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.
Downtown was dying and very few people seemed to care. But a small group of visionaries decided to do something to revive it. It began with the architect Stroud Watson, who suggested a park in the center of the city at the intersection of Market and MLK. The Lyndhurst and Benwood Foundations furnished the funds to create Miller Park. When it was finished, the foundations gave it to the city.
Having done so, those same foundations then bought up the property on the opposite corner and built Miller Plaza. This time, rather than giving it to the city, they retained ownership and set up the Center City Corporation to run it. The idea was to create a dynamic center that would begin the process of re-animating downtown. Somebody suggested staging a series of free concerts, and in the summer of 1988, Brian McMasters organized a series of four shows featuring Taj Mahal, Karla Bonoff, Dave Mason, and local jazz keyboardist Butch Cornell in Miller Plaza. Nightfall was born.
McMasters left town after that first year, leaving his assistant Carlotta Cooper to take over and create the first summer-long series. Realizing that she needed help, she asked local musician John Rawlston to put together a committee of music-loving kindred spirits to help choose the acts for the series. Cooper left a year later, and Carla Pritchard was hired to coordinate the series and other downtown events for the newly created Chattanooga Downtown Partnership. As Rawlston put it, “The baby had been birthed, but Carla was the one who raised it.”
Pritchard retained the committee, and Nightfall continues to be a collective enterprise. Many other cities have had free concert series, but as far as anybody knows there isn’t another series that has lasted anywhere near as long as Nightfall. From the beginning Pritchard was given a free hand to develop it as she saw fit. She answers only to the audience—and the sponsors who have provided at least 50 percent of the funding. She is open to suggestions, not only from the programming committee, but from anyone in the community.
“ In my mind,” she said, “that’s what makes it a community effort, a community event, and a community gathering place where everyone is welcome.”
For more than 20 years, the series continued as a nonprofit community service provided by the River City Company, the parent company of the Chattanooga Downtown Partnership. But the River City Company is a real estate development company, and three years ago it decided to get out of the events business. Pritchard could have stayed with River City, but opted to leave and form her own for-profit company, Chattanooga Presents!
Chattanooga Presents! now produces Nightfall. River City (which owns Miller Plaza) gives Pritchard’s company the use of the space in return for a percentage of the profits. “Frankly, I enjoy the complete freedom we have to make it the program we feel it needs to be,” said Pritchard in an interview. “Over the years we’ve discovered what works. If I don’t feel (an act) is a good fit for us, I guess that’s where my experience is helpful because I do know what works on that stage in that kind of outdoor setting with our broad audience of all ages …You just develop a feel for what’s right.”
Of course with that freedom came the responsibility for making it pay. Back when it was a nonprofit enterprise, Nightfall only had to cover its costs. As it does with every start-up venture it underwrites, Lyndhurst funded Nightfall on a sliding scale for the first three years. After that, Nightfall was on its own. For the next 17 years, sponsorships, T-shirts, and wine, beer and food sales paid the bills, but for the past three years Pritchard has shouldered all of the risks alone.
You might think that the bottom-line pressures Prichard faces would lead to her making concessions to the marketplace. But everyone interviewed for this story insisted that nothing has changed in her approach to the series. “Why would we change it when it seems to be working so well?” asked Prichard. “It really is a tradition for our city.”
Pritchard has established a remarkable bond with Nightfall’s audience, which, over the years has grown from a few hundred to a few thousand. Fans anxiously await the series and attend nearly all of the shows even though they’ve often never heard of the performers.
Pritchard insists the success of the series is largely due to her democratic approach to choosing the acts; but according to Ann Ball, one of the two people working full-time with Pritchard at Chattanooga Presents!, that’s not really true. “There’s a joke around the office that we have a music committee and everybody gets one vote except Carla, she gets as many votes as she wants,” she said, chuckling.
“ The committee is where she gets a lot of ideas,” Ball said of Pritchard. “No one person is going to like every kind of music…It’s great to get a range of opinions, listening lists and so on from the committee.”
But in the end, it’s Pritchard’s booking talents that have brought acts like Nickel Creek to Miller Plaza just as their reputation was exploding. “That’s one of the scariest shows I’ve been to,” said Rawlston, who has been the stage manager at Nightfall since its beginning. “They were blowing up big between the time we booked them and the time they played the show. It was almost like Beatle-mania. The crowd of young people literally rushed to the front of the stage, and I was worried that we might not be able to protect the band.”
There are numerous other examples of bands who had outgrown the series by the time they played, but who nevertheless honored their contracts. Alison Krauss was awarded her first Grammy between the time she signed the contract and performed at Nightfall. Bela Fleck & The Flecktones played their first show there as relative unknowns, but then agreed to come back to play a second show for the same fee despite the fact that their fame had exploded and their asking price had quadrupled by their second performance. Like many other acts who’ve played at Nightfall over the years, according to Rawlston, they loved the venue and the enthusiastic welcome they received.
So now another season is beginning. Another list of largely unfamiliar name. But both Rawlston and Pritchard are excited about seeing one of the bands, in particular, in this season’s lineup, scheduled to play at the end of June.
Called Lake Street Dive, it’s a quartet composed of drummer Mike Calabrese, bassist Bridget Kearney, vocalist Rachael Price, and trumpet-wielding guitarist Mike “McDuck” Olson. According to their bio, when they first formed they “intended to play country music in an improvised, avant-garde style—like Loretta Lynn meets Ornette Coleman. It sounded terrible! But the combination of people and personalities actually made a lot of sense and we had a great time being around each other and making music together.”
“ It’s kinda funky, it’s kind of acoustic, it’s got some soul, it’s got some spunk…It’s just good music, it can’t be pigeonholed,” said Rawlston. The same could be said of almost any of the bands on this or any year’s Nightfall schedule. And that, in the end, may well be why it’s been such a success.