Riverfest takes its lumps every year. It's either over-priced, or driven
by an underwhelming roster, or too crowded, say its critics. But the
masses continue to swarm. Around a quarter of a million have attended in
each of the last three years. Perhaps they come because there's nothing
better to do in Arkansas on Memorial Day Weekend, or maybe the
festival's critics are mostly wrong.
Take the price. As the festival's executive director, DeAnna Korte, is fond of saying, compare Riverfest's weekend ticket charge ($15 in advance, $25 at the gate) to just about any other entertainment outing. It's either on par or, in the case of something like Magic Springs, significantly cheaper, particularly if you scoop up one of the 70,000 advance tickets available, until they're sold out, at area Wendy's and Big Red Stores. Compare Riverfest to a typical concert, say by one of this year's headliners alone, and you'd expect to pay somewhere in the neighborhood of the $15 to $25 you can pay at Riverfest to see more than a dozen of them.
Speaking of the headliners, it'd be hard to argue that this year's lineup isn't the best the festival's seen in years (more on that below). Yes, your favorite band probably isn't among the roster. But that likely has something to do with expense (Kings of Leon and The Dave Matthews Band, for instance, would cost Riverfest half or more of its $600,000 to $650,000 music budget, according to Korte) or the festival circuit (name indie bands rarely venture outside of big indie festivals) or playing outside in the Arkansas heat on Memorial Day Weekend.
As to the suggestion that Riverfest isn't arranged well, the jury's still out. For the first year since 2002, the festival won't include North Little Rock within its boundaries. The shift southward comes in response to feedback from attendees, according to Korte.
“Last year, people enjoyed having the Clinton Center stage and the amphitheater stage so close together,” she said earlier this year when the plans were announced. “They really like having everything on one side of the river.”
Korte said she doesn't anticipate any added congestion. The Little Rock grounds will extend farther west than they did last year and, to combat crowd-bottlenecking, the southeastern boundary will broaden to allow crowds to travel in front of and behind the Museum of Discovery when traveling to and from the Clinton Center stage, which returns for the second year. The Junction Bridge remains open to pedestrians. The Main Street Bridge will be closed, though the trolley will tote folks from city to city for free.
Festival-goers will be able to move westward from the festival's two biggest stages, the Bud Light Stage at the Clinton Center and the Miller Lite stage at the Riverfest Amphitheatre, to the Times-sponsored Arkansas Music Tent (more on it on page 19) near the back of Rumba-Revolution, and then on to the Triple-S Stage, which returns to the parking lot under the Broadway bridge after a year away on the North Shore Riverwalk in North Little Rock.
Also in response to feedback from attendees, the annual Sunday fireworks display will start at dark, around 9 p.m., with the day's headliners to follow.
While the north side of the river won't be part of the festival's ticketed area, it'll still play host to Riverfest events, including, new for this year, hot air balloon races, a 5K fun run and a stage devoted to “inspirational music.” Access to those activities will be free, as will access to the North Shore Park during the fireworks.
Of course, Riverfest is, first and foremost, a family festival and all the standard kids' stuff — jugglers, ventriloquists, climbing walls, bounce rooms — returns. Plus, as part of U.S. Navy Week, there'll be a flight simulator, and the hugely popular Super Retriever Series Championships (dogs leaping, long distance, into water) and what Korte says was probably last year's most popular attraction, the Disc-connected K9s (dogs athletically catching Frisbees), near the western boundary of the grounds.
As for the “it's too crowded complaint.” That's fair. It is a full-on confrontation with humanity. But suck it up. What else are you gonna do this weekend?
FRIDAY, MAY 28
CROSS CANADIAN RAGWEED
8 p.m., Bud Light Stage (Clinton Center).
Cross Canadian Ragweed tours hard. The rock-tinged country band — which takes its name from rhythm guitarist Grady Cross, lead vocalist/guitarist Cody Canada, drummer Randy Ragsdale and original bassist Mark Wiedemann (Jeremy Plato fills the role now) — has played more than 220 dates every year for 13 of the last 15. For most of that run, Little Rock's been a frequent stop, with CCR regularly selling out one of the city's biggest clubs, Revolution. But fans shouldn't skip this gig confident that another will soon roll around. A recent press release announced that the band would soon “take a break from life on the road” indefinitely. The Red Dirt country standard-bearers come to the festival behind the album “Happiness and All the Other Things,” the Oklahoma-based act's 10th overall and fifth on Universal South. LM.
LITTLE RIVER BAND
9:15 p.m., Triple-S Alarm Stage.
