BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – The north banks of the Mississippi River were teeming with festival goers on Friday and Saturday as RiverFest 2018 shifted into full gear.
The festival kicked off Thursday with some high-octane southern rock and roll as the Memphis Dives and Saving Abel gave ticket holders a sense that this third year of the reboot of the annual Fort Madison summer music celebration was something different.
RiverFest Organizer Charles Craft said more than 1,500 people packed into the Entertainment area Thursday evening on the first night and said he knew something great was happening on this weekend.
“I’m very happy with what we’re seeing here tonight,” Craft said Thursday night working his way through the mass of people riveted on frontman Scottie Austin and Saving Abel.
Friday night he said unofficial attendance was closer to 2,500 as Fort Madison native Brandon Gibbs came back to RiverFest for the first time in 20 years and much to the delight of dedicated fans. Local club favorites Chaz and the Channel Catz got things going before Gibbs, and then 80s power ballad rockers FireHouse provided an evening of nostalgia and a harkening back to a youth buried deep until “Don’t Treat Me Bad” and “Love of a Lifetime” brought out phone lights.
Saturday morning the RiverFest Games kicked off with a 5K run and 14-year-old Miles Sheppard of Warsaw retained his title as overall winner with a blistering 17:22. Jennifer Lucey won the female overall run with a time of 21:33.
After a few barges took over the Mississippi, for the first time in more than a decade, dragon boaters raced downstream in front of hundreds of local spectators.
Nick Bauswell, who chaired the RiverFest Dragon Boat committee said it was a perfect day for racing as the “Cedar River Gang” from Cedar Rapids took the overall title on the 300-meter run. Pinnacle’s “Sailidarity” finished in second, with “Dragon-ass” and Dirty-Oars” taking third and fourth place.
“It went very well and we had no major problems,” Bauswell said. “The wind was a little troublesome as we got going, but it settled down and it was a perfect day for racing.”
Lan Su, of China, who was the flag catcher for Cedar River Gang, said it was her first time in competition and she enjoyed it.
“It was very exciting,” Su said. “I’m from China and I have never done this before. But I did practice so I wasn’t nervous.”
Sergio Palmero of Spain was a racer with “Dirty-Oars” and said he, too, had never participated in the Dragon boat racing.
“It was very cool…it was a little breezy but it was fun.”
Bauswell said the teams all had a great time and said they would be back next year. He was also happy.
While horns were going off signaling the start of racing, a 6×6 sand volleyball tournament was taking place in the Games area. The players got a gift from the Fort Madison Fire Department who used a tanker to spray down the sand courts prior to tournament play. Results will be posted when available.
After the wildly popular Motorcycle Stunt Show just east of the carnival grounds, Head First kick started Saturday night’s entertainment, followed by turn-of-the-century rockers Hinder, and then chart-topping Pop Evil. X-Krush wrapped up the night on the river in the Entertainment Tent.
West Point’s Charlie Korschger got a voice mail from Hinder Saturday letting him know he had won an ‘eat and greet’ with the band at The Palms in Fort Madison.
“The bands have all been just a great group to work with,” Craft said Saturday afternoon in a brief moment to chat. “We’re looking for another great night tonight on the riverfront.”
The Conner Family Amusement carnival was packed on a hot Saturday with parents taking advantage of the $20 wristband special from noon to 3 p.m.
“We love it. I’m super glad it’s back,” said Erin Brown. “I think they’ve done an amazing job putting it on. I love bringing the kids because there’s so much for the kids to do,” said Erin Brown who brought two children to the afternoon wristband session.
“I love that they do the wristband. Having two kids that helps, and doing this on Saturday is great. I also think the multi-day ticketing for the shows is cool. I’m just getting a day pass today for Hinder, but if I was coming more than one day, I’d do that.”
Sunday kicks off with a hearty breakfast hosted by the American Legion with proceeds going to the Honor Flight program. That charity breakfast kicks off at 8 a.m. and runs through noon.
A bags tournament takes place in the entertainment section beginning at 2 p.m., with the carnival open from noon to close. Food vendors will be open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. StumpTown opens the musical lineup for the night, followed by The Natu Band, Radio Romance, and then Colt Ford will wrap up the festival Sunday evening.