Crossing Bridges

Parking about three blocks from the base of the Broadway bridge, I thought I’d made a good tactical choice. I trudged past the green brass-eyed stare of the statue of Count Pulaski in front of the treasurer’s office, and stepped carefully across the steel-margined expansion joints in the concrete, past the Robinson Center and onto the bridge. Halfway across the mile-long span, I wasn’t so sure. I was alone, a few hundred feet above the river, looking down at the massive crowds below. Somehow, when you’ve made a choice that is different from a few hundred thousand people, you question it.

On the other side, I walked through twenty or more acres of neatly mowed green vacant lots. At this entrance, there weren’t many people. Just ticket-takers with stares fixed neatly a dozen feet behind you. Have a nice day. Such an odd layout. Two stages, back to back with each other. The entrance neatly faced the backstage area for both. I walked the length of the North Little Rock side toward the Main Street bridge, and noticed that the lines for the ticket booths were at least a hundred feet long. I walked back down to the far end, and stood in line at another booth. When I got to the head of the line, the beverage tickets were sold out. A fine start.

There seemed to be little choice other than to cross back to the Little Rock side. Another two miles, across the Main Street bridge. There was a horrible jam-up at the pedestrian ramps due to their great logistics. The entirety of the crowd was funneled down into a three-foot wide staircase. But I crossed over, bought tickets, and walked back. I avoided the jam-up by walking the extra half-mile back to the entrance where I first came in. I bought my first beer at least four miles later.

As I walked around, the music coming from every direction was clearly “jamming.” I found my self thinking, “please phone me when a song starts.” I got back to the stage complex to see a few minutes of Anders Osborne. It was a little unusual to see a “rock” band with a tuba onstage, but what the hell. Mildly amusing. The real fun started when Dr. John and Blues Traveler were playing back to back (literally) in this weird venue. I’m not really a fan of either, but given the choice I’ll run miles to avoid melismatic harmonica playing. I did walk to the other side, noticing that a lot of people had stationed themselves midway, getting assaulted by an odd cacophony of two bands playing fairly loud. The age split between the two crowds was predictable.

More than that, I was struck by the impression that people usually prefer the copy to the original these days. I don’t know why that is. I walked easily up to a space about fifteen feet in front of Dr. John, during “I Walk on Gilded Splinters.” Blues Traveller were unapproachable, as the dervish dead dancers were going wild. A side effect of the stage layout was that the crowds at the front of both stages effectively blocked the exits, so that the policemen carrying the day’s take had to climb the barriers in front of the stage, and cross in front of the performers with the money. The whole thing was a logistical nightmare, and it was surreal watching the six-foot-six four-hundred pound black bouncer at the front of the stage grooving as the money passed by while Dr. John was beating on a piece of bone with a drumstick.

It doesn’t get more Southern than this. A guy standing next to me kept staring at me. He eventually started shouting: “Hey, I know you!” I think I might have seen him in passing before, at the Whitewater tavern. I found myself wanting to say, “No, you don’t.”

I walked back over the Broadway Bridge as the encores were playing. The boats on the river, and the receding line of bridges off in the distance had a sort of Apocalypse now feel. But the real show will be tonight, or perhaps tomorrow night. They will block the Main Street Bridge for fireworks, as Rick James takes the stage (on the white side of the river) while a jam-band, Moe, and Steve Earle stand with their backs to each other on the blacker, North Little Rock side. I suspect the Broadway bridge will be more crowded; there isn’t any other way across, and miles separate the two events. There’s something positively metaphoric about the whole enterprise.

Things will come together on Sunday, as Styx and Run DMC will play simultaneously, back to back. It seems like some demented Middle America cartoon. During my way back over the bridge, I was passed by some gang-looking folks and a guy with Downs’ syndrome. After watching Forrest Gump last week, I sometimes do think that the history of this country is best told by an idiot, like Benjy in the first chapter of Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury. An idiot surely could have designed a more effective festival.