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SCOT BELLAVIA: The Sound of Music at Festival in The Park

I moved to Knoxville five years ago and I miss the mountains the most. The Smokies are bigger than what I could run at Explore Park or on Mill Mountain, but not near as easy to get to.

I also miss the festivals. Here too, in Rocky Top, we have festivals, and with the University of Tennessee they are no small event. But Roanoke, it seemed to me growing up, made herself known by her festivals—the chief of those being Memorial Day’s Festival in the Park.

There’s not much to do at a festival, in any city. Especially if you don’t want to spend money. You can have your face painted or window shop the vendors. You can put your kids in an inflatable or the petting zoo. It’s all about idling your day.

But since you’re already at the festival, you might as well blow your money. You can spend it on a handmade craft or eat deep fried food. And then you can run the AEP 5K. Is AEP still hosting that? Did they ever?

In the background at Festival in the Park for me was the main event for others. And according to this year’s schedule, it seems the stage is still the big attraction.

On stage, if it wasn’t a troupe of girls in shiny leotards and more makeup than befits their age, it was a traditional dance by the Roanoke Tibetan Club or another performance by the many immigrant populations who have made a home in the Star City. And when it wasn’t those performers, the stage served as background music. Mind you, none of the bands saw themselves that way.

For all of them, music was life, man. They had a unique sound—every one alike. In my mind, the genre is “Festival in the Park Music.” I would make you a playlist, but every group was nondescript and their lyrics were indistinct. They played safe grunge, I’d categorize it, like store-brand Pearl Jam, and soft rock, like, well, Mill is sedimentary, I think.

The artists were little fish in a little pond, but they took themselves seriously. After all, the bumper sticker reading “Without ART, EARTH is just EH” was on their guitar cases.

The middle-aged musicians performed from a crisis. Or else they thought themselves an oldies group reincarnate: a thought the DSM-5 medically considers a crisis. The high school garage bands had parents who paid off stage managers in order to ingratiate themselves to their sons who didn’t want to follow the family law practice because “You just don’t get me, Dad!” But the youth had talent—they sounded just like the geriatrics they opened for.

I can’t name a single song, much less a band, from that stage but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I never went to Festival in the Park to support local; I never used a concert there as an excuse for a date. Festival in the Park Music is the background theme for killing time at Elmwood Park. It takes me back and for that, I miss it.

– Scot Bellavia

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