Blog: Ben Dunne

The father of Viola Beach guitarist River Reeves on keeping his son's memory alive through music

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My family lost River in 2016 and I lost a son I mistakenly assumed would outlive me. More than two years have now passed and although the world has moved on, that same family is still lost without him. We decided to hold our first RivFest within five months of River’s tragic death in Sweden alongside the four other people who shared the passion to leave their musical mark on the world. Craig, Kris, Jack, Tom and River did leave that mark; they just never lived to see it.

RivFest16, organised in three weeks, saw 200 people gather on the rugby pitch at Priestley College on Saturday 23rd July 2016. We don’t know why we organised it, it just needed to happen. The Bogtrotters headlined, River’s brother, Gabriel, played. The RPMs from Brighton supported, and River’s girlfriend, Chloe, sang. No one who was there will ever forget it. So what next and more importantly why?

People told us to let River rest in peace. Some close friends and wider family advised that the time had come to move on. Well-wishers thought it best that we accept he would never be coming back. Those voices had one thing in common. They had never lost a child.

What followed came as naturally as drawing the next breath.

Our plans for the River Reeves Foundation were not driven by a strong sense of community duty or moral superiority; in fact I used to run a mile whenever I heard the sound of chinking coins, rattled in buckets by enthusiastic charity volunteers. Our plans were driven by an energy fuelled from the disbelief that hits you when a tragedy carries with it such irreversible consequences.

Sharon, River’s step-mum and I have stood by that bleak, cold canal, amidst the motorway arches, 300 feet below the thundering traffic in Sodertalje and vowed that this would not be River’s full stop.

The music industry agreed. For a short period, the big names rallied. The memorial concert took place. The album was released. Coldplay accompanied Viola Beach on the biggest stage there is and helped propel that glorious album to Number 1. Chris Martin implored the world to create Viola Beach’s ‘alternate future’. A chord had been struck in us too.

RivFest17 came next and 3,000 festival-goers including hundreds of families returned to Priestley as Maximo Park and Billy Bragg headlined. A festival for 10,000 on the lawns of Warrington Town Hall in 2019 is also in the planning. 300 to 10,000 in 3 years; the boys would have been impressed.

So what’s happening this year? RivFest18 will be something truly magical, conceived to bring people into the town centre and champion over 50 of the very best up and coming bands across our region.

RivFest18 will be unique and something for Warrington to be really proud of. The Lottery Winners are just one example of so many bands we are all very excited about.

The River Reeves Foundation is run entirely by volunteers. All the profits from the festivals and our fundraising activities go directly to the bursaries we award to financially disadvantaged young people to help them realise their dreams within the performing arts.

This year we are also working closely with high schools and colleges to provide bespoke social and emotional wellbeing training for staff and students as part of our Future in Mind initiative. We have a fantastic partnership with Arriva North West and will be looking to deploy our first specially customised bus into schools and colleges from September 2018.

To his close family in Warrington, Brighton and Cornwall, and to his seven brothers and sisters, River’s death still feels like yesterday. RivFest and the money we raise to help young people across Warrington in his name will ensure that River Reeves still has a tomorrow. Maybe in some small way we’ve not lost him after all.

RivFest 2018 takes place in a number of Warrington venues from 13-15 July

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