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Riverfest turns 40 

Party with Wiz Khalifa, Morris Day and The Time, Cold War Kids and more.

click to enlarge Tank and the Bangas
  • Tank and the Bangas

In July 1978, "Grease" was No. 1 at the box office, where it would stay until mid-October. Farrah Fawcett was on the cover of "Vogue." The world's first test-tube baby was born in Manchester, U.K. Here on the homefront, the Junior League of Little Rock founded the Summer Arts Festival, renamed the Riverfest Arts and Music Festival the following year. The festival has evolved over its 40 years, drawing artists like B.B. King, James Brown, Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg, Al Green, The B-52's. Its identity has leaned at times toward the nostalgic, other times toward the new. In 2008, the festival introduced a local focus, dedicating a tent to Arkansas-only talent. In 2016, it split into two parts: April Springfest for family-focused activities and a newly music-minded Riverfest. This year, Riverfest Executive Director DeAnna Korte says, organizers will honor that history — and the cultural and economic benefits it's afforded to Central Arkansas — with a Sunday celebration. "Those who attended Riverfest in the early years will feel a sense of nostalgia with Sunday's events," Korte said.

The official 40th anniversary party for the festival, which kicks off Friday, June 2, starts at 1 p.m. Sunday, June 4, and it's for everyone; even those without tickets to the full weekend can gain admission to the celebration for $5 (children 10 and under are free). Festivities include the fireworks display at 9 p.m., stick pony races, a PK Grill Steak Cook-Off, a petting zoo from Heifer International, a celebrity dunking booth, a cake decorating contest with professional and amateur contenders and an attempt to break the Guinness Book of World Records' record for the most sparklers lit at one time. That Sunday-only ticket also gets you in for the last round of musical performances, including Morris Day and The Time, Amasa Hines, Andy Frasco & The U.N., Here Come the Mummies, The Hip Abduction, Big Piph & Tomorrow Maybe, DeFrance, Brother Moses, Vintage Pistol and more.

Riverfest's sponsors are responsible, of course, for otherwise-familiar spots being suddenly rebranded with names like "Frio Light" and "Sweetwater," but they're also offering some cool little extras for Riverfest patrons: Verizon will have a charging station for all sorts of mobile devices, regardless of what carrier they're made for; the Clinton Presidential Center is offering a $2 discount for admission to its temporary exhibition, "Xtreme Bugs"; Arvest Bank's booth will be home to an arcade-style basketball contest, with winners, who'll receive $50 in "Riverbucks," announced at 2 p.m., 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; Sweet Baby Ray's is giving away full bottles of barbecue sauce; Patron Spirits will have a Mobile Cocktail Lab on a cart, equipped with a tablet questionnaire to help you determine what type of cocktail trips your trigger; festival sponsor Oaklawn Racing & Gaming holds its annual Baggo National Championship at 1:30 p.m. Saturday on the Clinton Presidential Center lawn; and Bobby's Bike Hike is offering free valet parking for any cyclists who bike to Riverfest. There will be amusement park rides from Louisiana's Lowery Carnival, a mobile video game station outfitted with seating for 20 people, performances from the Southern BMX Stunt Riders at 2 p.m., 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; and a return of the "Rock the Dock" Super Retriever Series — basically a track and field competition for dogs who like to swim.

If you're a wine or craft beer enthusiast, you can beat the crowds and attend "Flowing on the River," Riverfest's separately ticketed kickoff event in the River Market pavilions at 6 p.m. Thursday, $30-$40.

Check out riverfestarkansas.com for tickets and details, but first, here are some of our picks for acts to catch this weekend.

click to enlarge Dylan Scott
  • Dylan Scott

Dylan Scott

6 p.m. Friday. Frio Light Stage, Clinton Presidential Center.

