- READY TO DANCE THIS MESS AROUND: The B-52s headline on Friday.
She won't play weather prognosticator. In the wake of recent rain-soaked festivals like Toad Suck Daze and Memphis in May, Riverfest director DeAnna Korte says this year's theme, among organizers, is “it is what it is.” But, fingers crossed, if the rain does hold off this Memorial Day weekend, Korte hopes the sun will be as big a draw as any of the entertainment. “If the rain is out of the way, hopefully people are ready to get out of the house and enjoy themselves.”
If last year is any indication, that shouldn't be a problem. Even with some showers, a record-setting 252,000 swarmed the riverfront in Little Rock and North Little Rock last year. In anticipation of another record crowd, Riverfest's directors have reconfigured to include rolling green hills of the Clinton Library grounds, something that's long been part of the grand plan, according to Korte. That's where the Bud Light Stage, positioned, at least for last several years, on the thin strip of lawn on North Shore Park in North Little Rock, will be. The Triple-S stage, long set up on a parking lot at the western edge of Riverfront Park, moves to North Little Rock stage. To ease the flow of traffic between the two cities, the Junction Bridge will be open.
The new layout should give not just concert fans, but all festival-goers, room to spread out, Korte says. Riverfest is more than just music, with kids' and teen attractions of all stripes happening all weekend — climbing walls, bounce rooms, race car simulators, trampoline slam dunk demonstrations, on and on. Two big family-friendly hits return to North Little Rock Saturday and Sunday, when the Super Retriever Series sends dogs flying high and long in its championships. At 2 p.m. Sunday, Retriever Series organizers will once again try to assemble a multitude of kids under 16 to blow duck calls simultaneously for three minutes (parents, sign your kid up at superretrieverseries.com).
Nothing pulls in the crowds like big-name acts, however, and Riverfest is chock-full of them this year. As usual, there's a little something for everyone. Legends like Willie Nelson and Buddy Guy. Eighties favorites like the B-52s, Heart and half of New Edition. Youthful hard rockers like Flyleaf and Hinder. Read all about them below (and check page 20 for the lowdown on the Arkansas and sterling local lineup on main stages).
FRIDAY, MAY 22
9:30 p.m., Miller Lite Amphitheater
Of all of the bands to emerge from the punk/new wave scene in the late '70s, none has been co-opted so fully by Jazzercisers as this wacky Athens, Ga., act. But it's not just your unitarded mom who knows that after “bang, bang, bangin' on the door, baby” it's “tin roof rusted!” It's kitsch lovers, sports crowds the country wide — hell, pretty much anyone who was around in the early '90s and enjoyed dancing. Named for the beehive hairdo shaped like the nose cone on a B-52 bomber sported by the group's female lead singers, the band spent the late '70s and early '80s releasing loopy, eminently danceable material about dancing lobsters, planets with pink air and gay pride (via an extended swimming pool metaphor). They were mostly written off by 1989, before “Cosmic Thing,” their sixth album, was released, but with singles like “Roam” and “Love Shack,” it became the B-52s biggest commercial hit. After a long hiatus, the band reunited last year to release “Funplex,” an album multi-instrumentalist Keith Strickland described to Rolling Stone as “loud, sexy rock & roll with the beat pumped up to hot pink.”
9:30 p.m., Triple-S Alarm Stage
It's amazing how much, more than 10 years after Bush ceded the post-Nirvana grunge crown and faded into near obscurity, the flame still burns for the band's former lead singer. At least in my crowd, the ladies remain gaga over Rossdale, who, as the longtime Mr. Gwen Stefani, never stays out of limelight long. Otherwise, he hasn't really been burning it up in the music biz lately. After Bush went on indefinite hiatus in 2001, he formed a new grunge band with an equally uninspired name — Institute — that landed a song on a forgotten summer blockbuster and faded away quietly. His latest release and first solo album, “WANDERlust,” finds him exploring, um, “soft grunge.” Get ready to sway. But the festival circuit is nothing if not a nostalgia party. There's no way we won't get at least a few of the “Sixteen Stone”-era hits.
9:30 p.m., Bud Light Stage
No disrespect to the memory of James Brown, but surely the Red Headed Stranger deserves his vacated title — Hardest Working Man in Show Business. Just in recent years, he's topped the Norwegian charts, collaborated with Snoop Dogg, appeared, as a weed-smoking guru, in a film called “Surfer, Dude,” stumped for Dennis Kucinich, advocated for NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and co-authored a book called “The Tao of Willie.” All the while releasing a steady stream of albums — a reggae-country hybrid, a collaboration with Asleep at the Wheel, one called “Naked Willie” — and touring almost without pause. Oh yeah, he just celebrated his 76th birthday in April. He may be immortal, but at this point in his career, Willie doesn't do much singing live. It's more like he's talkin' through his hits. But do you really care? It's Willie (!), and he's the first headliner at the new Clinton Center stage.
