SunFest 2018 story - April 26 issue of Florida Weekly
"Florida's largest waterfront music and art festival," SunFest, lands along the Intracoastal Waterway in West Palm Beach for the 36th time from May 3-6 -- yet bearing little resemblance to the first such annual event in 1983.
That comparatively small grass-roots festival featured mostly local jazz artists and community orchestras. But by the close of the 1980s, SunFest had booked international headliners in R&B (Blood, Sweat & Tears), blues (John Lee Hooker) and jazz/fusion (Steps Ahead). And since the entrance of Paul Jamieson, who's been SunFest's executive director since 1996 and with the organization since 1990, marquee names have dotted the Intracoastal landscape like Bob Dylan, James Brown, Ray Charles, Herbie Hancock, Bonnie Raitt, Wilco, James Taylor, Jimmy Cliff, Lenny Kravitz, Phish, Ani DiFranco, Jackson Browne, Jeff Beck, Gregg Allman, Sheryl Crow, the B-52s, Tower of Power, Carrie Underwood, Buddy Guy, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Chaka Khan, Santana, and Earth, Wind & Fire.
"Even by 1996, I think SunFest was still mostly a community-based event that primarily drew people from this area," Mr. Jamieson says. "We've certainly grown since then. We had people from 30 different countries, every state in America, and 220 cities in Florida outside of Palm Beach County here last year. We've become a national and international destination, while maintaining that community flavor, thanks to a board, staff, and volunteer base of people who are all incredibly hard-working and dedicated."
The initial SunFest jazz quotient has waned over the years, particularly since 2012, in favor of popular music. This year's lineup is heavy on reggae, rock and pop, with a hip-hop undercurrent.
"People here love reggae," says Mr. Jamieson. "It's a South Florida thing, and we have both up-and-coming and old-school reggae acts like Toots and the Maytals. As far as hip-hop, it became the most consumed form of music in the country in 2017, and we have Ice Cube and 311, a band that always draws well and has hip-hop elements. And pop acts like Nick Jonas, and classic rock bands like Living Colour, are also a draw."
"Still, there will always be some people whose idea of classic rock is the Doobie Brothers [who appeared in 2002], and others who wonder why we don't have country music. Which is where all the other festivals, like the recent Okeechobee and Tortuga events, come in. Artists can't play both SunFest and one of those because of routing and proximity. It's a balance of trying to give everyone what they want while realizing that you can't always achieve that."
For the first time in decades, this year's SunFest will downshift from a five-day to a four-day format.
"For almost its first 10 years, SunFest was a four-day event," Mr. Jamieson says. "And to be candid, going back to that has a lot to do with the cost of the talent we strive for having escalated dramatically in recent years. So we did it because we didn't want to reduce the quality of the talent, or significantly raise our ticket prices, which have always been very reasonable. Our four-day pass still costs less than some single concert tickets cost elsewhere."
SunFest drew 175,000 patrons last year, although Mr. Jamieson expects those numbers may drop slightly with one less day of the festival. Still, that also makes it one of the larger waterfront music and art events in the Southeastern United States, although not every artist booked necessarily recognizes the SunFest name at first glance. Take Nick Wold, the Seattle-born lead vocalist and guitarist for New York City-based pop trio Dreamers, which plays SunFest for the second time (the first was 2015) on May 4 before Los Angeles rock institution Incubus closes the night on the Tire Kingdom Stage.
"I'd never heard of SunFest until we got booked," Mr. Wold says. "But once we read up on it, we got very excited to play there."
Asked which artists Mr. Jamieson is most excited to see and hear this year, he offers up several.
"I'm looking forward to seeing Logic, the Thursday, May 3 closer on the Ford Stage," he says. "He's just starting to break out. Six months from now, people will be sorry if they missed that show. I like everything that night. We had Billy Idol a couple years ago, and Girl Talk a few years ago, and both put on strong shows. On Friday, May 4, Nathaniel Rateliff is super talented, and Incubus is a band we've tried to get for a long time and finally landed. For Saturday, May 5, I'm most excited to see Ice Cube. He doesn't do that many live performances. On Sunday, May 6, I know Pitbull will put on a great show, but DNCE and PartyNextDoor will be a lot of fun, too."