Late May approaches and with it the descent of thousands upon thousands of fun-seekers to Little Rock for music, food and good times at Riverfest. The annual festival has changed considerably since 1978, when the Junior League brought the Little Rock Wind Symphony down to Murray Park for The Summer Arts Festival, which would eventually move down the river a bit and become Riverfest.
The throngs — likely around 260,000, based on last year's attendance —will gather this year for a diverse array of music that leans a bit toward the rock side of the spectrum. You've got your classic rock, with Lynyrd Skynyrd (who'll play a two-hour set) and Joe Walsh, your virtuoso blues rock with Gov't Mule and your contemporary rock with Staind, Chevelle, Third Eye Blind, Neon Trees and MuteMath. But there's also big-name hip-hop, with Snoop Dogg and B.o.B. as well as one of the biggest R&B acts of all time, Boyz II Men.
Country music might not be represented quite as heavily in 2012 as in years past, but country lovers can definitely get a fix with The Cadillac Black (recently in town supporting Dierks Bentley) and Nashville giants Little Big Town. "Some years it's heavier on some genres and some years it's not," said DeAnna Korte, executive director of Riverfest. "My goal is to try not to book an act up against another act that somebody might want to see both of, but it does happen occasionally."
Here's something that's been addressed in the Times before, but probably bears repeating if only because it's such a perennial Riverfest refrain: "The lineup is subpar, they should really get such-and-such gigantically popular band." Well, such-and-such gigantically popular band is also gigantically expensive, and with a 2012 entertainment kitty of between $650,000 and $700,000, booking one or two such bands would wipe out the budget.
"Our budget is very minimal in the grand scheme of things, when you look at festivals around the country and especially festivals that draw as large as we do," Korte said. It's also worth pointing out that for the money — somewhere in the range of $15-$30, depending on when you bought a ticket — you can see a bunch of bands that, on their own, would likely command ticket prices well above that relatively low price.
Of course, in addition to all the music, there are many more attractions at Riverfest. There are dozens of vendors and artists selling their wares along Merchant Row. The Dallas Cowboys on Tour is a mobile museum of Cowboys memorabilia and exhibits, including a locker room replica. Monster Energy Drink is bringing in a BMX team for some extreme bike stunts and tricks. The Sustainival is back, with an array of carnival-type rides that are all powered with vegetable oil.
The Familyzone, which is free to the public all weekend, features the Yarnell Family Stage, with a variety of music, dancers and more. There'll be a weenie dog derby, a huge trampoline exhibition, The Rock-N-Stroll 5K fun run and walk, the Super Retriever Series and The Ruff on the River Pooch Parade at 3 p.m. on Saturday, which will benefit four animal rescue organizations.
FRIDAY MAY 25
7:45 p.m., Bud Light Stage (Clinton Center)
Since the mid '90s, Gov't Mule has been keeping the blues-rock flame alive. The band was founded by guitarist Warren Haynes and the late bass player Allen Woody, both of whom also played with The Allman Brothers. Haynes is still a member of the Southern rock stalwarts, and is also a frequent collaborator with various Grateful Dead members. Gov't Mule's crunchy, groove-heavy sound might not have broken through to mainstream success, but it's got a dedicated following of diehards and live show tapers that's probably comparable to a number of other jam band heavies. Expect plenty of virtuosic playing (Haynes is the No. 23 greatest guitarist of all time, according to Rolling Stone scholar David Fricke), hand-clapping from the audience, a couple-three interesting covers and good vibes all around.
8 p.m., Miller Light Stage (Riverfest Amphitheatre)
After 15-plus years and counting of enduring innumerable goateed post-grunge yarlers and agro Nu metal moshers, Provo, Utah's Neon Trees gave rock radio lovers a catchy, bouncy, Strokes-y breath of fresh air. The band got an early dose of celebrity with a 2010 tour supporting alt-rock giants 30 Seconds to Mars (featuring that one famous actor — you know, skinny guy, real good looking? Yeah, him). Neon Trees' latest, "Picture Show," is a romp through pop music that takes cues from the years 1978-1983, but slaps on a thick, shiny coat of contemporary production sheen that keeps things from veering into the realm of too-perfect retro revivalism. So while the band isn't exactly blazing off in any wild new musical directions, it hardly matters as long as it's making music that's this much fun. The tracks "1983," "Animal" and "Everybody Talks" are delirious, unselfconsciously nostalgic slices of power-pop that will get stuck in your head for days.