Last year, a Sunday monsoon kept Little River Band and most of the day's lineup from ever taking the stage. But Australia's champions of yacht rock are committed to Riverfest! Or, who knows, maybe there weren't any casino stages available. What we do know is that this Little River Band is Little River Band in name alone. The Little River Band that scored 10 Billboard top 20 singles, that produced hits like “Reminiscing” and “Lady,” that was inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association Hall of Fame — that group plays reunion concerts occasionally, but under the significantly less appealing name Birtles Shorrock Goble (the last names of the original members) because they no longer own the rights to the band name. Only American Wayne Nelson, who joined the group in 1980 and sings lead on “Night Owls,” a single that made it to the top of the charts in 1981, remains from any incarnation of the band that made any commercial impact. But then again nothing goes with cool river breezes like yacht rock. LM.
9:30 p.m., Bud Light Stage ?(Clinton Center).
There are superheroes with more believable origin stories than Gary Allan. Twenty years ago, Allan told CMT, he worked on a car lot when he wasn't playing music. One of his co-workers happened to leave a demo tape in a truck that a rich woman bought. After driving around with the tape for two weeks, the woman and her husband came back to the dealership to ask about Allan. He told them his life story, and told them that he wanted to go to Nashville and make a demo. They asked how much, and he said $12,000. And they wrote him a check for $12,000. Within six months, Allan had a record deal. He repaid the couple their $12,000 and gave them a percentage of his first record, “Used Heart for Sale.” Since then, he's released seven albums of gritty, often deadpan mainstream country, most recently “Get Off on the Pain.” LM.
EARTH, WIND & FIRE
9:45 p.m., Miller Lite Stage ?(Riverfest Amphitheatre).
Young people might look on Earth, Wind & Fire dismissively, as a cheeseball relic of the '70s and '80s, the shiny, happy, horn-soaked antecedent to wedding bands everywhere. But this ain't for them. Grown folks don't mind a healthy dose of positivism or smooth soul in their funk. Particularly, when it comes wrapped in familiar songs. With more than 50 gold and platinum albums and 33 charting pop singles, including “Let's Groove” and “After the Love Has Gone,” the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famers should be playing to an audience that sings back to them. It's hard to imagine any other Riverfest act drawing a larger crowd. LM.
SATURDAY, MAY 29
6 p.m., Bud Light Stage (Clinton Center)
Turns out Uncle Kracker has a decent hold on longevity. Even though his first hit single, 2001's inescapable “Follow Me” had one-hit wonder written all over its farmer-tanned saunter, the Michigander has released three charting albums since and has maintained a presence on the radio, most recently with his country/adult contemporary crossover hit, “Smile.” Once a band mate of Kid Rock (and, in high school, emcee partner to Eminem), Uncle Kracker specializes in a wrong-side-of-the-street swagger that's goofy and out of place but still somehow sincere and enduring, like his menthol-scratched voice. JT.
7:45 p.m., Bud Light Stage ?(Clinton Center)
When I happened onto a Tuesday night road trip to a Lucero show at a metal venue in Conway as a drunk college freshman, I was one in a gaggle of sauced teen-agers, getting our heads twisted by this anonymous young band with two albums under its name. Those ragged, drawling punks on stage became not only hugely popular but enormously respected years later. It's been a long, road-worn path, one that's landed the guys on Universal Records, with eight albums and a bona fide cult following, to boot. Ben Nichols and Lucero have, I think it's safe to say, become a Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band for Arkansas and Tennessee; Nichols' voice, all worn from whiskey and Winstons, has become one of those instantly recognizable and oft-imitated rasps that defines not only a band, but a genre at large. Look for this to draw one of the most energetic crowds of the weekend. JT.
BELL BIV DEVOE
9:15 p.m., Triple-S Alarm Stage.
After some 10,000 — by Riverfest organizers' count — danced in the rain last year to the sounds of Heads of State, a nostalgia group comprised of half of New Edition (Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill and Ralph Tresvant), Riverfest's Korte decided to carry over the reunion — with the other half of that seminal ‘80s R&B boy band. I'm talking, of course, about Bell Biv Devoe, the trio of Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe, who, despite serving as background players in New Edition, formed like Voltron to pioneer the influential R&B and hip-hop blend New Jack Swing and own junior high dance floors across the country in the early 1990s. Perhaps you remember a jam called “Poison”? It taught us “Never trust a big butt and smile.” Or one called “Do Me!”? It taught us that it never hurts to add an exclamation point when you really want to get your point across. LM.
9:30 p.m., Miller Lite Stage ?(Riverfest Amphitheatre).
Fresh-faced, dimpled and with a mouthful of glistening pearly whites, Oklahoma country star Blake Shelton is a marketer's dream. He's dreamy enough to make female fans swoon, and rough and tumble enough, lyrically, to provide the soundtrack for anyone who fancies himself rough and tumble. Even if you're not cowed by his looks or bravura, Shelton is confident he can reach your inner fan. “We all got a hillbilly bone down deep inside,” he sings on his recent hit, “Hillbilly Bone.” “No matter where you from you just can't hide it/And when the band starts banging and the fiddle saw/You can't help but hollering, Yee Haw!” LM.
