Written by Chad Taylor
Dubuque. Oldest city in the state. Midpoint between Minneapolis and St Louis; resting on the banks of the mighty Mississippi and nestled into bluffs that escaped the bulldozer during the great Wisconsin Glaciation.
This past weekend, the Key City played host to the America's River Festival: an 11-year-old event that celebrates a revitalized Dubuque riverfront in the grand American tradition of wine, women and song. Past years have focused on cheaper, up-and-coming talent—sacrificing name recognition for affordability—without losing a lot in terms of quality. 2013 took a little different approach, securing bigger name talent and upping ticket prices, and found the Festival swimming in a sea of red. So this year, The Powers That Be took more of a hybrid approach, and the results—while mixed—should see the Festival back in black for 2014.
Day One of the two-day event was done on the cheap. The early entertainment was provided courtesy of Monticello, Iowa duo Chasin' Grace. The pair put together an enthusiastic and cover-laden early set for absolutely nobody at all, but at least had the talent level to acquit themselves well in the ears of the occasional butt-scratching early-bird.
Day One's main stage entertainment was kicked off by Brett Kissel; a 23-year old Canadian who's piercing eyes and baby-faced good looks presage his “up and comer” status. Kissel's set was solid. Nothing about it was spectacular, but there was enough promise shown to think that the young Albertian could be a name in the Country ranks with a few years of woodsheding under his belt.
The rest of the day one entertainment, provided by country acts Parmalee and Academy of Country Music Awards New Artist of the Year nominee Brett Eldredge was lively and well received by a small but enthusiastic crowd. Parmalee in particular produced a set that was polished and in top form. Vocalist Matt Thomas is a winner up front, with a strong voice, great stage presence and engaging personality.
Looking over the first day of the festival, everything on the technical end of things was beautiful. The stage was great, the lighting and sound were perfect for the size of the space, and everything from tickets to security was handled smoothly. But the people just weren't there. Kissel performed to maybe 600 people, and that number might have doubled by the time Parmalee had finished with their set, casing serious doubts on the long-term future of an event that was already coming off a poor year.
Saturday showed early that there's little need for such worry. Once again, the early entertainment was provided by a local act, this time in the form of Dubuque's own Main Street Jazz Band. They were, in a word, awful. One of the nice things about for-the-masses jazz is that it's pretty hard to fuck up standards that everyone knows, but the Main Street Jazz Band made it their mission to prove that it could be done. Kudos to them.
But once the main stage kicked off its entertainment for the night, things made a permanent change of gears, as the Festival went for more name recognition, while still trying to get the best bang for its buck. Leading things off were perennial '90s mid-carders, Gin Blossoms. Always a little too positive and upbeat to really run with the alt-big boys like Nirvana and STP, Gin Blossoms nevertheless churned out a surprising number of hits throughout the decade, and they were all on display Saturday evening.
There are, admittedly, few bands that could manage to survive a change in front men, so closely tied is the relationship between a band's songs and a singer's voice. But Blossoms front man Robin Wilson is a genuinely underrated talent. His voice was instantly recognizable in their '90s heyday simply by being so antithetical to everything the Seattle sound was producing. There's no hint of struggle or pain in Wilson's carefree pipes, even when singing about loves lost. It was a refreshing change of pace then, and its every bit as welcome now. The crowd remained light for most of the Blossom's set, and the people that were there were frustratingly blasé to Wilson's entreaties to stand or clap, but the Blossoms still pumped out a top-notch set that hit all the band's high notes.
By the time Kevin Costner and Modern West took the stage, the Festival grounds had filled in in earnest. Thousands of people massed through two sections of seating for a chance to glimpse the Oscar winner turned musician. Costner was already in town this weekend to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the film Field of Dreams at the iconic Dyersville, Iowa ball field, which I imagine gave the Festival a bit of an inside track for booking him.
Costner started out by priming the crowd through a video montage of his films. What started as an entertaining glimpse at some favorite characters became a somewhat tedious, 10 minute excursion that included more clips from The Postman and Waterworld than anyone really asked for.
Once Costner finally took the stage, however, the set was a success. Costner's songwriting is simple and homey, his voice is well-suited for the brand of Country he's peddling, and his guitar work is solid if unspectacular. He's quite obviously gifted on the mic, charming the audience between songs with his aw-shucks attitude and easy banter. But where Costner has truly excelled—the one reason why he absolutely should be taken seriously as a musical performer—is in the selection of his band.
Costner has had the temerity to surround himself with exceptional musicians, and that has made all the difference. Most notable among the men on stage with Costner this evening were exceptional violinist Luke Bulla, and guitarist John Coinman, who's six strings give Costner's songs the depth and emotion that makes them real. A longtime friend of Costner's, Coinman's relationship to Costner's music can not be understated.
Finally, after a rousing finish from Costner, it was time for Day Two to shift gears once again, as the American West gave way to three chord blues riffs and good ol' rock n' roll. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts had arrived.
At this point in her career, Jett has been doing her thing for so long, she's practically on auto pilot. And you know what? It's still great to watch. She sprinkled in material from her last album—most notably the hard-driving “TMI”--but everyone was there for the classics, and Jett never disappoints. Even though the 55 year old rocker moves less on stage than she used to—she was nearly stationary on the stage in Dubuque—there's something special about when she unzips her leather jacket and that battered white Melody Maker comes out for a spin.
The America's River Festival was really an exercise in different directions. Day One focused on the young bucks. They were hungry, energetic musicians playing songs few people in the audience really knew, but that everyone seemed to enjoy. These are the acts with the talent and work ethic to be anchoring stages for the next 20 years.
Day two was all about scratching that familiar itch. Even Costner's band—relative newcomers—were anchored by a face and voice that America has known for nearly 30 years now. There was nothing groundbreaking or unfamiliar about a single second of day two, but it was endlessly entertaining and completely welcome under Dubuque's uncluttered skies and soft river breeze.
As Jett brought her set to a close with "I Love Rock N Roll", I stood back stage and looked at the stars overhead. The forecast had called for rain in the evening, but while the wind had picked up, the skies stayed clear.
I was suddenly aware of someone standing next to me, looking up at the same sky. I turned my head slightly in my new companion's direction.
"Nice night," I said.
"Nice night," Costner agreed.
I offered my hand. "Good set. Thanks for coming through town."
He shook it. "Thanks. We enjoyed ourselves."
Apropos of nothing, I offered: "I know everyone is drawn to "Bull Durham", but I've always liked "For Love of the Game"."
Costner closed his eyes for a moment and inhaled the night air. "I love that movie."
He was quiet for a moment, as we both watched Jett on stage. Then he offered his hand one more time.
"It's time to go," he said.
"Thanks for coming through, buddy," I said.
As he picked up his children and walked back to the bus, I listened to the last of Jett's song and wondered quietly to myself: why did I just call Kevin Costner "buddy"?