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"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.