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A new era for Riverfest 

In its 38th year, Little Rock's annual summer music festival reinvents itself.

click to enlarge GRACE POTTER
  • GRACE POTTER

Even though Riverfest Executive Director DeAnna Korte and her team have been at work on Riverfest 2016 since last year's vendor tents were packed up, the Riverfest office downtown still bears an air of impermanence, like a pop-up store or a political campaign. There's a giant whiteboard counting down the days until the festival weekend, folding partitions to lend structure to auxiliary offices, Riverfest banners of all vintages hung from the rafters. The baseboards of a large conference room have disappeared behind row upon row of gift bags brimming with royal blue crepe paper, and behind that there's Korte's office, where Riverfest is reinventing itself.

"When you've been doing the same thing for 38 years, you have to change to stay relevant, and change isn't always easy for people," Korte says, anticipating the resounding choruses of "But Riverfest is always in May!" or "It wasn't like this last year!" from festival attendees.

Changes are definitely afoot. Here are some of the big ones:

Riverfest is HAPPENING ON A NEW Weekend

Long associated with the Memorial Day holiday weekend — a time that's already ripe for family reunions, camping trips or time at the lake — Riverfest has moved to the first weekend in June, June 4-5. (Korte even cites a few "lake babies" among the Riverfest staff, noting how many people find themselves torn between Riverfest and the call of Arkansas's waterways, particularly when the holiday aligns with optimum weather.)

Riverfest is now all about the music

In efforts to pack more punch for both the music-loving, late-night crowds and budget-conscious families looking for a bounce house or three, Riverfest has split into two separate festivals: Riverfest and Springfest. In April of 2016, Riverfest held its first one-day, free event specifically with families and children in mind: Springfest. Riverfest is its music-focused counterpart. This doesn't mean that Riverfest is abandoning extramusical activity, though; in addition to the fireworks display on Sunday night, expect carnival rides, a "Playstation Truck" offering a virtual reality experience, jugglers and stilt walkers, a Baggo tournament, free admission each afternoon to the exhibits at the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center, a craft beer and wine lounge, and, apparently, free bottles of Sweet Baby Ray's barbecue sauce.

Riverfest is Saturday and Sunday only

There is a Friday event — "Flowing on the River," a performance by Rodney Block and craft beer and wine tastings from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. — but tickets are sold separately. Music starts Saturday at 1:15 p.m. with Matt Stell on one stage and Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase winners The Uh Huhs on another, and 1:15 p.m. Sunday with Arkansauce and KOA (1:30 p.m.) on the two stages. For those staying the duration, you can bet the craft beer vendors will have a low-ABV session beer on hand; here's hoping you lose your wits only after George Clinton kicks off the Aquaboogie and not before.

No more Riverfest "buttons"

If, in the past, you'd hung around a Riverfest entrance long enough (and late enough in the day), you'd likely have seen folks passing off their Riverfest buttons to passers-by, effectively "recycling" both the button itself and the entry fee — it wasn't exactly airtight. In a move to keep Riverfest's security record clean (and likely, to secure revenue lost by attendees with a more, shall we say, communal approach to entry buttons), Riverfest is mirroring other festivals (like the Arkansas State Fair) in implementing a policy of no re-entry. This is a bit confusing, so let's clarify: Riverfest attendees can come and go as they please ONLY before 5 p.m. Once you've entered the festival after 5 p.m., you're there for the duration and may not exit/re-enter that day. Got it? General admission covers both Saturday and Sunday.

Riverfest takes place in the Julius Breckling Riverfront Park and on the grounds of the Clinton Presidential Center. Tickets are $37.50 until midnight Friday, June 3. (After that, weekend admission is $50.) Tickets for Friday's "Flowing on the River" are $25 in advance, $35 at the door. (See riverfestarkansas.com for tickets and details.)

Riverfest artists will perform on the First Security Amphitheater stage ("Arkansas Federal Credit Union/Lake Liquor Stage") and the stage on the lawn of the Clinton Presidential Center ("Frio Light Stage"). Here are some of the fest's musical highlights, in order of appearance, as illuminated by our contributors.

