Did that just happen? Was this year’s installation of Riverfest about as close to ideal as they come? Barring a few minutes, tops, of driving, torrential rain that sent people elbowing for a little dryness under River Market awnings, it seems this year went off without a hitch. Even the shake up of the familiar layout — moving the North Little Rock stage and attractions to the south of the river — was a welcome change that streamlined the weekend and left us meeting up in what we dubbed “the manger” or “East” and “West Jerusalem” (the Arkansas Tent, Triple-S and Bud Light stages, respectively).
Sure, the humidity and packed bodies (just over 250,000, according to Riverfest director DeAnna Korte) made the entire park feel like a dormitory laundry room and one of us left the weekend with a ripped toe after a cowboy-booted galoot couldn’t find a route to the corn dog stand any better than directly on top of one of our sandals, but those are the breaks we’ll gladly take for a weekend of fair food and live music.
First, Friday night found us, yes, eating our own words. When we heard that Earth, Wind & Fire was named as the final headliner, we were admittedly a bit dejected. After all, we were hanging on to (the now totally unsubstantiated) whisperings that Riverfest was going to find Hall & Oates, a long-time favorite, in the opening night spot. Sure, we pouted a bit, but any scrapes of discontent were melted when we were in the middle of the tens of thousands of people absolutely losing it for the funk. And, yeah, we forgot how great “Let’s Groove” can be — especially when a friend gets snatched up to dance with a drunk, middle aged lady.
The next night saw Lucero front man and local native Ben Nichols take to the Bud Light stage for a bit of a homecoming, telling the crowd “I’ve been coming to Riverfest for a long time.” What used to be a simple four-piece band for the alt-country heroes has turned into an all-out production, including keys, pedal steel, trumpet and sax, leaving Lucero fans satisfied while winning over the we’re-just-here-to-see-the-Black-Crowes contingent.
On the other side of the festival, another native son of Arkansas, CeDell Davis, took to the Arkansas Tent. While other bands during the weekend had no problem drawing acres of spectators, we guarantee you the 150 people in the small tent had more admiration and veneration for the man of the hour than the thousands crowded around any of the other big stages for anyone else. The blues legend, inarguably one of the great living treasures of Arkansas’s musical past, gave a mesmerizing performance in spite of his age.
Sunday, it was all about hip-hop with two of the most consistently entertaining emcees working now: Little Rock’s 607 and superstar Ludacris. Given, in terms of celebrity, the two are world apart, but as far as talent is concerned, most of Arkansas’s hip-hop heads will tell you they’re on a same plane.
Joined by his brother Bobby, the former treated a crowd of Luda-hungry thousands to a veritable clinic, running through long-standing favorites “Let’s Go Dutch” and “Palingraph,” and made hundreds simultaneously groan in awe when, at the end of a track, he told the entire crowd “your favorite rapper’s stupid.” That’s effortless brilliance.
While Six’s self-proclaimed “dictionary rap” killed it, Luda, on the other hand, was a bit disappointing — or maybe distracting. He had to keep it clean, commanding everyone to “move … get out the way.” Now, seeing as how the bulk of his songs involve rampant sexual activity, if you’re offended by the word “bitch,” you’ll be doubly so at “rough sex, make it hurry.” Solution: Don’t bring your 6-year-old to Luda.
To his credit, he’s a great performer. It takes a giant presence to have a crowd of thousands bobbing and dancing. While the music — bouncing from Gucci Mane to Waka Flocka except, you know, with Luda on stage — may have been a letdown, the show itself was everything but.
Now what’s it like to see the Steve Miller Band when Ludacris is playing right next door? A little bit more breathable, if that’s a word that should ever be used to describe a rock concert. While the rap stage was long clogged with festival goers trying to make it as close to the stage as possible, Steve Miller Band was, needless to say, a bit mellower, although he didn’t fail to draw an impressive crowd, albeit one in which it was possible to walk through without losing your way or stepping on too many feet.
— Gerard Matthews, John Tarpley, Bernard Reed and John Earney