Despite appearances, SpiritFest publicist Jeff Campbell (who's been with the organization since 1993) insists there are no plans to permanently change the name of the event to Spirit-of-'76-Fest. "It just turned out that way," he says of this Labor Day weekend's retro-leaning lineup. "We always get the best talent you can for the budget. You keep your eyes and ears open for who's touring and who's routable to the market. Sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes you don't. I think this year we got lucky."
Well, real luck would be Madonna (in Chicago on August 28 and 29) turning "Lucky Star" into a production number in front of the Liberty Memorial. Kansas City fans won't be subjected to Loverboy (in Denver on August 31) playing selections from Get Lucky, but neither are they likely to be working for the weekend as if they had a date with past SpiritFest luminaries Bob Dylan, Santana, Moby or Weezer.
"We got them right as they hit," Campbell says of the latter two acts. "It's difficult for us to gauge, but sometimes it works out."
Snapdragon, this year's unopposed winner in the most-likely-to-succeed category, livens up Friday night's proceedings with a refreshing blast of potential. Blending raspy vocals and guitar crunch with radio-friendly hooks and a photogenic female singer, Snapdragon figures to make noise nationally soon after its SpiritFest appearance. A brand-new group touring in support of an album (The Family Jewels) that was released on August 14, Snapdragon will soon be making its living on the festival circuit, but it has yet to play an event quite like SpiritFest (although it did play a few dates with The Go-Go's).
"Totally cool," singer Summer Rose gushes about playing with Money and The B-52's. (As a teenager, Rose toured casinos and dive bars in a cover band -- sadly, none of this year's SpiritFest acts ever appeared on its Fleetwood Mac/Heart-heavy set lists.) "Newer singers aren't quite as soulful. The older singers, like Pat Benatar, were more ballsy," she says. "Twenty years ago, there was a lot more passion being put into the music."
Bands from Snapdragon's era do have one advantage over the older acts: limber legs. Rose, a former Olympic-hopeful gymnast, figures to do much more sh-sh-shakin' than the 52-year-old Money. "I don't know -- do you think we'll move around more than Eddie Money?" Rose asks keyboardist Rick Jude, her songwriting partner. "Probably. But you know, that Rick Springfield guy's got some moves."
Springfield, for once, won't be playing SpiritFest, marking one notable improvement from last year's event. Another is that local bands return to the big stage after last year's internment in balmy tents. Because of scheduling logistics, however, most of these groups won't be able to play in the time slot that would be most flattering for their styles. SuperNauts, a group of seasoned musicians trapped in teenage bodies (that plays as if its guitars were tuned to classic-rock radio), would fit perfectly in the slot before Eddie Money -- but Snapdragon provides an anachronistic interruption between the two. Brody and the Groove Busters' rockin' blues segues easily enough into Lewis' lighthearted doo-wop pop on Saturday night, but it seems rude for Disco Dick to shove his Mirror Balls between the soulful testimony of The Gadjits and the tuneful melodicism of Daybirds. As for Tech N9ne, his hell-spawned hip-hop is so much darker and edgier than anything else on the bill that he'd scorch his neighbors on either side of the schedule regardless of where he was placed. (The closest runner-up would be The B-52's because of its pure oddity, but it's difficult to place a group whose singer guested on "Shiny Happy People" in the same galaxy with the man behind "Psycho Bitch" and "Suicide Letters.") So it's just as well that he provides a jarring interlude between Moaning Lisa and Creature Comforts.
"The first thing we set is the headliner," Campbell says, explaining the sequencing. "We try really hard to make it flow nice and make sense. But sometimes, you don't have to stick with the same format. One year, we had Soul Asylum, BoDeans, Jars of Clay and The Why Store. And it was a great show. Everyone loved all the bands."
But this year, instead of filling slots with Soul Asylum-size midlevel touring acts, SpiritFest pursued big headliners, then filled the remaining slots with largely local bands. "We have some bigger-quality names," Campbell says. "The names you couldn't get in years past, like Huey Lewis and the News and The B-52's, are coming around again. A lot of the people in the demographic that comes out to concerts a lot and likes to have fun grew up with those artists."
The dance-music crowd, a long-ignored facet of the "likes to have fun" demographic, finally has something to rave about at SpiritFest. Sure, Moby played in '99, but the Fest hasn't exactly nurtured local DJ talent. (Ray Velasquez was forced to compete with Moby's noisy sound check while spinning his showcase set.) This year, an Electronic Stage that runs all three days presents many of the region's top names, including Joe Cummings and Travis T on Friday; Nitro, The House Coalition and Roland on Saturday; and Miss Micheala, Bill Pile and the Simply Soul Syndicate on Sunday.
While Liberty Memorial construction (which Campbell promises shouldn't affect "the average attendee's enjoyment" of SpiritFest) led to the closing of most of the auxiliary stages, there's one remaining "Showcase Pavilion" (read: balmy tent). On Friday night, it boasts a rock lineup capped by Klammies nominee Lafayette and Battle of the Bands finalist Shudderbug (who inspired a makeshift mosh pit in front of one of last year's ministages). The reggae tent, long a haven for teen loiterers, is now a one-night-only phenomenon, but it offers an impressive roster that includes Green Card and Common Ground. And Sunday features a reprise set from the always-ready-to-blow harmonica pro Buster, whose late-night set will also give rock fans something to watch should Cheap Trick cut its set painfully short as it did earlier this year at the Beaumont Club.
To critics who complain this year's lineup is itself a cheap trick, Campbell answers that the festival's budget remains steady year to year, and he reiterates, "We got the absolute best entertainment we can get for the money." And though it's tempting to peruse this lineup, wave your fist and threaten a SpiritFest logo with a menacing "If this is it...," research reveals a paucity of big-name touring artists in the neighborhood within a one-week radius of Labor Day Weekend. Of the fish that got away (Sade's in St. Louis on September 5, Marshall Crenshaw has an August 29 gig in Denver, and Melissa Etheridge plays Chicago on August 28), none could really be considered a sure-thing buzz-creator. So, as Lewis might advise, we might as well be happy to be stuck with this year's SpiritFest.
And for fans of today's biggest acts, take heart -- your time will come, probably at SpiritFest 2016.