By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer
For less than the price of a new CD you can attend the biggest music festival ever produced in Greater Cincinnati - five days, four stages, 30 national acts and more than 50 local artists.
From Oct. 15-19, the Tall Stacks Music, Arts & Heritage Festival will set up shop on both sides of the Ohio and present top names in bluegrass, blues, folk, gospel and Americana, including Emmylou Harris, Nickel Creek, Lucinda Williams, Ricky Skaggs, Keb' Mo', the Jayhawks, Bo Diddley, the Blind Boys of Alabama and Shawn Colvin.
Admission to all five days of Tall Stacks - or any single day - is a $12 enameled souvenir pin that goes on sale Saturday in the Tristate's 100 Kroger stores. Kroger Plus cardholders receive an additional $2 discount. There is no service charge and children 12 and under will be admitted free.
Tickets are on sale for Tall Stacks cruises and morning tours. About 75 percent of the 117,000 available tickets for the 200 cruises have been sold. Best availability is Wednesday and Thursday (about 20,000 of 25,000 morning boat-tour tickets remain).
Tickets are on sale at the Tall Stacks Store, Tower Place Mall, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, at tallstacks.com or call (866) 497-8255.
Cruise tickets range from $18 to $75 per person; tour tickets are $18.
Ticket buyers also receive the new Tall Stacks general admission pin good for all five days of the festival.
That "reinvention" changes Tall Stacks from a riverboat festival with some musical accompaniment - an event that, since its inception in 1988, has drawn an older, more family-oriented audience - into a major-league music festival that can compete with such national events as the Bonnaroo roots/jam-band fest in Manchester, Tenn., the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival.
"That's unbelievable to have those kinds of entertainers for 10 bucks," said John Elkington, the developer chiefly responsible for the Beale Street revival in Memphis.
"Look at that lineup. All those people are just incredible; the bluegrass with Ricky Skaggs and Nickel Creek, and then you add to that all those blues entertainers and all those other people. You'll get people from all over the country to come to that."
By comparison, three-day advance tickets for this year's Memphis fest - the cheapest of the three festivals mentioned above - cost $44, plus service charges. About 60 national and local artists played in the city's riverfront park over the three days, drawing more than 130,000 people.
The boat element of Tall Stacks hasn't been forgotten, however. It, too, has been expanded, with 200 cruise options ranging from such traditional Tall Stacks fare as history cruises to new, demographic-broadening tickets such as the SpongeBob family cruise or "booze cruises" that offer martini and wine tastings. In addition, every cruise ticket includes a Tall Stacks pin, which gains admittance to the entire five-day festival.
The music will take place on three stages on the Ohio side - the P&G Pavilion at Sawyer Point, a stage at the Public Landing and a new, 2,000-seat tented stage modeled on those at the Memphis and New Orleans fests that will be on the grassy area at Yeatman's Cove.
By day, the tented stage will showcase the Children's Theatre of Cincinnati and other events. A stage near the Newport Levee will be historically themed, but all stages will present music that's part of Cincinnati's river-town heritage, Smith promised. The musical portion of Tall Stacks is being dedicated to the memory of musician and riverboat advocate John Hartford.
The festival faces some challenges, not the least of which is Cincinnati's unpredictable October weather. But if things go well, Smith said the music festival has the potential to be an annual event. The riverboat element of Tall Stacks will continue to be presented every four years.
"The purpose of this year is to make Tall Stacks bigger, better, stabilize it, grow it and provide a foundation for going forward," Smith said. "If the music piece of Tall Stacks is successful, I say, 'Why not continue it?' "
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