Day one of Riverbend: 40th anniversary of Chattanooga festival draws crowds

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / The crowd in front of the Coke Stage participates with the band Lucius in choreographed hand movements during a song. The first night of the Riverbend Festival kicked off with Military Appreciation Night on Friday. This edition of the event marks its 40th year.

For the 40th anniversary, the start of the Riverbend Festival drew Chattanoogans and visitors alike to the banks of the Tennessee River.

As festivalgoers streamed through the gates Friday afternoon, the nation's two newest Army members took their oaths of enlistment on the festival's Chevy Stage, with the river behind them and the sounds of Chevrolet salespeople in the background.

Anthony Eaker, of Sale Creek, didn't know he would be taking his oath during the festival's opening ceremony.

"They didn't tell me that," he laughed. "They just told me to show up at 3:30."

Friday was Military Appreciation Night at the festival. Breanna Chandler, of Dalton, joined Eaker in taking the oath.

Eaker's grandmother, Heidi Mahlum, said the family tries to come to Riverbend every year. Two of her other grandchildren also joined her for the festival, including her granddaughter, Madelyn Kalajian, who traveled from Southern California.

They and other attendees said that though they weren't familiar with most artists on the lineup, they were excited to possibly find some new favorite acts.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga's Riverbend organizers: Festival drew guests from 44 states, 6 countries in 2022)

The festival, which began in 1982, is one of Chattanooga's biggest events. This weekend marks the second Riverbend Festival since it went on a two-year hiatus during the pandemic.

During the opening ceremony, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, said Riverbend always makes the list when he's telling people how great a city Chattanooga is.

"I'm just going to be candid with you all, I love Riverbend," Fleischmann said. "On a very serious note, this could have gone away. This could have been just a memory. It could have been, 'Well, do you remember when Chattanooga had Riverbend?'"

Beating the heat

Festivalgoers braved near-90-degree heat and bright sun Friday evening with the help of $9 beers, $11 cocktails and paper fans commemorating the 90th anniversary of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Fans clung to precious areas of shade during performances and filled up reusable water bottles for free at stations around the festival.

(READ MORE: Things to do in the Chattanooga area this week include Riverbend, June Jam, balloon glows)

"I'm glad they thought of that, aren't going to sit here and charge me $5 for every bottle of water I wanted," Alex LaBianca, who lives in the Staten Island borough of New York City but has a home in Chattanooga's Black Creek development, said.

This year, organizers also tried to keep things cool by laying turf over the asphalt in front of the Ultra Stage (formerly the Bud Light Stage), set up in what's usually a large parking lot.

The turf, from Dalton's Turf Guys, was arranged before the stage in several different textures -- one swath of soft, cushy turf next to another with a coarser, darker feel. The company also set up a stand with samples of each type of turf on the far end of the stage.

"I think it'll be a tremendous improvement because it gets stinkin' hot," Kevin Wohl, a security worker at the Ultra Stage, said. "And while the turf can get hot, too, it's going to be a lot better."

LaBianca and his wife, Maureen, first-time Riverbend attendees, said they were grateful for the turf but weren't sure how much it was helping the heat.

"It's got to be better than the asphalt," he said while sitting on a blanket atop the fake grass, waiting for the Talking Heads' Jerry Harrison and guitarist Adrian Belew to start their set at the Ultra Stage.

Other changes

Riverbend is also cashless for the first time this year, though the festival has "reverse ATMs" onsite that convert cash to digital dollars on a prepaid Visa card. Some attendees said they were confused about the system because in 2022 money could be loaded onto wristbands to be used for food and drinks.

(READ MORE: Photos: Workers set up for Riverbend 2023)

"Thankfully, I have a friend who wears a fanny pack," Maranda Wagner said. "But when you wear things like this" -- she gestured to her tight black bodysuit -- "where am I gonna hold my card?"

It's the second time at Riverbend for Wagner, who lives in Ohio, and Sayra Martinez, from Atlanta. In 2022, their friend, Exy Poloche-Harris, held her wedding the first day of Riverbend, and the three decided to make it a new tradition.

"I got married on that Friday, then we came here after the wedding," Poloche-Harris said. "That's why I chose it, so we could do wedding and music festival at once."

In 2022, the festival adopted a new format following its two-year pause. Riverbend went from eight days to three and from selling unlimited tickets to capping attendance at 15,000 each day. Ticket prices went up as well, from $45 to $95 for a single day this year.

(READ MORE: New Riverbend is 'crazy different' from past years, organizers say)

On stage

Dozens staked out early spots (in the shade where they could) for the Talking Heads alumni show. The band, headed by Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison and Adrian Belew, who played guitar on the 1980 album "Remain in Light," is touring this summer with Les Claypool, another Riverbend performer.

The band started with "Psycho Killer," prompting a chorus of "fa-fa-fa-fa" and "ay-ya-ya-ya-ya-oooh"s from the audience.

Across the way, Stephen Wilson Jr. played a mellower set of folksy country with a rock tinge, interspersed with musings about his life and songwriting.

Friday's music kicked off with a set from indie pop band Lucius, fronted by lead singers Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessing in matching half-black, half-white tunics.

Many festivalgoers Friday said they were most anticipating seeing country star Maren Morris for her headlining final set.

Contact Ellen Gerst at [email protected] or 423-757-6319.