Wade on Birmingham

City Stages 2008: Coda

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city stagesCity Stages 2008, the historic 20th edition, has wrapped. We’ll know in a week whether or not it lost money, broke even or turned a profit to help erase its persistent debt.

Not having been since 2006, I was glad to check out the familiar sights and sounds. Not much has changed, and for those who like the feel of the downtown event, that should be of great comfort. For those who crave even modest improvement, that news is downright disheartening.

The acts performing sound great, thanks to consistently good sound engineering and equipment. But it remains difficult to see the acts, except for watching them on the jumbo screens at the Coca-Cola Classic and Miller Lite Stages. But stand in most spots in front of the big three stages (including the Legacy Credit Union Stage) and you’re likely to see the back of someone’s head.

That seems unlikely to change, even though just boosting the stage height a few foot would do wonders for sight lines. Or at the Coke Stage, opening Linn Park to clear views and shunting aside the ridiculously oversize VIP fort and control booth would improve the experience.

The Flaming Lips close out City Stages 2008. Photo by Janet Dancer.

The lineup, as has been the case in recent years, was decidedly mixed. When the festival lands top names, such as Diana Ross and the Flaming Lips, it’s easy to see why the crowds come away with smiles. But it’s just as easy to remain indifferent to acts that would likely fare better in smaller venues such as WorkPlay (Shooter Jennings and Robert Earl Keen on the Legacy stage spring to mind).

Twenty years running is no doubt impressive, given the success rate of civic music festivals. The State of Alabama doesn’t even bother to fund the event anymore, while the City of Birmingham forked over $700,000 this year. But no expectations are made, no accountability demanded.

And so City Stages moves along unchecked, without incentive to improve for the sake of growth, profit or fan experience. Its fervent loyalists demand that you must support it for the greater good. Most of us have no choice, as our tax dollars pour into its coffers with little to no discussion.

The event seems content to hum along in its well-worn niche, playing to a mostly loyal but sometimes fickle public. The fund-raising campaign from 2006, Sustain City Stages, says it all.

The organizers want little more than to keep going. Alas, if only the movement were called “Improve City Stages.”

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A round-up of City Stages reports:

• Tommy Stevenson, Tuscaloosa News [Fri / Sat / Sun]: “The weather was perfect, large crowds showed up despite high gas prices and the old vibe was back.”

• Stephen Stetson, Hold on to the Feeling [Fri / Sat / Sun]: “Thanks to the folks who booked such great acts. We were happy each and every night we went home. It was a great value of music for the entertainment dollar. The festival SHOULD be in good hands from here on out if they keep bringing in great acts (and taking more than plenty of tax dollars to subsidize the whole thing). We’ll be back next year!”

• The Birmingham News: reviews / photos

Libba Young, Love, Music, Wine and Revolution: “The recycling duties were not difficult, but did involve standing around for four hours encouraging rednecks to recycle.”

Carla Jean Whitley, Birmingham Magazine: “No one could beat my Saturday experience. It was easily the best day I’ve had at City Stages in my four festival visits. Ingrid Michaelson was truly the festival highlight.”

Slideshow from the City Stages Flickr pool

Deirdre Long, The Anniston Star: “My faith in Alabama music festivals has been restored after going to City Stages last night. While the line-up for the weekend as a whole was less than stellar (I guess that’s what happens when it’s on the same weekend as Bonnaroo), City Stages ended the festival on Sunday with a blast.”

Mighty Mama Molly: “I look around and there’s your typical drunk and/or stoned crowd scattered here and there. But my favorite was the hippy girl in her maxi dress and headband with the preppy guy in a button down oxford and khaki shorts about mid-thigh and boat shoes with no socks. Oh I love it!”

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Complete City Stages 2008 coverage.

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For those who attended, what were your festival highlights and disappointments?

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