A lot of changes are in store for Laurel's Riverfest festival this year, with a larger lineup of vendors, more entertainment and a pirate's theme.
Normally held on Saturday, this is the second year that the festival is scheduled for a Sunday. The Sept. 29 event runs from noon until 5 p.m. along Riverfront Park and the Patuxent River.
Riverfest organizers are hoping this year's additions will result in a larger turnout and are praying that, unlike the last several years, they will be blessed with a sunny day.
"My biggest concern is the weather," said Michelle Arsenault, the event's chairwoman and a Laurel Board of Trade director. "The last three or four years, it rained, so we're due for some sun. Last year, we had only about 500 people attend, and the year before that, by 1 p.m. the vendors started packing up."
If the weather cooperates, Arsenault is hoping for long lines all day at the vendor booths, where a much larger variety of items will be on display and for sale this year.
The theme for this year's Riverfest is pirates and privateers, with a lot of attention focusing on local seaman/privateer turned Navy commander Joshua Barney. Born in Baltimore in 1759, Barney oversaw the building and commanding of a fleet of oar-propelled boats during the War of 1812. His escapades during the war, which gave the British many headaches, brought his fleet up and down the Patuxent River near Laurel on numerous occasions.
His other connection to the area is that he lived part of his life in nearby Savage.
"I was able to … visit the house where Joshua Barney lived in Savage [now a bed and breakfast inn]," said Venus Theatre owner Deb Randall, who helped devise the pirate theme for Riverfest. "We were exploring options for Riverfest, which is a bit of an unknown festival in town, and we wanted to spice it up."
In promoting Riverfest during the Fourth of July and Main Street Festival parades, festival organizers dressed up as pirates on their float.
"We've advertised that we're encouraging everyone participating or attending to dress as a pirate. It's like an early Halloween to make it all fun," Arsenault said. "I'll be pulling the pirate outfit I wore in the parade off the shelf."
For the first time, the festival will include a living history stage, where aspects of Barney's life as a pirate will be acted out by Randall and a cast of children; and anyone who wants to participate in the improvisational performances is welcome on stage.
"The goal is to get to know different aspects of this history and this amazing character. In my experience, turning history into a play is not only a gas, it can have a lasting positive impact," Randall said. "My main objective is to make this very accessible and as entertaining and fun as possible; to open a gateway of interest that will grow long after Sept. 29."
In addition to the living history stage, live music will be performed on two stages, one for professional musicians and one for younger students. The professional lineup includes Wind Divine, a chamber-folk-rock trio; the Unity Reggae Band, which has shared the stage with Burning Spear, Yellowman and the Wailers; the four-piece jazz ensemble Apothecary; and Laurel's own pop, rock and funk Alan Scott Band.
The professional main stage will be located at the end of Avondale, just off Main Street, with the emerging artist student stage set up adjacent to it.
"Between the two stages, there will always be music going on during the festival from noon until it ends," Arsenault said.
More vendors, food
In the past, there have usually been only one or two food vendors, but this year, six food booths will be scattered along Riverfront Park. Festival-goers can get their fill on barbecue meats, Jamaican dishes, corn dogs, pit beef, funnel cakes, grilled chicken, crab cakes, shrimp, fried fish and french fries. Desserts on vendor menus include banana pudding, cotton candy and cupcakes.
There will also be vendors selling jewelry, artwork, china, teddy bears outfitted in professional sports gear, Christmas ornaments, a variety of bath and body merchandise, and gardening items, with a master gardener on hand to offer advice.
Laurel Board of Trade Chairman Matthew Coats was instrumental in getting more vendors to sign up for this year's Riverfest.
"My thing was that anyone joining the Laurel Board of Trade was allowed to come to Riverfest and set up a booth for free this one time," Coates said. "This way, they can see what they can gain from being at Riverfest and will come back next year."