By Steven Neff, Rock At Night Orlando
Venue: SunFest in West Palm Beach, Florida
SUNFEST’S 35TH ANNIVERSARY PROVES MEMORABLE
Once upon a time in 1982, a group of art lovers [Sunfest of Palm Beach Country Inc.] got together to form a project that would come to be known as “the festival by the sea”. This spectacular event, known as Sunfest; is the state’s largest waterfront music and art festival that attracts more than 275,000 visitors during its five day run and is held every year on the first week of May in downtown West Palm. Sunfest boast three stages and 50 bands from a plethora of musical genres.
Even more impressive is the fact that ticket prices for this five day festival are just ridiculously low. With an event of this caliber that’s got the history of Sunfest, you’d think ticket prices might be a little steep. Not so, which is one of the many reasons I can give my full recommendation for putting this festival on your event calendar.
This year, Rock At Night had the absolute pleasure of covering this great event for the first time. I had no idea of the enormity of Sunfest when I walked through the Clematis Street entrance. You soon realize how 275,000 people can fit onto this piece of real estate; they close the streets down. Yeah they do. You know what that means right? You get to walk across the street on a green light. Ha ha, and you’ll enjoy it.
Due to obligations that impeded our schedule, we only had the last two days of Sunfest to cover and I was regretting not taking all of it in. The weather was unseasonably cooler and near perfect and this only added to our first Sunfest experience.
We began our May 6th coverage at the Jet Blue Stage with metal princess Madame Mayhem. We’ve covered this powerful vocalist before and I walked about a mile to get to the stage she’d call home for her outstanding set list. I got to the stage and was awaiting Mayhem’s set when this little lady came up and asked if I was with Mayhem. I responded with “Who are you, her mother?” “Yes I am” she answered with a smile. “I’m Mama Mayhem.” Family had come to see Mayhem perform and as is always the case, no one leaves a Madame Mayhem performance disappointed. Because I did get lost in the performance, it’s actually Mayhem’s fault that I missed Night Ranger at the Tire Kingdom Stage. I’ve got to blame someone.
Madame Mayhem was the only Jet Blue act that we covered. Because of the great distance between stages, I had to stick with the Tire Kingdom Stage [second of three stages]. The Sunfest folks had to keep the stages at a great distance so everyone could perform at the same time and for the most part, succeeded in doing so. Well done. However, note to self; have extra coverage next year.
The Tire Kingdom Stage proved a good choice for our maiden voyage with Sunfest. Our first act up, Loverboy. This band continues to perform before packed crowds and by the looks of the sea of fans on the lawn, their fan base hasn’t diminished. I’ll admit it was a fanboy moment for me as Mike Reno and company took the stage to perform. I can say I was there when they conquered America in the 80’s and yeah, their tapes got worn out. Of course, they performed some of their greatest hits live and “Working For The Weekend” for fans that came out on Saturday. Thank you gentlemen.
Fast forward to the multi-platinum band of brothers, 3 Doors Down. The lawn in front of Tire Kingdom Stage was bulging to capacity in anxious anticipation for this five piece powerhouse from Mississippi. These guys are just like the rest of us; only they have a band that just happens to have won multiple music awards, sold millions of albums, received three Grammy nominations, and have an immense mark on the music world since their formation in 1995.
After the band took the stage and thrilled the capacity crowd with their intro track “Still Alive”, frontman Brad Arnold set the tone for the show when he said “Let’s have some fun.” That’s exactly what happened. One thing that was evident in this 3 Doors Down concert is that the band interacts with the crowd and they make sure the fans experience the music with them.
In all, the band dished out seventeen tracks from its extensive catalogue, but the highlight for the fans was when Brad Arnold asked for a little help “on this one”. The band then went into their chart topping hit “Kryptonite” that sent the crowd into a frenzy.
What a way to end a Saturday night.
May 7th, the last official day of the 2017 Sunfest. It was regretful that we didn’t have more time here. This truly is a premiere venue and run better than one day festivals that I’ve been to.
LA soft rock legends Ambrosia would be kicking off the final day at the Tire Kingdom Stage. I’ve watched the band perform in the past and the thing I’ve noticed the most is there’s a new energy about Ambrosia and that energy has served them well as they continue to amaze and perform across the country.
After all these years, three founding members [Joe Puerta, Chris North, and Burleigh Drummond] still remain and they expanded their lineup to include dynamic vocalist Ken Stacey, virtuoso guitarist Doug Jackson, and multi-talented keyboardist and composer Mary Harris. This lineup is outstanding and by the looks of Ambrosia’s tour schedule, there are no immediate plans of stopping.
Ambrosia is the perfect band for an outdoor festival; their music is just made for it. You can just sit back on the grass or the comfort of a lawn chair and take in the memorable experience that Ambrosia has been providing from over four decades of music. Ambrosia performed their memorable selections in “How Much I Feel”, “You’re The Only Woman”, and “Biggest Part Of Me”; while still managing to give us the Beatles’ cover “Magical Mystery Tour” and newer material in “Hopes and Dreams”.
