At this year's Riverfest, the colossal live music showcase and all-around cultural spectacle mounted every Memorial Day weekend in downtown Little Rock, there will be fire-eaters, East African acrobats and Hank Williams Jr. There will be face-painting and a rock wall, a fleet of food trucks and a dog circus. CeeLo Green will be performing, as will Salt-N-Pepa and Chicago and Buckcherry. There will obviously be fireworks.
It is the festival's 37th consecutive year, and DeAnna Korte's 10th as its executive director. "It really comes down now to Mother Nature," Korte told the Times in an interview on the eve of the event's set-up. "She really wields the hand. We can plan and do our part to make sure everything's good, but then Mother Nature will decide how the weekend goes. You can't control it, you just have to say a prayer and hope the weather holds out."
The trucks bearing tents arrived last Thursday, May 15, followed by the Little Rock Parks and Recreation Department, who prepared the festival area and shipped in more equipment. The grounds were wired for electricity, and the vendors started moving in on Monday. But as Korte explains, this is just the culmination of a process that began a year ago. "Myself, I'm already thinking about next year," she says. "I think that's what makes the event a success every year, the planning never stops."
It is thanks to a combination of "Southern hospitality" and a "good reputation in the festival industry," Korte says, that Riverfest is able to book artists of CeeLo's and Chicago's caliber, a particularly difficult proposition given the desirability of Memorial Day weekend for big events. But aside from the lineup of celebrity performers, a list that also includes groups like The Fray, Three Days Grace, The Wallflowers and Lee Brice, Riverfest also marks one of the biggest local music platforms of the year, a rare opportunity to see Arkansas favorites like Big Piph, Mulehead, Iron Tongue and Jim Mize on a huge scale.
Moreover, Korte emphasizes, "it's not just about the music." Parents and grandparents are honored guests here, and kids are at a special advantage. The Family Stage, in Heifer Village, will feature the Jesse White Tumbling Team, an iconic Chicago institution since 1959, and the Kenya Safari Acrobats, who jump through hoops, narrowly avoid all manner of flaming objects and contort themselves in fantastical displays of imaginative athletic prowess — all to a Benga beat. The Yarnell's Kidzone Stage will host a range of all-ages attractions (ventriloquists, ice cream eating contests, kazoos), as will the Deltic Timber Kidzone area (animal-themed arts and crafts, toddler drum circles, bubbles).
There will be a 5K "fun run" downtown (8 a.m. Saturday), a beer and wine tasting at the River Market Pavilions (5:30 p.m. Thursday), a bag toss at Heifer International that costs $100 (the grand prize is $1,500), a poker run and bike show for the leather vest set (10 a.m. Saturday) and, as Korte reminded us, "Everyone loves a Ferris wheel," so there's one of those, too. Darren McFadden will be on hand signing autographs, and we've already mentioned fireworks, but again: fireworks.
The festival also features a dizzying, curiously extensive number of dog-related activities, from Jonathan Offi's "World Famous" team of "canine athletes" (rescue dogs with an impressive repertoire of tricks and stunts, performing every day of the event) to the Crown Championship of the Super Retriever Series, essentially a diving event for dogs, who are persuaded to repeatedly leap into a swimming pool for our amusement. Also don't miss the well-titled " 'Cirque du Pup' Pooch Parade" Saturday morning at 9:30, which will be followed by the "Weenie Dog Derby." Don't be thrown by the name, either: As Korte explained, "We don't discriminate, so any short-legged dog can participate." And she means it. According to the Riverfest website, last year's winner was a Pomeranian.
