When Better Than Ezra's lead singer and songwriter, Kevin Griffin, heard about the other bands sharing the bill with his trio at this weekend's county fair -- acts such as Blue Oyster Cult, Rick Springfield and Koko Taylor -- he sounded genuinely pleased. "Wow . . . cool!"
But when told that his band will be taking the stage tomorrow night following the fireworks display, his enthusiasm jumped a notch. "Rock-and-roll!" he said.
Calling from Dallas, where Better Than Ezra is promoting "Before the Robots," its fifth studio CD and first for independent label Artemis Records, Griffin could clearly remember another flashy D.C.-area date 10 years ago, when Ezra played the HFStival at RFK Stadium. At that time, the band was flying high on the sales success of its debut album, "Deluxe," and ubiquitous radio hit, "Good."
"That was the first big festival we ever played," Griffin recalled. "The next night we played 'Letterman,' . . . That was a great time."
Since then, the New Orleans-based group has had other, albeit smaller, radio hits, such as "Rosealia" and "Desperately Wanting," but not the same kind of intense MTV-style exposure, choosing instead to win and keep fans the old-fashioned way -- through relentless touring. The D.C. area has been good to "BTE," as its fans, known as "Ezralites," call them. The group has become a mainstay of the region's clubs and radio festivals.
"Especially Norfolk, that area, D.C." Griffin said -- "being on the radio and touring go hand in hand, and certainly where we've had the support of radio is where we do our best. Virginia is evidence of that."
And while Better Than Ezra can easily pack the 9:30 club with a crowd of rabid fans, Griffin enjoys the challenge of winning over a crowd like that at Celebrate Fairfax, where the band is competing with funnel cakes and a Ferris wheel.
"If it's a festival, unlike our own show, there are people there who know the band, but there's a large group of people who are just there to have a good time. So your job is to entertain them. It's not frustrating. It's just reality. And that's where you turn a lot of people on."
Alas, seeing Better Than Ezra and up-and-coming singer Anna Nalick on the Bud Light Stage tomorrow night means you'll miss two other acts of long-standing stage power, the funky Rare Earth and hard rockers Blue Oyster Cult (please don't yell "More cowbell!"), appearing at the same time on the Michelob Ultra Stage. If there's one fault in the rich musical buffet available at Celebrate Fairfax, it's that one person simply can't have it all.
The annual festival features four stages of almost continuous music and entertainment, with more than 50 acts vying for your eyes and ears.
On Saturday, for example, the Michelob and Bud Light stages offer a wealth of fine choices, including the acoustic sounds of Lianna, local rockers Welbilt, the masterful pop-rock of area favorites Bicycle Thieves and Getaway Car, and the descriptive Honky Tonk Tailgate Party.
As evening settles, the action at the Bud Light stage heats up with the Smithereens and one of the most credible actor-musician hyphenates, Rick Springfield. The former Dr. Noah Drake may not be the same teeny-bopper heartthrob he was back in the "General Hospital" days, but Springfield still has charisma and pop chops to spare, and will no doubt elicit squeals aplenty when or if he performs "Jessie's Girl." His set is due to start at 9:45 p.m., also after fireworks.
On Sunday, you can catch blues legends Lonnie Brooks and Koko Taylor, among others, on the Bud Light Stage, while the Michelob offers the likes of area singer-songwriter Leah Morgan, the quirky Atomic Mosquito and swing bands King Teddy and the Tom Cunningham Orchestra.
Pushing the envelope into world music and other diverse styles, the lineup of artists performing on the new Cox Performing Arts Stage throughout the weekend includes Nen Daiko taiko drummers, the Gentleman Jugglers, Kankouran West African Dance Company and Aoibhneas an Rince Irish Dancers, while the ExxonMobil Children's Village Stage showcases educational entertainment including Animal Ambassadors, Reptiles Alive!, the Jim Rose Puppets and Steve Gryb, the Pied Piper of Percussion.
The origin of the three-day Celebrate Fairfax event -- with its concerts and interactive activities, carnival rides, technical exhibits, and art and crafts -- dates to Colonial times, when the House of Burgesses mandated an annual fair to promote commerce, community and economic development. If those prescient bewigged characters were around today, they'd be amazed at how the event has grown to fill the 25-acre grounds of the Government Center complex. And if the Founding Fathers appeared, Live! would gratefully buy them all corn dogs, because Celebrate Fairfax is a great place for music.
-- MARIANNE MEYER
Noah Drake to "General Hospital" fans -- goes onstage Saturday. In a sign of how big the slate of performances is for Celebrate Fairfax!, Blue Oyster Cult, right, is scheduled to play at the same time as Better Than Ezra.