Lyle Lovett is as mystified about what to expect from this weekend’s Lauderdale Live music festival as its promoter is sure about it. But both agree it’s an extraordinary step for a city trying to develop a reputation as a live-music destination.
Lovett, the four-time Grammy winner known for his literate folksiness and ambitious flirtations with country, blues, jazz and western swing, is the Sunday headliner for the inaugural Lauderdale Live, taking place Saturday and Sunday on the New River at Huizenga Plaza. The festival will kick off with a VIP yacht party on Friday at Esplanade Park, up the river and across from the Museum of Discovery and Science.
The eclectic bill of 14 acts includes pop stalwarts Huey Lewis and the News, blues-jam favorites Robert Randolph and the Family Band, chick magnets the Indigo Girls, and fast-rising indie performers such as Jason Isbell, Shovels and Rope, the Wild Feathers and Holly Williams, daughter of Hank Jr.
Lovett says the decision to play Lauderdale Live was simple: His tour with John Hiatt was winding down, he got a call from his agent, and his dance card was open. But in a recent phone conversation from his home near Houston, now done touring, Lovett wanted to know more.
Told he would be playing on a stage set up in a small park next to a working river, across the street from the Museum of Art and under a regiment of high-rises, he reacted the same way you probably did when you heard Lyle Lovett was playing downtown Fort Lauderdale.
“Wow, that sounds really cool. Now that I have a sense of it, I’m really looking forward to it,” says Lovett, who may lean his set on the critically lauded 2012 album “Release Me,” which includes the sly “Girl With the Holiday Smile” and the jazz standard “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
“Release Me” was the final record on the contract Lovett signed with Curb Records in 1985. The parting was mutual, he says, but “now I’m just trying to figure out what to do next.”
Lovett, who was walking his guitar around the country even before he taught freshman English comp at Texas A&M University more than three decades ago, can remember his first visit to South Florida like it was yesterday.
“We were opening for Bonnie Raitt, in 1986, touring with the ‘Nine Lives’ album,” Lovett says. “Me and James Gilmer and John Hagen in a rented camper-top pickup truck. We played the Miami Zoo. It was October, a beautiful, sunny day. … But, I’m sorry, I have no picture of [Fort Lauderdale].”
Lovett says he’s happy to be part of a push to create more music-friendly environments, whether or not it’s part of a business model.
“It sounds great, and I hope people come out,” he says. “One of the first obligations of any performer is to go out and play a good show. And you want everybody to do well. You need to make money for the promoter. And you hope it takes off from there.”
Nashville-based music-management veteran Don Donahue believes the festival business is one of the few growth areas in the industry, and that Fort Lauderdale is poised to be a player. He says the Tortuga Music Festival on Fort Lauderdale beach in April, with headliners Kenny Chesney, Eric Church, Ben Harper, the Avett Brothers and Grace Potter, created a lingering buzz among artists and booking agents.
“Fort Lauderdale is starting to step out as a place known for its live music culture,” he says.
Donahue, a vice president with Be Live Events, the festival promoter in partnership with the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, has been the Nashville firm’s man on the ground since the idea for Lauderdale Live developed 18 months ago. Donahue says he was approached by local tourism officials through connections made during the Key West Songwriters Festival, a Nashville-heavy event that this year hosted two of Lovett’s best pals, Robert Earl Keen and Guy Clark Jr.
Donahue said that creating a short list of talent to play Fort Lauderdale was tricky because the city is “maturing its reputation … becoming more sophisticated.” But, in the first year of a festival, there should be “something for everyone,” he said.
Saturday is “slightly more pop,” with headliner Huey Lewis closing out a day that includes Mat Kearney and “American Idol” winner Lee DeWyze. The lineup on Sunday with Isbell (ex Drive-by Truckers), Shovels and Rope, the Wild Feathers and Holly Williams is “very cool,” Donahue said, though he was at first skeptical of Lovett as the headliner.
“I thought it was an interesting fit, but I had two people helping me on the music side in their late 20s, and I could see how excited and enthusiastic they were about [Lovett],” Donahue said. “They told me he put on the best show they’d seen in the last three years.”
THE TORTUGA FACTOR
Donahue attended the Tortuga Music Festival, calling it “a fantastic festival at every level” (it was produced by a Nashville acquaintance, former Fort Lauderdale resident Chris Stacey), and he hopes to achieve a complimentary vibe with an annual event on the opposite end of the calendar, on the opposite side of Las Olas Boulevard, in a venue that offers a more intimate connection with the bands.
“It’ll be an up-close experience, almost like a listening room,” he says.
When Lauderdale Live was announced in October, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler acknowledged that “other cities are competing very hard for our tourists, and creating a more vibrant downtown experience is an important way to compete.”
Like at Tortuga, proximity to water was a key selling point for Donahue.
“I did want to promote yachting and boating, which is what makes the city so interesting,” says Donahue, who created a Friday-night VIP party on three yachts at Esplanade Park. “The water culture in Fort Lauderdale is really special. You can take an artist to their hotel or a restaurant by boat. It’s unique.”
Donahue points out that the festival location is walking distance to upscale bars and restaurants, younger-skewing lounges and a “vibrant artist community,” all of which would appeal to out-of-towners like himself. He compared the Himmarshee District favorably to Nashville’s Lower Broadway.
“Our goal is to introduce this city to live music fans,” Donahue says. “The secret to success in the festival business is not what you do in Year 1. It’s Year 3. We want to establish a brand and get artists talking.”
Friday, 6-9 p.m.: VIP yacht party at Esplanade Park with Lee DeWyze, Dave Barnes, Andrew Ripp, Jillette Johnson and Jackopierce.
Saturday, noon-11 p.m.: Performances by Andrew Ripp (12:15 p.m.), Jillette Johnson (1 p.m.), Sons of Bill (2 p.m.), Lee DeWyze (3 p.m.), Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors (4:30 p.m.), Mat Kearney (6 p.m.), Robert Randolph and the Family Band (7:30 p.m.) and Huey Lewis and the News (9:15 p.m.).
Sunday, noon-10:30 p.m.: Holly Williams (12:15 p.m.), the Wild Feathers (1:30 p.m.), Shovels and Rope (2:50 p.m.), Jason Isbell (4:15 p.m.), Indigo Girls (5:45 p.m.) and Lyle Lovett (7:30 p.m.).
Where: Huizenga Plaza, Las Olas Boulevard and Andrews Avenue, Fort Lauderdale.
Cost: $59 (one-day pass), $89 (weekend pass), $199 (VIP weekend pass), $379 (VIP weekend pass plus Friday yacht party). Tickets allow for unlimited re-entry. Box office will open at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.