Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Great, The Mediocre And The Ugly As Homemade Sin – A Look At Riverbend 2010

The Riverbend Festival is one of Chattanooga’s premier events. I enjoy the 4 Bridges Art Festival, Riverfront Nights, the Nightfall Concert Series, The Chattanooga Market and many other events. I look forward to Riverbend though, more than any other local happening. Every year while the fireworks are lighting up the night following the last performance I’m already anticipating next year’s festival.

There are two kinds of Riverbend people: Coke Stage People and Side Stage People. Acknowledging that every rule has exceptions, Coke Stage People are usually casual music fans or folks who come out for the event itself. Side Stage People are most often serious music fans.

The Riverbend organizers and music selection committee have a difficult task. They have a fixed amount of money with which to procure talent for the festival, so each year they have to juggle genres, quality and recognizable names to put together a lineup. Every year the end result is different.

This year’s festival was the year of the Coke Stage, and the side stages (with some notable exceptions) paid the price. The main stage lineup was so impressive that my son could hardly believe we had so many big names in Chattanooga in one week. This is not to say that the side stage regulars couldn’t or didn’t enjoy the main stage acts. Alison Krauss, The Waybacks with friends with the CSO, Sheryl Crow and Darius Rucker are great musicians as well as being popular performers. Other main stage acts are currently popular or are nothing short of legendary, and they had a lot to offer their fans as well.

There are, however, almost four hours of music from the time the gates open until the Coke Stage lights up. The music fans that look forward to the eclectic variety of music Riverbend offers have always found the side stages to be places where they could enjoy quality acts with national cult followings, discover new artists that they would enjoy for years to come or have a less popular but critically renowned virtuoso hold them captive for an hour they would never forget.

This year’s festival left the side stage folk sharing one thought openly – “The side stages are off this year.” I repeat: there were notable exceptions, but I agree that the side stage offerings didn’t live up to expectations. One reason is that we saw far more local acts this year than we are accustomed to seeing. Our local talent is great, and I am a regular follower of many of the local acts that appeared. Therein lies the problem. Most of the local acts that appeared this year are acts that I and many others at the Unum and TVCU stages see regularly at other local venues.

I’m glad to see some of my favorite local performers have an opportunity to play to a larger than usual audience, and they all put on good shows. But while past years have left me scratching my head trying to decide between two enticing acts in the same time slot, this year there were entire slots that didn’t offer anyone of real interest to me.

That said, it was still an enjoyable festival and undoubtedly the best entertainment value anywhere. Following are a few remarks on individual acts:

Best Local Act: Milele Roots

Grunge meets reggae band Milele Roots put on a great show and proved once again why they’re one of the local music scene’s most popular and lasting acts. They’re a great example of a cross-genre act that appeals to a broad range of fans and tastes.

Other notable performances by local artists: Sistren, Moonslew, Butch Ross and Joe Decosimo, Roger Alan Wade, Angel Snow, John Lathim and Slim Pickins.

Individual Performer Most Fun To Watch: Jeremy Stacy

Sheryl Crow’s drummer was nothing less than a machine. The guy looks like a real-life incarnation of Mario from the video game, but man could he play the drums.

Runner up: Pat McDonald of the Charlie Daniels Band. Charlie has always held to the 1970’s “long drum solo to give the band a break” formula, and McDonald’s drum solo was one the best I’ve ever seen.

Best Musical Performance: The Waybacks, Joan Osborne, John Cowan, Jens Kruger and the CSO

I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed a more enjoyable, entertaining and technically perfect performance than Sunday night’s Mystery Rock Revue. I’m a dedicated fan of The Waybacks and knew the all-star cast of friends and the Chattanooga Symphony would collaborate to put together a great show. I was not disappointed, nor were a lot of people around me who came not knowing what to expect but left amazed at what they heard. Abbey Road was the perfect album for such an effort, and it was good to see the CSO play a major part in the production. They were marvelous.

Runner Up: The Waybacks performing on the Unum Stage. Each member of
The Waybacks is a virtuoso in his own right, and their work as a band is incredible. Whether Warren Hood is playing a violin or a fiddle depends on the song. Jerre Haskew once described guitarist James Nash like this: “Lots of guys are fast. James is fast and clean, like no one else I know.” Joe Kyle, Jr.’s understated bass is always perfect, and Chuck Hamilton combines technical perfection on percussion with some serious cool and soul.

