Sundown in the City has been a dilemma on Market Square, but it wouldn't be even roughly the same thing anywhere else. A big part of Sundown's appeal was the venue itself. The adjacency of restaurants and bars and shops, as well as the physical setting, century-old brick buildings framing these overtly modern crowds of the conspicuously young. Some, I suspect, were attracted to this opportunity to sack downtown, hoping to find elders to be appalled at their epidermal perforations and daring hairdos.
I never complained, on the credible theory that everybody benefits from Sundown, even, or especially, if it has turned into a teenage mob. The young people with good jobs who keep downtown cash registers busy today were, not many years ago, teen punks crashing Sundown, getting into the habit of coming downtown for fun. They'll never be like my old Daily Beacon colleague who, when I suggested we meet for a beer on Market Square, didn't know what I was talking about.
Sundown is partly responsible for the big crowds of consumers we see downtown every night. But maybe it was too much of a good thing. Sundown became an institution, an economic driver, and a monster, and all the while such an entity unto itself that I'd almost forgotten what came before.
About 20 years ago, Knoxville started hearing rumors that our surprising little sister city downstream was putting on a free weekly live-music event, every Friday during the warmer months, from 7 to 10. Even though the business day was over, Chattanoogans were voluntarily staying downtown to see a show at Miller Plaza. Outside! At night! Not just for a festival, but every week for months!
Knoxvillians wondered, even in the pages of this oft-cynical publication, why we couldn't pull it off, too.
I got to see a couple of Nightfalls back then, and was impressed. "There must be 400 people there," I remember reporting. Businesspeople still wearing suits who'd just stayed downtown, parents with their kids. One show I saw was a swing concert, and married couples were dancing in the moonlight.
They presented an encyclopedic variety of music, old and new. Some headliners were the sort of acts you may be more likely than your kids to have heard of: Loudon Wainwright, Alison Krauss, Doc Watson, Maura O'Connell, Alex Chilton, Son Seals.
Working on a feature story about Chattanooga in '97, I heard Nightfall's backstory. Chattanooga master planner Stroud Watson, a former Knoxvillian himself, told me Miller Plaza was Chattanooga's answer to Knoxville's Market Square. Lacking a historic public place, they built one of whole cloth: treelined, unimposing Miller Plaza. To promote it, they launched a weekly event called Nightfall. Its host and organizer was River City Company, a vigorous nonprofit founded for the purpose of promoting downtown Chattanooga. Nightfall was a deliberate attempt to bring middle-class and professional people downtown after dark, when that still seemed unlikely.
It worked so perfectly it galled Knoxville to no end. When our city launched Sundown, originally sponsored by the city government, it seemed a remedy. Some early Sundowns reminded me of Nightfall, drawing kids but also a demographic that attends the symphony; they brought folding chairs. When the Chamber Partnership moved its permanent headquarters to Market Square, chief Mike Edwards, a silver-haired gentleman, touted one advantage: that he and his colleagues would be able to lounge on the building's new porticos and enjoy Sundown.
Then Sundown got bigger and bigger. We started hearing our Sundown was bigger than Nightfall. Then twice as big. Then three times as big. Take that, puny Nightfall.
After a while, we could only compare Sundown to itself. We should have guessed that Knoxville, Home of the Vols, would gorge on the idea. Sundown attracted major acts, huge crowds, crazy estimates upwards of 10,000. And then we got a little nauseated, just like some of the teenagers who came mainly to sneak swigs of tequila until they barf. You're only young once.
Last week, contemplating Sundown, I thought about its original inspiration. I hadn't heard anyone mention Nightfall lately, and assumed it had probably long since run its course, like maybe Sundown did.
But it's a funny thing. Nightfall, the same Nightfall that, when I was a young man, I wished my hometown had the gumption to try, still thrives: same time, same place. It has never even let up. Starting in early May, they're going to host 15 more shows, on 15 more Fridays, finishing in September.
They continue with their diverse formula of blues, Celtic, Latin, folk, and rock that seems to guarantee genial, age-diverse crowds: recently, Karla Bonoff, Ben Sollee, Red Stick Ramblers. Most of Nightfall's headliners are no more familiar to teenagers than to their grandparents. Several have played small venues in Knoxville. In Chattanooga they bring crowds, anyway. A good crowd at Nightfall is 2,500, and they're happy with that.
They sell beer and food (and wine!) to defray costs, but they also have some generous corporate sponsors, including Coca-Cola and Bud Light. The venue's host is still the nonprofit River City Company, who ran Nightfall for more than 20 years. But in 2010, RCC turned it over to Chattanooga Presents!, founded by Nightfall's longtime producer—a private company but one with foundation connections and a nonprofit-sounding purpose: "to promote Chattanooga...and contribute to a vibrant and liveable city."
Our Sundown depended entirely on AC Entertainment, a private music-promoter. AC likes downtown, is important to downtown, but has no downtown-boosting mandate.
Nightfall, having purposes unrelated to revenues, never got too big. And after more than 20 years, it's still there.
Maybe Chattanooga's not a perfect model. Chattanooga has more civic spirit than Knoxville has. Also more money. Its cheerful cooperative-committee approach is dependable, efficient, and difficult to picture happening here.
But while Knoxville agonizes over the glorious youth, crazy old age, and death throes of Sundown, its much-older predecessor, Nightfall, seems perpetual. By now, children who grew up going to Nightfall concerts with their parents are now taking their own children.