Riverfront Blues Festival kicks off in Fort Smith

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 203 views 

FORT SMITH — Summer officially got underway with the start of the 22nd annual Fort Smith Riverfront Blues Festival on Friday (June 22). One of the area’s premier music events, this year’s festival features some the most recognized names in the blues world.

Held on the Arkansas River at Harry E. Kelley Park, festivalgoers threw down blankets and set up lawn chairs in front of the stage as Arkansas native Ray Bonneville opened the event. He delighted the crowd with his own brand of harmonica-infused blues. Next-up was renowned vocalist and instrumentalist Carolyn Wonderland. Hailing from Austin, Texas, Wonderland and her group have are no strangers to the blues circuit. The group recently returned from a concert series in California and will travel overseas to tour Austria and Japan later this year.

“We appreciate playing festivals like this because it brings out new audiences and gives others an opportunity to hear our music,” said Wonderland. “The crowd here has been awesome and they really get into the music. This is a great event and we are thrilled to be a part of it.”

The Friday night lineup also included award-winning artist Nick Moss and the Flip-Tops and local favorite Tyrannosaurus Chicken, which closed the show.  T. Chicken was excited to be a part of the festival for the second straight year.

"We look forward to playing at RiverFest because it is an experience that you can't get just anywhere," said member Rachel Ammons. "The vibe is very chill and the crowds are just great." Based in Fort Smith, the group is also proud to have such an outstanding event in its own hometown. "It is nice to have something right here in Fort Smith that everyone can come out and enjoy."

“We look forward to the blues festival every year,” said   reveler Amy Cable. “Not only is the music great, but it is just fun to sit out here and enjoy the beautiful scenery down on the river.”

The festival averages between 3,000 and 4,000 attendees each year. Dori Colston, president of the RiverFront Blues Society, noted that the level of talent in this year’s line-up is one of the best in the festival’s history.

“We have some regionally based acts and other talent who are absolutely incredible,” said Colston. “Many have spent years traveling all over the world performing.”

Earlier in the evening, she recognized the many sponsors that make the event possible. She noted that the City of Fort Smith is the event’s biggest sponsor and that the partnership with the city helps make bluesfest such a success. “If you were go to a club or some other venue, you would pay at least $10 or $15 to hear one artist,” noted Colston. “Here, you pay $10 and you get to see four or five amazing artists perform all in one night. It is wonderful for the community.”

Saturday’s (June 23) lineup includes Earl and Them, featuring legendary guitarist Earl Cate and famed blues saxophonist David Renko; Fort Smith’s own Larry Bedell and The Cradle Rockers; and Chubby Carrier.

Carrier, a Grammy-award winning artist, is expected to wow audiences with his over-the-top Zydeco music and accordion skills. Later in the night, Trampled Under Foot, with siblings Danielle, Kris and Nick Schnebelen, will perform. A local favorite, the Mark Albertson Trio, will wrap-up the event. Wanda Watson, popular Tulsa blues musician, was the weekend’s mistress of ceremonies.

This year’s theme, “Beyond the Blues,” indicated that the festival has more than just great music. Food and drink vendors from throughout the area sold everything from barbeque and beer to coffee and slushies. Festival memorabilia, as well as artist merchandise and customized jewelry, can also be found.

The society hosts other events throughout the year including fundraisers for Blues Fest. To help promote music education, The RiverFront Blues Society also maintains the Barry Ratliff Memorial Scholarship, which is awarded to a student pursuing a degree in music education. The group works to promotes the “Blues in the Schools” program by sponsoring special performances at area schools in order to teach children about the wide-ranging influence of the blues.