SunFest story - April 25 issue of Florida Weekly
SunFest, "Florida's largest waterfront music and art festival," will turn 37 years old when it appears along the Intracoastal Waterway in West Palm Beach from May 2-5. And like [i]Saturday Night Live[i], the iconic TV series that recently celebrated its 44th birthday, there's no shortage of opinions on the event as it approximates middle-aged numbers.
[i]SNL[i] transitioned from its brilliant initial ensemble cast of the mid-to-late 1970s to the Eddie Murphy run from 1980-1984 through modern-day, with fans of practically every era citing their merits. SunFest started in 1983 as a grass-roots effort featuring mostly local jazz performers and community orchestras.
But the festival surviving its first few years meant inevitable growth, even as it went back to its current four-day format last year after a run of five days from the 1990s through 2017. National 1980s headliners like R&B powerhouse Blood, Sweat & Tears and blues legend John Lee Hooker were early stars, but by the mid-1990s, names like Crosby, Stills & Nash; Ray Charles, Phish, Blues Traveler, and Bela Fleck & the Flecktones drew even larger crowds of pop, soul, rock and jazz/fusion fans.
And since 1996, when Paul Jamieson (part of the SunFest organization since 1990) was named executive director, the event has snowballed -- partly because of a purposeful, simultaneous appeal to different age groups like millennials and baby boomers.
"We drew around 135,000 people last year, despite some rain over the weekend," Mr. Jamieson says. "Our lineups might look like a hodgepodge, but look at Saturday afternoon this year. There's Ludacris, the B-52s, and Iration playing simultaneously. Very different performers and audiences. It changes every year, of course, based on who's available and budgeting. We spent the most we ever have this year, around $3.5 million, just to pay the musical artists."
"And since it's my 30th year with SunFest, I've been thinking of how strong its community nature is. We're not a traveling circus coming to town. We're an authentic, world-class music festival that's locally-owned and locally-sourced, with mostly volunteers putting on an event that draws all varieties of people from around the world. And our ticket prices are still way more affordable than other festivals."
Marquee names since 1996 include Santana, Jackson Browne, Hall & Oates, James Brown, Bob Dylan, the Black Crowes, Sheryl Crow, John Mayer, Carrie Underwood, John Legend, Herbie Hancock, James Taylor, Gregg Allman, and Snoop Dogg.
But SunFest's history includes other jazz/fusion, roots music, blues, hip-hop, reggae, and veteran pop artists that may have drawn slightly-lesser crowds, but nonetheless put on memorable shows. Those include jazz/fusion performers Steps Ahead (1989), Stanley Jordan (1991), and Bill Frisell (2006), bluegrass mandolinist David Grisman (1994), heady rockers Los Lobos (1999) and Wilco (2015), pop group The Knack (2002), reggae group Steel Pulse (2008), blues man Gary Clark Jr. (2013), and hip-hop heroes The Roots (2016).
The completion of the concrete Meyer Ampitheatre before the 1996 SunFest created a permanent midway stage. Banner sets there have included funk bands The Time and Average White Band, indie-pop icon Ani DiFranco, R&B institution Tower of Power, legendary rock guitarist Jeff Beck, and roots-rocker Ben Harper.
Fewer jazz artists have appeared as SunFest grew. Mr. Hancock performed in 2012, but didn't draw as well as expected despite his otherworldly musicianship.
"Jazz fans tend to be in the age range of baby boomers or older," says Mr. Jamieson, "and not want to be out in the heat, or out late. And jazz has become a bit like country music, where there are so many other area concerts and festivals, like Jazz in the Gardens in Miami. An artist booked there can't also play SunFest."
One consistent community inclusion has been the bookings of local and regional acts along with the nationals. A SunFest gig means you open on the same stage, and on some of the same equipment including a massive sound system, as the headliners, often to one of your largest crowds ever. You get a free one-day pass for the day you perform, and the same backstage accommodations as the stars. Your time slot will often as long as theirs, too, and while you can't retire on the pay, it's as much as you'll earn for an entire evening of three or four sets at a club.
"We've always been committed to keeping local performers at SunFest," Mr. Jamieson says. "Before the Meyer Ampitheatre was completed, we had a stage near there that was sponsored by Sugar Cane Growers called the Raisin' Cane Stage, which featured all local acts. Since 1996, we've mixed the locals in on all three stages. And we've played with the idea of staggering time slots more, so people could catch more national acts on different stages, but nixed it because it would've meant eliminating some local slots."
The 2019 locals lineup includes South Florida acts encompassing soul (Alexander Star), rock (Citizen Badger, Lochness Monster), hip-hop (SpltySecond, J Sexton), pop (Aftermidnight), funk (Magic City Hippies), world music (Ghost Lion), and reggae (Spred the Dub). Additional regional artists include Anthony Russo, Josie Dunne, Duonia, Yeek, Marc Scibilia, Spazz Cardigan, Arielle, Gia Woods, Absoloot, Antonio Camelo, and RetroRev.
