Sunday, October 08, 2006

High on the Hog flashback

The Memphis Rockabilly Band
As the thunder rumbled a steady rain poured down on Libby Hill at 10 a.m. on Saturday. Thousands of dollars were in play in the decisions that needed to be made in the next hour. People still planning to travel to Richmond wanted to know if there would even be a High on the Hog 30.

Chuck Wrenn, the impresario/emcee of the entertainment aspect of High on the Hog had to make some tough calls. Canceling acts is an anathema to Wrenn. Although it had been billed as a “rain or shine” event, there was no way the full-fledged sound system could be set up under the circumstances. In command central he talked with Lindy Fralin on the telephone. Could a Plan B be improvised?

Friendships were in play, too.

Two of the scheduled bands, the Good Humor Band and Billy Price, simply had to have the sound equipment that Chuck knew he couldn’t ask his friend, soundman Steve Payne, to expose to the raw elements. Then there was the matter of all the food that had been prepared and other fronted expenses. What to do?

Fralin said he’d bring his small sound system that could be put on the stage, under its roof with the band. He said his band, the Bopcats would come and play if it was possible. The Memphis Rockabilly Band agreed to go on under the new plan, hoping the rain would let up. So, the stage began to be modified with tarps to try to help shield the musicians and electronics from windblown water.

Well, the party did go on. The Bopcats opened. The Memphis Rockabilly Band closed. By ordinary HOTH standards it was a rather small crowd that came out to eat barbecue, drink beer and enjoy live music. And, for some veterans who’d been coming to this annual party for years, it brought to mind another rainy day's improvisation, way back in 1980.
The rain was heavy at this point but the band played on.
Flashback: Twenty-six years ago -- High on the Hog 4 -- when it was generally accepted that large-scale outdoor Rock ‘n’ Roll events couldn’t be staged in Richmond, Wrenn put three fully-amplified bands, including the impeccably authentic Memphis Rockabilly Band, on a flatbed trailer in the cobblestone alley behind his back yard. In those days there were no permits from the City, no ABC licenses, or articles in magazines touting the party.

When it began raining that year’s event featured a serendipitous, career-defining moment for Wrenn. Rather than lose momentum by shutting off the electricity and waiting out the downpour, he broke out rolls of heavy-gauge transparent plastic. Soon, with the help of many happy hands, a canopy to protect the open-air platform serving as a stage was fashioned. It also covered some part of Wrenn's yard. Dancing in the mud under the plastic was tricky but fun.

In effect, Wrenn wrapped the whole shebang.

With the electric guitars of Don’ Ax Me... Bitch wailing in defiance of the chilly rainstorm, the sense of common purpose felt by one and all was nothing less than remarkable.

As it happened this year's version of High on the Hog was much more rainy than 1980’s was. But once again the show went on and the old friends who showed up just to see if it would go on were pleased. They stood under tents or umbrellas. They dressed in slickers but that didn’t stop them from dancing in the mud again. The veterans were probably a little more careful with their steps than they were at one time.
The intrepid dancers kept the beat
“We couldn’t have done it at all without Lindy Fralin,” said Wrenn.

Kudos to those stalwarts who did show up to party. Sure they got wet, but it looked like most of them had a good time anyway. I talked to one woman who said she had friends who’d come from Montana to be there.

And, major kudos to Chuck, Lindy, Jeff Spencer (of the Memphis Rockabilly Band), and others behind the scene, for the fly-by-the-seat-of their-pants decisions they made to carry on -- to play the hand they were dealt -- and the absolutely splendid way they carried out Plan B.

This was the stuff of which pop culture legends are made.

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