Record turnout expected tonight|[4/16/05]

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 18, 2005

About 6,000 people filed through the five gates along Washington Street for the 18th annual Riverfest Friday evening, a positive start to what is expected by board members to be the biggest Riverfest ever.

Sam Treubel, president of Riverfest, said Friday night’s attendance was about 1,000 more than last year’s first night of events.

Organizers expect 7,000 to 12,000 people to be on hand for tonight’s entertainment, she said.

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The buzz for the downtown festival began before anyone approached the gates, – including changing the original location of the North stage where headline country star Dierks Bentley will perform at 9 tonight. The star is expected to bring record numbers of people out to the festival, Main Street director Rosalie Theobald said.

The Riverfest board wanted Washington Street to be open from the South stage to the northern end of the re-bricked area to leave a clear path for people to walk from the arts and crafts show south to downtown shops, festival vice president Jerry Boland said. But, finding a place to put the stage with the western edge of Washington Street on a sloping part of China Street was a challenge.

“We wanted it to look like a full thoroughfare,” Boland said.

Last year the festival had at least one stage in the middle of an intersection, he added.

Sound Associates Inc. of Mobile, Ala., has set up the Riverfest stages for about the past seven years.

“It was the best place to put it crowdwise,” Sound Associates co-owner Chuck Johnson said of the China Street location for the main stage. “It took us a few extra hours, but Saturday night it will allow for more people to see Dierks Bentley.”

It took Sound Associates about 18 hours Thursday and Friday to set up the festival’s main and South stages, Johnson said.

The canopy over this year’s stage is 21 feet from street level, and Bentley and his five-piece band are to perform on the 1,200-square-foot stage. This year’s main stage has 120 lights, up from the 36 it had last year, and the sound system is about twice as big as the one used last year. The stage will be lit by one or two distant spotlights and will have eight revolving lights and fog machines.

Johnson said Sound Associates has worked with Bentley about seven or eight times.

People didn’t wait until today to fill the streets downtown. At 6 p.m. Friday, people were lined up under blue skies and warm temperatures at the five gates along Washington Street, waiting for Vicksburg police and Warren County sheriff’s deputies to perform a last-minute security sweep. The sweep began at about 5:30 p.m., and it wasn’t long before people began to pour into the street.

Anxious Riverfest attendees flocked to one of the three stages, placed amidst a medley of foods and activities.

The South stage at Washington and South streets saw the earliest action at 6:30 p.m. as Vicksburg teens competed in the second annual Riverfest Idol.

Grandmothers, parents and friends rooted for their favorite ‘idol’ with signs, painted shirts and cowbells.

“She better win,” Taylor Ditto said of her sister, Roxy Ditto, who performed Whitney Houston’s “Run to You.”

Ditto and four other singers were defeated by a dance group that was comprised of Lyndsey Freeny, Molleigh Wallace and Taylor Thomas. The dancers, who have been performing with Debra Franco Preparatory School of Dance in Vicksburg since they were little, performed a dance number – the first in the two-year history of the local competition.

“It’s another good way to entertain people,” 15-year-old Taylor Thomas said.

The group took away $250 from sponsor Atwood Chevrolet. Even though they will split it three ways, Lyndsey Freeny said it will go to dancing.

The Riverfest Idol competition wasn’t the only excitement happening at the downtown festival Friday. Seven-year-old Mollie Simpson of Greenville couldn’t stay away from the rock wall.

It was all upper arm strength, her mom, Liz Simpson, who is manning the Sno-N-Go booth, said was kepping her going strong.

“When she found out we would be right across from (the rock wall), she said, ‘That’s where I’m going to be,'” Liz Simpson said.

The wall is run by James Carmichael and Jeanie Barber from Tuscalossa, Ala. Barber said it has been a highlight of Riverfest for the last four or five years.

“It’s a big hit – it’s something challenging, not just something fun,” she said.

In exchange for cool drinks, Mollie was allowed unlimited access to the wall.

“Usually it’s two climbs for $5,” Barber said.

More excitement was cooking at the North stage as the Vicksburg band Riverwind cranked up their classic rock sound.

Jenny Stinson danced around, sporting a new Riverwind t-shirt, to support her husband David Stinson, who plays the saxophone for the band.

She said the overflowing bleachers and people dancing at the festival were no surprise to her.

“They’re great,” she said as she danced.

The arts and crafts festival will kick off today’s events at 8 a.m. along Washington between Jackson and China streets with Riverfest activities continuing to South Street. Bands are slated to perform on the three stages throughout the day, with Alcorn State University’s 25th Annual Jazz Fest performers on the North stage.

With temperatures in the 80s and partly cloudy skies, Riverfest board members are expecting a record turnout for today’s festivities.

The daily events are free, and gates will open at 6 with $15 admission for tonight’s entertainment. Bentley will take the North stage at 9.