With both Bonnaroo and Riverbend beginning this weekend, the choice for many music fans is laughably clear. The glittering Bonaroo line-up—featuring Radiohead, The Beach Boys together with Brian Wilson for the first time in a generation, as well as Skrillex and dozens of other marquee names—makes spending a long, sweltering weekend in a muggy field in Manchester an attractive proposition. But what Riverbend’s roster may lack in glitz, it makes up for in grit.
Much of the criticism of the nine-day Riverbend festival, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, centers on the Coke stage. This is hardly surprising since much of the festival’s money is spent there, this year to attract the likes of Lauren Alaina, Eric Church, Foreigner and the Happy Together Tour, a lineup that includes Top 40 hitmakers from the 1960s including Flo and Eddie, The Grass Roots, and Mickey Dolenz.
Many people will find at least one of these main-stage acts reason enough to sit in the sun for three or four hours to stake out a spot in front of the stage. And when Charlie Wilson, The Gap Band’s clarion-voiced lead singer on “Humpin,’” “Burn Rubber On Me,” and “You Dropped a Bomb On Me,” hits the big stage on Thursday evening, even skeptics may be tempted to brave the crush to catch at least some of his set.
While the Coke stage gets much of the attention, the action is often on the periphery, far from the shuffling mob on the midway. Take opening night, Friday, June 8, when Four Shillings Short (pictured at right), one of the more interesting acts of the entire festival, will play the TVFCU stage under the Walnut Street Bridge. A duo from California, Four Shillings Short consists of Dublin-born Aodh Og O’Tuama, who not only sings in both English and Gaelic with his partner, Christy Martin, but plays Medieval and Renaissance woodwinds, tin whistles, recorders, bowed psaltery, dumbek and spoons. Martin, who grew up in San Francisco in a family of musicians and dancers, began studying the sitar at age 16. She has since mastered the hammered dulcimer, mandolin, mandola, bouzouki, banjo, guitar, charango, bowed psaltery, bodhran and bones. One Irish critic referred to the result as “sweet ear candy for those seeking a fresh and inventive look at traditional music.”
At 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 9, on the Unum stage, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen will play their rousing Bakersfield-inspired boogie, which sounds like Ernest Tubb or Buck Owens fronting Asleep At the Wheel. Meanwhile, at 7:30 p.m. on the TVCFU stage, the redoubtable Kaki King will be reinventing the guitar. Prickly and forthright in conversation, she is equally confrontational when performing. Hammering on the strings and the body of the guitar, she creates a powerfully propulsive thrust that alternates Les Paul melodicism with rapid-fire Leo Kottke-like runs in a breathless rush of notes that stop as abruptly as they start. King will no doubt delight the guitar fanatics in the crowd.
On Sunday, June 10, two veteran acts that couldn’t be more different will bookend the evening. Gov’t Mule will play an early set (6:45 p.m.) on the Bud Light stage. Originally a trio, the band is now a quartet led by guitarist Warren Haynes, with long-time drummer Matt Abts, bassist Jorgen Carlsson, and Danny Louis playing keyboards, guitar, and occasionally, trumpet. The band mixes the earthy drive of the early Allman Brothers with Cream-style psychedelia and ZZ Top’s rolling, deep-bass boogie. For a sample, listen to “Broke Down On The Brazos,” a track (available on the band’s website) from its new album, By A Thread. Like many Allman Brothers tunes, it begins as a simple, straight-ahead shuffle, its steady pace set by Carlsson’s growling bassline. But after a couple of verses they double the time, and everyone digs in on an airy, high-flying, two-guitar jam with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Haynes pushing each other higher with each chorus. Listeners may at first be fooled into thinking they’ve heard it all before, but as Haynes put it recently, the band is “moving backward and forward at the same time.” They are aware of their debt to fans and the musicians who inspired them, but they are a band, said Haynes, “that doesn’t want to stay in one place too long.”
Later on Sunday (at 9:30 p.m.), The Rebirth Brass Band, which has been revitalizing the New Orleans marching-band tradition for close to 30 years, will be up on the Unum stage. Mixing Meters-style funk and marching-band bounce, the Frazier Brothers—consisting of Phil blowing tuba and his brother Keith kicking the big bass drum—lead the band in heady, freewheeling, improvised shuffles that mash Fats Domino and fatback in a rolling mélange of New Orleans’ storied musical history.
Riverbend’s not Bonnaroo. But on almost every night of the festival unexpected treats await those willing to take the time to find them.
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.