Most Disappointing Performance: George Clinton and P-Funk

Funk is not my favorite genre, but I’m a huge fan of Mother’s Finest and really enjoy the tight bass, drum and guitar combinations for which great funk bands are known. P-Funk was neither tight nor funky. They were little more than 15 or so individuals milling around on stage making noise while their leader was nowhere to be seen. Some people have mentioned Clinton’s age (he’s almost 70 years old) as the reason for his weak vocals and lack of stage time, but I’ve seen plenty of performers his age go on strong. I hear they got better late, but why wait until your set is supposed to end to get going?

Runner-up: Jimmy Webb. Being a great songwriter doesn’t always translate to being a good performer. Jimmy Webb is a great songwriter, but if you didn’t know he wrote the songs he was singing you would assume you were hearing a lounge singer, and a not-so-great lounge singer at that.

Best Stage Performance: Dan Baird and Homemade Sin

All musicians should love playing their music and have as much fun doing it as do these guys. I’m serious. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen any group do what they did on stage. Their self-deprecating name is quite appropriate. The Rolling Stones are the only uglier band I’ve ever seen, and Homemade Sin demonstrates similar chemistry between members as the Stones. This was one of the best raw energy shows I’ve seen in a long while.

Biggest Surprise: Charlie Daniels Band

I first saw Charlie Daniels in 1976, and prior to last night I had seen the CDB three times. I’ve seen pre-conversion Charlie and born-again Charlie, and I’ve never been disappointed. But Charlie is 74 years old, and with recent reports of Charlie’s health concerns I expected a decent but laid-back show. Nope. Charlie has always had high musical standards for his band and every show was energetic. This show was no different. The old man can still bring it, and he did. Maybe George Clinton should check with Charlie and find out where to buy some good vitamins.

Legend Of The Year: Chris Hillman and Herb Pederson

In my humble opinion, no one is worth seeing simply because they are a legend. But legend doesn’t always mean “washed-up” either. Hillman and Pederson brought a beautiful and inspiring blend of past hits and new collaborative efforts that were in the true spirit of the Unum stage.

What about the other main stage acts? Alison Krauss, Sheryl Crow and Darius Rucker were entertaining. How could they not be? They’re Alison Krauss, Sheryl Crow and Darius Rucker. What was lacking from their performances, more than anything, was the fault of the setting and not the artists themselves. Vocals are consistently hard to hear, and crowd noise really interferes with the sound even when you have good seats. But again, many of the Coke Stage folks aren’t there for the music as much as for the party.

Other acts of note: The Seven Walkers, San Rafael, Drivin N Crying, and Tom Russell. All were the kinds of acts that make the Riverbend Festival a great place to spend your evenings one week every year.

A final note: Tonya and I decided to stay home this year and take a vacation planned around the Riverbend Festival. We did some hiking and canoeing, visited several local attractions that we haven’t seen in years or at all, and ate at some great local restaurants that we had not visited before. It was a great week, and we realized well into the week that we could plan five more vacations here at home and not see everything we want to see. We kept our money in the community, and every day reminded us that we live in the best city on earth. What a blessing.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Day of Pride and Sorrow

The air was brisk and there was a strong breeze blowing in from Farnell Bay. Duffels, backpacks and weapons were stacked on the ground with red tape wrapped around them to indicate to whom they were issued. Under one tree a young Marine sat holding his infant boy, his wife next to him. In the grass under the sun sat another Marine with his grandmother, grandfather and girlfriend. A small group of Marines stood together laughing and imitating one another. The entire area was populated with families spending precious moments together.

The morning at Camp Lejeune, NC started with a trip to the barracks to gather my son’s personal effects to bring back to Flintstone. Our group consisted of my wife, my cousin Bobby, my son’s fiancée Jessica and me. In the parking lot we met a Sergeant who had returned from Iraq slightly more than a month ago. We were admiring his new red Corvette as he struck up a conversation with my son, Lance Corporal Deric North. They talked about the situation where my son’s company was to be deployed. He told Deric that attacks against U.S. service personnel in that area were down to two a week, from a high of 400 a week during the initial push.

