It's 9:45 on a Friday night at Brown's Island. Fifteen minutes after Emmet Swimming's two-hour-long Friday Cheers set, a couple folk dances, two studs in drag head to their cars and a young woman helps a Richmond Public Works employee pick up trash.
It's hard to believe this is the same place where almost 13 hours earlier citycelebrations marketing manager Robert Fleskes was standing in a field of lush green grass, with only a few Commonwealth Tent workers to keep him company.
9 a.m."This is my favorite part of the day," he said, "when no one's here. You can hear the water, the ping of putting up tents."
Situated between the Canal Walk and the gurgling James River, Brown's Island is the perfect backdrop for the free weekly Friday night event that takes place for 18 weeks this summer, wrapping up Aug. 29.
In the morning, the venue is barely recognizable. A solitary painter sets up an easel, a gaggle of geese pecks at grass along the canal, a jogger passes by.
The only clues that this isn't Maymont are the stage and the 40 portable toilets.
Yet before the real work begins, Fleskes heads off the island to pick up the backbone of citycelebrations' setup scene - four golf carts.
"We travel for miles on these things," he said. "Just think how much we'd have to walk otherwise. We're used to it, but when an average person comes they must think we're motoring around like idiots."
9:15 a.m.With his trusty golf cart, Fleskes zooms to the backstage area. There, he opens an old boxcar so three R.M.C. Events workers can unload chairs and more tents.
Chris Risatti, citycelebrations executive director, and booking manager Desiree Roots Centeio begin hanging 20 banners that boast sponsor names, including Miller Lite, WMXB (B103.7-FM), WKLR-FM (96.5 The Planet) and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
"It's always a trick to see how much you can get on without it falling off," Fleskes remarks as he piles signs and supplies in the back of the cart.
9:30 a.m.Just as Fleskes begins to head toward the island's front gate to post signs, he notices the ice truck has arrived - without hesitating, he makes a beeline for it.
"If I could ever do what I set out to do," he laughs.
After filling an ice cooler, he again takes off for his previous destination - only to stop to correct a tent that's in the wrong place.
Once again he hops on the cart, this time stopping to check on the assemblage of tents for tickets and wristbands.
10 a.m.It takes nearly a half-hour before Fleskes finally arrives at the island's entrance gate.
While putting up signs that list other citycelebrations events, such as Summer City Fest (formerly the Big Gig) and Midweek Mojo, he explains why the company changed its name from Downtown Presents in February.
"With a name like 'Downtown Presents' no one thought 'Downtown Presents' was the actual name," he explains. "By changing our name to citycelebrations we believe it gives people a better idea of what we've been doing since 1985."
This will be the third complete season Friday Cheers is on Brown's Island. Previously, it was in Festival Park between the Richmond Coliseum and 6th Street Marketplace.
"The atmosphere is a huge improvement with the grass, the river. Although the parking is about the same, the crowds have been better," Fleskes says. "I've also noticed that the crowd has gotten older, more people 21 to 34. At Festival Park, people used to say that it looked like a mall on a Friday night."
Some things haven't changed: The weather remains citycelebrations' greatest nemesis. Rain has led to one Friday Cheers being canceled so far this year.
"When it rains here I've never been so wet," Fleskes says. "Sometimes it gets so bad we have people running to the Porta Potties.
The most that can be done in case of nasty weather is to bring extra clothes.
"I usually have three changes of clothes on Friday," Fleskes says.
Pointing to his black baseball cap, T-shirt and pants, he says, "This is my mow-the-lawn outfit."
(Friday Cheers isn't the only weekly concert series affected by weather. Innsbrook After Hours, Fridays at Sunset, Midweek Mojo, and the other outdoor summer series have all dealt accordingly.)
11 a.m.With the ticket tents and banners up and ready, Brown's Island begins to look familiar.
Before heading back to the office for lunch, Risatti takes a minute to reflect on the company she's worked for since it began in August 1985.
"We have folks who came to Friday Cheers in the late'80s," she says. "Now they're married, they've got kids and they're coming to other events of ours like Family Jubilee."
11:45 a.m.For now, a trip to the office provides a little break.
The new headquarters for citycelebrations is on the corner of Third and Canal.
Hallways among the nine citycelebrations offices on the second floor are sparsely decorated with pictures of Friday Cheers past.
Fleskes watches the weather forecast with crossed fingers.
"When it starts to be cloudy or misty, it's a hard decision to try to decide if we're not going to have it.
"If we go until 4 o-clock today and a storm starts to roll in you have to say, 'OK, well if it's 4 we have to pay the band because they're going to show up - whether they play or not, we've got to pay them. We've got to pay the sound guys, because they're showing up. We've got to pay the nonprofit groups if they show up, the cops, the RMC and pay for the tents.
"The registers are already ringing, so it's like: Do you have the event and try to compensate for that, or do you try and cancel it as early as you can at noon so you don't have to pay for anything? But then the darn sun is going to come out at 6 o-clock and you're like 'Aw!' . . . "
2:30 p.m.After lunch, Brown's Island is starting to come to life.
Two food vendors, Chillin' & Grillin' Shack and Mediterranean Grill, are setting up shop.
Emmet Swimming drummer Derrick Decker is the first musician to appear, a fishing pole in hand. Fleskes, now on his second set of clothes, sets out a donation box and drops in the first dollar of the day.
Onstage, Soundworks audio engineers Bob Lipford and Paul Stenstrom are setting up the sound system for the evening's event.
