It was a familiar, festive opening to Labor Day weekend in Royal Oak.
Two years after Soaring Eagle Arts, Beats & Eats last graced the downtown streets, the state’s biggest festival of this holiday weekend was back with its bustling array of sights, sounds and aromas on Friday.
Gorgeous sunny weather with temperatures in the low 70s certainly helped the cause, as people flocked to Royal Oak for the first of four days of music, art and offerings from area eateries.
With opening night headliner Stone Temple Pilots on tap later in the evening, Friday’s crowds seemed on par with past years — perhaps even bigger, according to AB&E director Jon Witz.
“After two years of not hosting an event of this magnitude, seeing this turnout and the weather forecast is one of the best moments of my career,” said Witz, who founded the festival in 1998.
Like nearly all big gatherings from March 2020 onward, AB&E was canceled last year amid the pandemic. Witz put together a makeshift virtual and drive-in event in its stead.
On Friday, many fest-goers — though certainly not the majority — walked the fest grounds with face masks.
About 55 area restaurants and 100-plus art vendors from across the country were on hand, and those who spoke with the Free Press were upbeat about the weekend.
“It was heartbreaking last year seeing people locked in and depressed,” said Dave Price, proprietor of Hog Heaven BBQ, which did brisk business at its spot along Washington Avenue. “Now we’re seeing people here with a renewed spirit and appreciation for being able to be back.”
He said he arrived with 4,800 pounds of meat for his offerings of ribs, pulled pork and other barbecue items and was confident he’d be leaving with none.
This weekend marks a big change for Arts, Beats & Eats: The festival ditched its longtime ticketing system for food and drinks, shifting to a pay-as-you-go model. Patrons who spoke with the Free Press on Friday said they loved the move, saying it saved time and the headache of unused tickets.
On the music front, the day started with lighter sounds across the seven stages, heating up as the day wound on. By late afternoon, you could catch Channel 89’s crisp, melodic pop-rock at the Rock Stage, hear MYB’s two-man dose of ethereal alt-pop at the Alternative Stage or the kilted trio of Pictus serving up tribal bagpipes and percussion at the International Stage.
More:Arts, Beats & Eats: Full music schedule and a breakdown of 14 main stage acts
More:For Stone Temple Pilots’ Jeff Gutt, it’s a full-circle homecoming at AB&E
Just after 6 p.m., Detroit blues-soul great Thornetta Davis kicked off the action on the Michigan Lottery main stage, to be followed by the Guess Who and STP. Backstage, Davis said it was a joy and relief to be performing out again.
“It feels so good,” she said. “Being back hometown, on the main stage, is just marvelous.”
The Guess Who, making its third AB&E appearance, followed with a 75-minute set steeped in turn-of-the-’70s rock hits (“American Woman,” “These Eyes,” “No Sugar Tonight”), with singer Derek Sharp leading the entertaining proceedings up front. Drummer Garry Peterson, the group’s lone original member, provided the nostalgic link, including an anecdote about the Canadian band’s 1969 single “Undun” — embraced first in America by border town Detroit.
From there it was on to a dependably high-sizzle set from Stone Temple Pilots, heralded by AB&E organizers as the biggest booking in the fest’s 23-year-history. Jeff Gutt, the Michigan native who has fronted the band since 2017, was a dynamic presence from the time he hit the stage sporting neon-blue hair and a cigarette between his fingers.
Gutt was in fine voice alongside STP bandmates Dean DeLeo (guitar), Robert DeLeo (bass) and Eric Kretz (drums), who showed their mettle as a well-oiled machine in just their second public performance since October 2019. “Wicked Garden” led a set of vintage ’90s rock fare sprinkled with a pair of Gutt-era songs, as the night unfolded with signature STP hits (“Vasoline,” “Big Bang Baby,” “Big Empty,” “Plush,” “Interstate Love Song”).
Debbie LaPratt, an artist specializing in bas-relief ceramics highlighting Detroit landmarks, is an Arts, Beats & Eats veteran of 15 years. Based on the early Friday foot traffic, she predicted the weekend attendance would be “wall to wall.”
“It’s so cool being back because you get to reunite with your customers and see old friends,” she said. “I feel the energy here.”
Arts, Beats & Eats hasn’t forgotten the pandemic: The festival is hosting vaccine clinics held by Oakland County Health through the weekend.
AB&E is just part of the Labor Day festivities in metro Detroit.
The weekend also brings the Detroit Jazz Festival, which scotched its plans for an in-person event and will present a second year of performances streamed live from inside the Renaissance Center. For those who want to gather downtown, the webcast will be shown on a big screen at Campus Martius Park, running 12 hours daily through Monday.
The Michigan State Fair, which kicked off Thursday, will rev up at 10 a.m. each day through Monday at Novi’s Suburban Collection Showcase, featuring live music, family fun and the traditional agriculture and livestock exhibitions.
There’s the 41st Hamtramck Labor Day Festival, which runs Saturday-Monday with local bands, carnival attractions and the annual “yacht races” down Jos. Campau Avenue.
And, as always, Labor Day weekend brings the opening of Franklin Cider Mill, which will be in operation in Bloomfield Hills starting Saturday through Nov. 28.