Next up, another soft rock heavyweight in Christopher Cross. Sunfest personnel obviously had their finger on the pulse of festival goers as Ambrosia had just completed a crowd moving performance and then enters Cross with his supporting cast of musicians that were just spectacular.
The five time Grammy award winner continued where Ambrosia left off; taking fans back in time over three decades with “Sailing”, Ride Like the Wind”, “Never Be the Same”, and the timeless “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do). “Say You’ll Be Mine” and “Ride Like the Wind” would follow and what made Cross’s performance so memorable was again, his supporting cast that included backing vocalists, keyboards, and the inclusion of the sax that just created that perfect atmosphere for festival attendees.
On a personal note, I found that Christopher Cross sounded no different than when he first sprung on the music scene in 1979. His Sunfest performance of “Arthur’s Theme” was as moving as the first time I heard it back in 1983. I wished my wife would have been with me as I would have scooped her up and slow danced to this beautiful piece of music. This was my first Christopher Cross live experience. It will not be the last.
We were then treated to what was our first folk band of the festival. Roanoke hit the stage for what proved to be an impressive performance. Hailing from Nashville, Tennessee, the six piece group could easily headline a big folk festival with their beautiful harmonies and songs steeped in love, heartbreak, and exploration. This band didn’t seem to come from the 21st century, but instead embody a time long since gone; a more peaceful time and place.
It was evident that lead vocalists Joey Beesley and Taylor Dupuis had something special with one another on stage as they seemed to harmonize one another while giving a standout performance to everyone watching. This was a band that would be on the minds of many, long after their performance.
Following Roanoke’s emotive performance, we at Rock At Night were given our first shock and awe experience of the festival. Birmingham, Alabama’s St. Paul and the Broken Bones took the Tire Kingdom Stage and for those of us who had never seen this eight piece band before, we were left speechless.
For Paul Janeway, one might ask what it’s like living in the body of a software nerd when you’re actually a frontman with the vocal prowess of someone from another planet. When Janeway took the stage, decked in what looked like a church choir robe, the last thing I was expecting was for “that voice” to come out of that above mentioned software nerd. To provide a little history, that voice, along with the rest of the retro cast of St. Paul and the Broken Bones just happen to be one of Elton John’s favorite bands, and with good reason.
Janeway opened his mouth without effort and the soulful setlist began. Off came the robe to reveal a red vintage looking suit with a black and white checkered lapel, and gold wing tip shoes. Janeway began to move across the stage as if channeling Otis Redding and James Brown; all the while pulling the audience into the experience that St. Paul and the Broken Bones was creating. Janeway is one of the best frontmen I’ve ever seen, inviting you to travel back with him to a musical era not seen in some time.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones’ command of the stage was stunning and people were walking away at the end of the concert saying “What a show!” It’s hard to believe they only have two albums under their belt and have only been active since 2012. Bravo.
While the crowd was recovering from the St. Paul and the Broken Bones experience, there was but one act remaining on the Tire Kingdom Stage. Rock icon and multi-instrumentalist Steve Winwood would headline the last evening of the festival. The mark that the 69 year old Winwood has made on the musical landscape is staggering, given the fact that he was a vital member of several bands including The Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, Blind Faith, and Go and has been an active musician for over five decades. Winwood’s solo career and session work have garnered critical acclaim and Rolling Stone ranked him at #33 of its 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
By the time Steve Winwood and company took the stage, the lawn in front of Tire Kingdom Stage was already at capacity. Winwood would open the setlist on mandolin with “Back in the High Life Again.” What followed was a collection of Winwood’s songs spanning five decades with Traffic [“Pearly Queen”, “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys”, “Empty Pages”, “Light Up or Leave Me Alone”, “Dear Mr. Fantasy”], The Spencer Davis Group [“I’m a Man”, “Gimme Some Lovin’” ], and Blind Faith [“Can’t Find My Way Home”, “Had to Cry Today”]; along with amazing tracks from his solo career in “Fly” and “Higher Love”.
Steve Winwood capped off what was an incredible Sunfest from our point of view. Thank you Sunfest for providing memories that will last a lifetime.
Special thanks go to the Sunfest folks for approving our coverage of their amazing festival. Thank you for making our review so incredible.
Special thanks also go to the Sunfest volunteers who are the rock stars in the shadows. Your kindness and help went a long way in helping us to do what we do. We are grateful.
May 6th Show
Steve is a Brevard County, Florida based concert photographer who loves the experience of live shows and tries to bring that experience back to fans through the great medium known as Rock At Night.
Whether it’s a one concert event or extended on the road tour coverage with music’s best bands, Steve covers the exciting experience of “the moment” and paints it across a blank canvas that he hopes music connoisseurs will enjoy.
A graduate of the prestigious New York Institute of Photography, Steve’s music of taste ranges from the symphonic awesomeness of bands like Within Temptation and Nightwish to the rock heavyweights of the 80’s and back to the beat of Armin van Buuren, with a little jazz and blues mixed in for some variety.
One of his favorite mottos: “Life is too short to drink grocery store coffee.”
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