SATURDAY, MAY 23
BENJY DAVIS PROJECT
5 p.m., Bud Light Stage
This Baton Rouge-based band has been a steady presence in River Market clubs for years. In seven years, the band's released three albums of anthemic folk-rock reminiscent of a Southern version of the Counting Crows. They're bound to have a pack of college-age kids singing along.
7:45 p.m., Miller Lite Amphitheater
His fans call themselves “Otto-maniacs.” He had a small role in “Road House 2” (straight to DVD). He's part of the MuzikMafia, the Nashville group of writers and performers led by Big & Rich and Gretchen Wilson and guided by the creed, “Muzik without prejudice.” That approach has served Otto well on two albums, “Days of Our Lives” and “Sunset Man,” collections that marry twang with pop and a fair amount of blue-eyed soul. Look for a sing-along when Otto gets to his number one song, “Just Got Started Loving You.”
9:30 p.m., Miller Lite Amphitheater
This burgeoning country star, straight outta Macon, Ga., knows the formula. Since early 2005, he's put out three albums of country as gritty as country-pop can be. Most of his biggest hits have been celebrations of Southern culture. Like the Saturday afternoon anthem “Hicktown” (“Well you can see the neighbor's butt crack, nailing on his shingles/And his woman's smokin' Pall Malls, watchin' Laura Ingalls/And Granny's gettin' lit, she's headin' out to bingo”). Or “Johnny Cash,” a screw-this-lets-go-to-Vegas romp. Or, most recently, the number one hit, “She's Country,” which is filled with shout-outs to a “mamajama from down in Alabama” and a “Mississippi hippie” and even a “Kansas princess,” but no Arkansas “mee-maw” or “scofflaw” or “hoo-hah.” New verse please, Mr. Aldean.
7:45 p.m., Triple-S Alarm Stage
The latest in the long tradition of Riverfest's hosting of white boys who can play the blues, Patrick Sweany comes cut from a different cloth. Not to say that he can't shred and wail with the best of them, but his blues are more Black Keys than Kenny Wayne Shepherd. In fact, the Keys' Dan Aurebach produced the Massillon, Ohio, native's most recent album, “Every Hour Is a Dollar Gone.” It's a late-night mix of the best parts of blues, rock and soul that should be the soundtrack to dive bars everywhere. Through a handful of live appearances at White Water in the last year or so, the singer/guitarist has amassed a passionate local following bound to be down front singing along. Join in. There's not a stronger three-act line-up in the festival, with the Times Showcase winner Velvet Kente performing at 6 p.m., followed by Sweany, followed by Buddy Guy.
7 p.m., Bud Light Stage
Because you can't have a summer music festival without post-grunge cock rock and drippy power ballads — Hinder! Straight out of Oklahoma City, this five-piece has built its reputation on the same dead-behind-the-eyes commercial rock of Nickleback, the hedonistic swagger of Motley Crue (not coincidentally, the band just finished touring with Crue and is soon to head out with Nickleback) and unmatched lyrical brilliance. To wit: “Let's go home and get stoned/Cause the sex is so much better when you're mad.” An Arkansas connection may've enticed the band to Riverfest. Lead singer Austin Winkler is married to Jonesboro native Jami Miller-Winkler, a Miss Hawaiian Tropic model and actress.
9:15 p.m., Triple-S Alarm Stage
Unquestionably one of the greatest blues guitarists ever, Buddy Guy, at 72, remains the king of the Chicago blues. He was born in Lettsworth, La., but like a lot of African Americans of his generation born in the South, he moved to the Windy City in the mid-'50s. There, he fell in with Muddy Waters and the city's blues scene, eventually serving as a session man for just about all the Chess label's greats — Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter. Though he's often claimed that Leonard Chess wouldn't let him play his guitar loud enough, his work for that label, particularly from 1960-1967, stands out in a decorated career that's seen him win five Grammy Awards, a National Medal of the Arts and get inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. But don't view him as just another nostalgia act. Guy's still putting out blistering new material.
