Twenty-one always has been an important number at Sacramento's downtown Concerts in the Park series. Anyone who has produced an ID to take advantage of the beer garden can attest to that.
In its own 21st year, the Cesar Chavez Plaza free concert series starting tonight and running every Friday through July 27 is experiencing its own rites of passage.
Longtime music booker Jerry Perry is gone, replaced by a group called Play Big Sacramento. The 2012 series also will offer DJs spinning between bands, food trucks and designated after-parties.
And the beer garden will be non-designated, at least for tonight's kickoff show headlined by reggae-rock band Arden Park Roots. The temporary barriers that once separated the have-beers from have-nots will not exist, at least at the first show.
Concert-goers must enter through one of two park entrances (at 10th and I and Ninth and J), IDs in hand and shirts and shoes on, thank you.
Otherwise, it's a free roam.
"We are trying to make the park a little bit more open," said Lisa Martinez of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, the private nonprofit that puts on the concert series each year.
Tapping the current food-truck craze, the concert series will feature Drewski's, Mini Burger, Wicked 'wich and Autentico Taco Azteca trucks at every show.
"And they will be (inside) the park and not on the street, so they will not have to move every 30 minutes," said Andy Hawk of Play Big Sacramento.
One of the event's biggest differences will be the absence of Perry. An affable, often black-clad fixture on the local music scene, Perry booked the park series for 15 years, served as its emcee and deftly worked the Cesar Chavez Plaza crowd every Friday, greeting audience members as he went.
Citing declining attendance over the past few years and a desire to "refresh" the event, the Downtown Sacramento Partnership replaced Perry with Play Big. The group is composed of radio personality and PowerHouse Pub show promoter Hawk, radio personality Mark Gilmore, Ace of Spades promoter Justin Nordan and musicians Danny Secretion, Jake Desrochers and Laith Kaos.
The announcement of Perry's dismissal from Concerts in the Park early this year prompted outcries from supporters on Facebook and other social media.
"I am working on a lot of other things, and I am happy about those things," said Perry, who has booked acts for the Hot Lunch music series in Fremont Park and the Sacramento Music Festival (formerly Jazz Jubilee), both starting later this month. "(But) it does make me sad that one of the things I helped develop over the years the ability to put a local band before 5,000 or 6,000 people at Cesar Chavez I am no longer doing. That was something that was really important to me, and I had felt that I had continued to earn the privilege to do that."
Perry said the rescheduling of the California State Fair from August to July cut into the park series' attendance over the past few years. He attributed last year's attendance drop to unseasonably cool nights and "poor marketing" of the event.
The hubbub surrounding Perry's dismissal should not adversely affect booking for the 2012 series, Hawk said.
"There was not one band we talked to who said, 'We are not playing,' " Hawk said. "That's the thing they brought together our group, who have all been booking bands and heavily involved in booking big shows. It wasn't like there are six kids no one has ever heard of."
Returning headliners include country and rockabilly outfit the Nickel Slots. Guitarist Steve Amaral said the band still books gigs through Perry, who, Amaral said, "has been good to the Nickel Slots and done a lot for the community."
But Amaral said his band remained excited about headlining May 18 at the park. A park gig allows bands to play for thousands instead of dozens at local clubs, and exposes them to music fans of all ages.
"The bottom line for me is both parties want to bring live, original music to Sacramento, and I commend both of them for being organized and doing that," Amaral said of Perry and Play Big.
Play Big aims to create "more of a festival atmosphere" in the park, Hawk said. "We've got the best DJs in town playing between bands, and the food trucks, and we will have fire dancers and artists painting (while) onstage."
In line with that festival atmosphere is a new emphasis on park-ready rock- reggae music. It starts tonight with Arden Park Roots, the popular Sacramento foursome, and continues July 6 with Full Blown Stone, a San Diego band whose members come from Placer County.
The Play Big lineup appears more rock-centric, offering fewer singer- songwriters than a typical Perry lineup.
But Hawk said the difference with Play Big is less about genre than overall approach.
Play Big's goal was to book "definite headlining acts," Hawk said. "I think in the past with the series, not every show you could point to and say, 'This is a headlining act.' We wanted the acts that sell out Harlow's, or sell out Marilyn's or Ace of Spades."
Hawk pointed to Middle Class Rut ("New Low"), the Sacramento alternative-rock duo that has received substantial radio airplay and is headlining a national tour of rock clubs.
"They are probably the biggest current band out of Sacramento right now," Hawk said of MC Rut, performing May 11 in the park. (MC Rut also headlined in 2009.)
Sacramento alternative rock band Oleander (June 1), which scored national hits in the late 1990s and will put out a new album this year, and local punk legends 7 Seconds (June 22) also will draw big crowds, Hawk predicted.
Local punk rockers Another Damn Disappointment (July 13), blues-rock band Relic 45 (June 15) and funk and jam band ZugH (May 25) also headline for the first time.
"Then, of course, we were able to keep those shows that have been so amazing Mumbo Gumbo and the Brodys," Hawk said.
Top draws every year, dance band Mumbo Gumbo (June 8) and punk rockers the Brodys (July 27) share members with other Concert in the Park headliners. With Mumbo Gumbo, it's the old-school R&B outfit the Nibblers (June 29) and with the Brodys, it's Amaral's band, the Nickel Slots.