"We're opening Arkansas and Little Rock up to a lot of people who may not have had another reason to come down here," Korte said, and at this they've already succeeded, selling tickets in 30 different states (and as far away as Toronto). "It's the usual stress," she said, musing on the enormity of the enterprise facing her and her team. "I think one of the amazing things is that it takes 10 days to set up, and then it's all going to come down in one. When you come back to work on Tuesday, you won't even be able to tell that we were here." WS
Riverfest has served as a launching pad of sorts for some of the now bigger names in country music. Remember when an unknown Carrie Underwood performed on the Main Stage? Jason Aldean has made a few visits. There are plenty more. Easton Corbin may be that next country music star you can say you saw at Riverfest. He signed his first record contract at age 27 in 2009 and one year later had two No. 1 country hits, "A Little More Country Than That" and "Roll With It." Corbin followed that up with the album "All Over the Road" in late 2012, and that record spawned two more singles for the Florida native. The TV show "Hee Haw" was Corbin's initial inspiration, and he was fortunate enough to get guitar lessons from session musician Pee Wee Melton when he was 14. Not long after that, he was landing music festival slots. When Nashville took notice, it put him on tour with Brad Paisley. Corbin has a third studio album due out this year, "Clockwork." JH
Lee Brice has paid his dues over his 34 years to get his chance at being a Nashville hitter, and he made the most of it in 2012 with his first No. 1 single, "A Woman Like You." Before that, his "Love Like Crazy" was Billboard's Top Country Song of 2010 and charted for 56 weeks on the Hot Country Songs list. Brice followed up "A Woman Like You" with chart-toppers "Hard to Love" and "I Drive Your Truck," all off his second album. His writing work with Garth Brooks, Adam Gregory, the Eli Young Band and Tim McGraw has led to singles that also bolstered his growing rep in Nashville. Brice (like McGraw or Trace Adkins) looks like a football player or someone who could serve as his own security; it was an arm injury suffered playing college football at Clemson (he was a long-snapper) that ended his athletic career and turned him toward music. He had already been writing his own songs on guitar or piano since he was a kid, though, and he'd developed his voice singing in church. Turns out football's loss was country's gain. JH
When Chicago first graced these parts in 1973 or thereabouts, they were among pop's power groups of the day, but they approached playing live like they were a pops orchestra, all inwardly focused, all their hits played rote, then off the stage to the next show. What changed through the years, what made Chicago a more vital stage band and not just a recording phenomenon, was the suddenly shifting lineup — for better or worse. Underrated rock guitarist Terry Kath, who seemed to be in his own world on stage, accidentally killed himself at about the time Chicago first fell from being pop favorites in the late 1970s. Producer David Foster took over and emphasized Peter Cetera's syrupy-sweet "new" sound; the ballad-heavy Chicago marked the band's restoration atop the charts in the first half of the 1980s. Cetera then went his happy solo way, and others helped Chicago's originals forge on. The core of the band, though, is still in place and, as you'll know if you saw the Grammys in February, still driving the band: pianist/keyboardist Robert Lamm, trombonist Jimmy Pankow, trumpeter Lee Loughnane and sax/flautist Walter Parazaider. When you cut away all that has been Chicago for 47 years, what still remains is this foursome, the heart of a band that grew up mostly at DePaul University, then blew up on the national scene with its pumping brass section and catchy, often thought-provoking, politically-tinged songs, many written by Lamm or Pankow. As one of music's biggest sellers of all time, they've topped 100 million records sold, and they're at Riverfest as the event's annual big nostalgia act, to appeal to the graying hairs (like this writer). It figures they'll know to trot out a long set of classics that still resonate 40-plus years later: "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is," "Saturday in the Park," "Beginnings," "25 or 6 to 4," "Feeling Stronger Every Day," etc. JH
