If Sacramento's Friday Night Concerts in the Park had a theme song for 2012, it would have been David Bowie's "Changes."
New mobile food vendors were invited to join the festivities. Organizers reimagined the beer garden and introduced an open, free-range audience area.
And all the while, the music rarely stopped, thanks to DJs spinning on stage between sets.
"It was kind of a gimme," organizer Jake Desrochers, part of Concerts in the Park's promotion and the booking outfit Play Big Sacramento, said about the DJs. "We have all this time, so why not use it?"
The innovations were a hit. According to organizers, Concerts in the Park saw a 40 percent uptick in attendance last year, drawing around 70,000 music fans to 13 Friday night shows at downtown's Cesar Chavez Plaza.
Organizers hope to build on that success when the 22nd season of Concerts in the Park kicks off next Friday. On offer this year: rock, blues, world music, hip-hop, soul, funk, indie, Americana, electronica and more.
The concerts feature talent with ties to the Sacramento area. This includes hard rock band Middle Class Rut, which had a radio hit in 2008 with "New Low" and has been touring ever since. The band returns as CIP headliners May 10, marking its first local show since packing the park last year.
Other big-name headliners include Sacramento-bred dance punk outfit !!! (pronounced "chk chk chk") on May 31 and Chico-born "California Soul" rockers the Mother Hips on June 21.
Andy Hawk, also of Play Big Sacramento, pointed out that all three of these headliners are releasing new albums within a month of their shows, and each show is part of a larger tour.
Thirty of the acts on this year's bill are new to Concerts in the Park. But of course, no CIP season would be complete without veteran Sacramento rockers the Brodys (July 26) and world-beat jammers Mumbo Gumbo (June 7).
"Being in the heart of Sacramento, (Concerts in the Park) really has the local vibe," said Mumbo Gumbo booking agent Billy Fairfield. "(It's) an annual reunion of local friends and music fans, and we see a lot of familiar faces each year. It's the place to be on a Friday evening during the summer."
That wasn't always the case. A few years ago, audience enthusiasm for the series started to wane. Some blamed the economy. Others blamed the weather. Or perhaps it had to do with the appeal of previous line-ups?
Preparing for the 2012 season, Downtown Sacramento Partnership, which puts on the events, partnered with Play Big Sacramento in an effort to revitalize the series.
"It has such a rich tradition, but it was obvious we had to make some changes," Hawk said. "The challenge was getting that passion back for the series in general, just talking to people and regaining that enthusiasm and letting people know that the big bands were still in town."
"With an event that has been around for 20 years, it's not enough just to keep the audience returning it is also important to grow the audience," Downtown Sacramento Partnership marketing manager Megan Emmerling said. "We really wanted to make sure the CIP brand was connecting with young adults and 20-somethings, while still maintaining a family- friendly environment."
But before they could connect with young adults, they had to bring them to Cesar Chavez Plaza.
"College-age and beyond are exactly the target audience for outdoor music festivals, and yet we weren't seeing as many young adults in the park as we were their more mature counterpart," Emmerling added. "We looked at every element of CIP and said, 'What can we do to make this more exciting and youthful?' "
One of the answers: Reconfigure the beer garden, which was keeping concert-going tipplers sardined in a side area and separated from the stage. Last year, they removed the garden's fencing to allow more freedom for those who like suds with their shows.
"We just wanted to create a better flow," Emmerling said. Without the beer- garden fencing, "those enjoying a cold brew can still get more up-close and personal with the bands on stage."
Worries that beer drinking and families wouldn't mix evaporated after a run of trouble-free shows.
"We knew going into the first concert last season that if the new format proved to create any problems we would return to the beer garden format," Emmerling said. "We were fortunate not to really have any issues."
Most security problems generally come from "people passing by that don't know the event is free and try to jump the fence," Hawk said with a laugh.
The venue itself will look slightly different for the 2013 series. The city of Sacramento is finishing improvements to Cesar Chavez Plaza, which according to Emmerling includes raising the stage by 18 inches, relocating the Cesar Chavez Monument to I Street, adding tables and improving landscaping.
Construction is scheduled to be completed by the end of this month.
Drewski's, Krush Burger and Wicked 'Wich return as mobile food vendors, with downtown's Café Connection also joining the party and serving Caribbean fare.
