OK, everyone recalls the air of excitement surrounding last year’s Riverfest’s Friday night headliner, James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, the hardest-working man in show business, all that. The amphitheater squeeze was in full effect by the time Brown took the stage.
Riverfest officials are getting that same sensation, if not more so, with this year’s Friday night amphitheater headliner, Forrest City-born Al Green.
Green, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, won’t claim to be the hardest working man in showbiz – much of his work the past 28 years has been at his First Tabernacle Gospel Church in Memphis. But in the early to mid 1970s, Green was not just cool, he was the coolest in R&B, and he linked Brown’s suave heyday with Barry White’s of the disco days. Then Green kind of disappeared, though his songs such as “Let’s Stay Together” never did.
“Al Green, c’mon,” says Van Tilbury, the former Riverfest executive director who now works for East-Harding Co. in business development. “I wanted Al Green the whole time I was at Riverfest and I couldn’t get him. He’s cut a new CD so he’s got to get out on the road.”
Acting director Deanna Shannon says, “Early on, there was a lot of ‘Hootie’ [and the Blowfish] chatter from the calls we were getting, but lately it’s been all Al Green.”
Green, after making several gospel records, returned to the secular in the late 1980s, charting for the first time in years in a duet with Annie Lennox, a remake of “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” He’s made occasional forays on the road, and this year is touring in support of “I Can’t Stop,” his first solo R&B record in a generation.
“We booked Al Green for Music Midtown in Atlanta in 1994,” said Tilbury, who worked for a festival management company at the time in Birmingham, Ala. “He was in a white tux, handing out red roses to ladies in the front row. And it was a smooooth.”
There will be other acts to see while Al Green is on stage – a good thing since only about 10,000 can fit into the amphitheater seating area at one time.
Hootie and the Blowfish, whose “Cracked Rear View” album released in 1994 became the all-time best-selling debut record with 16 million in sales, will be playing opposite Green’s slot on the other side of the river, in North Little Rock’s Riverfront Park.
The Riverfest set up in North Little Rock is different this year: after going with two stages and two vendor areas for the past two years, the northside will have one stage – but two acts deemed “headliners” – this year.
Hootie and the Blowfish will be preceded by 1990s hitmakers the Spin Doctors (with a local act sandwiched in between). On Saturday, Kid Rock protege Uncle Kracker will be followed by Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase winner Grandpa’s Goodtime Fandango and headliner Collective Soul. Country star Gary Allan and classic bluesy-rockers Little Feat are back-to-back on Sunday on the North Little Rock side.
Big names playing south of the river besides Green include country star Brad Paisley on Saturday and classic rocker Eddie Money on Sunday, with assorted lesser names that music fans will enjoy. Riverfest favorite Trout Fishing in America plays various stages all weekend. Top cover bands The Rockets (from Little Rock) and Memphis groups the SophistiCats and the SophistiKittens and the Bouffants, who rekindle ’60s and ’70s sounds, no doubt will have crowds up and dancing. So will The 17th Floor, an R&B/rap group out of Chicago, the lone band that will cater to the hip-hop crowd.
“That’s probably my only disappointment is that we do not have a lot of rap,” Shannon said. “A lot of those groups are touring Europe, or aren’t out. We had the Black Eyed Peas until they changed management and decided to tour Europe instead.”
“But for $2 a day,” Shannon added, “I think we’re offering a lot of entertainment.”
Three-day tickets are $6 in advance and $10 at the gate starting Friday.
The complete music lineup was finalized early in May when Collective Soul was announced, right after its show in Memphis’ Beale Street Music Festival. It was that band’s performance in 1999 that Tilbury, who boosted the festival’s stage sites during his tenure, said “elevated Riverfest to a music festival.”
On the family side, this year’s Riverfest has added attractions to the Kids’ Stuff area and put more emphasis on the teen-geared Total Riverfest Live section near the River Market, adding a second rock climbing wall and putting it in that area. “We’ve looked at this as a place for kids too old to go to the kids’ area but not old enough to be left alone all day,” she said.
Susan Cohen, this year’s festival chair and outgoing Riverfest board president, said, “That’s what makes this festival so cool,” adding that her 11-year-old son ended up wearing himself out last year on the rock climbing wall. “He said he rang the bell 42 times. Where else can you go for this price and climb a rock climb 42 times all week weekend?”
The regional and international food and beverage vendors will have the usual favorites, and North Little Rock’s smaller lineup of vendors will be grouped in one area this year, Shannon said.
The festival grounds layout remains identical to last year’s – there are five gates on the Little Rock side and three on the North Little Rock side. The River Market and most of the surrounding clubs remain inside the gates, but late club-goers will be let in free at the Commerce Street gate at 10:30 p.m.