- GOOD ENOUGH FOR GREEN DAY: Local rockers Smoke Up Johnny play the Budweiser stage on Saturday.
From the beginning, Riverfest has always had a local flavor. Even as it's grown into a massive event, encompassing both sides of the river and drawing upwards of 200,000 folks, Riverfest has given Arkansas's talent stage time. But this year, aside from the big name headliners (and that's a pretty big aside), the festival is packed full of Arkansas acts. For the first time in a long while — perhaps ever — just about all of the best performers in the state will be on display.
This development doesn't come fully by design. Economic considerations pushed the Riverfest brass to steer local bookers Tim Jones and nephew Ben Jones of Porter-Jones Entertainment away from pricier regional and national acts to local talent. “Local groups draw well. They're bringing fans with them,” said Riverfest director DeAnna Korte. “Sometimes when you bring in a regional act people may not be familiar with them, and there are travel expenses to consider. Also, there's great talent in the state, and there's been a call from local acts who've wanted to open higher up.”
Ben Jones, who at the time of booking Riverfest was working under the guidance of his uncle but has since taken over Porter-Jones, handled the bulk of local booking.
“My marching orders were to get the best Central Arkansas bands to fill up the roster,” he explained. “I tried to include bands from as many different backgrounds and styles as possible.”
Of the more than 20 bands Jones booked, the highlights include three finalists from this year's Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase. The winner, rapper 607 (7:30 p.m. Friday, Triple-S Alarm stage), is as dynamica performer as Arkansas has. With inventive lyrics, a highly adaptable flow, and strange, but always compelling, self-made beats, he's likely to win over the crowd drawn to the live rap group Arrested Development. Kyoto Boom (4:30 p.m. Saturday, Budweiser Stage), who finished second to 607 in the Showcase, plays infectious new wave that's perfect for huge stages. Perhaps the Spa City's favorite act and also a Showcase finalist, Brian Martin and the Circulators (5 p.m. Sunday, Triple-S Alarm Stage), play a swinging brand of folk-blues.
Still others to look out for: Smoke Up Johnny (1:30 p.m. Saturday, Budweiser Stage) plays such a ferocious brand of garage rock that Green Day hand-picked the band to open for them on a handful of dates last week. Jones purposefully scheduled Greg Spradlin (6 p.m. Saturday, Triple-S Alarm Stage) a few spots ahead of Jonny Lang. It's a long-held belief here that Spradlin does the white-boy blues (and plays the guitar) as well as anyone anywhere. Shannon Wurst (3 p.m., Axciom/Miller Lite Stage) recently made it to the semifinals of the “Talented 20s” contest of radio's “A Prairie Home Companion.” The Northwest Arkansas singer/songwriter plays folk and sings sweetly. No one around does bright pop-rock better than the Easys (3 p.m. Saturday, Budweiser Stage).
It's been nearly a decade since Riverfest devoted a stage exclusively to Arkansas music. This year, the Arkansas Music Tent, the brainchild of Riverfest board member Rob Bell, once again gives local performers prominent, headlining spots all three days.
“I just felt like Riverfest was missing a strong local component. The festival is big and drawing lots of people, but I thought the tent could be a great opportunity to showcase more local talent in the spotlight. We hope that by putting acts later in the evening they might have a better chance to be exposed.”
The open-air Arkansas Tent, on the North Little Rock side at the easternmost edge of the festival grounds (just west of the Junction Bridge), will feature a small stage. A specialty beer stand with a bar attached will be situated in the back of the tent. There will be tables and chairs, too, but plenty of space for standing or dancing. Bell says he hopes the tent will have a club-like atmosphere.
“I think it'll be pretty laid back, which I think is a good thing at Riverfest,” Bell said. “Practically speaking, it's great to have a place to sit down and relax. It's going to be right on the river. If the weather cooperates, it'll be breezy. And it'll be a chance to listen to music and not have to endure the tight push-to-the-front elbowing kind of scenario if you want to see the headliners.”
From the beginning, Bell said he hoped to draw a good cross-section of Arkansas acts.
“I didn't want it weighted toward any one genre,” he said. “I wanted to get really solid performers in each genre that any music lover would enjoy.”
By the looks of his line-up, he's accomplished his goal and then some. From pop to punk, soul to gospel, folk to rap, he's assembled a diverse and impressive roster of Arkansas's finest. The line-up includes 13 acts. On Friday, pop-rockers Grand Serenade open the tent with big hooks and lyrics about girls and the malaise that arty 20somethings always seem to suffer (6:30 p.m.); Nobility, from Nashville, but with Arkansas ties, plays infectious, hook-heavy pop-rock (8 p.m.), and Moving Front does hard-charging post-punk primed to reach an audience beyond Arkansas (9:30 p.m.).
Saturday, one of the city's finest drum corps, the McClellan High School Drum Line, opens the tent (3 p.m.); the funkiest gospel group in town, Pastor Michael Perkins and the Melody Masters, believes that the quickest route to your soul is through your feet (4:30 p.m.); New Orleans transplant Ted Ludwig, arguably Arkansas's finest jazz man, plays the 12-string guitar with a jazz combo (6 p.m.); neo-soulman Lydel Williams brings his band 220 Live along for the ride (7:30 p.m.) and Musicians Showcase finalist Epiphany and One Night Stand plays live hip-hop that's as smart as it is infectious (9:30 p.m.).
On Sunday, the folk duo Pat and Mattie make their first appearance in Central Arkansas since performing on “A Prairie Home Companion” in March (2 p.m.); sweet-voiced folk singer Sara Thomas brings a full band for a rare appearance (3:30 p.m.); Little Rock's honky-tonk heroes the Salty Dogs play a set of classic country covers and originals (5 p.m.); long-standing pop-rock vets the Boondogs specialize in making songs of unease sound really pretty (6:30 p.m.) and Jim Dickinson, the Little Rock native and famed producer and sideman (his producing credits include Big Star, the Replacements and the North Mississippi Allstars, and his session work was featured on albums by the Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin), plays a unique blend of Southern rock, hill country blues and wild-eyed psychedelia in the closing spot of the tent (8 p.m.).
“I think it's bringing us back full-circle,” Korte said of the tent. “You need to draw the crowds and the big name entertainment does that, but you don't want to forget how you got there and you don't want to forget your roots.”
Here's to not forgetting your roots for years to come.