This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 31, 2008 - On or off the levee, Fair St. Louis continues to attract many to its free concerts. As summer operations wrap up, production leaders say that the last-second location switch from the Arch grounds to the area near Soldiers Memorial did not affect the quality or popularity of events.
For 27 years, the Gateway Arch grounds served as the hub of the popular concerts - first as part of Fair St. Louis' Fourth of July celebration and later spread over summer weekends. At all events, fireworks launched from the Mississippi River -- until this year.
Through June, Missy Slay, executive director of Fair St. Louis Foundation, remained optimistic that the region's flooding would recede. Water covered the stairs where many concertgoers would sit to enjoy free performances. She waited for the waters to ebb from the cobblestone levees. The river showed no remorse.
So, two weeks before the fair's opening, Slay and her team had to make a quick decision: Cancel the event or find a new location. Corporate sponsors had already spent hundreds of thousands booking entertainers. People had made plans for the Fourth and to hear favorite performers.
"We realized that people come to expect a summer full of free music, and we didn't want to disappoint them," Slay said. "We scurried, we worked with everyone to make sure the new venue would work and be safe."
After quick planning, Live on the Levee became Live OFF the Levee. The fair moved 13 blocks west. Despite the quick switch, Slay said the fair and concerts have been going "exceedingly well."
In a marked difference from other music festivals featuring the same bands, there is no entrance fee. "With the economy the way it is, our event is extremely popular," Slay said.
There is no official way to accurately track attendance since there are no turnstiles. Officials say attendance is consistent with previous years and might have even increased. Parking is better, and the Soldiers' Memorial area (12th to 14th street between Market and Chestnut) is more accessible. General chairman, volunteer leader and president of production group Contemporary Productions Steve Schankman estimates that most concerts have drawn about 30,000 audience members.
"We don't keep track of attendance, but our event continues to grow," Slay said. "It becomes more and more popular each summer."
The lineup this year included such renowned acts as Joss Stone, O.A.R., WAR, and Lonestar. Regional bands served as opening acts. Friday night's concert features Boyz II Men; and Rusted Root will close the series on Saturday night.
The Fabulous Motown Review is opening for Boyz II Men. That means that Schankman will have experienced Live off the Levee from both back and center stage: He plays trumpet in the 16-piece band.
Fair St. Louis has been proud to offer big acts for free. "Since 1981, we've always had big acts," Schankman said. "Elton John has played the fair, and Ray Charles, Bernadette Peters, Chicago. You name it. We've had every kind of entertainer. In the last few years, we've tailored it to suit younger concert-goers, but we still have acts for an older audience."
Dan Durchholz, a music critic who sometimes writes for the Beacon, noted that this summer's lineup strongly featured the jam band genre. "They addressed other audiences, too; but obviously the main push this year was for jam bands," Durchholz said. "That's OK, because it's a festival atmosphere and not a location that will give you a great listening experience. Sometimes you're frustrated because you want to hear the performance and a guy next to you is talking loudly about how many beers he can balance on his head. With the jam bands, you can soak in the vibes."
According to Slay, the new venue was so successful that holding programming off the levee next year is not out of the question.
"There's something special about our festival usually being at the base of the Arch," Slay said. "But we really do need to look at it and see what works best. After we close the books on this summer, the board will get together and start discussions about next summer."
Schankman said that while the decision will not be his, since he will no longer be chairman, he could not imagine forsaking the Arch grounds for good. "I doubt we want to change that unless the weather causes that. I would think that the powers would want to return to the original site."
Still, most agree that one factor about the alternate location has brought Fair St. Louis experience closer to its audience. The fireworks, previously blasted from the river, are now launched from buildings across the street. "The fireworks are so close. Usually they're far away," Schankman said. "We'll end this weekend with Boyz II Men and Rusted Root with a bang. Literally, with a bang."
Joy Resmovits, a rising junior at Barnard College, is an intern with the Beacon.