Riverfest officials didn’t intentionally set out to honor New Orleans and its music scene, which have suffered greatly since Hurricane Katrina hit there nine months ago. But when the festival booked the Neville Brothers, Riverfest executive director DeAnna Shannon said, they decided to let the good times roll.
On Saturday, day two of the three-day festival this Memorial Day weekend, festival-goers will get a taste of the Crescent City in song and food. The west end of the Little Rock side of the festival will be turned into New Orleans north with the Neville family — who like the Marsalises are synonymous with great New Orleans music — taking up two headlining spots on the stage, while Riverfest volunteers spread around the Mardi Gras beads. Keep the tops on, however; this is a family festival.
“It wasn’t like we set out to pay tribute to New Orleans,” Shannon said, “but Gretchen Gray, our festival chair, was wanting to have a jazz band. We let the festival chair pick a band they want and we try to get them. We’ve had jazz on a big scale before and it didn’t draw well. It turned out, though, that the Nevilles from New Orleans were available and when Gretchen heard that, she said, ‘Let’s get them.’ ”
Getting the Nevilles means not only getting Aaron, Art, Cyril and Charles, but Aaron’s son, Ivan, who also fronts a seriously good ensemble of New Orleans musicians he calls Dumpstaphunk. Ivan’s band plays at 6 p.m. Saturday, then he’ll join his pop and uncles for the R&B classic group Neville Brothers at 9 p.m., all on the Triple S Alarm Stage.
Bluegrass great Del McCoury and his band will headline on Triple S on Friday night, and Texas honky-tonk sensation Pat Green is the Sunday headliner.
R&B band Kool and the Gang will headline at the Riverfest Amphitheatre (which becomes the Acxiom/Miller Lite Amphitheatre for the festival) on Friday night and country star Dwight Yoakam will peform on Saturday. In break with tradition, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra will not be the last act on the amphitheater stage Sunday, but will play at 6 p.m. and will be followed by rock band Lifehouse at 8:15 p.m., before the Osborne Family fireworks sparkle overhead. The fireworks, perhaps viewed best from the area around the Kidzone Stage between the Main Street and Broadway bridges, begin at 9:30 p.m.
In North Little Rock, where the lone Budweiser stage annually has most of the contemporary rock music acts, California-based hitmakers Train will bring a freightload of friends along for the Friday night show. Eliot Morris, the Zac Brown Band and Needtobreathe are currently touring with Train, and in a first for Riverfest, a headline act will fill the entire block of stage time, starting at 5:15 p.m.
Live and its charismatic frontman/singer Ed Kowalczyk are the Saturday headliner on the Bud stage at 9 p.m., after Christian act Switchfoot, which starts at 6 p.m. Classic rock band The Doobie Brothers finish up the festival in North Little Rock at 8:15 p.m. Sunday, after Morris Day and the Time play on that stage at 5 p.m.
The Kidzone and Family stages in between the amphitheater and Triple S will stage adult-oriented music at night.
While music accounts for $500,000 of Riverfest’s budget and is a main draw for the festival, it’s far from the only attraction. An estimated 240,000 attended last year, and some went simply for the food and drink, which this year will be sold by vendors on both sides of the river. In keeping with the New Orleans feel, new caterer Fat Sam’s will be on the scene in the central area of the Little Rock side with its Cajun delicacies, Shannon notes.
“They catered one of our meetings earlier this year, and people just went crazy saying how good the food was,” she said.
The ever-popular Flossie’s Funnel Cakes will have four stands throughout the festival, as will San Francisco Lemonade, which with its refillable cups last year proved to be much in demand.
Domestic and international beers and wines are available. No hard-liquor drinks will be found outside of the Underground Pub, the only River Market area club that will be enclosed within Riverfest’s fences. A recent change in the state’s liquor laws would have allowed the hard stuff; Shannon said that’s something to look at in the future.
Other popular acts returning to Riverfest are the Jesse White Tumblers, a youth group from inner city Chicago that annually wows festival-goers at various stages with their routines; the Boehmer Family, and Brian Kinder and his Kidsongs show.
Hours will be 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday in Little Rock, and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in North Little Rock and Little Rock. Shannon said the site layout for Riverfest remains almost identical to last year’s, with the exception of space on the east end in Little Rock giving way to construction on a Game and Fish Commission’s nature center. The Kidzone, moved last year to the shaded central area of Riverfront Park, remains there. Hundreds of children made good use of the fountain in that area, where a fire hose ran constantly and carpet was laid to making footing secure. The teen activity area that was near the River Market last year has been moved to the west end.
Riverfest’s International Village returns to Faucette Park on the North Little Rock side on Saturday and Sunday and will have appearances by the Heifer International-sponsored Watoto Children’s Choir from Uganda (they’ll also appear twice at the amphitheater); Andrew Ngundue, a Cameroon soccer player now living here, the Mirana Middle Eastern Dancers and Kenyan Safari Acrobats.
The Game and Fish Aquarium will be in North Little Rock, as well as a mechanical bull, rock climbing wall, and interactive exhibits (including simulators) from the U.S. Air Force, Ford Motor Co. and Discover Boating (its “Take Me Fishing” exhibit). The Arkansas Queen riverboat will offer rides for a minimal charge.
Little Rock will have a UALR technology zone (that will feature wireless internet), an art zone for children ages 8-12, a Navy dive tank, the First Tee interactive exhibit, a Build-a-Bear Tour workshop in the children’s area, a Krispy Kreme dipping station, a moon walk, Big Monster Shop ’n Bump, a regular kazoo show with audience participation and free kazoos, and Radio Disney at the Kidzone Stage.
“We want people to mill around all over the festival and get over to the other side if they’ve been used to just staying on one side,” Shannon said. North Little Rock has been a part of Riverfest since 2002.
Shannon said that response outside Arkansas has been impressive again; last year, people from 29 states purchased tickets in advance from the Riverfest office. “This year, we’ve got people from as far away as Oregon and Michigan who have called and are coming,” she said. “People are flabbergasted when they find out it’s $7.50. They always hear that and ask, ‘So, what’s the cost of tickets for the concerts.’ They can’t believe that it’s all in one price.”