"Things are much smoother over here," says Lipford, referring to Cheers' move. "Definitely better. Over there, buildings reflected the sound everywhere. We're on an island by the river, it's a beautiful setting."
3:30 p.m.Beautiful indeed. Waiting for the musicians and vendors who continue to trickle in, Fleskes parks himself under a shady tree and watches Fifth Street.
4 p.m.Break's over! As Fleskes shuttles around the island bringing vendors soft drinks and water, an RMC staffer sets up camp in front of the vehicle bridge to the island, radioing Fleskes for clearance whenever a car approaches.
Soon the rest of the Emmet Swimming members arrive and begin tossing around a couple of Frisbees. They're not the only ones using the grassy area . . . a group of teens are playing soccer at the field's opposite end.
5 p.m.An hour before showtime, opening band Pennyshaker loads in, as Emmet Swimming sound checks with "Fake Wood Trim."
Across the way, B103 sets up on the back of the island where the station broadcasts live from 6 to 8 p.m., a gig alternated weekly with 96.5 The Planet.
Yet the most important course of action - at least to a waiting couple - is when Fleskes starts unlocking the Porta Potties.
Minutes later the final food vendor, Philippine Delights, arrives followed by the beer trucks.
5:30 p.m.As RMC yellow security shirts multiply with each passing minute, Emmet Swimming finishes warming up and goes back to Frisbee.
Lead singer-guitarist Todd Watts sits out to discuss his Cheers memories.
"I'd have to guess the last time we played here was in '98. We've been in pseudo-retirement - we've played four or five shows in the last few years," he says. "It's probably the fourth time we've played here.
"You know we don't have anything weekly like this," says Watts, who hails from Fairfax. "Most towns in the South have one of these. We used to play one in Greensboro [N.C.] every year, in Raleigh, in Charlotte. I think in Northern Virginia they're afraid to have a lot of people together having a good time."
6 p.m.As Pennyshaker kicks off the show, wristband and ticket stations are manned by volunteers from nonprofit groups such as Habitat for Humanity and the Knights of Columbus.
Citycelebrations pays $250 to $300 to each of the eight groups that sells tickets and serves beer. More than 40 organizations take turns providing those services.
Beside them, vendors prepare to be slammed with orders.
"Generally, we usually do pretty well around here," says Havana Connections manager Mark Logan. "I'd say on average, we sell a couple hundred cigars. We definitely want to be back next year."
The same goes for Marc and Daniele Adams, who co-founded Chillin' & Grillin' Shack.
In their fourth year at Friday Cheers, they don't plan to quit anytime soon.
"We have repeat customers who come here every week," Marc Adams says. "I really enjoy working on this island. We work here more than anywhere else we work. Citycelebrations is a great organization to work with."
6:15 p.m.A couple of hundred people arrive during the first 15 minutes of Pennyshaker's performance.
"For how many of you is this the first time you've been out on a weekend without an umbrella?" Pennyshaker lead vocalist Ticia Carter teases the audience between songs. A multitude of hands rise in agreement, "See! You should be happy then!"
The group easily woos the crowd with its eclectic performance, not to mention its dead-on cover of Alicia Keys' "Fallin'."
The security provided by almost 30 RMC employees helps keep the event running seamlessly.
"It's very easy for us to mesh with them. It's almost like we're the same company a lot of times," RMC event coordinator Ramsey says. "RMC is like a family and working with citycelebrations is kind of like the cousins. They're the extended family."
"They put on such a quality event. They attract quality people."
And quite a variety at that - as more concertgoers stream in, some carry babies, others tote motorcycle helmets.
7 p.m.By the time Pennyshaker wraps up its set, the throng has increased to thousands.
Backstage, bassist Dave Monger and guitarist Darren Moxin discuss the significance of their first Friday Cheers performance.
"Friday Cheers is a Richmond staple," Monger says. "Every local band wants to play it. So it's pretty good when you're in there, because there aren't that many spots."
"With Friday Cheers it's an event, it's a destination gig," he says. "You have to work a lot harder to get people in Bogart's or The Canal Club than you do with Brown's Island on a Friday afternoon. With Friday Cheers you get the built-in crowd."
7:35 p.m.By the time Emmet Swimming hits the stage, the grass is swarming with people - the night's attendance reaches about 6,000.
9:05 p.m.Not the time to visit the Porta Potties. While the lines for wristbands dwindle, this line steadily builds. About 50 people wait to pounce at the next plastic door with a green "vacant" indicator.
9:15 p.m.Emmet Swimming shows no signs of slowing down as Decker slams a pounding drum solo. When the mayhem ceases, the band exits the stage and B103 morning show DJs Eric Summers and Tara Hart pump up the audience for an encore.
"You guys ready for more?" they yell. A deafening roar is the answer. "Once again, here's Emmet Swimming!"
The band returns to the stage and cranks out "You're So Pretty" and a cover of Men at Work's "Down Under" before finally relinquishing the stage.
9:30 p.m.The party doesn't stop just because the music does.
People continue to mix and mingle, even as the vendors close shop, sound equipment is packed and Richmond Public Works employees toss discarded cups and cigarette butts. It takes another half-hour before the island is completely vacated by concertgoers.
11 p.m.One can almost hear a pin drop. The stage is empty, the trucks are gone and, after a 14-hour adrenaline rush, Fleskes can finally get some shut-eye.