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Laumeier Sculpture Park director Glen Gentele is at the helm of a golf cart, zipping effortlessly over the grassy hills and rocky, tree root-ridden trails of his 98-acre Sunset Hills empire. In between greeting a sheepish sunbathing couple and folks walking their dogs, he's discussing the artists and artworks on display with the air of Willy Wonka showing off his factory -- all fatherly pride and casual expertise.
The native New Yorker -- there's still a hint of an accent in his voice -- and onetime garage-band member (keyboards) has special reason to be proud. Laumeier's outdoor amphitheater and Contemporary Productions are preparing to co-host a three-night music festival (September 23 through 25) featuring B.B. King, the Indigo Girls and James Brown.
Although the park has sporadically hosted blues, jazz and gospel concerts (and the Saint Louis Symphony), Gentele hopes this year's event will spawn an annual affair.
"This is a pilot year for us," he says. "This will give us a sense of what we might need to change in following years. My desire would be to have a site that is a permanent covered stage area, so we could do not just one weekend."
On this morning, workers are busy constructing a stage at the bottom of a gently sloping hill near the twisted red tubing of an Alexander Liberman piece and the steel I-beams of an installation by Mark di Suvero. A few weeks before the show, the amphitheater is merely a slab of clean white concrete. But this weekend, it will contain the telltale light poles and speaker banks befitting any outdoor elevated stage.
Gentele -- who's also a professor of modern and contemporary art history at the University of Missouri-St. Louis -- says the festival has been in the planning for nearly two years.
By the look of it, the planning will pay off. The event will feature catering from Butler's Pantry and refreshments from the Mount Pleasant Winery and primary sponsor Anheuser-Busch. (Riverfront Times is also a sponsor.) Coolers won't be permitted, but Gentele and Sam Foxman, senior partner at Contemporary Productions, promise that the refreshments will be reasonably priced.
The gentle slope of the lawn in front of the stage and the across-the-street parking -- the latter included in the ticket price ($25 to $35 in advance) -- translate to easy access and a good view of the stage -- a welcome contrast to the traffic snarls and cruddy vistas you get at the UMB Bank Pavilion.
Foxman began securing artists in mid-May, and it shows. It doesn't get more larger-than-life than the Godfather of Soul, neo-blues whiz Kenny Wayne Shepherd, guitar legend B.B. King (who drew 25,000 last year at River Splash and recently celebrated his 80th birthday) and perennial folk faves Indigo Girls.
"It had to work within the mission of Laumeier," Foxman says of the musical lineup. "Laumeier is all about combining these huge pieces of artwork and nature, and you can't really do that with, like, Marilyn Manson. Whatever we book, we try to have some sort of artistic, performing-arts aspect. We try to couple that with icons of the music world, just like we have icons of the art world."
The Indigo Girls especially have been a big draw in St. Louis for years now, and it seems logical for them to play a venue like Laumeier.
"We started in clubs and used to stay downtown," says singer/songwriter/guitarist Amy Ray. "As soon as we got there, I'd always run down to the river. That's the first thing I did: look at it. I love the Mississippi River. But I spent a lot of time in the Forest Park area.
"[Playing] outdoors is usually more challenging," Ray goes on. "You have to keep it moving, as they say. It's different from a theater. Theaters are a little more predictable: 'We know what's going to work in this space.'"
Like Ray, Gentele and company aren't sure how their festival will turn out -- but it looks promising; higher-priced VIP tickets (which guarantee closer seating) sold out well in advance for all but James Brown.
Says Foxman: "Our mission and our job is to use this as a catalyst to bring more people to the park, and for the series to grow into something more of a destination to come to Laumeier."