It was during a particularly intense moment at last year’s Riverfront Nights that Jeff Styles—who has hosted and produced the event with his Riverbend colleagues for the past five years—took a moment to remind himself that there’s something magical about free music on the south bank of the river.
Styles, a self-appointed, backstage lightning rod who sometimes finds himself catching everyone else’s frustrations, was stretched thin after a series of near-disasters.
“It was a night when, literally, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong,” he said. “The drummer with the headline act—a trio—was sick, and we had to find another drummer. We had problems with the equipment. We had serious understaffing … I was just absolutely going crazy … But then I looked out at the crowd, and they were all laughing, dancing, jumping around and having a good time. And I thought ‘I’m the only one who seems to be concerned about all this.’”
If this year’s Riverfront Nights—which begins at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 4—flows smoothly, it will be due in no small part to Style’s anxious oversight.
Modeled on Nightfall, the free concerts began as a series of shows offered sporadically throughout the summer of 2007. The setting was a natural, and the music was always good, but the uneven schedule left many people confused. By 2009, Styles and his colleagues had settled on a simple schedule of three shows before and three shows after the annual Southern Brewers Festival (held on Saturday, Aug. 25, this year).
Once they put this schedule into place, the crowds increased. In its first year, the series attracted around 1,500 people each week. Last year, according to Styles, the number had grown to 5,000.
Along with the dog pound and food and drink tents on the top of the hill, there’s the stage on the bank of the river to the left of the pier. Just as they do at Nightfall, some people come for the music, some for the ambience and a chance to chat with friends. When he’s picking the acts for the series, Styles not only tries to cater to as many different musical tastes a possible, but also looks for bands whose music works outdoors on a balmy, summer Saturday night.
The best choice for everyone this year is probably Yellow Dubmarine (Aug. 18). A seven-piece reggae band, they’ve reworked Beatles songs ranging from “I Saw Her Standing There” to “Hey Jude” using arrangements from the upbeat bounce of ska to the drowsy, bass-heavy rhythms of dub reggae.
Initially reluctant to bring another Beatles-based act to town after having had a couple at Riverbend in recent years, Styles changed his mind after seeing a video of the band performing “I Want You (She’s So Heavy). “It just blew me away,” he said.
The band is the ideal choice for the series, according to Styles, because the songs are “familiar enough for those who are there to have fun. And for the folks who come for the music, it’s going to impress them a lot.”
The songs are sacrosanct for many fans, but after hearing “Something” played over a lilting reggae rhythm, its insinuating melody reinforced by the four-piece horn section, even the most die-hard Beatle fan may be moved to give them a chance. Some songs work better than others—“Here Comes The Sun” lends itself easily, as does, surprisingly, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy.” The singer rises to the challenge of one of John Lennon’s most wrenching vocal performances. The keys combined with the horns add a meaty punch. And the rhythm section puts a subtle spring in the step of the steam-hammer stomp.
The series opens this Saturday with Papa Grows Funk from New Orleans. While the tunes may not be as familiar, the music is an infectiously danceable mash-up of Sly Stone’s slinky groove and Funkadelic’s rock ‘n’ roll. Led by “Papa” John Gros’ regal Jimmy Smith-style riffing on his Hammond B3, the band includes saxophonist Jason Mingledorff, guitarist June Yamaguchi, and a deep-in-the-pocket rhythm section featuring bassist Marc Pero and drummer “Jellybean.”
The following Saturday (Aug. 12) the featured band, from Colorado, is Grant Farm. The band showcases Tyler Grant, voted National Flatpicking Champion in 2009 and 2011, playing a Telecaster, and Andy Thorn playing a banjo that looks like a guitar—which, by the way, he plays like one. Straddling the fence separating garage-band rockers and front-porch pickers, the band draws equally from Neil Young and The Grateful Dead.
Three very different shows, three excellent reasons to spend a lazy evening listening to music under the stars while watching the lights and enjoying the cool breeze off the water.
Richard Winham is the host and producer of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.