From just over the Arkansas state line, in tiny Beekman, La., comes country newcomer Dylan Scott. He grew up in a place where, like so many Arkansans, his career prospects ranged from farm to paper mill to construction. His father, however, broke that mold, playing guitar on the road for the likes of Freddy Fender and Freddie Hart and coming back with whopping tales of life on the road — especially of that most magical of places, Nashville. So, inspired by his dad and Taylor Swift (no joke!), Scott moved to Nashville after graduating from high school and began the steep climb to Music City success. His debut single, "Makin' This Boy Crazy," was released in June 2013, and charted for 10 weeks on the Billboard Country Airplay chart, peaking at an unimpressive No. 54. But in August last year, Scott released his first full-length album (the eponymous "Dylan Scott"), and with his smooth baritone and genre-mixing rap vocals, the album debuted at No. 5 on the Top Country Albums, selling 9,000 copies in its first week. His latest single, "My Girl," has become a viral sensation, amassing more than 29 million Spotify spins. Scott will play at Riverfest on June 2, just five days after he marries the subject of his hit. HS

click to enlarge Cage the Elephant
  • Cage the Elephant

Cage the Elephant

9:30 p.m. Friday. Arkansas Federal Credit Union/Sweetwater Amphitheater Stage.

I'm suggesting to the members of modern rock band Cage the Elephant that if they ever consider a name change for something more memorable, here's one courtesy of Trump flack Kellyanne Conway: Bowling Green Massacre. A helluva lot more catchy that what they've been using for a decade, don't you think? Timely. Appropriate, because Cage originated in Bowling Green, Ky., home of the (non) massacre. Anyway, Grammy Award-winning Cage the Elephant offers the rock headliner on Friday at the park amphitheater, opposite the country lineup scheduled for the stage at the Clinton Center. And a good alternative it is. Cage the Elephant is probably best known for radio (and internet) hits "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked" from its eponymously named debut record, and "Trouble," from the latest release, "Tell Me I'm Pretty," a song co-written by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. There is also "Mess Around," the first from that same album (while the album was lauded, critics thought "Mess Around" sounded just like the Black Keys — and what a coincidence, with Auerbach producing the album). Apparently going all Black Keys in the Nashville, Tenn., studio was the right move for Cage the Elephant, as they took home the 2016 Grammy for Best Rock Album. Those three aforementioned songs nicely showcase lead singer Matt Shultz's lyrical and vocal playfulness. He apparently carries that style to the stage as well with an energetic punk-inspired approach that fans in the pit should enjoy. You can sense the Pixies influence and more on Shultz, who relocated the group to London before its first album release. However, brother Brad Shultz on lead guitar shows other impressive rock influences and gives Cage the Elephant some separation from many of today's current acts that all start sounding the same. Cage has a date at Bonnaroo next week; catching the band here might be a better deal all the way around. Indie rocking Grouplove makes for a nice complement leading up to Cage. JH

click to enlarge Dazz and Brie
  • Dazz and Brie

Dazz & Brie

1:15 p.m. Saturday. Arkansas Federal Credit Union/Sweetwater Amphitheater Stage.

If Dazzmin "Dazz" Murry and Kabrelyn "Brie" Boyce were backed by a DJ or a dude with a computer and a synthesizer, their harmonies would still soar with infectious intertwining lines, and their versatile capability to jump across genres and styles would stand out. Lucky for us, though, they are backed by The Emotionalz, a force of their own that can lay down danceable grooves, slow jams, filthy-nasty riffs and rock the **** out whenever they feel like it. Dazz & Brie stole the show and won the title at the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase this year, and so no doubt it will be a treat to see them on a big stage outside. They describe themselves as "rock and soul," and while that's accurate, it still seems too small a box for Dazz & Brie. The pair is too dynamic and too expansive in their musical ambitions to really be classified. Sometimes you feel like you're listening to smooth neo-soul, other times like riff-heavy progressive rock, and still others like you just heard something on Top 40 radio that was too good to be on Top 40 radio. This "girl gang" and the ladies and gentlemen in their backing band are some of the brightest and most creative talents in Arkansas right now, and you owe it to yourself to check them out at Riverfest if for no other reason than that they will bring you a pure kind of joy. JS

click to enlarge Wildflower Revue
  • Wildflower Revue

The Wildflower Revue

2:30 p.m. Saturday. Frio Light Stage, Clinton Presidential Center.

