Riverfest hits 30 

After three decades, summer just wouldn’t be summer without Riverfest to kick it off.


The symbolism is hard to miss: There, in 1978, at what was the first Riverfest (then called the Summer Arts Festival), what little music there was arrived via the river on a barge.

The American Wind Symphony was touring the region by river, and the Junior League of Little Rock decided to organize a festival around the stopover at Murray Park.

“We probably pulled it together in seven or eight months at the most, but probably six,” says Jane Rogers, who was with the Junior League and was serving as publicity chair for the first festival. “What I remember was, the money [the “RiverMoney” used to buy food and drink] didn’t get to the park until two or three hours after the park opened, we were so disorganized. As big as Riverfest is today, that would be a disaster. It would be a front-page story.”

There would be another 19 festivals before the music at Riverfest took on the look it has today, with dozens of acts on several stages over three days. But that first little festival at Murray Park was enough of a hit, the Junior League decided to do it again. “We formed a board and the next year put on a real festival,” Rogers said.

And they did it again, and again, until turning it over to an independent board to keep running it in bigger and better spaces on both sides of the river. This year’s Riverfest, May 25-27, will be the 30th. Visual artists and music of all genres are combined with family activities for a celebration that many consider the start of the summer. If the weather stays nice, the crowd for the weekend could exceed 250,000 people.

From the Budweiser Clydesdales leading parades over the Main Street Bridge all three days to Flossie’s Funnel Cakes galore on both the Little Rock and North Little Rock riverfronts, the organizers of Riverfest plan for the 30th to be the best yet. An original Riverfest song will be performed during opening night ceremonies by 19-year-old Sydney Price, a Friday night laser light show will light up the river, Batesville-based Bad Boy Mowers will search for its “Bad Girl” spokesmodel Saturday and Sunday, and the festival will conclude on Sunday with the most massive of Osborne Family Fireworks.

The music covers every style: headliners include revered bluesman Keb’ Mo’; ’80s rocker Pat Benatar and husband-guitarist Neil Giraldo; ’90s hitmakers Smash Mouth and Soul Asylum; country acts Montgomery Gentry, Keith Anderson and Blake Shelton; classic rock bands the Georgia Satellites and Marshall Tucker; jam-craze fave Robert Randolph and the Family Band; “American Idol” Ruben Studdard; veteran rapper LL Cool J; new hip-hop act Gym Class Heroes; new rockers the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus; and the godfather of funk, George Clinton, with his P-Funk Allstars.

Games and interactive exhibits are geared to every age, and so are many of the giveaways, from Krispy Kreme donut dipping to cans of Spam. As for noticeable changes: The International Village has moved to Little Rock near the Peabody Hotel and the Budweiser stage in North Little Rock will face east, away from Dickey-Stephens Park, where the Arkansas Travelers will be home playing games that weekend. The North Little Rock bus shuttle will drop fans off in North Little Rock this year, instead of crossing over to Little Rock.



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