"I was having lunch recently and someone recognized me and approached," Mr. Jamieson says. "And I never know which way the conversation's going to go, since politics and religion aside, people have the strongest opinions about music. But he said how happy he was that one of his favorite local bands, Ghost Lion, got booked at SunFest. I'm not a part of our local and regional entertainment committee, which does a great job in the selections. But I know Spred the Dub has a huge following, and there's a lot of talk about Lochness Monster being the up-and-coming local act. And there was so much talent at our local Battle of the Bands contest recently, so seeing how excited Citizen Badger was to win was really rewarding."
"This is my fourth time playing SunFest," says Spred the Dub guitarist/vocalist Hunter Hutchings, "and the first time I'll be on the south stage. It's always enjoyable. And I'm looking forward to this lineup, especially Flogging Molly."
Among the 2019 nationals, the biggest names are acts that became stars from the 1970s (Earth, Wind & Fire) to the 1980s (Tears for Fears), 1990s (Garbage) and 2000s (Keith Urban). But Mr. Jamieson also points to some of the artists who could be the veteran stars playing at SunFest when it approaches its 50th anniversary in the early 2030s.
"This could be one of the most musically-diverse lineups for us in many years," he says. "And I've heard from people that it's our strongest lineup ever, and from others who think it's our dumbest. I'm looking forward to Keith Urban, who's a more talented guitarist than I think most people realize. Earth, Wind & Fire and Ludacris have played SunFest before, and put on great shows. But I also can't wait to see Don Omar, one of the bigger reggaeton names. Or Flogging Molly, since I have Irish roots. And you can never assume to know someone's musical tastes. A woman in her 70s was excited to buy tickets to see Diplo, and similarly-unexpected people overjoyed that we booked Lil Dicky. How cool is that?"
in the know
When: May 2, 5-10 p.m. (Ghost Lion from 6-6:30 p.m., Nightly 7-8 p.m., and OneRepublic 8:30-10 p.m. on the northern Ford Stage; Lochness Monster 5:15-6 p.m., Hawthorne Heights 6:30-7:30 p.m., and Flogging Molly 8-9:15 p.m. on the central Tire Kingdom Stage, and Manic Focus 6:45-7:45 p.m., and Big Gigantic 8:15-9:45 p.m. on the southern JetBlue Stage).
May 3, 5-11 p.m. (SplytSecond 6:15-7 p.m., Dounia 7:30-8 p.m., Anthony Russo 8:30-9 p.m., and G-Easy 9:30-11 p.m. on the Ford Stage; Alexander Star 6-6:45 p.m., Josie Dunne 7:15-8:15 p.m., and Earth, Wind & Fire 8:45-10:15 p.m. on the Tire Kingdom Stage, and Spred the Dub 6-6:45 p.m., Magic City Hippies 7:15-8:30 p.m., and Rebelution 9-10:30 p.m. on the Jet Blue Stage).
May 4, noon-11 p.m. (Mayday! 1:30-2:30 p.m., Ludacris 3-4:15 p.m., RetroRev 5:15-6:15 p.m., J Sexton 6:45-7:30 p.m., ripmattblack 8-9 p.m., and Diplo 9:30-11 p.m. on the Ford Stage; Marc Scibilia 2-3 p.m., The B-52s 3:30-5 p.m., AfterMidnight 6-7 p.m., Des Rocks 7:30-8:30 p.m., and Papa Roach 9-10:30 p.m. on the Tire Kingdom Stage, and Fortunate Youth 2:15-3:15 p.m., Iration 3:45-5:15 p.m., Antonio Camelo 6:15-7 p.m., MAX 7:30-8:45 p.m., and Don Omar 9:15-10:15 p.m. on the Jet Blue Stage).
May 5, noon-9 p.m. (Ballyhoo! 12:45-2 p.m., Stick Figure 2:30-4 p.m., Arielle 5-5:30 p.m., Larkin Poe 6-7 p.m. and Keith Urban 7:30-9 p.m. on the Ford Stage; Patrick Droney 1:15-2:15 p.m., Bebe Rexha 2:45-3:45 p.m., Absoloot 5-5:45 p.m., Yeek 6:15-7 p.m., and Lil Dicky 7:30-8:30 p.m. on the Tire Kingdom Stage, and Spazz Cardigan 12:45-1:45 p.m., Garbage 2:15-3:30 p.m., Citizen Badger 4:30-5:15 p.m., Gia Woods 5:45-6:45 p.m., and Tears for Fears 7:15-8:45 p.m. on the JetBlue Stage).
Where: Flagler Drive along the Intracoastal Waterway between Banyan Boulevard and Lakeview Drive, West Palm Beach.
Info and tickets: ($47-$60, with discount two-day, four-day, youth, and senior packages). 800-SUNFEST (786-3378) or www.sunfest.com.