It's no secret that Riverfest is greeted each year by a gallery of disparagers, detractors and nay-sayers at large. Any undertaking so enormous and, by nature, imperfect will always attract its share of criticism. Greatest hits include "the music line-up is below par," "it's too expensive" and "it's overcrowded." But, as it goes with every year, the scoffing from the peanut gallery always gets drowned out by the sound of a quarter of a million people taking to the river for a good time.
This year's music offering sticks to the "familiar, if not necessarily your favorite" strategy. Pleasing 250,000 people's ears is a tough charge. Even tougher: staying in budget. Riverfest's music budget runs from $600,000 to $650,000; a bright-lights name like Dave Matthews Band or Kings of Leon would single-handedly consume at least half of that. And there would still be whiners. Jam-band fans are in for a treat with noodling greats Widespread Panic filling Friday night with three hours-plus of Southern fried, Grateful rock; modern rockers can look forward to a double-header from Blue October and Papa Roach on Saturday; hair-metal fans will surely be breaking out the Aqua-Net for Poison's Friday night set, and Sunday night "is your chance to do the Hump" when Digital Underground brings its G-Funk hip-hop to the river before superstar St. Louis rapper Nelly closes out the festival.
For such a roster of acts, festival passes remain as remarkably low as always. At the gate, a three-day admission will run $30, roughly what you'd have to pay to see any of the headliners elsewhere. Sunday, the festival offers a one-day pass for $20 and, for the deal-hunter, Riverfest is offering a limited number of half-price tickets at area Walgreens, bringing the cost for a full festival pass down to an unarguable $15.
But while the state fair/town carnival/music festival hybrid is sticking to the strategy of live music, junk food and family events at a low cost for another year, festival director DeAnna Korte tells us 2011's Riverfest isn't without its share of alterations.
The change that will affect you the most: gone are the buttons, easy to counterfeit and effortless to pass off to other people, not to mention easy to lose and always threatening to pierce you in the chest. This year, Riverfesters will be outfitted with vinyl wristbands to be worn (or, preferably, "rocked") for the duration of the festival.
Also gone: a third stage. The Triple-S stage, which was under the Broadway bridge last year, has been phased out. But don't think you're only getting two-thirds of the music you'd expect. Instead, the Bud Lite Stage (at the Clinton Presidential Center) and the Miller Lite Stage (at the Riverfest Amphitheatre) will have more big-name acts bunched together each evening.
Another noticeable change on the festival map has the former Arkansas Music Tent re-branded as the Stickyz Music Tent. The stage, still beside the Main Street bridge, will be overseen by the music venue of the same name. Its line-up will retain a local focus before handing the mic over to a nightly, out-of-town top bill. Friday sees Will Hoge, a Nashville singer/songwriter, headline. On Saturday, the Justin Timberlake-signed rap-rock act FreeSol tops the bill. Sunday offers the Ozarks-based bluegrass of Big Smith.
Riverfest has also taken a cue from larger music festivals by offering VIP treatment; a $500 package offers two weekend passes to the festival, access to the VIP pavilions, complimentary beer and wine and a nightly dinner.
Not changing, however, is the festival's focus on events, attractions and family activities that don't involve booming rock music. The Riverfest "Rock 'n' Stroll" Fun Run and Walk returns for a second year, offering a family-friendly 5K on Saturday morning. The always-popular Super Retriever Series also sets up shop behind the DoubleTree Hotel for another year to showcase some of the nation's best gravity-defying canines during its three-day competition. As always, hounds abound with Ed Jakubowski and his Frisbee dogs doing their thing at the Clinton Presidential park, as well.
Festival-goers can also check out all sorts of human beings flying through the air, too. The "extreme trampoline stunt team" Flippenout, the BMX trick riders of the United Freestyle Stunt Bike Team, the Kenya Safari Acrobats and the Beale Street Flippers will be on hand to keep people looking skyward.
Incredibly, it looks like the weather is going to cooperate for the entirety of the festival, too! As of press time, the weather soothsayers are predicting high '70s and low '80s with low to no chance of rain.
Count us in.
FRIDAY, MAY 27
7:30 p.m., Bud Light Stage (Clinton Center)
For every beard hair that wound out of Jerry Garcia's round face, there's a band trying to re-capture a bit of Grateful success. With the exception of Phish and, if you insist, Dave Matthews Band, no band has brought Southern-fried, purple-hazed noodle-rock to the masses with as much success as Widespread Panic. Since 1983, the band has been the focal point for legions of fans who, as is the jam tradition, chronicle every note of every concert. Seeing as how these guys are consummate road warriors, that's a lot of tape. And Friday night, expect the reels to roll long: Riverfest organizers have given Panic three-plus hours to bring the long-winding choogle to the river.
