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    Arts, Beats & Eats draws glad-to-be-back crowds to Royal Oak

    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.

    (L to R) James Berg on keyboards, Steve Lupinski on bass and Jason Longuski singer, three of the five-member Detroit band Night Sky Alumni perform for the crowd on the alternative rock stage during Arts Beats & Eats in downtown Royal Oak on September 3, 2021.

    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.”

    The food at Hog Heaven BBQ and Catering was one of many popular places people stood in line for during Arts Beats & Eats in downtown Royal Oak on September 3, 2021.

    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.

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