Before we left for the staging area, the Sgt. surprised Deric by tossing him the keys to his ‘Vette and letting him take Jessica for a spin around the base. From there it was over to the armory to have weapons issued. The Marines laughed and joked as they compared M-16s and M-4s. Some had grenade launchers, some did not. A few Marines, my son among them, were issued SAWs, or “Squad Automatic Weapons.” The SAWs are drum-fed fully automatic weapons with a folding bipod. As my son posed for a photo while holding his SAW, a few of the other Marines jokingly called him “Rambo.”

After weapons were issued everyone moved to the area where the buses would pick up our sons and daughters. One at a time I had the privilege of meeting my son’s comrades, the Marines who would be leaving with him for Iraq in a few short hours. Oliver, Weeg, Bruski, Bliss, Neukum. Diverse names from different places, young men with one thing in common -- absolute commitment to one another. We met Gunnery Sergeant King, the man who would lead our Marines during their seven months overseas. This is GySgt King’s fourth deployment. As we talked with him, he told us what to expect upon Deric’s return – a young man more mature and solemn. It was encouraging to know our son would be under the command of someone with on-the-ground experience in Iraq.

As we waited we dialed family and friends and let Deric take a moment to say goodbye to each. Especially touching was hearing Deric tell his grandfather, Lewis Fincher, a Korean War veteran, that he had the Purple Heart ribbon Lewis had given him in his shirt pocket and would keep it there the entire length of his deployment.

As time for the buses to arrive drew near, Deric walked Jessica to a bank overlooking the bay. They sat together, he gave her a ring and they held one another and cried. All around us husbands and wives kissed and talked quietly, children held on to daddy’s leg and entire families huddled together in quiet sadness, prayer, or both. As tears began to flow some of the women who were veterans of these deployments walked around and offered tissues and words of encouragement to the women who were about to see the men they love leave for a place on the other side of the globe.

Deric pulled us close to him. He cried and promised to keep us abreast of events. I told him how proud I was of him. The sense of pride, sorrow and hope was overwhelming.

As the MP Company of the 3d Battalion, 10th Marines boarded their buses, we watched them take their seats. While my son looked out of the window and waved to us, the young man in the seat behind him reached forward and placed a hand on my son’s shoulder.

I am proud to call my son a United States Marine. I am proud of his fellow Marines and admire the love and sense of commitment they have for one another.

Take care of business. Come home. We miss you already.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

A Pirate Looks at Forty

Unlike the character in the above named song by Jimmy Buffett, I have never had a desire to sail upon blue ocean waters. I’ve never made a fortune smuggling marijuana, nor felt as if I were a pirate born two centuries too late. At no point in my life have I gone on a two-week bender or moved in with a younger woman.

My life doesn’t resemble that of the character in this song. But at forty-five years of age, I understand the spirit of the song in a way I never believed I would.

Since I was young I heard stories of men suffering through the clichéd “mid-life crisis.” To be blunt, I always assumed it was hogwash – nothing more than an excuse to run away from the responsibilities one had assumed over time, often by default. Only selfish or weak-willed men had thoughts of walking away from job, family or church.

Then one day I woke up, and realized that at a certain point a man looks at his life, and questions literally everything about it. How did I arrive at this place, and where am I going from here? What about all of those absolutes that seemed so solid yesterday, and today look a little more transparent?

I think my journey into this new phase of life began when my father passed away almost two years ago. Like anyone else, I intellectually understood death. But until Dad died, I never quite grasped the full scope of mortality. I have spent a great deal of time thinking about it, and that process has taken me from fear of dying to wishing for death, and finally to a calm acceptance of my own mortality.

It helps when one has a measure of faith, and a hope of life eternal. But even the faith that carries one through life’s challenges is not immune from the nagging questions of mid-life. In some ways that has been the toughest part of this unwilling pilgrimage into another stage of existence.

My faith is an important part of who I am. Questioning God about my purpose and existence is a relatively new thing for me. It’s unsettling at best, and downright frightening at worst. But I suppose in a way, an untested faith is no faith at all. And I have no doubt that at the end of this process, God will be there. After all, scripture does remind us that God is able to make us stand, in spite of the difficulties we so often face.

