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Tuesday, September 2

Photos and Review: Southern Brewers Festival Chattanooga Riverfront, Chattanooga, TN Aug. 22-23, 2014

Chattanooga, Tennessee is undoubtedly one of the most underrated cities in the United States. Split in two by the Tennessee River, the relatively small but bustling town offers beautiful views, locally owned restaurants and breweries, chugging tug boats and a peaceful, homey breath in the air. The music scene in Chattanooga has grown significantly in recent years, attracting electronic music and live bands alike to local venues such as Rhythm & Brews and Track 29. Southern Brewers Festival, now 20 years in the making, holds its annual contribution to the city’s burgeoning culture of beer and music on the breathtaking Chattanooga Riverfront, and the 2014 lineup consisted of 7 massive bands! 2014 was the first year in its 20-year history that Southern Brewers Festival took place over two nights instead of just one. The best part about Southern Brewers Festival was that there was only one stage, so the only way to possibly miss any of the music was if the beer line was too long. 
Oh, wait, there were over 60 breweries with booths set up, so there were no lines! To top things off, the weather forecast for the weekend was absolutely beautiful. When we arrived at the festival grounds Friday evening, booths set up for craft breweries from all over the country lined the street, and, just as the top of the stage peaked over the edge of the hill, a downward sloping outdoor seating area came into view. While the weather was beautiful and sunny, it was also sweltering hot, but that did not stop Cabinet from coming out strong to open the festival. The band played an energized set of primarily originals with a few covers mixed in. What struck me most about my first Cabinet experience was that, although they proved they can keep up with the fast-pickers with tracks such as “Susquehanna Breakdown” and “Old Farmer’s Mill,” the band’s greatest attributes stream forward in their slower tunes. 
The group’s tantalizing, melodic tracks such as “The Dove” and “Heavy Rain” absolutely blew me away. Also, while “Eleanor” is not particularly slow, it still fits in this category for me. The band has an uncanny ability to leave space in these songs without ever letting the tracks feel empty, not to mention the tight vocal harmonies and the striking imagery within the lyrics. As Soulive took the stage, I had no idea what I was in for. While I had heard many recordings of their live sets, this was my first real live experience, and I can assure you that recordings do not do them justice. 
Since I had already been there for the first set, I was lucky enough to get a spot on the rail right in front of Alan Evans, but by the time the set was over, the entire ground area was packed. Soulive’s set was entirely instrumental, but it somehow still felt like there was an entire symphony’s worth of musicians on stage. Alan never missed a single beat, and Neal Evans belted out organ solos, while at the same time playing all the bass lines on a separate keyboard (Ray Manzarek’s torch has officially been passed). Eric Krasno’s intricate chord and lead work seemed to take on a mind of their own as he sat comfortably looking out at the crowd while he worked his way through a beautiful set. Rounding off the set was the trio’s obvious connection on stage, the kind you only see from the greats. They did not even have to look at each other to know where each member was going to be at any given time. To top it off, the sun went down about halfway through the set, cooling us all off from the sweltering afternoon. A mind-blowing Beatles medley was the highlight of the set for me. Anyone who thinks jazz is dead or lost on the younger scene is sorely mistaken.
Festival goers of all ages were gettin’ down with Soulive on this gorgeous Friday night. To end an already incredible evening of music, moe. came out in fine form for their headlining set. I must admit, the only festival I had seen moe. at before this weekend was at Summer Camp, at which the band had 6 entire sets to themselves, so I was a bit worried that with only one set they might not dig quite as deep as usual. Once I heard the first notes of “Recreational Chemistry,” however, I thought to myself, “What was I thinking? This is moe.!” The classic opener kicked the set into motion right away. Next, the band took us through a slew of tracks off of their new record No Guts, No Glory, including solid takes on “Annihilation Blues” and “Billy Goat,” followed by an intense “Silver Sun” that built and swirled and churned my mind, just like it did the first time I heard it live. 
Finally, a tight, funky “Same Old Story,” where the title of the album comes from, concluded the string of new tunes. Heading back to the classics, the band dug deep again on “Puebla” with a heavily drums-driven jam, which led straight into a seamless “Brent Black,” which featured a lengthy drums and percussion solo section, as well as an intricate, funky slap-bass solo, to end the set. After a very quick break, the band came back out for a groovy “Crab Eyes” encore. Day 2 unfortunately started off with an unforeseen rain delay. Thankfully, it did not last long, and the AJ Ghent Band took the stage less than 30 minutes late. Although their set was shortened slightly due to the delay, the band got up there and did their thing as if nothing had happened. Playing a combination of original tunes and covers from AJ’s influences, such as Otis Redding and Prince, the AJ Ghent Band proceeded to bring a unique blend of R&B and Southern Soul to the stage. AJ Ghent comes from a long family history of the lap pedal steel guitar, and he represented them well in Chattanooga with his wife and sister at his side singing with him. I was lucky enough to speak with the Ghent family after the band’s set, and they told me that all of the originals heard in that set are going to be on a new album coming out next year.