"As we head into our 2013 season, we really want to build on the momentum we gained last year," Emmerling said. "We had very positive feedback on all the changes, so we're looking forward to bringing back all of the things people really liked, while still adding."
FRIDAY NIGHT CONCERTS IN THE PARK
When: 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays, May 3-July 26
Where: Cesar Chavez Plaza, 910 I St., Sacramento
WHO'S ON STAGE
May 3: Element of Soul, Musical Charis, They Went Ghost Featuring: DJ Epik
May 10: Middle Class Rut, Jonny Craig, Dogfood, I'm Dirty Too Featuring: RCK:RMX
May 17: Arden Park Roots, Syncro, Rasar, Live Manikins Featuring: DJ Whores
May 24: James Cavern, Iconoclast Robot, Rock N' Rhyme, DLRN Featuring: Heartworm and DJ Nate D
MAY 31: !!!, Exquisite Corps, Paper Pistols Featuring: Sam I Jam
June 7: Mumbo Gumbo, The Quinn Hedges Band Featuring: Tel Cairo
June 14: Infamous Swanks, Lesdystics, Avenue Saints, The Bar Fly Effect Featuring: DJ Shaun Slaughter
June 21: Mother Hips, Jackpot, The Old Screen Door Featuring: Roderick Mar Carpio
June 28: The Brodie Stewart Band, Nevada Backwards, The Carly DuHain Band, Big Trouble Featuring: DJ Rigatony
July 12: Zuhg, Joy & Madness, Harley White Jr. Orchestra Featuring: DJ Oasis and INKDUP on drums
July 19: Fallrise, Kill the Precedent, Restrayned, Fair Struggle Featuring: Z rokk
July 26: The Brodys, Hero's Last Mission, The Bell Boys, Humble Wolf Featuring: DJ Billy Lane
Concerts in the Park after parties
Don't tear off those wristbands when the music stops they're good for specials and discounts on food, drink, and more live music at these nearby locations on Friday nights after each CIP wraps up:
Assembly, 1000 K St.
Blackbird Kitchen+Bar, 1015 Ninth St.
Bulls Restaurant and Bar, 1330 H St.
Downtown & Vine, 1200 K St., No. 8
KBAR, 1000 K St.
Marilyn's on K, 908 K St.
Republic, 908 15th St.
Shenanigans, 705 J St.
Social Nightclub, 1000 K St.
Five non-headliners you won't want to miss
The big names are as big as ever this year, but the lineup is loaded with local talent. Make sure you're near the stage when these five start playing:
Formerly known as Random Abiladeze, this razor-sharp emcee has become perhaps the most recognizable face of Sacramento's underrated hip-hop scene. You never know where he might pop up at a small club with a DJ, playing an acoustic set, with a live band, or lending guest rhymes to locals such as Element Brass Band or the Nibblers. (May 17)
What organizer Jake Desrochers describes as a "harder-hitting Portishead," this group is a beautifully intense collaboration between drummer and electronic composer Ira Skinner (an annual participant in the Sacramento Electronic Music Festival) and vocalist-keyboardist Juliana Lydell, whose ethereally powerful voice could bend scrapyard metal. (May 31)
These Placerville natives flirted with mainstream success during the height of Sacramento's Americana revival movement in the early 2000s. The group amassed a sizable following by creating a dusty, narcotic sound that triangulated Creedence Clearwater Revival, Neil Young and Wilco. They ended a three-year hiatus with a gig in San Francisco in December, and will return to Sacramento for their first show in more than 3 1/2 years. (June 21)
The Carly DuHain Band
It's been written that Carly DuHain evokes a Janis Joplin-like vibe while belting it out in barrooms across Sacramento and it is absolutely true. DuHain and her band of ruffians take the sticky-floored saloon and cheap bourbon route to soul- and blues-tinged rock 'n' roll with combustible results. (June 28)
Kill the Precedent
There are plenty of folks who mute the TV during the Super Bowl halftime show. Kill the Precedent would rather smash the set. This band annually hosts Super Bowl parties at the Blue Lamp, and uses the extended halftime for a live performance of their teeth-gnashing electro metal that has made them a sleeper favorite in Sacramento's hard-rock scene. (July 19)