The legendary performers at this year’s Reno-Tahoe Blues Fest sang with soul and flavor, but thanks to festival organizers, they either sang to near-empty seats, to people roasting in the sun, or to an audience not allowed to dance.
With a lineup including Buddy Guy, Patti LaBelle, Keb’ Mo’ and Chaka Khan, plenty of the $55 a day tickets were sold. That’s why those who arrived Sunday afternoon (after getting through the confusion of parking) were surprised to find a field of empty white chairs baking atop a blanket of straw while bluesman Larry McCray sang his guts out onstage to almost nobody. The audience was huddled under surrounding vendor tents or beneath trees outside the event area just to get some relief from the over 90-degree heat. Festival advertisements said the main seating area wouldn’t be tented but that there’d be “several shade/cooling off structures.” If those areas existed, they weren’t easy to find. Organizers said tenting the main area would “obstruct views” of the performers. Perhaps. But the main obstruction to the performers was the sun beating down on empty seats that would’ve been filled if only there was a little shade.
Things cooled down around 5 p.m., and chairs filled up. Keb’ Mo’ was set to take the stage in 30 minutes. Meanwhile, the audience was subjected to a loud, annoying commercial—one of the things people go to live events to get away from. Two big screens beside the stage showed a 15-minute infomercial for one of the festival’s biggest sponsors—Charter Communications. It felt like an assault. Charter’s selected spokespeople were two 20-something buxom babes, saying things like, “You like Desperate Housewives? Ohmigod! So do I! We’re going to get along great!” It was obnoxious. And this was, again, after the audience had paid up to $200 for a seat and more than $75,000 in taxpayer subsidies to promoters, who include Reno City Manager Charles McNeely.
Before diva Chaka Khan took the stage to close the event, concert organizers asked the crowd not to dance, again in the name of protecting the view. (Sit politely in your chair when Chaka Khan’s onstage? What is this, Carnegie Hall?) The organizers apparently asked Ms. Khan to tell the crowd not to dance after her first song brought them out of their seats. She looked bemused and said in the mic, “Hey, I’m here. They’re here. I just want to sing and love everybody. I don’t care if ya’ll dance.” She sang another song, and they again asked her to tell everyone to sit down. Again her response: “They can dance if they want to.” And they did.
High-quality performers came to Reno to be part of this festival, and they did a great job. Vendors offered satiating summer soul food. Rancho San Rafael provided a beautiful background. Fun was had. But some organizers’ choices weren’t fair to the performers who traveled here or to the audience who shelled out relatively big bucks to see them.
Next year, please, keep the good music, the vendors and the location. Lose the ear-assaulting infomercial, get better parking signage, provide some real shade so people who pay to sit and listen actually can, and let the people dance. It’s a blues fest, after all, not a chamber concert.