The most painful aspect of the experience to this point has been the change in my emotional state. I have always taken pride in my ability to rein in my emotions, and think and act rationally. I have, for more than 25 years completely rejected the notion that one should follow his heart. Part of that reasoning is the result of some hard-learned lessons of life, but even common sense dictates that your heart will lead you into places that your head can’t get you out of.

Imagine my shock and dismay upon learning that suddenly my heart was demanding I take a whole new look at life. Every day now I see things differently. I’ve felt the heartstrings tug me in directions I’ve never been interested in moving. I thank God that in spite of those tugs, I’ve fought the desire to follow my heart. I can at least think clearly enough to see that the best path is still the one of service and responsibility.

So now I feel like I’m on the last downhill slope of what has been a two-year rollercoaster ride. This is the first time I’ve felt like writing in a while, and perhaps that’s a sign of some return to normalcy -- that is, to the extent that I have ever been normal.

So, where to go from here? I’ve made new friends as a part of this journey, and they probably know a lot more about me than I would have been comfortable with in the past. But I have a tendency to wear my heart on my sleeve, and that has its benefits as well as drawbacks. At least your new friends know what their getting.

One final word of advice to you men who haven’t yet had your world turned upside-down: Don’t keep your feelings to yourself. Talk to friends, family and those who share your faith. Be open and ask for their support. A mid-life crisis is a life-changing experience. Don’t let it be a change for the worse.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

3RD Annual “In My Humble Opinion Civil Service Award”

One of the pleasures of writing for a newspaper is being able to shed light on people or topics that deserve attention. We often focus our attention on negative things – bad policy, corruption, abuse of power, favoritism or violations of ethics. Whistleblowers and journalists serve an important function – they help keep our system of government clean. Radio talk show host Jim Hightower once said that he didn’t mind being called an agitator. “The agitator,” he reminded his audience, “is the part of the washer that gets the dirt out.”

Everything doesn’t have be negative though, and I decided several years ago to use these column inches to draw attention to some government employees that did a good job every day, were glad to serve their friends and neighbors, and in general made our travels through the red tape a little more tolerable.

2005 was no different from each preceding year. It found me contacting a wide variety of civil servants during the course of my personal and professional life. And like every other year, some of those public employees need to be on the street looking for another job. Others I met aren’t paid nearly enough for the work they do.

Let me introduce you to some of the people who work very hard to serve the public that pays their salary:

Mr. George Cherry, Walker County Schools Central Office – I first met George Cherry when my son was a student at Chattanooga Valley Elementary school. George was the assistant principal, and a favorite of both the staff and parents. He was later named Principal at Gilbert Elementary. He has always cared deeply for his students, encouraged and supported his staff, and shown parents respect and appreciation. He is now applying his dedication to excellence to the office of Coordinator of Title 1 Programs and Staff Development.

Mr. Lee McRae, Tennessee Valley Authority – Mr. McRae assumed the responsibilities of Alan Hulgan, a former Civil Service Award nominee. Mr. Hulgan assured me that after he retired the level of service to which I was accustomed would not suffer. He was correct. Lee not only knows his way through the maze of information to be found in TVA’s survey and easement archives, but he’s glad to help you go through it until you find what you need. It’s nice to know that customer service is alive and well within the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Billie Baker, Walker County Property Records Office – Billie is the sort of person you always want to see across the counter when you’re standing in a government office. She is ready to help, no matter how busy she is or how difficult your request. She always brings a happy disposition to work. This is one office I don’t mind visiting when I need information, because I know help is just around the corner – or behind the desk, so to speak.

The Hamilton County Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Department
– This is the first time an entire department has been nominated, but it would be unfair to single out one employee in such a user-friendly government department. Department Director Greg Butler is to be commended for assembling such a fine staff. Everyone in GIS deserves recognition for their efficiency and concern for their customers, but I want to extend a special thanks to Pam Brock, Kim McKinney and Ruth Gaynor. All of these ladies are ready to help, even if the customer is a Georgia Bulldog fan.

The winner of the 2005 “In My Humble Opinion Civil Service Award” is... (requisite drum roll)…Billie Baker, of the Walker County, GA Property Records Office.

