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Riverfest 2009 

May 22-24

NELSON
  • NELSON

Nearly continuous rain on Sunday may have turned the Riverfest grounds into soup, prevented all but two headliners from performing and kept the festival from breaking an attendance record, but it wasn't enough to sour our weekend. In fact, Sunday aside, once we made peace with the masses, it was as fine a weekend of music as we can remember.

But first, more about the masses: It's easy to forget what that means, how several hundred thousand sweating bodies moving, or worse, stuck, together feels. We caught it in passing in the River Market and on the Junction Bridge, which moved at a crawl we wouldn't wish on anyone afraid of heights, and overdosed on it on the Clinton Library grounds. At least on Friday, to approach the stage and Willie Nelson, you had to break through a gauntlet of folks waiting in line to either use the bathroom or get a beer. Lindsey's wife got close, but retreated mid-set. She said she felt like she “was going to step on a baby.”

But with all those thousands stuffed around the Clinton Library stage and the amphitheater, that left North Little Rock relatively manageable for hordes-averse. Friday, we caught the last third of Eclipse Glasses' set in the Arkansas Tent, the local-act focused stage that continued to bring out relatively sizeable crowds in its second year. Be sure and add EG to your to-do list if you haven't yet seen them live. There's no one, locally, sustaining the groove longer. Accordingly, they had babies and grown folks alike shaking it in the tent.

We also peeked in at Gavin Rossdale, who had an enthusiastic, lady-heavy crowd at the Triple-S Alarm Stage, which backed up to the river. We're not good at estimating numbers, but it was the sort of crowd where, if you were aggressive, you could push your way to the front, or more complacent, find a clear perch on the levee. The international heartthrob mixed newer material with Bush favorites and even threw in a cover of “Landslide” for good measure. He couldn't have been more effusive toward the crowd.

Saturday, after strong sets from Velvet Kente and Patrick Sweany, the highlight of the night — and maybe even the festival — was Buddy Guy. The 72-year-old blues man interacted with his audience more than any performer we've seen in awhile. He didn't go so far as to take requests, but he was undoubtedly out to please. He gave numerous shout-outs to Little Rock, and at one point went on a romp through the crowd that led him and his guitar to the rear of the corndog stand at stage right.

One prominent criticism of Guy's live act is that he has a sort of performance A.D.D. — he will interrupt himself mid-song to make a joke or a comment. That tendency was certainly on display Saturday. At one point, he gave something of a musical lecture by launching spontaneously into John Lee Hooker's “Boom Boom.” Yet that spontaneity was what made the concert delightful to watch. Not all of Guy's own material was top-notch — “Skin Deep,” a paean to the unity of man, left us cold — but the energy with which he approached it more than compensated.

Brian Chilson, Gerard Matthews,

Lindsey Millar and John C. Williams

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