From a logistical and artistic perspective, it was a triumph.
Sad to say, like the storied tree that falls without witness, it was an event that went largely ignored, which taints those successes and again calls into question Augusta's ability to support top entertainment.
First, though, the positives.
Payback ran like it was on rails. There were hitches and near-misses, but those were all but invisible.
The acts were excellent and, in a rare concert treat, surprisingly punctual. With the exception of the hosting Soul Generals, who didn't take the stage for a full hour after the Doobie Brothers' final bow, each act started on time and in tune. What happened with the Generals? I'm not sure, but I half-expected a laser light show, or at least a giant floating pig, for the time it took.
I was particularly impressed with the Swanee Quintet, who sadly played for a couple dozen fans; Greg Hester, a true soul man; and Branford Marsalis, who also turned out to be a cool guy.
I would also like to compliment the sound at Payback. The Augusta Common is a notoriously difficult space to wire for sound. The hard surfaces on either side of the park offer up a lot of bounce and too often, music becomes muddy. Not the case this time. Each artist, usually with only a minimal soundcheck, sounded crisp, clear and full. Nice work, sound guys.
Now for the negative.
At the height of Payback, there were perhaps 2,000 people at the park. That was during the Doobie Brothers' evening set. For most of the day, the maximum was a few hundred. So what happened?
This was not a case of an under-publicized event. It was touted on television and radio, in newspapers and via an extensive flier campaign. The only route missed was having someone show up at my door Saturday morning, offering me a lift to the festival site. Still, the people just didn't show.
Some I have talked to balked at the cost, which was $35 in advance and $45 at the gate. There was also a discount for kids.
Well, guess what? That's what a concert costs these days.
If you want to see the Doobie Brothers in Augusta or any other city, it'll cost $35. If you want to see the Branford Marsalis Quartet, it will cost at least $35. Still, Augusta continues to balk at paying premium, or in this case less-than-premium, prices for entertainment in town. If we won't pay, people won't play.
Another issue might have been the lineup. Though in the end I was pretty excited by a Doobie Brothers show, the classic rock act might not have been the best headliner for a James Brown tribute. I was hoping for someone more soulful (perhaps an Al Green) and would have loved to see some JB acolytes such as Sharon Jones or Bettye LaVette on the bill. Also an up-and-comer with youth appeal, a Bonnaroo act of some sort, might have helped.
Of course, the elephant in the room is James Brown himself. I know there are people in Augusta who continue to hold a grudge against the Godfather and, frankly, it's an issue I'm choosing not to address right now.
Payback, though a tribute to the man, will do nothing to line either his pockets or the pockets of his estate. It's merely a way to celebrate his contributions to music, and however you feel about the man, great music deserves to be heard.
Even at $35 a head.
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.