By the time Randall Bramblett & Friends took the stage, the hot sun had made its way back out, but that did not stop the band or the crowd. Randall has amassed an impressive discography over the years, and he has put together an extremely talented group of musicians to help him spread it to the world. With a full six-piece band, featuring 2 guitarists, a bassist, 2 drummers, and Randall on keyboards and saxophone, these guys rocked the house. The whole band seemed to understand and enhance Randall’s musical vision, and they soundly complimented his soulful vocals and thoughtful lyrics. The individual members of the band come from a variety of backgrounds, but as a group, they dug deep, rocked out and kept the crowd moving. Something about Greensky Bluegrass just puts them on a whole other level in the bluegrass scene. When describing their sound to someone unfamiliar with the scene, I refer to the staples such as Yonder Mountain String Band and Leftover Salmon, but they definitely have a unique sound all to their own. Greensky tends to be more fluid and hypnotic than the other bluegrass giants, and those elements put their live performances at the very top of the list. While the first two thirds or so of their set at Southern Brewers Festival was fairly structured, concentrating more on the songs themselves, they began to dig really deep toward the end. 
They began their set with Greensky staples, such as “Jay Walkin’” and “Bottle Dry” before introducing some new songs from their upcoming album, “Windshield,” “Worried About The Weather” and “Wings For Wheels” (alliteration intended?). The last few tracks of the set really took hold as the band worked through a lengthy, mesmerizing jam in “All Four” into their classic bluegrass cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancin’ in the Dark,” which led straight into an 8 minute jam section. Finally, the band ended with one more tune off their upcoming album, “Leap Year,” which left chills in my spine and an excited stir among the audience. Gov’t Mule took over for the final set of the weekend, starting off with a bang with “World Boss,” the opening track off the band’s latest studio album Shout. Seeming tight and together from the very first note, guitarist Warren Haynes led the band through a couple short but rockin’ solos. The strong opening track seemed to hit home with the eager Chattanooga crowd. Wasting no time, the band went through strong takes on “Steppin’ Lightly,” “Blind Man in the Dark,” “Broke Down on the Brazos,” and a short “Tributary Jam.”. Next, the band slowed things down with a passionate “Banks of the Deep End,” before kicking it right back up with “Mule” > “Whole Lotta Love” > “Mule,” featuring a “Shakedown Street” tease. Then came the funky bass intro of “Thorazine Shuffle,” while Haynes took a moment to address the crowd and let them know that this is their chance to get down! Haynes was especially hot on this tune, screaming out a massive guitar solo with a nice “2001” tease. Danny Louis also took a turn, belting out a masterful keyboard solo. Next came “Funny Little Tragedy,” a more pop-oriented tune. While not my favorite Mule tune, the band rocked it live, throwing in a quick “Message in a Bottle” tease, before heading into a “Thorazine Shuffle Reprise.” “Whisper In Your Soul” slowed things down again, while “Railroad Boy” ramped the feel back up. Then, the band welcomed the legendary Johnny Neal on stage to round up the last few tunes, including a funky “Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” followed by a heart-tugging “Soulshine” > “Tupelo Honey” > “Soulshine” and a deep, heavy-hitting “Going Out West” encore. 
While my opinion is in the minority,  I personally have never thought that Warren Haynes has the greatest singing voice, he sure does belt out those tunes with a wild passion. His lyrics are captivating, his performances are intense, and man can he wail on that guitar! Also, besides Haynes’ quick remarks during the intros to certain tunes, I do not think the band ever stopped playing, not once. It was tune after tune after tune, and Gov’t Mule definitely put on a high-energy, rockin’ show! Overall, the Southern Brewers Festival was a great experience. With a beautiful riverside stage and lots of wide open green space, the area never felt overrun or crowded. Even with such esteemed artists on the lineup and just a single stage, there were hardly any lines for food, drinks or restrooms. All of the artists brought their best for Chattanooga as well. Oh, and did I forget to mention the beer? Oh yeah, there were lots of great brews to keep everyone properly lubricated.
Also, I cannot stress enough how great it was to only have one stage and not have to choose between artists. Some fans love to jump back and forth, but with this kind of lineup, I would find it cruel to make anyone choose. Plus, remember that for two days of music, and by music I mean Cabinet, Soulive, moe., AJ Ghent Band, Randall Bramblett & Friends, Greensky Bluegrass and Gov’t Mule, the cost was just $40! I think it is safe to say that for the price, Southern Brewers Festival is one of the best deals in the country. I am already dreaming up possible lineups for next year and cannot wait to continue the now 20 year deep legacy that is the Southern Brewers Festival.  
Words: Randy Harris 
Photos: Randy Harris and Jim Carter 
©Grateful Music LLC