9:30 p.m., Miller Lite Stage (Riverfest Amphitheatre)
Few L.A. bands have ever come close to reaching the heights of drug-, groupie- and hair spray-fuelled excesses of Poison. The late '80s saw the androgynous cock-rockers become one of the biggest bands in the world, going multi-platinum time after time again thanks to their cartoonish sleaze, mom-baiting antics and ridiculously catchy string of singles like "Nothin' but a Good Time," "Unskinny Bop" and the crowned king of the '80s power ballad "Every Rose Has Its Thorn." While the "dumber we do it, the sweeter it sounds" plan was a huge success in the studio, Poison was notorious for the live show: confetti, pyro, costumes and flashers galore. Say what you will about Bret Michaels, but you can't argue that the guy is a dedicated entertainer. Since reinventing himself as a reality TV star on "Celebrity Apprentice" and his VH1 dating show "Rock of Love," Michaels spent chunks of 2010 in the hospital, finding himself in critical condition after suffering a debilitating brain hemorrhage. Now he's rehabilitating on the road and celebrating Poison's 25th anniversary.
SATURDAY, MAY 28
6 p.m., Bud Light Stage (Clinton Center)
One of the bigger bands to be christened by the Angst Rock Band Name Generator, Blue October has been active for 16 years, gigging around its native Houston and enjoying regional success for the bulk of its career. However, in 2006, the band's breakthrough piece of self-loathing, "Hate Me," put the post-grunge outfit on the Modern Rock Charts and on heavy rotation on VH1. (Sample lyric: "I have to block out thoughts of you so I don't lose my head/They crawl in like a cockroach leaving babies in my bed." Eek.) Frontman and principal songwriter Justin Furstenfeld isn't faking the fret, though: The mohawked rocker with the smeared raccoon makeup has been in and out of his share of mental hospitals. Also in and out of book tours: He joined "Twilight" scribe Stephenie Meyer on a joint book/concert tour in 2008. Earlier this month, Blue October released "Ugly Side," a live acoustic album. This August, the band plans to release "Any Man in America," its ninth album to get, well, down to.
7:30 p.m., Bud Light Stage (Clinton Center)
It's only appropriate that Papa Roach just won't die. One of the big names from the late-'90s/early-'00s rap-rock and nu-metal boom, the band found itself in the spotlight with "Infest," the group's triple Platinum album, and its standout single, "Last Resort." (When the aliens come and ask about nu-metal, that's the one you're going to want to play.) Over the following years, Papa Roach squeezed the angry guitar wall and caterwauling vocals dry. Since, the band has been busy mining sleaze-rock and L.A. goth-glam in singles like "Hollywood Whore" and "I Almost Told You That I Loved You." The mood may have changed, but there's still no shortage of rap-metal wannabes still aping that "Last Resort" sound. Not just inspiring young guns in the rock realm, we're pretty certain that Papa Roach's iconography — blade-edge typography and blown out color scheme — is single-handedly responsible for every single Tapout shirt ever.
9:30 p.m., Bud Light Stage (Clinton Center)
This show marks the first time that the irreverent Canadian pop act of Barenaked Ladies has played Arkansas: a shocker, considering that the band has never been shy about taking its loose banter-and-comedy-spiced show on the road. The band hit it big in 1998 with "One Week," the '90s-defining bit of half-sung, half-rapped irreverence that unleashed "Chickety China, the Chinese Chicken" on an unsuspecting public. Barenaked Ladies stayed tacked onto radio playlists with "It's All Been Done" and "Pinch Me," two more pieces of trademark harmonic pop. Festival-goers too young to have seen the band's heyday will probably recognize the band as "those guys who did the theme song for 'How I Met Your Mother.' " Riverfesters even younger than that may recognize them as "the guys who made 'Snacktime!'," the award-winning (and, creepily enough, relistenable) 2008 children's album. Sir Paul McCartney may recognize the band as "the guys that I once said could outsing John Lennon and I."
6 p.m., Miller Lite Stage (Riverfest Amphitheatre)
There are parts of Arkansas where a bad word about Pat Green is liable to get your butt stomped. We can't imagine the welcoming committee that would greet a naysayer in Green's native Texas.
People love Pat Green. Fiercely. He may not be a Lone Star deity like Robert Earl Keen or Willie Nelson, but you've got to hand it to Green for excelling at channeling that Pure Country brew and mixing it down with a healthy splash of new-country arena pop. Maybe that's why he's spent the better part of the last decade toeing the line between national success and regional superstardom. But with legions of dedicated fans and, surely, a lifetime of ripped up bar tabs at Billy Bob's Texas, don't expect Green to change his formula any time soon.