THE BLACK CROWES
9:30 p.m., Bud Light Stage ?(Clinton Center).
This Atlanta-based act is going into its 26th year as America's premiere blues/mod/hard rock band. After their 1990 breakout single, a cover of Otis Redding's great “Hard to Handle,” and being named “The Most Rock and Roll Rock and Roll Band in the World” by British music rag Melody Maker, the Crowes spent a spell in the '90s as a rootsy alternative to grunge and pop-punk, threw in the towel in 2002 and regrouped five years ago to hit the road and return to the studio. Since, they've rolled over tens of thousands of miles and released two well-received albums to a devoted, international fan base. These guys have been defining rock star antics for years, to boot. They are all sibling rivalry (the band is led by bearded, spatting Robinson brothers, Chris and Richard), bone thin, movie star-marrying and pot-smoking. They've been accused of cribbing too much and too directly from their influences, but when you're imitating some of the greatest music ever made — The Rolling Stones, The Faces, Otis Redding, The Allman Brothers — it's hard to complain too much. The Crowes are known for a great stage show, so expect them to bring the choogle for the Little Rock crowd. JT.
CEDRIC BURNSIDE ?& LIGHTNIN' MALCOLM
7:30 p.m., Triple-S Alarm Stage.
The Juke Joint Duo, as Cedric and Lightnin' are known to blues dudes, has been a familiar, house-packing act on the White Water Tavern stage for years now. Lightnin' Malcolm, the awesomely tubby guitarist with a gold chain ever-present on his neck, and Cedric Burnside, sinewy grandson of R.L. and one of the coolest-looking dudes ever put behind a kit, piece together some of the tightest, head-nodding hill country blues revival music around. The two are working overtime on Sunday, hitting White Water Tavern afterwards for a special after-party show of their signature catchy, funky, sweaty speaker meat. JT.
STEVE MILLER BAND
9:30 p.m., Miller Lite Stage ?(Riverfest Amphitheatre).
Consider Steve Miller Band's “Greatest Hits 1974-1978.” Every other week, some canonical band releases a career-spanning greatest hits album that can't touch what Steve Miller Band did in four years. “Rock'n Me,” “Take the Money and Run,” “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Jet Airliner” — untouchable. And this snapshot doesn't even take in the band's latter output like “Heart Like a Wheel” or the eternally awesome “Abracadabra” (whose music video epitomizes awesome '80s cocaine-on-the-editing-bay logic). With 26 albums under his umbrella and a new one, “Bingo!,” a self-described “party record” of '60s soul and R&B covers, coming in June, it looks like the Midnight Toker (AKA The Gangster of Love, AKA Maurice) doesn't plan to stop soon. Also, Steve Miller Band wrote the greatest, most sincere song about the joys of eating chili with “Hot Chili.” Sample lyric: “Hot chili is groovy/after a movie or watchin' TV.” Too good. JT.
9:30 p.m., Triple-S Alarm Stage.
Robert Cray's come a long way from his stage time as the bassist for Otis Day & The Knights in “National Lampoon's Animal House.” He's made the cover of Rolling Stone, had a signature Fender Stratocaster made for/named after him, become best friends with Eric Clapton, pulled down bags and bags of Grammy gold and now tours with a band made of members with their own gilded gramophones from other projects. To boot, every studio album he's recorded since 1995 has hit one of the top three places on Billboard's blues charts. JT.
10 p.m., Miller Lite Stage ?(Riverfest Amphitheatre).
Bill O'Reilly's once-sworn enemy and actor in 2004's Academy Award-winning Best Picture “Crash” also happens to be one of the most consistently entertaining rappers out there. After 10 years of hit after hit — his singles discography might as well be called a collection of the best ass-shakers of the decade — the instantly recognizable timbre of his voice has practically become an immediate seal of quality. It would be hard to find another rapper that has more fun nailing syllables on the beat. Luda's flow? It's kind of untouchable when he's hitting the gas, then the brakes, doing verbal gymnastics the entire time. Do you remember how you went “ohh!” (and you did because everyone did) when you first heard his guest spot in Chingy's “Holidae In?” “Some call me Ludacris, some call me Mr. Wiggles/far from little/make your mammary glands wiggle?” Those are words from a cat who can tell you tons about stressed and unstressed syllables. You can't even read that without feeling cool. He's hilarious, he's awesome, he's an immediate party-starter and he's probably the most anticipated act for Riverfest this year. JT.