The Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games weren’t even over when Mayor Jim Newberry’s office said a committee will be formed to explore making the Spotlight Lexington Festival or something like it an annual fixture on Lexington’s events calendar.
When it was announced more than a year ago, Spotlight seemed like a somewhat shaky proposition. It appeared to lean too heavily on who stepped forward and said they wanted to perform and not enough on producers selecting people for the stage. The national artist component of the event had not come into focus either. But as the Games drew closer, it looked more and more poised for success: some top shelf national talent anchoring a number of nights at the Courthouse plaza stage with satellite parties at Cheapside and Triangle Park, all for free.
And people responded, overflowing the plaza for Blake Shelton’s opening-night show on Sept. 24, despite a torrential downpour that arrived the same time Spotlight did. Though official numbers are not in – Mayor’s office spokesperson Susan Straub told the Herald-Leader’s Andy Mean 125,000 were estimated to have attended the first 14 days of Spotlight – the event seemed to follow a basic producing logic: If you book big-name talent like a Shelton or Trombone Shorty or Laura Bell Bundy or J.D. Crowe, people will come out for it, particularly for free.
There were other nights that were not as great. I went down the first Tuesday night when the Juggernaut Jug Band out of Louisville was playing, and there were a hundred or so folks on the plaza, maybe just as many down at Cheapside listening to a blues act. You could regard it as disappointing, but then again, with all due respect to the Juggernaut Jug Band (which I enjoyed), would you expect them to draw thousands out on a school night? Other nights, I was told there were more people on stage than were in the plaza – again, probably a function of name recognition, getting the word out in a tsunami of activity and school nights.
With 17 days on its schedule, Spotlight had a lot of stage time to fill, which is one of the ways it looks like a good idea that could be improved upon. Here are a few things to look at:
Focus: Of course a legacy Spotlight would not be as long as the World Equestrian Games. Bring it down to a handful of nights over one or two weekends, fill each evening with a quality headliner maybe supported by Juggernaut Jug Band-level groups, and you have something more consistent. I didn’t see the Lula Washington Dance Ensemble Saturday night, but the combo of the national headliner and local ballet companies supporting her sounded like an inspired plan.
Quality: Speaking of consistency, I did hear of a few performances by local artists where either the stage management or performances were sloppy. When people are booked, particularly on the main stage, producers need to tell them this is a major stage, and you need to be ready to deliver a crisp, quality performance. We can’t have local and regional performers going up and looking bad, particularly if they support national headliners.
That said, the overall production on the main stage looked tight and efficient.
Timing: One thing I heard prior to the games that struck me as wrong was keeping Spotlight, but moving it to the summer, the assumption being that’s when people are out of school looking for things to do. But two things that made Spotlight work were it happened when things were already going on, and it was held on these early autumn nights that are historically dry with temperatures that usually range between mild and crisp, but rarely hot or freezing. One of the knocks on Louisville’s now-suspended HullabaLou festival was that it hit on a roasting July weekend when temperatures were soaring into the triple digits.
As Newberry pointed out, Downtown doesn’t really have a signature fall event akin to the Fourth of July Celebrations in summer or Christmas events in early winter. And fears of competing with UK football games and Keeneland may be somewhat unfounded. Complement may be the word you’re looking for, as people apparently still packed the park Friday night for J.D. Crowe and Sam Bush, with Keeneland WEG’s final weekend and the Auburn game on tap. The message we may want to give is we have more going on than just horses and football.
However they proceed, on its best nights the Spotlight Festival brought a lot of activity and innovation to downtown – the way the CenterPointe pasture was used reminded me of Town Point Park in downtown Norfolk, Va., where they have festivals all the time.
It is good to hear the city is thinking of giving it a future.