9:30 p.m., Bud Light Stage
Calling all cougar lovers/aspirants. As you can see from the above promo photo, the heart of Heart, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson, are still looking pretty hot at 58 and 55, respectively. They remain, of course, the standard bearers for woman-fronted hard rock and power balladry. It's a reputation built on defying expectations. With songs like “Magic Man” and “Barracuda” on the band's 1976 debut, the sisters Wilson became, if not the first female-fronted hard rock act, the first to matter. Then, again in 1985, when most everyone had written the sisters off, they reemerged with big hair and even bigger soft rock anthems, songs like “These Dreams,” “Never” and “What About Love.” They've since returned, on their most recent studio album, to more riff-tastic guitar rock, but the smart money is on a career-spanning review at Riverfest. Hey, and maybe Cameron Crowe will be running around the festival. He's toured with wife Nancy in the past.
SUNDAY, MAY 24
4 p.m., Miller Lite Amphitheater
Here's what you need: one ounce vodka, one ounce peach liqueur, one ounce Blue Curacao, cranberry juice and dry ice. That's the recipe for a funky cold medina, which might be what it'll take to wrap your head around Sunday night at the Miller Lite Amphitheater: Tone Loc followed by the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra followed by half of New Edition all grown up. Yes! But back to “Funky Cold Medina” — the song, not the drink. It, and the rapper's other big single, “Wild Thing” (both co-written by Young MC), helped Tone Loc's “Loc-ed After Dark” become only the second rap album to top the pop charts (after the Beastie Boys' “License to Ill”). That was 20 years ago. Since then, he's appeared in movies, memorable (“Ace Ventura,” “Heat”) and not so much (“Surf Ninjas”), served as a fake judge on the WB's “American Idol” spoof “Superstar USA” and, recently, appeared with Slick Rick, MC Hammer and Coolio at an Indian casino in California.
6 p.m., Bud Light Stage
Because you can't have a summer music festival in the South without a vocally Christian, angst-y hard rock band whose lyrics might be about Jesus, but just as easily might be about a crush — Flyleaf! Aside from all that, the East Texas-based rockers also — hold your breath — features a girl on vocals. That's not quite earth shattering, but pretty damn novel in the world of alt-metal. To further separate itself, Flyleaf also isn't afraid to mix a little melody into all the hollering. Helps the crossover appeal. A sophomore album is in the works. Maybe there'll be live previewing.
3 DOORS DOWN
8:15 p.m., Bud Light Stage
Southern alt-rock never dies. You probably remember this Escatawpa, Miss., band for its sophomore record, “The Better Life.” Or at least the album's most popular single, “Kryptonite.” You know: “If I go crazy then will you still call me Superman?” Since that heart-tugging anthem — written, incidentally, when lead singer Brad Arnold was just 15 — the band's released four albums, worked with Bob Seger and Alex Lifeson (of Rush), recorded a cover version of Lynyrd Skynyrd's most underrated song (“That Smell”), lost its drummer to Nickleback, gained the former drummer for Puddle of Mud, recorded a song called “Citizen/Soldier” and shot a video for it that doubles as an ad for the National Guard (the band plays on top of a hill during what appears to be the apocalypse in the short). The group's fan base remains vibrant. Last year's eponymous album scored a top position on the Billboard charts and has been certified platinum.
HEADS OF STATE
8:15 p.m., Miller Lite Amphitheater
In the tradition of New Edition, half of the group's former members — Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill and Ralph Tresvant — are performing again under one of the worst, most unimaginative band names in the history of bad band names. Somewhere Maurice Starr is smiling. This Bell Biv DeVoe-less line-up features the core of New Edition: Tresvant, whose chirpy falsetto took the lead on all of the boy band's early hits (“Candy Girl,” “Cool it Now”), but whose solo production, aside from his hit single, “Sensitivity,” has been limited; Brown, who was New Edition's most dynamic performer and first to branch into a solo career that spawned, of course, timeless classics like “My Prerogative,” “Roni” and “Humpin' Around” and made him famous enough that, 12 years after his last album, he's still starring in reality shows; and Gill, who replaced Brown in New Edition and transitioned the group from novelty to serious R&B powerhouse. Gill's career, while not as successful as Brown's, was one of the strongest in the genre in the early '90s. Live, look for the trio to mine the New Edition catalog and each member's solo repertoire, too.
LITTLE RIVER BAND
8:15 p.m., Triple-S Alarm Stage
Little River Band is the first Australian rock band to enjoy prolonged commercial success in the U.S. From 1977 to 1982, the group scored 10 Billboard top 20 singles. Maybe you remember yacht rock anthems like “Cool Change”? In 2004, the Australian Recording Industry Association Hall of Fame inducted the group. This is not that band. Only American Wayne Nelson, who joined the group in 1980 and sings lead on “Night Owls,” a sort of neutered version of “Night Moves” that made it to number six on the charts in 1981, remains from any incarnation of the band that you'd care about. Most of these dudes have only been around for a year or two. Skip.