7:45 p.m., Miller Lite Stage (Riverfest Amphitheatre)
Alright, we're chalking up a gimme for David Nail and calling this show a homecoming of sorts. After all, the country up-and-comer grew up in Kennett, Mo., just a quick jog away from the state line, and spent his college years at A-State, where, appropriately enough, he saw his first concert, a Garth Brooks show in 1992. Nail's debut album, "I'm About to Come Alive," and subsequent singles drive right down the middle of the pop-country road that Brooks paved. In Nail's world, everything's hazy with nostalgia and the stories are sung with a squeezed brow. Fortunately, his good looks make his Harlequin-ready music easier to swallow.
CHARLIE DANIELS BAND
9:30 p.m., Miller Lite Stage (Riverfest Amphitheatre)
The round, 6-foot-4 giant is a country music icon, synonymous with country fiddle and known for his music's outspoken Dixie stance and hyper-patriotic twang. But did you know that Charlie Daniels spent the late-'60s providing bass for Bob Dylan (including on an unbelievable, widely-bootlegged session with George Harrison) and touring with Leonard Cohen? The man has props all over the board. But his legacy is firmly cemented in his sturdy, country pride anthems like "In America," "The South's Gonna Do It Again" and the Grammy-winning "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," which welded Appalachian folk tales, Southern rock and German opera into one of the best crossover singles in the history of the country charts. The always-outspoken Daniels has never shied away from making political observations and he's showing no sign of speaking more quietly in his old age. His new single, "Let 'Em Win or Bring 'Em Home," begins as an ode to young soldiers before launching off a bilious (and deserved) reproach of the Westboro Baptist Church. Expect to hear it greeted with massive applause this Saturday.
SUNDAY, MAY 29
7:30 p.m., Miller Lite Stage (Riverfest Amphitheatre)
Marky Mark begat Justin Timberlake, who then begat Robin Thicke, who then begat Mike Posner. A Bonnaroo and Warped Tour Veteran, Mike Posner is the latest contestant in the white-boy pop-rap/synth-soul fame game, crafting college party anthems made for the frat house and straight out of the frat house. In fact, the bulk of his debut album, "31 Minutes to Takeoff," was culled from home recordings he made while attending Duke. Sure, the guy is going to take his share of licks, but he's just now 23 and has already collaborated with rap giants like Lil Wayne and Bun B, as well as buzzy emcees Wale and Big Sean.
9:30 p.m., Miller Lite Stage (Riverfest Amphitheatre)
It's not a summer festival until the requisite Dad rockers whisk the crowds back to the golden days of medium-wave radio, tight jeans and feathered hair. Throughout the '70s and '80s, REO Speedwagon's M.O.R. take on arena rock shot the Illinois working-band-done-good to the near-apex of tour circuit fame, not to mention the charts. The 1980 album that contains "Keep On Loving You" and "Take It on the Run," "Hi-Infidelity," has sold 10 million copies. Sure, the cheese has aged in the last 30 years, but when a band can craft a hook that's still sticky, sweet and unshakable generations later, it's hard to argue with its successes.
7:45 p.m., Bud Light Stage (Clinton Center)
Even for casual fans of hip-hop, Riverfest bagging the "Freaks of the Industry" for this year's festival is epic. In the early-'90s explosion of L.A.-centric East Coast rap, Digital Underground provided an irreverent wit and G-Funk mutating hip-hop to offset the politically charged, status quo-shocking tone of the day. The group's conceptual debut album "Sex Packets" is essential listening, manic and lewd with classics like "Doowutchyalike" and, of course, the Edward G. Humphrey — better known as Humpty Hump — moment in the sun, "The Humpty Dance." Little Rock, this could be your only "chance to do the hump." Don't mess it up.
9:45 p.m., Bud Light Stage (Clinton Center)
Sure, we can debate whether or not Nelly is still relevant in 2011. His last handful of singles slipped out of earshot as soon as they appeared, maybe because the St. Louis rapper has focused on his omnipresent clothing line, Apple Bottom Jeans, and his other business ventures instead of the music. We could debate it. Or we could talk about any how, 11 years later, you can resuscitate a dying party in a flash by throwing on, well, just about any of Nelly's first singles. "Country Grammar (Hot Shit)," "E.I.," "Hot in Herre," "Pimp Juice": Believe you me, they all work. He's made a career out of reconstituting schoolyard rhymes, rural twang and club-ready production into a tongue-twisting, juking style of rap that managed to capture the mood of the strange, genre-twisting thing known as Southern club rap with ass-shaking ease.