The festival begins at lunchtime Friday.
They’ve closed the park behind City Hall and the Courthouse on Wednesday. You can’t really shut down the streets of Birmingham until the last minute, but by Thursday the police have placed the sawhorses and the trucks have disgorged their stages and lighting rigs and miles and miles of cable. The first acts will go on at noon Friday, in the run-up to the opening headliner. There’s always some triple-threat of headliners: an “oldies” act, a country act, and a classic R&B act, in some combination over the course of the three days. Because Saturday will start off early and go late, and the place will be packed with people and vendors. Kids splashing in the fountain, absurd lines at the beer tents, and a little bit of everything musically.
I missed the first one, thirty years ago, missed out on Chuck Berry and Travis Tritt and the Temptations. But my friends were adamant: this is the thing. This is our new future. And I didn’t miss one from 1990 to 1998, because it was the signature event of the summer. In 1990, my dad and I stood twenty feet from Charles Barkley watching Bo Diddley perform an hour and a half set that consisted of maybe four songs, with wild feats of improvisation and musicianship. Then Saturday, everyone from Los Lobos and Dr John to local stalwarts like Slick Lily or Topper Price and the Upsetters. Then Sunday, Ricky Skaggs and the Commodores and Inner Circle, years before they recorded the theme to COPS, and Take 6 (where the crowd was packed in tight and funky and a woman behind me yelled “SOMEBODY ain’t Sure!”).
There was a message board with binder clips under letters A-Z for you to pin messages up for people, in a world without cellphones or text messaging. There was freshly squeezed-and-shaken lemonade, which was a revelation all by itself. There was funnel cake. There was half a plastic cup of Blue Nun, handed over by a friend of a friend who peered at me through a squint and said “Woody, you remind me of Robert Downey Jr.” (At no point in my life have I ever been known as Woody.) There was refuge in the Cathedral Church of the Advent, a soaring space kept miraculously cool and filled with jazz. There was immense gratitude that I’d obtained a pair of prescription sunglasses the year before.
But most of all, there was a sense that this was something cool, something awesome, something people might even come from Atlanta or Nashville or New Orleans to check out. This was something in Birmingham worth showing up for, worth staying all day and all night, and for less than $20 for the weekend. And every Father’s Day weekend was the same for the next several years running. Johnny Cash. James Brown. The Village People. Jerry Lee Lewis. George Jones. The Neville Brothers, BB King, Sun Ra, Eddie from Ohio. In 1998, the last year I attended, they drew 270,000 people. And then, my father was dead and my life was in DC and Birmingham just wasn’t a place I wanted to be any more.
Because City Stages was an anomaly. It was Brigadoon, it was this little weekend flicker of a better life. Open, walkable, easygoing, everyone getting along, a panoply of things to do and things to see and things to eat or drink (but not beer, I almost never had alcohol at City Stages because the temperatures were obscene and the lines were worse). A place you could take pride in, a place that made people’s eyes light up when you mentioned it, a place where you could just be you and hang out and have a good time just being.
City Stages went under in 2009, after years of financial turmoil and an explosion in festivals elsewhere. But before there was the Crawfish Boil in Birmingham, before there was Bonaroo up in Tennessee, before every radio station had their big summer block party festival blowout, we had City Stages. And it was enough to whet my appetite for more, and so I went, probably for good. But if I could throw on a polo shirt and some khakis and stand off at a comfortable distance to see Earth Wind and Fire, or Marty Stuart, or the Doobie Brothers, or Snoop Dogg and Taylor Hicks…it might be worth going back.