40 Years Later, “The World’s Largest Coastal Art and Music Celebration” Comes to West Palm Beach – Sun Sentinel

For the past four decades, people in South Florida have flocked to SunFest, known as “the world’s largest seaside celebration of art and music.”

Can you imagine a 10-day Sunshine Festival? Oh, and don’t panic, anyone trying to navigate downtown West Palm Beach this time of year. And local artists, hold your breath. It won’t come.

They’ve tried it. In fact, the first time was about 40 years ago in 1983.

That ended the experiment.

This year’s three-day festival, celebrating its 40th anniversary, is scheduled to take place from May 3 to 5 and retains the alluring elements of years past: an eclectic music lineup, an arts village, floating bars and quaint cuisine . There will also be a community stage featuring performances by “super local artists.”

Samples from major stage artists: Nelly, The Fixx, Billy Idol, Shaggy, Third Eye Blind, Dashboard Confessional, Cole Swindell, Yung Gravy, Matisyahu, Boys Like Girls, Elle King, Paul Russell. Did I mention it’s eclectic? The clever ones have even put together a Spotify playlist of songs from this year’s show. (Search for SunFest 2024.)

The 10-day festival in 1983 grew out of the 1981 Royal Palm Festival and featured a special civic figure. He was seated in the VIP section and was seen laughing during his speech, which was not meant to be funny. Festival officials nearby could tell he wasn’t impressed.

“It’s too bad,” the man told the Palm Beach Post in 1992. There was also the marching band, with only half its members in uniform.

“If you have a better idea, please let us know,” a Royal Palm official said.

This gentleman is Bill Finley, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Real Estate Company. He made his own suggestion.

“I knew it had to be in the spring, on the water, with art, music and ethnic food,” Finley told The Washington Post. A year later, Finley appears to have just convinced himself to become one of the founders of SunFest, Inc.

Over the past 40 years, large crowds, broader connections to the community and a gradually expanding music lineup have brought SunFest into the fold of beloved South Florida events like Miami’s Ocho Street and the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show. High-rise.

Beginning with 1983’s “Jazz on the Lake” fronted by jazz and R&B guitarist George Benson, the years have brought us celebrities from pop, rock, jazz, R&B, hip-hop, country, Latin and artists from just about any genre record.

Billy Idol performed Thursday night at SunFest in downtown West Palm Beach.  Florida.  May 3, 2018.  Staff photographer Jim Rathore.
Billy Idol is one of the headliners at this year’s SunFest, having last attended SunFest in 2018.

Everyone who has attended will have their favorite performances. One fan I interviewed, who comes not for the art and food but for the music, listed Wilco; Crosby, Stills and Nash; and a little-known band called for Classic Albums Live, a band he had never heard of. They surprised him with their performance. They played the entire Jimi Hendrix album Are You Experienced.

Former SunFest president Dari Bowman attended the first festival to work for her father, one of the founders. I asked her when music started branching off from jazz. In the timeline provided by SunFest, Bonnie Raitt appeared in the early years.

“Well,” Bowman said, “there was a group that went out and interviewed people who were there. Jazz was great for a certain group of people, but they wanted to broaden the audience and attract a younger group of people. Sun Festival listened.

The festival was free at its inception, and admission fees were first charged in 1986. Don’t frown. Inflation, people.

Soon jazz musicians were joining in, from the Black Crowes to Counting Crows, Salt-N-Pepa to Bob Dylan, Judy Collins to Three Dog Night. The main stage bill went from a dozen to more than double. In some years, if the weather is good, an estimated 300,000 or more visitors come over the weekend, with visits lasting anywhere from three to five days, depending on the year.

May 7, 1989 - Singer Judy Collins performs at SunFest in West Palm Beach. Staff photo/Mark Randall
Judy Collins performed at SunFest in 1989.

SunFest ’92 was a watershed year, with a record 29 performances. Headliners include Carole King, the Neville Brothers, Kenny Loggins, Buddy Guy, Patty Austin, Ray Charles and Ricky Lee Jones. Some call it the best ever.

As the music lineup, art and food options have expanded over the years, other attractions have been added, some stopovers, some one-offs – fireworks, regattas, markets, floating stages and bars, rowers’ Waterside ticket gate.

For two years, U.S. Navy ships have called the Port of Palm Beach and offered free public tours. The All-American Skydiving Team wowed those at the water’s edge.

Soon, Nickelodeon and VH1 came along.

Expansion in other areas strengthens community ties. Provide scholarships to local artists. Partner with local nonprofits. Family fun and children’s workshops. Laser light display. Free events organized by merchants in the city center and Clematis and Narcissus Streets.

Then one year the clerk of court set up a booth in the area for anyone who wanted to get married at the Sunshine Festival. (I bet they’ve never had an experience like this on Calle Ocho or at a boat show.)

By the turn of the century, in 1999, it seemed like every popular musical style of the day could be heard on SunFest weekend: Goo Goo Dolls, Isaac Hayes, the B-52’s, Al Jarreau, George Thorogood, The Wailers, Los Robles, Hu Dee and the Blowfish, Randy Newman.

Within a decade, as hip-hop took off, Sean Paul, Ludacris, Snoop Dog and Lil Wayne were on the bill superior.

In 2001, celebrities made surprise appearances. The same weekend that actress Kate Hudson was spotted playing in The Crows (why not, she’s married to the lead singer), Dennis Rodman also joined rock band Live to perform.

In 2004, Jimmy Buffett performed again with the Johnny Clegg Band, the same weekend that Food Network star Rachael Ray took the stage for an opening night cooking demonstration. Also on hand for a performance of Hootie & the Blowfish was Dan Marino and NSYNC’s Chris Kirkpatrick, who watched Michelle Branch Performance.

FLPSUNFEST0430 - Sheryl Crow performs on stage during the opening night of SunFest 2008.  Staff photo/Jim Rassol, South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
Sheryl Crow at SunFest 2008 opening night.

In 2008, Eric Clapton made a surprise appearance at Sheryl Crow’s show to sing Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” .

Dianna Craven, current executive director of SunFest, said the musical lineup “relies on fan feedback,” including on social media. In addition, Craven said international agents and booking agents are needed to “understand who can service our market and affordably”.

“Some of my favorite performances every year are ones I’ve never heard of,” Craven said. She pointed out that before becoming famous, rapper Liddo and superstar Carrie Underwood played SunFest.

Craven’s Board of Directors consists of 25 members and four full-time employees. You can’t say much? Well, add to that an army of 2,100 volunteers, who, Craven raved, “gave up their personal time and many long weekends” to make SunFest a success. Back in 1983, Dari Bowman similarly praised 100 volunteers.

Bowman, who has served SunFest in various capacities since its first year (she served as president in 1992), told me about an event that was somewhat reminiscent of Woodstock.

“One year it just kept raining and raining,” Bowman said. “We actually had to haul dirt to fill in some of the muddy low-lying areas. In the dump truck.

Dump truck? Well, that wasn’t the case at Woodstock, but there were still a lot of people who left their shoes in the mud that day.

Just like Woodstock, the music goes on. That’s still the case for SunFest.

For information about SunFest 2024, visit sunfest.com.

John Dolen is editor of Arts & Entertainment magazine sun sentinel From 1986 to 2007.

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