Sitting amid packages dressed up to go to sponsors and boxes of thousands of orange T-shirts destined for vendor tents, Riverfest executive director Deanna Shannon and this year’s chairman, Julie Shindler, took a momentary break. The phones didn’t oblige, however.
One call, they were notified by an office staffer, was from Charlotte, N.C., inquiring about tickets.
The one-time Junior League project turned solid Little Rock-North Little Rock venture, Memorial Day weekend’s Riverfest event will feature a line-up that will require festival-goers to choose between blues legend B.B. King and British folk legend Richard Thompson on Friday night, and make other tough choices on the following days. The festival has drawn attention from the New York Times and many other newspapers across the country. A radio crew from Lenoir-Rhyne College in North Carolina will broadcast the festival back home all the three days. Longtime Riverfest observers say this line-up may rival that of 1999, which had Kenny Chesney on his way up and Collective Soul at its peak, and Morris Day and the Time playing in the drizzle before a huge crowd on Sunday night.
“I don’t think the general public is aware of all the national attention and publicity the festival has drawn,” Shannon said last week. “It’s a great compliment for this community, the two cities and for Riverfest. Both cities should be proud of what they give to make it possible.”
The festival kicks off at 5 p.m. Friday and concludes with the Osborne Family Fireworks starting around 9:30 p.m. Sunday.
Shindler and the staff were fielding calls as late as last week from musicians and vendors wanting to participate. The group just collectively rolled their eyes — the music line-up was 99 percent set almost two months ago, and the vendors have long been in place. But exceptions are made for such exhibits as Hard Rock Cafe Rock Across America, which is coming in on a 53-foot trailer.
“My logistics person [Jack Grobmyer] told me, ‘If you add one more thing to this festival, I may kill you,’ ” Shannon said.
Shannon expects 200,000 will attend Riverfest, whether it’s for the music or the other attractions, as families kick off summer vacation. “We’re where we are every year at this time,” Shannon said. “Everything’s set and we’re just worrying about the weather.”
Besides King and Thompson, Friday’s line-up includes Robert Randolph and the Family Band and the Wallflowers (see sidebar for times and places). Hank Williams Jr., the reunited Black Crowes and the 4th Avenue Jones Band are Saturday’s headliners. Sunday features modern rockers Trapt, country star Joe Nichols, classic rockers REO Speedwagon, Cajun blues man Terrence Simeon and slide-guitar virtuoso Sonny Landreth as well as the annual performance by the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. Then, everybody gets into their comfy spots for the fireworks, which conclude at 10 p.m.
Three-day tickets for all those shows and assorted activities for children, teens and adults are $7.50 (a jump of $1.50 from last year) at Harvest Foods stores before the festival opens. Admission is $15 at the gate for a 3-day pass.
A Jumbotron will broadcast acts at the amphitheater for overflow crowds thanks to Riverfest sponsors Judy and Harold Tenenbaum.
“We wanted to incorporate the river more into our offerings,” Shannon said. This year will feature the first Riverfest Fishing Classic, to be held Saturday.
Hourly weigh-ins will take place on the North Little Rock dock. The overall winner will be eligible for a drawing for $1 million.
The Kidzone area will be located in the middle of Riverfront Park, next to the children’s playground, where, Shindler noted, there will be sidewalk chalking, bubbles, squirt-bottle painting and hula-hoops. Krispy Kreme will also have a free doughnut dipping station. Nickelodeon will have live shows on the stage beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday. The Kidzone stage will also feature high school age music acts, such as Highway 5 and Anxiety.
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock comes on site for the first time, with an exhibit on music and technology opportunities at the school.
Artists always have a big place in Riverfest, and several dozen will be stationed in the River Market pavilion area. Teens have their own zone full of activities and interactive exhibits behind the museum center.
An International Village will be set up on Saturday and Sunday in Faucette Park at the base of the Main Street Bridge in North Little Rock.
Shannon said that as of last week, 25 states outside Arkansas were represented in presale tickets, from Maine to Oregon. “That’s pretty phenomenal,” she said. “I’m pleased with the way the whole festival has come together. … I want people to come down here, have a great time, sing along and have a blast and say, ‘This was worth my seven dollars and 50 cents.’ ”
Last year, Shannon had “interim” before her title, having taken over at Christmas before the festival. No longer in the “prove yourself” mode she was in in 2004, Shannon says the difference in the weeks leading up to the festival this year and last have been “like night and day.” She spent part of last year’s festival in an emergency room being treated for a bug, graduating to a production truck with an IV on Sunday. “I’m taking my vitamins this year,” she said. “They’ll be taking me kicking and screaming.”
Shindler said Shannon has raised more money “than any festival director has, by far.” Shannon’s budget for music was $400,000, a slight increase over last year’s, but still significantly less than festivals such as Memphis’s Beale Street Music Festival have to work with.