At this year's Riverfest, the colossal live music showcase and all-around cultural spectacle mounted every Memorial Day weekend in downtown Little Rock, there will be fire-eaters, East African acrobats and Hank Williams Jr. There will be face-painting and a rock wall, a fleet of food trucks and a dog circus. CeeLo Green will be performing, as will Salt-N-Pepa and Chicago and Buckcherry. There will obviously be fireworks.
It is the festival's 37th consecutive year, and DeAnna Korte's 10th as its executive director. "It really comes down now to Mother Nature," Korte told the Times in an interview on the eve of the event's set-up. "She really wields the hand. We can plan and do our part to make sure everything's good, but then Mother Nature will decide how the weekend goes. You can't control it, you just have to say a prayer and hope the weather holds out."
The trucks bearing tents arrived last Thursday, May 15, followed by the Little Rock Parks and Recreation Department, who prepared the festival area and shipped in more equipment. The grounds were wired for electricity, and the vendors started moving in on Monday. But as Korte explains, this is just the culmination of a process that began a year ago. "Myself, I'm already thinking about next year," she says. "I think that's what makes the event a success every year, the planning never stops."
It is thanks to a combination of "Southern hospitality" and a "good reputation in the festival industry," Korte says, that Riverfest is able to book artists of CeeLo's and Chicago's caliber, a particularly difficult proposition given the desirability of Memorial Day weekend for big events. But aside from the lineup of celebrity performers, a list that also includes groups like The Fray, Three Days Grace, The Wallflowers and Lee Brice, Riverfest also marks one of the biggest local music platforms of the year, a rare opportunity to see Arkansas favorites like Big Piph, Mulehead, Iron Tongue and Jim Mize on a huge scale.
Moreover, Korte emphasizes, "it's not just about the music." Parents and grandparents are honored guests here, and kids are at a special advantage. The Family Stage, in Heifer Village, will feature the Jesse White Tumbling Team, an iconic Chicago institution since 1959, and the Kenya Safari Acrobats, who jump through hoops, narrowly avoid all manner of flaming objects and contort themselves in fantastical displays of imaginative athletic prowess — all to a Benga beat. The Yarnell's Kidzone Stage will host a range of all-ages attractions (ventriloquists, ice cream eating contests, kazoos), as will the Deltic Timber Kidzone area (animal-themed arts and crafts, toddler drum circles, bubbles).
There will be a 5K "fun run" downtown (8 a.m. Saturday), a beer and wine tasting at the River Market Pavilions (5:30 p.m. Thursday), a bag toss at Heifer International that costs $100 (the grand prize is $1,500), a poker run and bike show for the leather vest set (10 a.m. Saturday) and, as Korte reminded us, "Everyone loves a Ferris wheel," so there's one of those, too. Darren McFadden will be on hand signing autographs, and we've already mentioned fireworks, but again: fireworks.
The festival also features a dizzying, curiously extensive number of dog-related activities, from Jonathan Offi's "World Famous" team of "canine athletes" (rescue dogs with an impressive repertoire of tricks and stunts, performing every day of the event) to the Crown Championship of the Super Retriever Series, essentially a diving event for dogs, who are persuaded to repeatedly leap into a swimming pool for our amusement. Also don't miss the well-titled " 'Cirque du Pup' Pooch Parade" Saturday morning at 9:30, which will be followed by the "Weenie Dog Derby." Don't be thrown by the name, either: As Korte explained, "We don't discriminate, so any short-legged dog can participate." And she means it. According to the Riverfest website, last year's winner was a Pomeranian.