Anyone who just made it through all five days of SunFest can attest that this was the long-time festival's best lineup in years. There was enough talent on all three stages each day to make fans dizzy. Compared to last year's lineup, which featured only a handful of top acts such as Sean Paul and Ludacris, SunFest 2008 was a music-industry smorgasbord, attracting touring giants Sheryl Crow, Fergie, the Black Crowes, and Good Charlotte, plus middleweight champs like Steel Pulse, Little Feat, Matisyahu, and John Legend. Fifty-nine dollars for all five days was a steal. Most of those acts can charge that much for an individual concert.
The exponential growth of talent from one year to the next wasn't lost on concertgoers. "They really stepped it up this year," said Josh Franklin, 35, of Lake Worth, who was at SunFest last Wednesday. "Last year, it was a little so-so. We still came and supported it, but all the hype was about Ludacris and Brooke Hogan. I mean, come on. This year it's much better. It's one of the best lineups that SunFest has put together in a long time."
Hell, the artists booked for the festival's opening night this year were better than the top draws of 2007 as a whole.
I assumed that the spike in talent was driven by Live Nation's involvement, after they swallowed local concert promoter Fantasma. Live Nation, the Goliath of concert promoters, is having a monumental year as far as acquisitions and revenue is concerned, and they've also locked up touring contracts with a number of big name acts — Jay-Z, Pearl Jam, and Radiohead among them. So it seemed appropriate to assume that their involvement with SunFest was the lone reason that the lineup got so much better.
I called Melissa Sullivan, SunFest's marketing manager, who set me straight:
"A lot of it was acts that Fantasma booked before they got bought out," Sullivan said. "They really stepped it up this year. The majority of the lineup came together between January and mid-March, so [Fantasma] deserves a lot of kudos for that."
So much for giving Goliath all the credit — but their involvement did make a difference in a positive way. "Live Nation has been fantastic since they got onboard," Sullivan continued. "They put a lot of marketing muscle into Broward and parts of Dade — they helped make us visible in places that we hadn't always been before."
With revenue that topped $4 billion last year, it's not surprising Live Nation had the capital to give SunFest an extra push.
Longtime concert promoter Steve Rullman likes the talent upgrade. "It seems like they're responding to the criticism and listening to folks who felt like the lineup in the past couple of years has sucked," Rullman said. "They're listening to what people are saying and making improvements. That's a good thing."
The budget for the festival increased from $1.2 million last year to $1.5 million. That's not a huge jump but it was enough to give SunFest more to work with in attracting big-name acts. Still, that wasn't the biggest difference between last year and now.
The X-factor in all of this is the music industry itself. With CD sales tanking, there are more big-name acts hitting the road this year to help supplement their incomes. "The touring industry... is opening up again," Sullivan said.
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Proof came on SunFest's opening night, when Parliament Funkadelic, Michael Franti and Spearhead, and Sheryl Crow were on the bill. Allegedly Parliament Funkadelic was horrible. I missed their set fighting traffic, but multiple sources said that George Clinton and crew were a wreck, missing notes and creating more cacophony than groove. But Spearhead put on a dynamic show, and so did Sheryl Crow.
As a leftist, I found myself at the Spearhead show wrapped up in Michael Franti's antiwar, hippie-esque vibe for most of the night. The musicianship was stellar, songs were tight, and Franti looked like the happiest person in attendance, bouncing all over the stage while singing songs from Spearhead's latest release, Yell Fire.
When I left the moderately attended Spearhead show and hit Sheryl Crow's, the crowd seemed electrified. The guitar playing from the stage mystified them. Sheryl Crow seemed to have temporarily stepped away from the spotlight. I couldn't immediately tell who the guitarist was but he certainly was astute at his instrument. When he lifted his head up amidst a killer solo, I could tell it was Eric Clapton. Crow's ex-boyfriend was sitting in with the band for a rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground." I was amazed to see Eric Clapton onstage, let alone at SunFest. If you bought a one-day ticket for the show, for $29, you got quite a treat. When Clapton played the Hard Rock two nights ago, tickets were $102 to $402.
That's what makes SunFest so great. After 26 years, the festival still gives concertgoers more than they bargained for.