It's easy to malign Riverfest. The headliners aren't often contemporarily relevant. It takes forever to get anywhere. Turkey legs aren't readily available everywhere. It's teeming with people, many of whom aren't wearing shirts, but should be.
But that's small talk. There are just as many reasons to celebrate the Memorial Day Weekend get-down. To wit:
1. It's teeming. Yes, the crowds make getting a beer and a footlong corndog a logistical nightmare, and yes, there are times, particularly at the end of the night, when Riverfest feels like nothing but a full-on confrontation with humanity — particularly this year, when a record 253,000 attended — but you can't argue with the contributing factors. It's cheap and there are opportunities for just about every age. So the people come. And not just the shirtless and teen-aged. In my three days' experience, I communed with stroller-pushing mothers, older black ladies in church hats, and a raving middle-aged dude with a mustache who kept yelling at my wife, “She's the one! That's her!” There's no event of anything even approaching similar scale that brings together such a diversity of people.
2. It's well run. Some 2,500 people volunteer to make Riverfest happen, and they're not there just to drink free beer and get backstage for Huey Lewis. You couldn't walk more than 10 feet without coming across a Riverfest-shirt-clad volunteer. When the rain came, briefly, on Saturday, crews were out almost immediately with hay for mud puddles. The information tents were plentiful and informational, and you didn't have to hike too far from any given spot to convert real cash into Rivermoney. Save for the monstrous swells of people gathered for ZZ Top — the crowd stretched from the Budweiser Stage, positioned near the Broadway Bridge, to close to the Main Street Bridge — there were usually enough Porta-Potties to go around.
3. New additions. The newly opened Junction Bridge eased the flow across the river and made for a nice perch to catch acts playing the amphitheater or to just take a break. Except for end-of-the-night traffic, when the masses swarmed the bridge like ants (you couldn't have paid me to jump into that flow), you could usually stake out a nice spot to watch the river go by and not feel too claustrophobic. The opened bits of the new Riverfront Park playground went over well too. The “space net,” a large climbing net atop some sort of bouncy surface, felt pretty space-y, and with temperatures reaching summertime-oppressive levels, the splash pad, with jets of water shooting out, was always in use.
The Arkansas Tent, the small open-air tent near the Junction Bridge, exceeded the early buzz surrounding it (the Arkansas Times was one of its sponsors). I visited it several times each day, and the crowd was always full and always changing. It helped that there were a fair amount of tables and chairs and a big box fan blowing. Key, too, was the diversity of the line-up. This was Arkansas music at its fullest — from the post-punk protest of the Moving Front to the rousing gospel of Pastor Michael Perkins and the Melody Makers to the honky-tonk swing of the Salty Dogs.
Jim Dickinson, a Little Rock-born legend who's known for his producing prowess, delivered a hugely fun barrelhouse workout to close the tent down on Sunday. Backed by local players Greg Spradlin, Jason Weinheimer, Chris Michaels and Dylan Turner, he gave a set that doubled as a tent-shaking prelude to the fireworks and an Arkansas music history lesson (he played “Chickens They Grow Tall in Arkansas,” gave us the etymology of “Rackensackers” and covered songs by Arkansans Albert King, Sir Mack Rice, Howlin' Wolf and Billy Lee Riley).
4. The main stage line-up. Most of the big names on the bill aren't putting out albums like they used to. Nostalgia played a key factor. But you can't argue with 253,000.
It was great, too, this year to see local acts replace anonymous regional talent. I've seen the Easys and 607 and Kyoto Boom dozens of times, but hearing them with huge speakers was a whole 'nother experience. Props to Bylights, who worked light and sound, too. Everything looked and sounded great.