Not long after I moved here, I started hearing about Live on the Levee, a free three-day event beneath the Gateway Arch, replete with local and national bands, food vendors and fireworks displays. I grew up in Cleveland, so I'm familiar with downtown summerfests, but I was curious to see how Levee would compare to the hype generated by last year's critically acclaimed River Splash.
That festival went on for six straight weekends and featured, among many others, Liz Phair, Paul Oakenfold, Los Lobos and the B-52's, all performing on the Arch grounds. The response was overwhelming: 300,000 people showed up overall, and the press unanimously hailed it as a success. (River Splash even earned "Best Music Festival" in the RFT's 2004 "Best of St. Louis" issue.)
"I can't tell you how many people have come up to me and said, 'We've got to figure out how to do this again,'" Mayor Francis Slay told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch a year ago. "We don't know how long it will be or what form it will take, but I have expressed a strong interest in continuing River Splash or something like it."
"Something like it?" Live on the Levee was "like" River Splash the way a can of Olde English 800 is "like" a decanter full of small-batch bourbon. The fact that this year's event unfolded over the course of a single weekend was lame enough, but not nearly as lame as the lineup, which featured one-hit wonder/R&B nutjob Macy Gray, generic hard-rock heavies Collective Soul and second-tier jam band Blues Traveler.
How did we go from bad-ass to half-ass in just one year?
"Unfortunately, we got this [Levee] so late that we weren't able to do as much as we would have liked this year," concedes Mayor Slay's spokesman, Ed Rhode. "We just don't have the staff or the capacity to put something on that big in that short amount of time."
True, whereas River Splash was years in the making, Live on the Levee executive director Missy Slay had less than eight weeks to put hers together. And, notes Slay (the mayor's second cousin and the head of the newly minted civic organization Celebrate St. Louis), she started with "zero dollars" and had to fundraise from scratch.
"Nobody at the time of the planning of last year thought [River Splash] would be as phenomenally successful as it was," says Ann Chance, special events manager for the Downtown St. Louis Partnership, which had a hand in organizing both River Splash and Live on the Levee. "The provisions weren't made to move forward on that level."
Uh, okay. Why not?
St. Louis 2004, the organization that put together the Celebrate 2004 series of events (including '04 Eve, the Forest Park ferris wheel, River Splash and the "Eats Bridge" restaurant row) and helped with downtown revitalization and park-improvement projects, dissolved right on schedule, at the end of last year. And with it vanished all the structural and organizational groundwork the group had laid for River Splash over the course of its nine -- count 'em, nine -- years of existence.
As in: Poof.
Celebrate St. Louis -- a co-op formed by (among others) the City of St. Louis, the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission and Downtown Now! with the aim of creating, improving and promoting downtown events -- came into being only two months ago. What took so long? OK, hosting the NCAA Final Four was a big project, and one Missy Slay had a hand in as executive director of the local organizing committee. But that was March Madness. What were these folks doing in April, May and early June? If you're planning a late-summer party, those are crucial months to miss.
"August is one of the toughest months to book already, because a lot of shows are out doing tours and sheds and festivals and country fairs," confirms Keith Alper, who works for Premiere Entertainment, the production company that co-produced Levee. "There were very limited groups available on these dates."
Funding was another factor. Missy Slay won't say exactly how much spendin' money she had to work with, but her "several hundred thousand dollars" doubtless pales in comparison to River Splash's reported $3.7 million price tag. It couldn't, however, have been a surprise that raising money would be difficult, especially given the two-month time frame and the fact that, as Slay notes, "most [corporation] budgets' marketing dollars are already spoken for at this stage in the game."
Two of River Splash's three main presenting sponsors -- the Danforth Foundation and Enterprise Rent-A-Car -- made it clear that their generous monetary donations last year were one-shot deals. (Enterprise was approached to contribute to Live on the Levee and declined, confirms Alonzo Byrd, the car-rental agency's director of corporate relations.)
This all added up to an event that -- surprise! -- seemed hastily thrown together, with very few (and expensive) food and drink vendors and a dearth of ATMs. Perhaps the best thing about Live on the Levee was the abundance of nearby cheap parking and elbow room to sprawl out and enjoy the beautiful late-summer weather. Missy Slay estimated attendance at 55,000 overall, but it didn't look that crowded to me on Sunday, when Blues Traveler reportedly drew 20,000 people.
Slay did the best she could under the circumstances, and she hopes to build on Live on the Levee and expand it to multiple weekends next year. "Milwaukee has Summerfest, Chicago has Taste of Chicago, and you can't get a hotel room in the city [during these events]," she says. "There's no reason why St. Louis doesn't have an event after Fair St. Louis until basically Big Muddy on Labor Day."
In light of last year's extravaganza, though, a single three-day bender of lame entertainment doesn't seem like momentum-building. It feels like a giant step backward.