- DON'T MISS: Times Showcase winner joshua and Velvet Kente at Riverfest.
The local renaissance at Riverfest continues this year with the return of the Arkansas Tent and a renewed commitment to filling daytime main stage slots with local, rather than regional, talent. It's a booking philosophy that stems at least in part from economic considerations. Regional acts cost more to book than local bands, and local acts often draw better. But, it's also a strategy built on the success of last year's festival.
That's when the Arkansas Tent brought a dedicated stage for local music back to Riverfest for the first time in nearly a decade. In a large open-air tent, the stage hosted a diverse program of local talent, everything from gospel to punk, and stayed busy with crowds all weekend.
“The organizers of Riverfest were way into it last year,” said Rob Bell, whose advertising firm Eric, Rob and Isaac handles festival marketing and who came up with the idea last year. “I'm thrilled it's back.”
The formula remains largely unchanged. The tent is in the same place, immediately west of the Junction Bridge, and, once again, it'll feature a small stage, chairs and plenty of room for stretching out, standing or dancing. When crowds pack in, the tent takes on a club-like atmosphere that you can't find elsewhere at the festival. Too, on a hot day, it's a nice place to sit down near a fan and listen to good music.
The only significant change from last year is that Bell has made an effort to group bands by genre. Friday is devoted to groove-oriented acts. Saturday features folk and roots-music performers. Sunday is rock day.
Meanwhile, in the afternoon hours each day, nearly 20 local acts will play on main stages. Local promoter Ben Jones once again handled daytime main stage booking. While some bands that Bell booked last year have ended up in Jones' lineup this year and vice versa (since, they say, the exposure and experience is different), both otherwise adhere to a Riverfest rule that says no one can play the festival two years in a row. “We don't want to get stuck in a pattern,” Jones says. “We want people to come every year and be introduced to new music.”
So, in that spirit, here's a guide to some of the names to pay special attention to on main stages: Five of the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase finalists feature throughout the weekend, including this year's winner, Velvet Kente (6 p.m., Saturday, Triple-S Alarm Stage), which specializes in an awe-inspiring blend of funk-rock and Afrobeat. Earlier, on the same stage, singer/songwriter Jonathan Wilkins (1:30 p.m., Saturday, Triple-S Alarm Stage) marries smart, confessional lyrics with foot-stomping blues-rock. Dover-based teen-aged twins Nik and Sam (4:30 p.m., Saturday, Miller Lite Amphitheater) last played the festival as children. They've since signed a development deal with Warner Bros. and may be perched on the edge of mega fame. They're sure to charm a country crowd waiting for RiverBilly, James Otto and Jason Aldean.
Jones says he's heard a lot of buzz surrounding the American Princes' spot (7:45 p.m., Triple-S Alarm Stage) just before former Bush lead-singer Gavin Rossdale. Magnet Magazine named the Little Rock-based indie band's last record its number one album of the year last year. The Moving Front (8 p.m., Friday, Miller Lite Amphitheater) is another band opening for a headliner (the B-52s) that's sure to convert fans with its fiery post-punk. There's not a finer one-two punch of local acts than the Boondogs (3:30 p.m., Sunday, Triple-S Alarm Stage) followed by Jim Mize (5 p.m., Sunday, Triple-S Alarm Stage).
At the Arkansas Tent (sponsored again by the Arkansas Times), Central Arkansas's most impressive soul singer, Gina Gee (6:30 p.m.), kicks the weekend off on Friday with support from a live band. Genre-bending Eclipse Glasses (8 p.m.) blends Afrobeat, post-punk and other disparate styles while always maintaining a groove. The popular monthly dance party Cool Shoes (9:30 p.m.) takes a field trip. Organizers Deeter, DJ Shawn Lee and Risky Biz will offer short dance sets. Rapper 607 will make a special short live appearance, and Cameron Holifield will provide video collage.
Saturday starts with the Shelby Avenue Baptist Singers (2:30 p.m.), a collaboration between Searcy native Bonnie Montgomery and her husband, Jim Yates, of hymn singing. Montgomery returns, after a costume change, for Montgomery Trucking (3 p.m.), a set of original folk numbers. The Good Time Ramblers (4:30 p.m.) specialize in rowdy sing-along country rock. After a long hiatus, one of Little Rock's favorite singer/songwriters, Amy Garland (6 p.m.), returns with an ace backing band. North Little Rock's golden-throated folk singer Chris Denny (7:30 p.m.) takes the stage with one of the tightest bands around. Rockabilly legend Dale Hawkins (9:30 p.m.), who penned “Suzie Q,” closes out the night.
Sunday opens with prog rock upstarts An Orangutan (3:30 p.m.). New-wave powerhouse Kyoto Boom has spent the last few months recording; maybe the band will unveil new tunes. Another Times Showcase finalist, the See (6:30 p.m.), plays an impassioned and charismatic brand of indie rock. With a fine new album just released, Kevin Kerby + Battery (8 p.m.) close out the weekend with what's sure to be a raucous set.