BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – In just four years, it’s become one of the biggest parties in southeast Iowa. The four-day event that’s anchored with some of the best live entertainment around, is gearing up for another go-round on the shores of the Mississippi River at Fort Madison.
RiverFest 2019 is already taking shape for the first full weekend in August, which this year is Aug. 1-4.
Chairman Charles Craft and the RiverFest committee is once again going outside the box to bring innovative entertainment to Fort Madison’s Riverview Park.
In addition to the traditional carnival, vendors, dozens of food options, and a schedule that fills more than a half week, this year he’s adding even more attractions.
What normally isn’t found in the muddy waters of the Mississippi this far north, will make an appearance this year….alligators.
Craft is bringing an American bushman, Kachunga, to RiverFest this year with daily shows and he said got the idea from touring state fairs and festivals.
The shows will be free to the festival goers who will see an up-close, fun, and educational presentation as part of an edge-of-your-seat experience.
“I had an idea on the drawing board from the first year. It just wasn’t in the budget the first year. They’ll do up to three shows a day and they’ll be free,” Craft said. “A lot of people that have been to the State Fair will have seen this act before. “
He said the show isn’t the typical alligator wrestling show you might see traveling in the southeastern part of the country. Craft said he wanted to bring something genuine that was informative and exciting.
“We put our thinking caps on and when we’re thinking about things we saw at fairs and festivals that blew our mind, this was one of those things,” he said. “There are lots of fun things going on at state fairs and festivals, but there’s always a couple things that stick in your mind and for me it was the alligator show. This is not an alligator wrestling show, but it’s education and they provide a lot of educational details. There’s some comedy thrown in, too. So it’s funny and entertaining and educational.”Charles Craft, RiverFest Chairman
Another event new to the festival in 2019, and one that continues to feature the natural beauty, power, and excitement of the Mississippi River, will be a 21-mile kayak race from Burlington to the shores of RiverFest.
This race will feature professional, hobbyist, and local racers and will take place right in the channel of the river. Craft said the event will be another spectator driven event, but anyone can register to participate in the event.
“As entertainment grows we want show that we’re bringing in family events. This is a 21-mile race from Burlington to Fort Madison. These are serious races with boats designed for that kind of race and will attract racers who do this all summer. We’d love to see plenty of people sign up for that,” Craft said.
There will be more details to come on the exact route, including starting and finishing locations, but Craft said it’s a sprint race in the channel and there will be some racers that will finish in close to two hours.
“We do it in the channel because we need a definable path. That race will take place on Saturday and it will be highly competitive. The guys who are serious competitors will knock it out in about two hours and the schedule will have them coming in right before the Dragon Boat’s start.”Charles Craft, RiverFest Chairman
The Dragon Boat races were a hit with spectators in 2018 and Craft said they will be back this year again. Spectators lined the shores on the backside of the festival on the Riverview Park walkway for several hours and teams of 20 in traditional dragon boats raced down the mighty Mississippi trying to earn the best time of the day.
Another event that highlights Pool 19 of the Mississippi will be the kayak and canoe float. Craft said they moved the float to a northern location where it can finish at the festival instead of downriver. And the RiverFest games will be in full swing again with competitive events like sand volleyball, bags, and a 5K run/walk, just to name a few.
He said 2018’s festival was the most successful yet with national rock bands playing all three of the four days, and Sunday being a wild card slate of performances. But he said he didn’t want to use the growth from 2018 just to increase the music entertainment, but wanted to increase family events, as well. He said most of the acts for this year’s festival have already been booked.
“We didn’t slough off on entertainment. Puddle of Mudd is the big act for Thursday. I will say we’re bringing in some classical rock for the weekend and Sunday is the wild card,” he said. We have some really good opening acts and after-tent acts. There’s plenty of things to keep everybody interested.”– Charles Craft, RiverFest Chairman
This year music fans will also have the added visual experience of two 20-foot digital screens – one on either side of the stage. Craft said he added those to put the musical part of the festival on par with other large music venues in the area.
The committee has also integrated new VIP experiences. This year he will have four VIP tents that can be reserved in advance for the four-day event. The exclusive tents are being offered at $2,500 for all four days and will include tickets, special VIP accommodations for food and beverages, VIP restroom access, and even pre-show visits from some of the artists. He said two of the tents are already spoken for.
“This will be a one-of-a-kind experience for groups, families, or employers who want to entertain guests or employees in top-shelf fashion. We’re really excited to be able to offer that option this year,” Craft said.
When the 2018 festival wrapped, he said there wasn’t a whole lot of negativity about the festival or comments for things that needed fixed.
Craft employs what he calls an “after-action” plan gleaned from his years of service to the U.S. Army.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of negative comments for us to fix. I use what’s called an “After-Action” review and we analyze the plan, what happened, what were the bad things and how can we fix the bad things,” he said. “I’ve been in the Army for so many years, it’s in my head and I carry that to RiverFest. The one thing that stuck out last year was our process failed to account for the larger crowds we had last year.”
He said feedback is showing that people just really appreciate the vibe of the festival. And he doesn’t want to sit on that success, but rather build on it.
“We actually want to increase the feel and vibe of this event,” he said. “That’s the thing that everyone liked. It really wasn’t anything specific, but just a fun time. It was safe and fun environment. Our security team did a very good job being present but not overly present. People felt safe, but not pressed.– Charles Craft, RiverFest Chairman
Currently there are 18 bands scheduled for this year and most of those will be revealed at the announcement party on March 2 at Kinnick South. Craft again will bring an area band, this year Ghost of Judas out of Burlington, who will tease those at the party by playing songs of the signed bands before the announcement. As always, the party will be full of surprises and giveaways.
Craft said the committee is also bringing back the Battle of the Bands, on Memorial Day weekend with the winner opening for Puddle of Mudd on Thursday night on the Main Stage.
The committee is also planning a pre-event in Burlington on June 29th with locations and times to be determined later.
With the announcement in the fall that Steamboat Days has been shuttered for 2019, Craft said he hopes people look south to help fill that void, but said he hoped that those associated with the American Music Festival can find a way to bring that festival back to life.
“We’re poorer in this area without it,” he said. “I didn’t set out to do anything competitive with them. That thought never really entered my mind. I just wanted to make the best festival I could make in Fort Madison.– Charles Craft, RiverFest Chairman
Craft also said the quality of bands this year will be such that all acts from the openers to the tent bands after the main acts, will be crowd favorites.
“Sometimes people have the mindset that they will skip the opening acts and come down for the main acts,” he said. “They aren’t going to want to do that this year. This is going to be a sensory overload.”– Charles Craft, RiverFest Chairman