As Chattanooga's live music culture continues to expand—along with our sports culture, thanks to the popularity of the Chattanooga Football Club—the question that keeps coming up is, what's next?
I live in the constantly changing downtown area, and I often find myself thinking about what the city is missing—what gaps exist—in terms of entertainment amenities that other midsize (or larger) cities have.
Chattanooga has a LOT going for it right now. We've managed to create a new entertainment district on the Southside. We've convinced the entire nation that we're the best outdoor city in America, somehow. We're now home to one of the best film festivals to be found anywhere with the annual Chattanooga Film Festival. We also have—although I'm biased—the best damn 24-hour block party in the country with Mainx24. Cultural institutions such as Barking Legs Theater and Chattanooga Theatre Centre continue to thrive. Newer options like Granfalloon, The Camp House and Wayne-O-Rama are wonderful, eccentric additions to the city.
Here's the million-dollar question: In the next five years, what one element would you add to Chattanooga in terms of entertainment? I'll suggest four ideas of my own, but I'm sure you'll have better. I'm looking forward to your responses. Dream big.
Midsize concert venue(s)
"But we have Revelry Room and JJ's Bohemia, right?" We do! But what Chattanooga lacks that make comparable cities exceptional—I'm looking at Asheville, North Carolina—are those midsize venues. Venues like The Orange Peel and The Grey Eagle in Asheville are nearly constantly booked with rising and midtier artists that we don't often see visiting Chattanooga. If you're a local musician, the natural progression of your career would be for you to start at a smaller venue such as JJ's Bohemia and eventually progress to a venue like Revelry Room or even Track 29. But that jump for some bands seems too big. We're lacking a steppingstone, so to speak, in the musical ascension. We need a slightly more nuanced, and larger, version of JJ's Bohemia, without cigarette smoke. Look at Port City Music Hall in Portland, Maine, WorkPlay in Birmingham Alabama, The Exit/Inn in Nashville and Variety Playhouse in Atlanta for comparison. Chattanooga is slowly becoming another stop on many artists' southern tours, but it will take time—and an additional venue—to really put us on their radars.
Outdoor concerts at Finley
I don't want to see Toby Keith on any stage, but Finley Stadium is an obvious location to host larger concerts across genres. Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson once utilized AT&T Field in the pouring rain to host a double-headlining concert. With artists like Elton John and James Taylor occupying McKenzie Arena at UTC, the option for more outdoor concerts is something that needs to be considered. If not Finley, what about a new amphitheater or pavilion venue? Logistically, it may be difficult (I don't know), but wouldn't it be incredible to pack 30,000 people into Finley Stadium to see a major performer like Bruce Springsteen or The Who? Why can't we have that?
Additional sports (hockey?)
I've written entire columns about this before, and I'm still harping about it years later. The success of soccer in Chattanooga is an indication of how thirsty we are for competitive sports in our city. Baseball is fine—I enjoy the Lookouts—but the atmosphere at a Chattanooga FC game is quantifiably more exciting as a spectator. And you know what else is exciting? Hockey. A Chattanooga minor league professional hockey team is a no-brainer, as far as I'm concerned. The season runs through winter—opposite soccer—and Chattanooga already sits in the middle of what would be natural rivalries with other Southern Professional Hockey League teams. We're only a short drive from the Knoxville Ice Bears, Columbus Cottonmouths, Macon Mayhem and Huntsville Havoc. If someone built an arena, we would fill it. I promise. Watch an amazing short documentary about the Knoxville Ice Bears below. Hockey works in the South. It would work in Chattanooga.
A good music festival
Talk about going blue in the face. The Riverbend Festival tries really hard to offer something for everybody. Organizers deserve credit for branching out in recent years with artists such as Young the Giant, Umphrey's McGee and side stage indie performers. But, overall, Riverbend is a marathon that is in desperate need of a harsh retooling. Here are my ideas: Shorten the length from eight to nine days to no more than a long weekend. Make the festival inclusive to the entire city by incorporating local restaurants and vendors (Why don't we? It makes no sense!). Spread the stages throughout downtown and offer more arts/culture components such as film and theater, especially local versions of both. Get rid of the damn beer tokens and highlight local breweries instead of watery domestics. But if you can only do one thing on my wish list, please stop trying to cater to every fan base when booking artists. When everything is spread so thin across nine days, it's mediocrity that holds sway across the board. Do you want to do a country music night? Fine. But why not have the best damn country music festival outside of Nashville over three days? I may not like country music, but at least it would have an identity. I don't know what Riverbend is anymore.
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