There was some thought among music aficionados back 10 years or so ago that Robert Randolph was blowing up nationally and might end up being this generation's Sly and the Family Stone, if not a Dave Matthews or Ben Harper-type big festival act, one that by now would be out of reach for performing a Little Rock concert. Not that RRFB has underachieved or anything, it's just that Riverfest and medium-sized festivals are what they do best, bringing together the masses for a rocking funk jam. Outside of "Ain't Nothing Wrong With That," hit songs haven't really been this band's thing, but the show is still as spectacular is it was to anybody that saw Randolph and crew open for Eric Clapton here years ago. Randolph, of course, rocks the pedal-steel guitar in a very soulful and un-countrified sort of way, and that powers a band that connects to a crowd ready to get up and move. Expect a raucous version of "Shake Your Hips" during their Riverfest show, maybe with the ladies encouraged to join the band on stage. T-Bone Burnett produced the band's 2010 album, "We Walk This Road." JH
Riverfest is designed as a crowd pleaser. That means booking all the most popular genres. But it's also designed with a relatively small talent budget, which means that the lineup is a mixture of name stars (CeeLo Green) and acts whose peak has passed and now play county fairs and festivals you've never heard of? Judging by past experience, this won't temper the enthusiasm of the Riverfest crowd. Can't get The Black Keys or AC/DC? There's always Buckcherry. They come with plenty of rock 'n' roll bona fides. They're named for a spoonerism of Chuck Berry. Or rather a drag queen named Buck Cherry. Lead singer Josh Todd and lead guitarist Keith Nelson performed for a while with ex-Guns N' Roses members Slash, Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum in a band that would later become Velvet Revolver before Slash fired Todd and Nelson and hired Scott Weiland. Their most popular songs are called "Crazy Bitch" ("You're crazy bitch / But you fuck so good, I'm on top of it") and "Sorry" ("Cause everything inside it never comes out right / And when I see you cry it makes me want to die"). What else could you want? LM
Three Days Grace is a rock quartet from Ontario fond of leather, black and facial hair. Consisting of Neil Sanderson, Brad Walst, Barry Stock and Matt Walst, the band favors melodic yet lyrically dark alt-metal. Their biggest hit, "I Hate Everything About You," should be familiar to those who were anguished, Hot Topic-loving high school students in the mid-2000s. Other stand-outs include "Break" and "Animal I Have Become." The band recently underwent some changes in lineup, with Matt Walst replacing longtime vocalist Adam Gontier in March, and it recently released the single "Painkiller," its first recording with Walst. Fans of introspective alt-metal should check these dudes out. MS
Salt-N-Pepa, the stretchy-pant-loving and doorknocker-earring-sporting trio of ladies from Queens, N.Y., is responsible for jams that we all know and love: "Whattaman," "Shoop," "Push It" and "Let's Talk About Sex." Salt, Pepa and their DJ, Spinderella, conquered the charts (and some challenging fashions) in the late '80s and early '90s as one of hip-hop's pioneering acts, male or female. Notable for injecting a little feminism into their booty-shaking as they parsed some rather raunchy topics from a woman's point of view, they secured American Music Award nominations, a Grammy and something a little more elusive for women in hip-hop: respect. The trio disbanded in the late '90s, but reunited in 2009 and have since shared the stage with everyone from Biz Markie to Public Enemy. So don't even pretend you don't know the words (I've seen what happens in an adequately drunk room when "Push It" comes on) and watch some of rap's trailblazers do their thing. MS
Back when "Dirty South" was the name of a song instead of a catch-all brand, Outkast and Goodie Mob brought a jolt of creativity and regional pride to rap in the mid-'90s. Goodie Mob was a great group (if not historically great like Outkast), but it was clear even then that CeeLo Green's talents were bigger than one group, or even one genre. He sang and slurred and rapped his way through scene-stealing verses with country swagger and something too often lacking in the rap and R&B of the time: soul. (His contribution to an Outkast song still stands for me as one of rap's most jarringly tender opening lines: "I don't recall ever graduating at all / Sometimes I feel I'm just a disappointment to y'all.") The rest is history: five Grammy awards for solo work and Gnarls Barkley, his soul collaboration with producer Danger Mouse; the hit "Crazy," which at times has felt like the most ubiquitous song on the planet; a solo track with such infectious Motown vibes that it was a mammoth hit even though it was called "Fuck You"; reality television stints and a Super Bowl halftime show with Madonna. He's also a dynamite live performer, a bundle of manic energy — I was once on the receiving end of a CeeLo stage dive in the Goodie Mob days and collapsed beneath his weight. He's a big dude, so watch out. DR