SATURDAY, JUNE 4

click to enlarge Bonnie Montgomery
  • Bonnie Montgomery

Bonnie Montgomery
2 p.m. Saturday, Frio Light Stage (Clinton Presidential Center Park).

If you don't know who Bonnie Montgomery is, you have been completely oblivious to the music scene in Little Rock over the past several years. Montgomery grew up in a musical family in White County; she tells stories of singing Hank Williams songs while on family fishing trips as little girl. She went on to study opera in college, and then to compose the opera "Billy Blythe" about President Bill Clinton's youth. She sings like a bird with a voice that could bring a tear to the most hard-hearted, elbow-bending honky-tonker and has toured extensively across the U.S. She's even crossed the pond, playing her music in the finest honky-tonks of Europe. Many of her songs are personal and Arkancentric, and all conjure up bygone days when the music coming out of Nashville was genuine and heartfelt. Lately she's been splitting much of her time between Little Rock and Austin, where she was named the Ameripolitan Music Awards' Outlaw Female of 2016. (I'm not saying that you should break any of the Riverfest rules, but Bonnie's music goes best with a good stiff drink of brown liquor; I may or may not have a pint bottle hidden down in my boot.) JM

click to enlarge ZZ Ward
  • ZZ Ward
ZZ Ward
5 p.m. Saturday, Arkansas Federal Credit Union/Lake Liquor Stage (First Security Amphitheater)

ZZ Ward is a multi-instrumentalist with a strong voice who promises to deliver brash and bluesy lyrics over a thumping drum track. Hailing from Roseburg, Ore., Ward grew up listening to her father's blues LPs and her brother's hip-hop CDs, and continues to use these early influences as the foundation to her sound. For Record Store Day in 2013, she released a cover of Son House's "Grinnin' in Your Face" on a 7-inch, showing that her appreciation for music extends beyond the pop feel that inhabits most of her tracks. Rolling Stone described her vocals on her 2012 single "Save My Life" as "chill-inducing," and her new single "Love 3X" is reminiscent of Lily Allen. Based on the style of singles from her upcoming album "This Means War," expect a show of driving dance pop with a soulful sheen to it. Oh, and she plays harmonica, too! FL

click to enlarge Brothers Osborne
  • Brothers Osborne

Brothers Osborne
6 p.m. Saturday, Frio Light Stage (Clinton Presidential Center Park).

Brothers Osborne (a.k.a. "BROS") are not to be confused with the Osborne Brothers. Truth be told, though, such confusion probably doesn't happen often — although even the most casual country music, or SEC, fan knows the OG OB's biggest hit, "Rocky Top." The sweet sibling harmonies of these Osbornes (born in Deale, Md., pop. 4,945) are tempered by spicy rocking riffs and all-too-rare slide guitar supplied by brother John (the bearded BRO) and the nondescript lead vocalizing of brother T.J. (the generically good-looking BRO). Their breakout debut single was "Let's Go There" and the wordy yet simply titled drunken singalong, "Rum." Their single "Stay A Little Longer" (which, again, like the duo itself, is not to be confused with a similarly named country music classic) became the BROS' biggest hit earlier this year, and while it treads more familiar modern country ground than some of their previous musical statements, the "Stay A Little Longer" video boldly and refreshingly shows gay and interracial romance in a nonjudgmental and casual fashion. Country fans, rock fans, music fans, keep an eye on these hot BROS, performing at 6 p.m. at the Clinton Center stage — they may surprise you, musically and otherwise. SK

Grace Potter
7:45 p.m. Saturday, Frio Light Stage (Clinton Presidential Center Park)

The Cool Kid in me doesn't want to like Grace Potter. Her music has been on episodes of "One Tree Hill," "ER" and "Grey's Anatomy," for crying out loud. She helped soundtrack a couple of Disney vehicles and collaborates frequently with Kenny Chesney (including on the Grammy-nominated "You and Tequila"). Grace Potter should not be on my playlist.   

