Festival In The Park Retooled

Craig Morgan is the headliner this weekend.

by Gene Marrano

Returning for a 43rd year, the annual Festival in the Park event, based at Elmwood Park, has been retooled somewhat this time around. For starters, it has spread beyond Elmwood Park to neighboring streets.  And for the first time in over a decade, 1964 The Tribute, the Beatles cover band that was the next best thing to seeing the Fab Four in action, will not return.

Event Zone Executive Director Larry Landolt said part of the commitment to retooling Festival in the Park, which includes more collaboration from local groups that wanted to be involved, was the realization that many people had seen 1964 and were perhaps ready for something new.  1964 would typically close out Festival in the Park on Memorial Day night; this year a jam concert featuring area musicians takes its place.

Before that, from Friday (May 25) through Sunday, there are concerts by headliners The Gin Blossoms, Lee Brice and Craig Morgan. The Gin Blossoms had pop hits like “Hey Jealousy,” in the 90’s; Brice was up for the Academy of Country Music’s Song of the year with a tune he wrote for the Eli Young Band (Crazy Love) and Morgan has had seven Top-10 country hits since 2003.

Those concerts require a ticket but there’s plenty of free music (on four stages,) food and arts & crafts during the day. The AEP Festival in the Park 5k and 10K road races kickoff at 8am on Saturday. Daytime activities have been “completely revamped” according to Landolt, and include a sand sculpture being created outside the main library in downtown Roanoke by Carl Jara.

Students from the Music Lab will program a whole stage near Franklin Road; an ensemble from the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra will perform and there will be blues music from the Blue Ridge Blues Society, as well. “If you think you have been to Festival [during the day] and have been there, done that, it’s no longer the case,” noted Landolt. Event Zone also oversees Party in the Park every Thursday and the Big Lick Blues Festival in September.

Landolt credits inspiration he received at the CityWorks Expo earlier this year with some of the changes that will take place at Festival over the next few years. Developer Ed Walker staged CityWorks, a symposium focused on small and medium sized cities like Roanoke, where collaboration and community were stressed as ways to grow. “It’s no secret that Roanoke is blowing up in terms of creativity and doing neat things,” said Landolt, “the question I had was…how can we ask these [creative] individuals and groups to be part of Festival in the Park? It was as simple as asking.”

Many told Landolt they had been waiting for that call. There has been plenty of collaboration and participation by local groups at Festival in the Park, “but this year it’s just been overwhelming,” said Landolt. “I hope that it just continues to blow up and be this incredible movement.” Like the Marginal Arts Festival earlier in the year, he hopes that FITP is seen as one of those places creative people feel is a “must do” when it comes to venturing out.

The mental shift at Festival in the Park includes taking it to the streets, with parts of Franklin Road and Jefferson Street being closed. RIDE Solutions is also putting on its Open Streets Festival, promoting alternatives to driving this weekend at the same time.  “This is an urban festival,” notes Landolt, “so the idea of using the streets…is exciting to us.”

As for the music headliners, Landolt said The Gin Blossoms “helped define that whole alternative pop-rock sound of the late ‘90’s.”  Sunday’s main attraction, Craig Morgan, “is a man’s man,” ex-active military and the host of a TV hunting/fishing show. “We’re very excited about the three concert nights this year,” said Landolt. Event Zone has brought in some fairly big country acts over the past few years and has done well at the gate.

“You can kind of tell who’s coming [up in popularity],” said Landolt, noting the demographic for country music in Roanoke. Brice crosses over to other genres anyway he adds; opening for Brice is local favorite Mountain Heart.

As for Memorial Day’s Rock the Valley jam, “We have no idea how this is going to work,” said Landolt. “It could be absolutely stunning.” Then again, maybe not, but Landolt points out that the Roanoke music community is tightly knit and many of those who will be invited have probably played together anyway.

This will be the last Festival in the Park before Elmwood Park undergoes renovations that begin in July. If all goes well, the new amphitheater should be in place next May. “Anybody would be excited about the changes,” said Landolt, who feels the revamping will only make Elmwood Park more festival-friendly.

See eventzone.org for a complete list of events at this weekend’s Festival in the Park.