By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer
It was the biggest and coolest festival ever held in Cincinnati.
The Tall Stacks Music, Arts & Heritage Festival provided five days and nights filled with hip, high-quality music and a beautiful fleet of steamboats, drawing hundreds of thousands of music lovers and paddle-wheel fans to the Cincinnati riverfront.
Tall Stacks built it - the world's biggest music and riverboat festival - and they came by the boatload: teens and twenty-somethings, young families, baby boomers, retirees. Final attendance figures are expected to exceed 700,000, beating the projected attendance of 650,000 and the last Tall Stacks in 1999.
"At some time today we surpassed 1999's numbers of 660,000," Tall Stacks executive director Mike Smith said Sunday afternoon, as crowds continued to pour into the festival site. Plans call for the music fest to repeat in 2004, with the riverboats returning in 2007.
"I came down to hear some good gospel and see some of the boats. I enjoy not only the boats but also the history," Trevin Pearl, 25, of East Walnut Hills, said Sunday.
She stood in the crowd watching the Northern Kentucky Brotherhood Singers end their show with "Wade in the Water" at the P&G Pavilion stage at Sawyer Point. It was her second day at Tall Stacks; she'd been Thursday night with a friend who wanted to see Del McCoury's bluegrass band.
The fest closed with a mix of Saturday night and Sunday morning - the down-home blues of B.B. King and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and the sanctified songs of the Blind Boys of Alabama and Mavis Staples.
The day continued Tall Stacks' streak of five days of music with no rain and another massive crowd filling the riverfront from Sawyer Point to the Public Landing.
And it was a polite crowd. Over and over, festivalgoers commented on how nice everyone else was. Even in the gridlock moving from stage to stage, you constantly heard "Excuse me" and "Thank you." At the jam-packed Yeatman's Cove tented stage, ushers found seats for folks standing in the back.
"The crowd has been so gracious," said Mike Baker, 41, of Ross. "Everybody's been so polite," added his wife Holly, 42. "I didn't even see any drunks," said Mike. The couple was staying at the Millennium Hotel for the weekend to see the entire Saturday and Sunday music schedule.
"The lineup has just been phenomenal," Mike Baker said.
And the performers lived up their reputations.
The fest started with the glistening harmonies of the Jayhawks, sounding like a modern Crosby, Stills Nash and especially Young. Lead singer/guitarist Gary Louris returned to sing with Lucinda Williams on "Essence," giving the night a special, festival feeling.
Thursday was bluegrass night, with back-to-back sets by the best straight-ahead bluegrass bands around - the Del McCoury band and Ricky Skaggs' Kentucky Thunder.
Friday, Steve Earle followed his own fiery set of modern, politically charged country rock by sitting in with Los Lobos for a blazing take on the Sir Douglas Quintet's Tex-Mex raveup, "She's About a Mover." It was another highlight in a set full of them, as Los Lobos gave more evidence they may be America's best rock 'n' roll band - and that's North, Central and South America.
Friday was the biggest music night, as P&G Pavilion featured rocking Texas roadhouse blues by Delbert McClinton, three decades of Emmylou Harris and to close the night, Nickel Creek's delicate acoustic folk-pop-bluegrass.
Saturday, things got mellow, as the closing sets of the night were mostly solo and acoustic. On the P&G stage, Keb' Mo' played his wry, funky blues a la Taj Mahal. In the Yeatman's Cove tent, the fab four of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffin and Dar Williams gave a stunningly intimate performance, as each sang a song, backed only by her own guitar with occasional help from the others in harmony.
It was a gamble that paid off, as the women really did turn the tent into a living room and the crowd of around 4,000 into a small gathering of friends.
The Yeatman's stage was the newest wrinkle of the fest. It served as the Children's Theatre stage during the day, but at night, with its clear view of the river, it was the coolest music stage. Act after act stopped the show to watch the boats go by.
"I love this festival. I've got the best seat in the house," Dar Williams gushed as another boat, covered in lights, passed.
It was a perfect marriage, with great music broken up by amazing visual effects.
Every night there were fireworks.
The weekend had illuminated hot air balloons on the Newport side, and crowds lined the fences to watch.
Saturday night, the "Light up the Ohio" parade of steamboats and pleasure boats provided more eye candy.
Tall Stacks didn't forget the local musicians. From the Blue Wisp Big Band's Sunday show to the western swing of the Sidecars' performance Thursday to dozens more Tristate favorites, our music scene was well represented on both major stages as well as the Public Landing Stage.
Any way you looked at it, Tall Stacks was an unqualified success. Blessed by great weather, it added a major music festival and drew huge crowds for real, heartfelt music.
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