2006 is off to a good start – I’ve already run into a couple of Cicero’s typical bureaucrats*, and a couple of potential nominees for next years award. So if you work a public agency, remember that the next guy who walks up to your counter might be the one to tell the whole tri-state area how great you are at your job. Then again, if you’re really an “In My Humble Opinion” award caliber employee, you’ll be doing your job whether or not you get any recognition. And you’re exactly the kind of public employee I’m looking to recognize this time next year.

*Cicero’s quote regarding bureaucrats can be read on the worldwide web at:

Saturday, May 21, 2005

The pleasure's been all mine

We use an old pleasantry when people tell us they have enjoyed working with us or having us over for dinner. “It’s been a pleasure,” they say, and we respond, “The pleasure’s been all mine.”

I had the opportunity to oversee one of the best departments at Standard-Coosa-Thatcher, the spooling and winding department at the Thatcher Plant in Ridgedale. I first worked with, then supervised a group of men and women that came to work every day, gave their best, and showed me what it meant to be a friend.

When I decided to move in a different direction, some of them told me that I was good supervisor, and that they hated to see me leave. I feel certain that the next guy was at least as good a boss as I was, and chances are he was better. But I can assure you that I’m a better person because of the friendships I made while there.

On my last day, my department manager, Eddie Werndli, told me that he had enjoyed working with me. “The pleasure’s been all mine,” I assured him.

A few years later, I decided that I might have something to offer the citizens of Walker County as a member of the Board of Education. I loved to study education issues; I knew what it was like to have a child in the system; I had worked as a volunteer on some of the extra-curriculars, and felt the bite when taxes went up.

I went out with some friends knocking doors every Saturday (and some weekday evenings) and told people what I had seen and heard in the school system, and how I thought things could be improved. I sat in many living rooms, drank a lot of iced tea, and listened as parents and taxpayers told me what was on their minds.

Today, I advise any candidate for office to knock doors – not because I think it’s the best way to win – but because it’s the best way to learn what the people of your district or county are thinking.

More people agreed with what I had to say than didn’t, and as a result, I spent four years reading budget books, curriculum guidelines, proposed policies and legislation, and answering phone calls at unusual hours. I learned more than I ever could have if I hadn’t served. Furthermore, my life has been enriched because of the dear friends I’ve made, friends that I hope I have for life.

When I left the board, I had many supporters tell me that they appreciated what I had done. “The pleasure has been all mine,” I told them.

I’ve been writing regular columns for almost three years, and it’s been a learning experience. I’ve discovered a lot about human nature in general. I’ve learned more about myself specifically. Like everything else I’ve done, I’ve benefited far more from the experience than I’ve contributed to it.

Most readers have no idea how much time it takes to write a regular column. Sure, it’s easy if you do nothing but jot down some thoughts, but when you actually try to research a topic and support your opinion with facts, it can be time consuming. The average column, with background reading and research, takes three to four hours a week. More in-depth topics may require 6 to 8 hours of preparation and writing.

My columns about impact fees took hours of research, and the report I wrote about lottery expenditures was the result of a full weekend of work, several pots of coffee, and some worn out calculator buttons.

Of course, I learned far more about the subjects I studied than you, the reader, did. And that’s my fault, not yours. I tried to be as clear and convincing as possible when I presented my findings, but too many times my enthusiasm got in the way.

Circumstances have dictated that I curtail my writing schedule. I need to spend more time fulfilling responsibilities with my family and where I worship, and as I’ve reviewed my “time budget,” I’ve discovered that writing is about the only area I have where I may cut.

“In My Humble Opinion” will no longer be a regular feature on these pages. I’ll continue the “In My Humble Opinion Civil Service Award” column each year, and if my editors allow I will submit a guest column when appropriate. I express my deepest gratitude to the editors who have worked with and encouraged me. Writing for the publications with which I’ve been affiliated has, like my other experiences, made me a better person. I’ve made friends through this column that I would never have known otherwise.

For those who have written to offer a word of support, I thank you. You may have enjoyed a column or two, but I promise you that I’ve enjoyed writing every one of them. The pleasure, it seems again, has been all mine.