The problem with supergroups is that rarely does the whole exceed the sum of its parts. Remember Jimmy Page's mid-'80s group The Firm? Us neither. But the balance sheets of the Wildflower Revue — Amy Garland, Mandy McBryde and Cindy Woolf, who has stepped into Bonnie Montgomery's place — are well in the black. These individual stars of the Little Rock scene were inspired by Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt's Trio, an '80s-era supergroup that, unlike The Firm, improbably exceeded its parts. And the "peace-lovin' outlaw trio" of the Revue share a penchant for country music that goes back beyond the Reagan era — witnessed in part by their correct spelling of "revue" — as well as more modern sounds in country and Western music. Any complaint of crass commercialism in the Wildflower Revue's great-sounding eponymous debut album by the inclusion of covers of "Psycho Killer" and "Heart of Glass" are drowned out by the Revue's deftness and sheer joy. Would that we all had such well-balanced spreadsheets. SK

click to enlarge Seratones
  • Seratones

Seratones

3:30 p.m. Saturday. Arkansas Federal Credit Union/Sweetwater Amphitheater Stage.

Exhibit A in the quest toward a more musicky Riverfest: Seratones. This Shreveport quartet, fronted by high school teacher A.J. Haynes, packed the White Water Tavern a year ago on the strength of its debut album, "Get Gone," on Fat Possum Records and considerable buzz — neither of which were likely to earn the band a slot in your father's Riverfest. Happily, soon (Saturday at 3:30 p.m., to be exact) the world will learn what the WWT knows — that Seratones pack their energetic rock 'n' roll swagger with respect to its deepest roots in jazz and blues. SK

click to enlarge Split Lip Rayfield
  • Split Lip Rayfield

Split Lip Rayfield

3:30 p.m. Saturday. Frio Light Stage, Clinton Presidential Center.

Lord knows that two of the greatest musical concepts are "fusion" and "hard to categorize," which is why Split Lip Rayfield is a must-see for this year's Riverfest. This Kansas trio has spent the last two decades crafting its own brand of cowpunky thrashgrass — a rollicking mashup of banjo, mandolin, the occasional kazoo and a one-string stand-up bass fashioned from a Mercury Marquis gas tank — and they come to Riverfest as part of a tour supporting their sixth studio record, the excellent "On My Way." Their live shows are said to be damn near a religious experience. Expect to holler a bit. SLR are true pioneers in carving out new possibilities and territory for acoustic music and have spread their gospel across the country for years. Think acoustic shows can't be metal? Think punk needs electric power? Come on over beside me, Junior, and let's take a master class in DIY and genre-stretching. I'm talking about the classic bluegrass yearnings of heartbreak and lamenting that "she don't call at all" paired with an energy that somehow twists that pain into something strangely joyous and all too real. Seriously, you don't want to miss this. GH

click to enlarge Cody Canada and the Departed
  • Cody Canada and the Departed

Cody Canada and The Departed

5 p.m. Saturday. Frio Light Stage, Clinton Presidential Center.

Cody Canada's been at this music deal for a while now, first fronting Cross Canadian Ragweed (which, based in Stillwater, Okla., made regular stopovers at Stickyz in the 2000s) and now leading Cody Canada and the Departed. Bassist Jeremy Plato has been with Canada for 23 years as a member of both bands. They're so close and so un-controlling about band things, they put an album last year ironically titled "Jeremy Plato and the Departed," where Plato took the lead on vocals and Canada and the rest of the band (and some top-talent imports) supported him a bunch of old country covers. Real, tried-and-true Texas-style country and country rock is the sound you'll get from the Departed late Sunday afternoon, slap-dab in the middle of a country — and bluegrass-influenced full day of music in front of the Clinton Center and culminating with Arkansas favorite son Justin Moore from Poyen. They're typically linked on "sounds a lot like" sites with ZZ Top, Jason Boland and the Stragglers, and Texas red dirt-stylist Wade Bowen, who is Canada's brother-in-law. Canada's latest work has marked a return to his Cross Canadian songwriting roots, but let's hope such circa 2011 Departed favorites as "Ballad of Rosalie" are still on his set list. Either way, he's a proven performer worth showing up for, even more than for the later headliners or the fireworks. JH

click to enlarge Cold War Kids
  • Cold War Kids

Cold War Kids

8 p.m. Saturday. Arkansas Federal Credit Union/Sweetwater Amphitheater Stage.

