Facing the music

Riverfest 2.0 has its fair share of naysayers. But for live-music lovers, it’s more than a welcome change


FOR ALMOST FOUR DECADES, Riverfest has heralded the beginning of summer in central Arkansas. In recent years, the state’s largest festival has drawn nearly a quarter-million attendees, and—since its humble beginnings at Murray Park in 1978—has gradually become a downtown experience replete with concerts, carnival rides, art vendors, and, of course, funnel cakes and corn dogs.

Turns out, however, it’s not quite done evolving. This past year, as discussions among the fest’s higher-ups snagged on the challenge of being “all things to all people on Memorial Day Weekend,” according to Riverfest chairwoman Alecia Castleberry, the committee opted to make two big changes: first, a move from Memorial Day weekend to the first weekend in June; and second, the formation of a separate, family-focused event called Springfest, which was held on April 2 and involved staples from past Riverfests, including a 5K fun run, Ruff on the River Pooch Parade, and a Trout Fishing in America concert. By shifting the kids’ activities to a separate date, the committee was able to make Springfest free while focusing on making Riverfest about live music (and in doing so, was able to attract some big-name acts you might typically see on the bills at Austin City Limits and Bonnaroo). Plus, competing with Memorial Day vacation plans had affected both potential attendees and sponsors. “This was our way for people to have both,” Castleberry says. “Spend Memorial Day with your family at the lake and then come the next weekend to kick off summer with our outstanding lineup for Riverfest weekend.”

But making changes to a beloved tradition is always a risk, and the Riverfest committee has fielded its fair share of disapproval from folks less than thrilled about the transformation (just look at the festival’s Facebook page). The show must go on, though, and it will, thanks to a handful of employees and upwards of 250 volunteers. And to those people, we say thank you—for booking quality music, donating countless unpaid hours and taking risks. And, you know, for those ever-dependable funnel cakes and corn dogs.

THE SHEEPDOGS | Saturday, 4:30 p.m.

FOR FANS OF: The Black Keys, The Beatles, The Allman Brothers Band

With a style that bleeds psychedelic blues rock, you’d think Canadian crooners The Sheepdogs were born and bred in the South rather than Saskatchewan.

ZZ Ward | Saturday, 5 p.m.

FOR FANS OF: Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, The Black Keys, Lorde

Check out ZZ Ward for a boundary-testing mix of blues, soul and hip hop. Bonus: The 29-year-old musician is Eric Clapton-approved—Ward opened for the English rock legend on his 2015 tour.

Brothers Osborne | Saturday, 6 p.m.

FOR FANS OF: Chris Stapleton, Shooter Jennings, Vince Gill

For years, the Nashville scene has focused on a more polished sound. But brothers TJ and John are bringing back a style of country that hearkens back to the classics.

St. Paul & The Broken Bones | Saturday, 6:30 p.m.

FOR FANS OF: Alabama Shakes, Leon Bridges, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats

This Alabama sextet boasts a sound tinged with gospel and punctuated with horns. Lead singer Paul Janeway’s howling vocals and infectious stage presence make this one a can’t-miss.

Grace Potter & the Nocturnals | Saturday, 7:45 p.m.

FOR FANS OF: Brandi Carlile, Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt

While her style’s firmly rooted in blues rock and Americana, Grace Potter’s fierce vocals and catchy melodies punch her band’s sound up a notch to full-on rock ’n’ roll.

George Clinton & Parliament-Funkadelic | Saturday, 8 p.m.

FOR FANS OF: James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone, Kendrick Lamar

You want the funk? Get to the amphitheater stage to catch George Clinton and company, who deserve credit for many trends in today’s rap, hip-hop, and pop music.

Chris Stapleton | Saturday, 9:30 p.m.

FOR FANS OF: Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Sturgill Simpson

Kentucky singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton has quickly garnered a following for his traditional outlaw country, and with two 2016 Grammy wins, he’s got the hardware to prove it.

The Flaming Lips | Saturday, 9:45 p.m.

FOR FANS OF: David Bowie, Beck, The Polyphonic Spree

Technicolor light shows, elaborate costumes, inflatable mushrooms, seas of confetti: That’s just a taste of what you can expect from this psychedelic trip through the band’s space-rock discography.

Judah + the Lion | Sunday, 4:45 p.m.

FOR FANS OF: Mumford & Sons, Nickel Creek, Old Crow Medicine Show

This trio cut their teeth on contemporary Christian music, but their most recent album found a wider audience after lacing its folk and bluegrass with influences from hip-hop and rock.

Barrett Baber | Sunday, 6 p.m.

FOR FANS OF: Hayes Carll, Jason Isbell, The Avett Brothers

Arkansas’ boy-next-door from Marion made it big as second runner-up on Season 9 of  The Voice, and we’re lucky he’s home showing off that soulful, rootsy sound the whole country has come to adore.

X Ambassadors | Sunday, 6:15 p.m.

FOR FANS OF: Imagine Dragons, Bastille, Hozier

This quartet found breakout success with “Renegades” off its debut full-length album, which features dark, textured pop that’s both ominous and catchy.

Juicy J | Sunday, 7:45 p.m.

FOR FANS OF: Three 6 Mafia, Lil Wayne, Ludacris

He might have three solo albums and one in the works, but don’t be surprised if the Memphis rapper busts out some tracks from his days with Three 6 Mafia — one of the most notorious names in Southern hip-hop.

Kelsea Ballerini | Sunday, 7:45 p.m.

FOR FANS OF: Lady Antebellum, Sugarland, early Taylor Swift

Before she’d even cleared her teens, this pop-country princess had a record deal, breakout single “Love Me Like You Mean It,” and was well on her way to breaking records as a solo female country recording artist.

Goo Goo Dolls | Sunday, 9:30 p.m.

FOR FANS OF: Matchbox Twenty, The Wallflowers, Third Eye Blind

Goo Goo Dolls have released five albums since 1998’s Grammy-nominated Dizzy Up the Girl, but you can count on jamming to “Iris” and “Slide” among other favorites from their ’90s heyday.

Cole Swindell | Sunday, 9:45 p.m.

FOR FANS OF: Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Eric Church

Looking for your summer soundtrack? With stick-in-your-head country tunes celebrating carefree summer days, Cole Swindell’s set might introduce you to your next party anthem.