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A quarter-century of music has played a major role in downtown’s renewal.
Starting a month earlier than usual, with 18 shows scheduled between this Friday and the end of August, the Nightfall series, as always, will have some people scratching their heads in response to the many unfamiliar names on the lineup. But if past years are any indication, you may find yourself one day telling your friends that you saw some of these bands for free in a park in downtown Chattanooga before anyone knew them.
The acts this year—Nightfall’s 25th anniversary—are, like the series’ audience itself, multi-generational, with old-school veterans rubbing shoulders with young bands, some still in their teens. The guiding force behind the series is Carla Prichard, who has booked Nightfall’s performances for the past 22 years. The first show on Friday, May 3, reflects her penchant for beginning the series with Southern roots music—which is to say, the root of all American music. It features two seasoned performers one whose name may not be familiar, but whose music is instantly familiar vintage Southern soul, while the other is one of Chattanooga’s heritage performers.
Lee Fields is a venerable soul shouter with a great band, The Expressions, made up of a guitarist, bassist, and drummer, and an organist playing what looks like an old Hammond B3, along with a two-man sax and trumpet horn section. Fields’ voice mixes James Brown’s granular rasp with Solomon Burke’s melodicism. “I’m a true soul singer, probably one of the few that’s left,” he said in an interview on his website. Although he’s been singing since the ’60s, he’s quick to acknowledge the contributions of his young band in updating the classic funk-soul of his youth, which is so revered by young listeners who know it only from records. “Although our music has the feeling of that era, it sounds fresh and brand new because we’re not actually imitating,” he said. “We’re taking on the new continuation of soul.”
Opening for Fields is Drew Sterchi and his newly formed band, Blues Tribe. Like Fields, Sterchi has been making music since the late 1960s. But while Fields channeled James Brown, Otis Redding and Solomon Burke, Sterchi took his cue from Michael Bloomfield, one of the first generation of young white musicians who set out to capture the fierce fire of the blues as it was played in the clubs of Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s and early 1960s. After listening to the incendiary guitar playing of Magic Sam, Buddy Guy and Hubert Sumlin, the elemental players who fired Bloomfield’s imagination, Sterchi formed his first band with his brother, David, in the early 1970s.
They became a successful touring band, opening for Sea Level, Johnny Winter and Dr. John, among others. But after a while life on the road began to pall, and within a year Drew and his brother moved back home and started the construction company they still own.
He didn’t stop playing and writing, but it was only recently that he decided to put a band together and play gigs again. He released an album a few months ago and played a couple of shows at Rhythm & Brews and The Honest Pint with a band composed of old friends. Since then he’s assembled band of young musicians who inspire him in the same way The Expressions have reenergized Lee Fields.
The first show of Nightfall’s 25th season will be what people have come to expect from the popular series. Since its inception in the late 1980s, Nightfall has been a showcase for stellar musicians playing at their peak. It grew out of a desire to bring people back to downtown Chattanooga after work. As anyone around in those days can attest, downtown Chattanooga was a ghost town after 6 p.m. Many people worked in the office buildings on Broad and Chestnut, but few stayed for fun after work.