Welcome to Riverfest, you two. Will you be having the indie? Excellent choice! The chef's special tonight is Cold War Kids. We take choice, Grade A indie rock, lovingly prepare it with pulsating beats, soaring melodies and sing-along choruses, and serve it sizzling. The special comes with sides of hand claps and soulful backup vocals. The restaurant shtick aside, California-based Cold War Kids have been hovering on the edge of breaking out of the alternative charts into mainstream success for far too long. Over the years, the CWK lineup has changed and absorbed two members of indie favorites Modest Mouse, but the band has retained its own signature sound that gets feet moving and hands waving in the air. The band is promoting its brand-new album, the anthemic and dance floor friendly "L.A. Divine" on Capitol Records. Last month, Cold War Kids joined with British singer Bishop Briggs and released a spare, stripped-down cover of Rihanna's hit track "Love On The Brain" that's enjoying a fair amount of buzz. Bottom line: If you're scanning the Riverfest menu in search of your indie dance party, order up a heapin' helpin' of Cold War Kids. They just might end up being your new favorite dish. GH

click to enlarge Wiz Khalifa
  • Wiz Khalifa

Wiz Khalifa

9:30 p.m. Saturday. Arkansas Federal Credit Union/Sweetwater Amphitheater Stage.

When you ask Little Rock seventh-graders what they know about Wiz Khalifa (as I felt compelled to do with the middle schoolers I teach), they tell you one of two things: He has a son with model Amber Rose and he smokes a lot of weed. They are right on both counts, and both facts have featured prominently in Khalifa's music. In his most recent studio album, "Khalifa," the rapper's son cameos on the track "Zoney." You can't really say pot cameos anywhere because, well, it's referred to constantly in his music. Even Khalifa's latest — which fans hope will drop this year — is tentatively called "Rolling Papers 2," a follow-up to the 2011 "Rolling Papers." But not all of his music is about pot: Khalifa's breakout "Black and Yellow," which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with its rolling beat and sparse mix, was about his Dodge Challenger (in which he smokes pot), painted the iconic colors of his Pittsburgh hometown's football team. Some may say he's gone too pop ("Say Yeah" grooves over an A-Ha-inspired beat based on its timeless "Take On Me"), but those in the Taylor Gang (his fan base, named after the Converse shoes he always wears), will be lining up to hear what Khalifa's been smoking — I mean cooking. HS

click to enlarge Morris Day
  • Morris Day

Morris Day and The Time

7:15 p.m. Sunday. Frio Light Stage, Clinton Presidential Center.

If you were old enough to remember the '80s, you probably know Morris Day and The Time and you don't need to read this because you'll already be there to see them. If not, let me make it clear: You cannot afford to miss Morris Day and The Time. You probably already love them and you don't know it, because their mark is present on so much pop and R&B today. It's impossible to talk about Morris Day and The Time without talking about Prince. The Purple One more or less engineered the band, picking and choosing some of the best R&B players in Minneapolis to assist him in his vision of going worldwide with his alchemical concoction of funk, R&B, rock, psychedelia, etc. Along with helping spread the Purple Gospel, The Time's Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis worked with Janet Jackson to lay the foundation for what would become the New Jack Swing sound that dominated the late '80s/early '90s, and produced countless other hits across pretty much all genres. All that said, watching them perform live, it's clear the bands stands on its own. Morris Day and The Time absolutely bring it, and you can guarantee that everyone out in front of that amphitheater is going to be on his or her feet or misguidedly attempting to breakdance on the grassy slopes. JS


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