Jamey Johnson could easily be confused with one of the "Duck Dynasty" brothers with long gray-tinged beard, flowing hair and his outdoorsy appearance. He's a sometimes-storyteller on the stage with music likened to that of Trace Adkins, John Michael Montgomery, Arkansan Joe Nichols and other country standouts who've played Riverfest in recent years. His second album (and first with Mercury Nashville) was the well-received, gold-certified "That Lonesome Song" in 2008. Included on the record was the Top 10 hit "In Color" and another single, "High Cost of Living." The southeast Alabama native and former Marine has since released two more albums, the critically acclaimed "The Guitar Song" in 2010, then 2012's "Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran," which was nominated for a Grammy award. He also penned "I Got My Game On," which served as Trace Adkins' return to the top of the country charts in 2007 after a 10-year absence. Johnson has toured with Adkins, as well as Kid Rock; he'll handle opening for Hank Jr. JH
What do you do when you're a legend's son? If you're Hank Williams Jr., you create a caricature of yourself so vividly compelling that you become a legend in your own right: a whiskey-drinking, gun-toting cartoon in a cowboy hat, hamming his way through what turned out, almost in spite of himself, to be some of the best country songs of the last 40 years. Bocephus brought a kind of punk-rock teenage fury to country music (his various takes on the "Country Boy Can Survive" theme actually remind me of Tupac's anger and anthemic pride on a slightly different outlaw identity theme). Is that carrying on the "family tradition"? Yes indeed: By going rogue, Hank Jr. turned out to be every bit the American original that his father was. Sometimes, yes, a dude that committed to the joys of being a redneck will lead to some uncomfortably retrograde territory. But Bocephus at his best is rollicking fun and a sly songwriter: honky-tonk good times, hangover despair and salt-of-the-earth spirit. If you can't drunkenly sing along to "All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)," I can't help you. DR
If as teenager in the late '90s, in the days just before the Internet started working well, your only source of escape was your car, and you listened to the radio in that car (this being the pre-Internet-working-well era, when music was expensive and difficult to steal), and you fooled around with your girl/boyfriend in the backseat of that car, The Wallflower's "One Headlight" was a part of your soundtrack. It was played more often and for a longer time than any pop song in modern history, according to my memory. It was about cars, which made it a good song for driving around. Or rather it was about a dead girl who left the singer heartbroken and reckless, which made it a good song for making out in the back seat. Considering all these factors, plus the fact that schools in parts of Arkansas at the time (and probably still to this day) taught abstinence rather than sex ed, if you were a teenager fooling around in a back seat and your abstinence learning didn't stick and you ended up with a love child, he/she was probably conceived while "One Headlight" played from the car stereo. Hopefully things have worked out for you and your backseat lover and the son/daughter that resulted from Jakob Dylan's jangly angst. Regardless, congratulations, your son/daughter is nearly grown up! Maybe even a new high school graduate! You should celebrate by taking him/her to Riverfest to celebrate, where for old times' sake The Wallflowers will surely play "One Headlight." LM
The Fray, hailing from Denver, Colo., are purveyors of piano-driven modern rock that everyone from your 14-year-old cousin to your otherwise disapproving grandmother can find palatable and everyone else, at least recognizable. Favoring mid-tempo arrangements and ballads, the group (consisting of Joe King, Isaac Slade, Dave Welsh and Ben Wysocki) formed in 2002. They are perhaps best known for their omnipresent soft-rock anthem from 2005, "How to Save a Life," a song I seemed to encounter in every waiting room ever during its reign. It was an international sensation, hitting the charts in a diverse swath of countries including the UK, New Zealand and Sweden. The fellows reportedly met and connected while leading worship services at their church, and their discography includes acoustic renderings of Christmas carols (and also, perhaps incongruously, a collaboration with Timbaland). They're currently in the midst of a national tour to promote their latest album, "Helios." MS