Monday, April 27, 2009

ArtsBuzz: James Taylor generates 'tremendous' interest for first SunFest gig

Veteran singer-songwriter James Taylor.

By Thom Smith

James Taylor is no stranger to Palm Beach County stages.

He’s played the Kravis Center and Cruzan Amphitheatre (it then had a different name). He’s played private parties at The Breakers and out west in Wellington.

So it’s hard to believe that never, not in its previous 27 incarnations, has he played SunFest. That will change when Sweet Baby James takes the stage at 8:45 p.m. Thursday to rockabye the crowd.

“He’s never been at SunFest, and the interest has been tremendous,” SunFest Marketing Director Melissa Sullivan said. “We couldn’t be more pleased.”

Especially in a year of tight money and reduced expectations.

For example, Washington Mutual, a SunFest mainstay for 11 years, is gone and with it a big chunk of the sponsor money, which is down 18 percent. But rather than cry the blues, SunFest went on a cost-cutting binge behind the scenes and opted for more pop out front. The art and craft show continues, as does Sunday’s monstrous fireworks display. The festival actually is boosting its music budget by nearly 10 percent.

The party begins Wednesday with New Music Night. 311 headlines on the pbpulse.com Stage at 9:30 p.m. while Mexican alternative band Kinky plays the Tire Kingdom Stage at 8. But the big buzz, along with Taylor, is reigning American Idol David Cook, who commands the 9:30 slot on the pbpulse.com Stage Saturday night, while reggae vets UB40 are on at 9 p.m. on the Tire Kingdom Stage.

Randy Bachman of the Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive will crank out such classics as No Sugar Tonight and Let It Ride plus a new number or two from his upcoming album at the Tire King Stage Friday at 9:15. Reggae punkers Slightly Stoopid will be at the opposite end at 9:50.

Legends Steve Miller (7:30, pbpulse) and Bettye LaVette (7:45, Tire Kingdom) close out the party Sunday night.

Sprinkled among the national acts, as usual, are more than two dozen newcomers -- some local, some regional and some on the verge of breaking nationally. Many can be found at the Coors Light Stage in the Meyer Amphitheatre.

While Taylor is making his first appearance at SunFest, the action backstage features some familiar faces, back after a one-year hiatus. For 25 years, Jon Stoll’s Fantasma Productions, one of the nation’s last major independent promoters, procured the acts for SunFest and handled the music side of the festival.

After Stoll died suddenly last January, his widow sold Fantasma to Live Nation, the megapromoter whose buyout attempts Stoll had constantly rejected. With that sale, the bulk of Fantasma’s staff signed on with another big group, AEG Live, which books California’s Coachella Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, among many.

Fantasma had already booked the acts for SunFest 2008, but the backstage area was managed by Live Nation. In October, however, SunFest signed a new contract with AEG Live.

"We’re thrilled to be a part of the excitement of SunFest once again," AEG Vice President Jon Valentino said last fall. Valentino was Stoll’s right-hand man at Fantasma. "The waterfront of downtown West Palm Beach is one of the most beautiful festival sites in the country. SunFest has been an innovator in the festival world for decades and has continually raised the bar to create the ideal artist and fan experience."

“We’re glad to have them back,” SunFest’s Sullivan said. “They’re like part of the family.”

For a complete schedule, transportation options and ticket prices, go to www.sunfest.com.

Thom Smith is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

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