published Sunday, June 17th, 2012

Lauren Alaina closes Chattanooga's Riverbend

Lauren Alaina performs on the Coca Cola stage on Saturday, the final night of Riverbend.
Lauren Alaina performs on the Coca Cola stage on Saturday, the final night of Riverbend.
Photo by Jake Daniels.

Lauren Alaina was full of nervous, excited energy as she took the Coca-Cola Stage at Riverbend on Saturday night.

"I cannot believe I'm doing this," the Rossville native said, laughing between songs.

She kicked off her performance with a cover of the song "Boondocks," singing of small town Southern pride before launching into her own song, "Growing Her Wings."

"I grew my wings here in this town," she told thousands of revelers at the waterfront.

The Rossville native's performance marked the close of Riverbend 2012, which organizers and attendees said was a success on the back of strong performances, upgraded rules and a responsive crowd.

"It's neat to see a whole town coming out to have a good time," said frozen lemonade vendor Chris Thompson.

"I think we've seen bigger crowd numbers this year than we've ever seen," added Joe "Dixie" Fuller, talent and production coordinator for the festival.

Riverbend Executive Director Chip Baker said he wouldn't know the final pin sale numbers for several weeks but noted that concession sales were up 10 percent compared with last year. He also said that the first night, headlined by Eric Church, was the fourth-largest night in Riverbend's 30-year history.

"Friday night was ridiculous," remembered attendee Christina Chadwick.

However, many festivalgoers said that the nights without such well-known headliners were mellower.

"Last year was definitely bigger," Thompson said.

"It's not bad; you can just get around a little easier," longtime festivalgoer Bob Boyer said.

Changes praised

Nearly everyone praised the festival's new ban on leaving chairs overnight. Fuller said people still show up at 5 a.m. to claim prime real estate, but the rule ensures that empty chairs don't waste space as they did when their owners staked out a spot, then skipped a show.

"[In the past] you got here at 4:30 and it was already packed. ... We like this better," Wanda Crawford said.

"The chair rule has been very well received," Baker said. "Everyone -- they respect each other and care about each other."

Another new addition was the Meo Mio's Stage, sponsored by the Cajun restaurant and specializing in blues and zydeco music. The stage was at the far end of the festival site, beyond the Olgiati Bridge and near the marina.

"The vibe down here, it's a good vibe," Meo Mio's owner Brian Sabo said.

Stage manager Bill Payne gestured to the bright green grass under the stage and compared it to the dead grass in front, destroyed by hundreds of eager dancers over the past several days. Sabo proudly noted that, even though his out-of-the-way stage often has smaller acts, every headliner was called back for an encore.

"We've had so many good bands, it's just one ride after the other," Payne said.

The most visible change, a large Ferris wheel, has also been a hit, organizers said.

"There's more options, especially for the kids," volunteer Mike Neeley said of the area, including rides, face painting and playful rescue dogs.

"Man, the Ferris wheel has been really busy," Fuller added.

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