BOYZ II MEN
9:30 p.m., Miller Lite Stage (Riverfest Amphitheatre)
Boyz II Men might have followed in the footsteps of great R&B groups like The Temptations, The Four Tops and New Edition, but the Philadelphia group arguably soared to greater heights of popularity than any of their peers, becoming without question one of the most successful musical acts ever, regardless of genre. For much of the '90s, you literally could not escape the group's lush, honey-sweet harmonies, wholesome, clean-cut image and infectious hit singles. "End of the Road" had one of the longest stretches ever at the top spot on the pop charts — 13 weeks (though the group would later best that with "One Sweet Day," which topped the Hot 100 for 16 weeks). In terms of chart success, no other Riverfest act past or present can touch Boyz II Men.
9:45 p.m., Bud Light Stage (Clinton Center)
Staind rose to prominence during the late '90s/early '00s heyday of Nu metal, but has proven to have quite a bit more staying power than many of their peers. The band was championed early on by none other than Limp Bizkit lead-grunter Fred Durst. Throughout the last decade, Staind took some detours into softer territory, and frontman Aaron Lewis even released a solo country EP espousing conservative political leanings and featuring guests like George Jones, Charlie Daniels and Chris Young. But on its latest, self-titled album, Staind went back to its heavier roots. This set will probably have the highest ratio of goatees and tribal tattoos at Riverfest, though that distinction will likely come down to a photo finish between Staind and Chevelle.
SATURDAY MAY 26
6 p.m., Bud Light Stage (Clinton Center)
New Orleans' MuteMath manages the noteworthy accomplishment of wedding fussy avant-rock notions and post-rock atmospherics to what is essentially bombastic, catchy guitar pop, coming across like a brainier Coldplay or U2. Live, the band is known for switching up instruments and exuding manic energy and showmanship, especially from lead singer and keytarist (!) Paul Meany. When was the last time you saw a keytarist at Riverfest? I think I recall seeing one onstage during War's set, long about 1998, but that might just be wishful remembering. For a taste of MuteMath's live show, check out their appearance on Conan O'Brien. After the song, you can just barely hear a clearly impressed O'Brien say, "That was the best thing I've seen in a while."
7:45 p.m., Bud Light Stage (Clinton Center)
Chicago post-grunge trio Chevelle has spent the last 15 years and change laying down melodic yet heavy tunes built using the groove of Rage Against the Machine, the distorted guitar crunch of Helmet and the emotional vocalizations of acts such as Filter and Tool. The band struck platinum on its second outing, 2002's "Wonder What's Next," which included the modern rock chart-topping single "Send the Pain Below." They went gold on the follow-up, "This Type of Thinking (Could Do Us In)," and over the years, they've sold more than three million units. The group is no stranger to Central Arkansas, having performed several shows in recent years, including a spot opening for Evanescence at Verizon Arena.
9 p.m., Miller Lite Stage (Riverfest Amphitheatre)
Sure, there's only one founding member of Lynyrd Skynyrd left (guitarist Gary Rossington). And yes, the group's last album — "God and Guns" — was a favorite of right-wing clown Sean Hannity (it played his 2010 "Freedom Concert." Also, a funny bit of trivia: in an early incarnation, the band was called The One Percent, a reference to bikers, not the economic elite). But consider the following: the band has requested an extra half hour on stage, for two hours total, so you know you're gonna hear all the classics; this will most likely be the only chance you'll get all year to yell "FREEEEEBIIIIIIIRD!!!" and not be subjected to looks of disdain and withering contempt from your fellow concertgoers.