In all seriousness, though — how in the hell can I help it?

Potter is just a straight-up musical force, mixing solid elements of pop, rock, country, blues, roots and even some light funk on her debut solo album, "Midnight," released last year after more than a decade heading up the consistently excellent Grace Potter & The Nocturnals. She is a product of Vermont and the jam band circuit of the early-mid 2000s, touring constantly and catching the ear of everyone from T. Bone Burnett to Dave Matthews to The Flaming Lips. To her credit, she is not merely a solid lead singer; she ably plays both electric and acoustic guitar, along with piano and organ.

But then there's the voice. Dear Lord. THE VOICE.

The voice is what really seals the deal. Bluesy, rich, muscular and real, Potter's voice makes you listen close and damn well believe what she's telling you. Let your guard down a little bit, hipster kid, and I bet we'll see even you (yes, YOU!) unironically waving your arms and having a good ol' time. GH

George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic
8 p.m. Saturday, Arkansas Federal Credit Union/Lake Liquor Stage (First Security Amphitheater).

George Clinton has been layin' out the funk to please, tease and then put-at-ease the masses since the late '60s, but did you know he started out as a doo-wop guy? The Parliaments formed as a doo-wop group in the mid-'50s when Clinton was running a barber shop called the Silk Palace. They had cropped hair and tight vocals, but only a modest degree of success — that is, until they let their freak flag fly and remade the band as Parliament and, later, Funkadelic in the late '60s. Funkadelic's cast of heavily costumed super talents onstage included the likes of Bootsy Collins and Maceo Parker, and they toured the world in a fictional vehicle called The Holy Mothership, asking simply: "May I frighten you?" The hits of this era ("Flashlight," "Mothership Connection (Star Child)" and "Atomic Dog") are recognizable to anyone who has turned on the radio in the last 30 years. Clinton's licks and refrains punctuate the hits of Snoop Dogg, Aaliyah, Dr. Dre, and now Kendrick Lamar, to name a few. In 2014, Clinton released his well-received autobiography "Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard On You?" and Funkadelic released a new record, "First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate." Still touring, Clinton has stayed true to his mission to funk you up, but he's also incorporating elements of hip-hop in his show, creating what David Accomazzo of Phoenix New Times described as "watching a live DJ set, but with a huge funk orchestra instead of turntables." Free your mind and you know what is sure to follow. FL

Chris Stapleton
9:30 p.m. Saturday, Frio Light Stage (Clinton Presidential Center Park)

Even if you've never heard his name, you've probably heard Chris Stapleton's music. His songwriting credits read like a who's who of modern country music: George Strait, Sheryl Crow, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Darius Rucker and Miranda Lambert, to name a few. Stapleton even co-wrote "If It Hadn't Been for Love," a bonus track from Adele's Grammy-winning album "21." His first solo album, "Traveller," released in May 2015, offered a rebuttal to the rise of "pop country," which dominates the radio and abandons traditional country instruments like the harmonica, steel guitar and fiddle. The melancholy of the album, which was inspired by a cross-country trip on Interstate 40 after the death of his father, pervades through his bluesy instrumentation and lyrics. As Stapleton sings on the title track, "My heartbeat's rhythm is a lonesome sound / Just like the rubber turning on the ground / Always lost and nowhere bound."

"Traveller," which was a Grammy nominee for album of the year, pays tribute to the genre of old through covers of George Jones' "Tennessee Whiskey" and the Charlie Daniels Band's "Was It 26." For purists, Stapleton isn't doing anything revolutionary. He's simply returning country to its proper form. TC

click to enlarge The Flaming Lips
  • The Flaming Lips

The Flaming Lips
9:45 p.m. Saturday, Arkansas Federal Credit Union/Lake Liquor Stage (First Security Amphitheater)

OK, so let's just say what everyone in town has already inferred: Bringing the time-tested, ever-evolving and always life-affirming Fearless Freaks must be a winked hint toward more forward-thinking booking from Riverfest in the future. Surely, right? The notorious Oklahomans are no stranger to our state's northwestern corner, but as far as I can tell this is their first show in the capital city in nearly 30 years.

