have to convince them," Wilkes said. "Most of the vendors we have have been doing it for years. They come back year after year, local and out of town."
This year, the Strut's footprint also has been extended by about a block on each end — at Georgia Avenue in the west and Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in the east.
"We wanted to include more of the MLK merchants, like The Camp House the Urban League and Uncle Larry's," Wilkes said.
Even as it stretches along a wider swath of the boulevard, the Strut will reprise its additional security measures, including fencing and bag checks at the gates, which were implemented in 2012 after the Bessie Smith Cultural Center took over stewardship of the event from Friends of the Festival, which organizes Riverbend and still assists the Bessie Smith Cultural Center with booking talent and staging the event. As with last year, guests to the Strut will pay a uniform fee of $10, with no discounts offered to those with Riverbend wristbands.
Area merchants and organizations said they were more involved in the process of organizing the Strut this year. Extending the bounds of the event to include newly minted M.L. King businesses was first suggested by Dionne Jennings, executive director at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, during a monthly meeting of the boulevard's merchants association.
"She said, 'Do you guys want to be within the fence this year?' and we said, 'Yeah, absolutely. We'd love to do that,'" said Matt Busby, manager at The Camp House, which relocated to M.L. King Boulevard from the Southside in December 2014.
"It'll really be our first year that we're able to be part of the Strut, so we're excited about that," he added.
After last year's drenching, the Strut has prepared a contingency plan for a reprisal of stormy weather. If the wind and lightning get too intense, the music will once again move indoors at the Cultural Center.
The outdoor stage has been relocated to the front of the building and reoriented to face the boulevard, which will make it easier to get equipment into the center in case of storms. Fuller said that's a critical element.
"All my sound gear, I can get it out of harm's way really quick," he said. "I can roll right off the stage and into the [center] instead of across the grass and up a bunch of steps. We're already at hall level, so we can seek some shelter and keep playing."
Many area businesses, including Champy's Chicken, the Jazzanooga Arts Space and The Camp House, also have offered to open their doors and serve as impromptu musical hosts if the weather forces strutters off the street again.
Keeping the music playing, rain or shine, is crucial to preserving the Strut as a cultural touchstone of the neighborhood, Busby said.
"It's kind of like our one time a year when we pull in the rest of the community to the boulevard," he said. "Hopefully, that'll happen more often than once a year, but for now, that's why [the Strut] is so significant."
Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.