THIRD EYE BLIND
9:30 p.m., Bud Light Stage (Clinton Center)
San Francisco's Third Eye Blind was one of the biggest acts of the late '90s, with the inescapable single "Semi-Charmed Life" blasting out of car speakers and department store sound systems everywhere. Its innocent-sounding and utterly infectious bubblegum chorus (You know it: "Doo doo doo / Doo doo doo doo") probably kept all the prudes from noticing that the song was about the ups and downs and ups of hard drug use and sex. But hey, it was the go-go '90s so, you know, whatever. The band took a break for a while in the '00s but returned in 2009 with "Ursa Major," which was a bit uneven, but had a good handful of tunes that recaptured the group's good-time, party-like-it's-1999 vibes.
THE CADILLAC BLACK
6:15 p.m. Miller Light Stage (Riverfest Amphitheatre)
The Cadillac Black is a trio of Nashville boys who were in town just a couple weeks ago, supporting country star Dierks Bentley. Times reviewer Bill Paddack wrote that the group "mixed a little country with a lot of Southern rock." They'd probably agree with that assessment. After all, according to the group's online bio, they sound like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Church, Metallica, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Whiskey Myers. After checking out a few of their tunes, that list is pretty spot-on, though the Metallica influence is probably more one of attitude than sound. Fans of Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, The Black Crowes and Southern-fried rock should not miss this set.
LITTLE BIG TOWN
7:30 p.m., Miller Light Stage (Riverfest Amphitheatre)
The biggest country act on the Riverfest bill this year is Little Big Town, a vocal quartet that traffics in similar pop-country territory as Sugarland, Lady Antebellum and Rascal Flatts. Though the group's sound tends toward the slicker side of the country spectrum, one of its recent charting singles, "Little White Church," was a rollicking bit of country rockin'. Two of the members — Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook — have Arkansas connections. Sweet is from Cherokee Village and attended Arkansas State University and Westbrook was born in Jacksonville, though raised in Alabama. Although the group has been based in Nashville for some time, they still feel a connection to small-town America, as evidenced on their Top 10 hit "Boondocks."
7:45 p.m., Bud Light Stage (Clinton Center)
Bobby Ray Simmons Jr. — known far and wide as B.O.B. — got his first big hit with 2007's "Haterz Everywhere," a glitch-y, electro-tinged nugget of prime dirty South rap. He put out a slew of popular mixtapes before releasing his first full-length, 2010's "The Adventures of Bobby Ray," on T.I.'s Grand Hustle label. The record debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and catapulted him to the next level. The album featured guest spots from a bunch of other prominent rappers — T.I., Lupe Fiasco, Eminem — but also with a slew of pop, rock and R&B performers, including Bruno Mars, Janelle Monae, Rivers Cuomo and Hayley Williams, of emo/pop-punks Paramore. B.O.B.'s latest, "Strange Clouds," came out just a few weeks ago and lives up to its title, with genre-spanning tunes, like the globe-trotting anthem "So Good" and the dubstep-flavored title track featuring Lil' Wayne.
9:30 p.m., Bud Light Stage
Rapper, producer, actor, filmmaker, youth football coach, marijuana advocate extraordinaire: Snoop Dogg is that rare musician who has completely transcended the music industry to become a bona fide cultural icon, via his sui generis persona and instantly recognizable, appealingly laid-back drawl. Along with Jay Z, he's easily the best-known rapper alive, and still puts out quality music on a regular basis. What else is there to say? It's Snoop. So is his set the one do-not-miss performance at Riverfest? For sure.
9:45 p.m., Miller Light Stage (Riverfest Amphitheatre)
How many other rockers can lay claim to as many notable accomplishments as Joe Walsh? He was in the hard-rockers James Gang (whose infectious "Funk #49" remains a classic rock staple); he's a soulful, dexterous guitar player; his solo albums were both critically lauded and popular (his 1972 LP "Barnstorm" is, for my money, one of the great post-hippie burnout albums, up there with "If I Could Only Remember My Name" and "After the Gold Rush"); he was in the frickin' Eagles; he ran for president and, later, vice president; he's toured with and produced albums for his brother-in-law, Ringo Starr; and he's always seemed like a good dude who never took the whole rock star thing too seriously, apparent from his biggest solo hit, "Life's Been Good."