Since harshing out Little Rock's legendary DMZ in the late '80s with the dark, bathtub-acid psychedelica that propelled their first few albums, The Flaming Lips have totally nuked the odds, constantly evolving and enduring as critical and cultural powerhouses — peaking with back-to-back masterpieces in 1999's lush, sonically brilliant "The Soft Bulletin" and 2002's intergalactic psyche-adventure "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots."

For better or worse (definitely better, you haters) the Lips' most recent stage of evolution sees the band as collaborators and spiritual godfathers to the Molly-stuffed, glitter-barfing New Miley.

If you already know The Flaming Lips, you know the drill with their infamous circus-cum-space opera-cum-tent revival live show spectacle. For the uninitiated, just know that Q Magazine called them one of "Fifty Bands to See Before You Die," and that's still an understatement from a Brit rag notorious for hyperbole.

My advice from a five-time Flaming Lips show vet: Go root up something growing out of a cow plop, Google it to make sure it's cool to eat, choke the thing down, and whatever you do, do not let yourself miss this show. They're still great and, hopefully, a strong crowd could send a strong, tripped-out message for Riverfest 2017. JT

SUNDAY, JUNE 5

click to enlarge Star and Micey
  • Star and Micey

Star and Micey
2:15 p.m. Sunday, Arkansas Federal Credit Union/Lake Liquor Stage (First Security Amphitheater)

Star & Micey are a feel-good kind of band, not in the mindless "let's just have a good time and forget our troubles, drink margaritas and eat cheeseburgers" kind of way, but more of an "acknowledge the struggle, we're all in this together" way. Their approach was apparent from day one, when they took their name from a chance encounter with a Memphis homeless man who asked to play and hear songs in hopes of feeling better. The homeless man would reveal that his name was Star, and that the ex-wife that he had been singing about was named Micey. This theme of using music to overcome strife is just as apparent in their newest album, "Get 'Em Next Time." Star & Micey have been one of Memphis' favorite bands since they appeared on the scene in 2009, and their self-titled debut album on the legendary Ardent label featured such well-established Memphis music legends as Jody Stephens (Big Star), Luther Dickinson (The Black Crowes, North Mississippi Allstars) and Rick Steff (Lucero). You can expect a high-energy show with genuine emotion from the band with a modern rootsy feel that is in no way tired or antiquated. JM

click to enlarge Judah & the Lion
  • Judah & the Lion

Judah & the Lion
4:45 p.m. Sunday, Arkansas Federal Credit Union/Lake Liquor Stage (First Security Amphitheater)

You might think that a Nashville band with the biblically based name Judah & The Lion is likely to be all about gospel. Or some bluegrass. Or old-time country.

You'd also likely be right. And wrong. What? There's a lot going on here, genre-wise, kids.

Little Rock is catching Nashville's Judah & The Lion at an interesting time, as it's touring in support of its sophomore album, "Folk Hop N' Roll." Judah has taken a solidly new direction with its new album, fearlessly adding rock, hip-hop and a little bit of punk flavor to the more traditional Nashville genres in which its successful debut album, 2014's "Kids These Days," was steeped. It takes guts to abandon the success of "Kids" — which was critically acclaimed and appeared on several Billboard charts upon release — and jump to an utterly new sound.

The result? "Folk Hop N' Roll" is an unpredictable and delicious mix of anthemic and danceable tracks that are difficult to categorize but easy to love.

One sure thing — these four guys are having a good time pushing the boundaries. "Folk Hop N' Roll" was released in late March, and early show reviews promise us a loose, unpredictable, genre-bending set that will nudge us out of our pigeonholes more than a little bit. If I had to guess, there'll be a fair amount of Riverfest-goers scratching their heads at the beginning but lining up happily in front of the merch tent at show's end. GH

click to enlarge Juicy J
  • Juicy J
Juicy J
7:45 p.m. Sunday, Arkansas Federal Credit Union/Lake Liquor Stage (First Security Amphitheater)

It's been 10 years since Juicy J and the rap group Three 6 Mafia won an Academy Award for best original song. Yet, Juicy J remains a significant player in the hip-hop landscape. With three mixtapes released last year and two albums due out this year, the 41-year-old continues to work tirelessly, and his influence seems to have grown with age. Frequent collaborators such as A$AP Rocky, 2 Chainz and Wiz Khalifa owe a lot to Juicy J's bouncing, weed-puffing style (although Rocky has undoubtedly surpassed him as a lyricist and producer).

Growing up in Memphis, Juicy J and fellow Three 6 Mafia member DJ Paul attempted to cultivate "the Memphis sound," studiously absorbing the swing and rhythm of performers like Al Green, B.B. King and Elvis Presley. During Juicy J's teenage years, his mom worked as a librarian and would check out any book about the music industry for her son, who read everything he could about the business. With such a reservoir of knowledge, it shouldn't be a surprise that he has remained relevant long past anyone's expectations. TC

Goo Goo Dolls
9:30 p.m. Sunday, Arkansas Federal Credit Union/Lake Liquor Stage (First Security Amphitheater)

Together, "Iris," "Slide" and "Name" represent one of the strongest triptychs of singles to come out of '90s rock radio. 1998's "Dizzy Up the Girl" is in the top tier of the "8 CDs for just a penny!" canon. Mainstream music from the Clinton decade has left behind a mixed legacy, but Johnny Rzeznik and his knack for consumable hookcraft made the waves a better place for a while. (And by "a while," I mean the unheard-of 39 weeks that "Iris" spent on the Billboard charts and spreading proto-steampunk chic on MTV.)

For the last decade, the band has slowly shifted out of the spotlight. Its latest album, "Boxes," has the band moving away from the AOR-Replacements sound that steered it through the '90s to an even more focused effort of solid pop radio grist. The album's first single, "So Alive," skims a good deal of anthemic bombast from Coldplay and winds up greater than its influences.

And if you think you're too cool for Goo Goo Dolls, check out their first two albums. Find the YouTube video of the band playing "Torn Apart" in 1987 and cross your fingers that this show will bring a deep cut or two from those harder days. I think "Don't Beat My Ass (With a Baseball Bat)" would go over great with a Riverfest crowd, but the smart hometown money's on something off of their second album, "Jed," named after the Arkansas-born artist Jed Jackson. JT

click to enlarge Cole Swindell
  • Cole Swindell
Cole Swindell
9:45 p.m. Sunday, Frio Light Stage (Clinton Presidential Center Park)

Georgia-born country singer-songwriter Cole Swindell owes a lot to his elder Georgia State University Sigma Chi frat brother Luke Bryan, for whom he once sold concert merch. But Swindell was even better at songwriting than T-shirt sales, and Bryan has recorded many of Swindell's beach- and booze-related songs ("Shore Thing," "Shake the Sand," "The Sand I Brought to the Beach," "Just a Sip," "Beer In The Headlights," "I'm Hungover" ... has Jimmy Buffett's lawyer called yet?), which led to Swindell's own record deal, as loosely chronicled in his single, "You Should Be Here," the video of which is sure to jerk many tears with Father's Day approaching.

As country music continues its binge on hip-hop-inflected power ballads well into the second decade of Century 21, Swindell would be a safe bet for any label, as witnessed by his songs "Chillin' It" — with some 21 million YouTube views — "Let Me See Ya Girl" and "Should've Ran After You."

And as Riverfesters choose where to alight after the fireworks display draws to an end — particularly fans who prefer their country acts wearing baseball caps over cowboy hats — Swindell responds to their question with an easy answer: "You Should Be Here." SK


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