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Styx, Uncle Kracker, Seether top Stars and Stripes fest

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

Although Styx vocalist and keyboardist Lawrence Gowan is Canadian, he says he’s loved the Fourth of July since he was a child.

“I remember seeing Jimmy Cagney in ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy,’ or hearing George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ and there’s just something about it,” Gowan says. “The spirit of America is just undeniable. These are probably really corny references, but they still hit me every time.”

Gowan will be at the center of one of Metro Detroit’s biggest annual Independence Day celebrations this year when Styx headlines the 10th annual Stars and Stripes Festival at Freedom Hill on July 1. (Gowan notes that he’ll also be “quietly celebrating Canada Day,” which is the same day as the Styx performance.) The legendary progressive-rock band is one of three major headliners at the free event, running June 30-July 3. The country-rocker and Kid Rock collaborator, Uncle Kracker, will perform July 2 and hard-rock superstars Seether will play July 3.

Styx is, from left to right, Chuck Panozzo, Ricky Phillips, Todd Sucherman, Tommy Shaw, James “J.Y.” Young and Lawrence Gowan. Styx performs July 1 on the Budweiser stage.

“We believe we have the strongest headliners we’ve ever had in 10 years,” says Joe Nieporte, president of Funfest Events that produces the festival.

Gowan won’t be the only Stars and Stripes headliner who hails from beyond America’s borders. Seether lit up American rock charts in the early and mid-2000s with tracks like “Broken” and “Fine Again,” but the band actually hails from South Africa. However, bassist Dale Stewart says he feels “all but completely Americanized at this point.” Stewart now lives in Los Angeles and is currently awaiting approval of his U.S. citizenship.

“Then I can really take part in these things and not feel like the weird South African guy at Fourth of July weekend,” he says. “But … I really embrace the American culture and the holidays. I’ll take any excuse to drink too much and light things on fire.”

Although Seether has never been known for being particularly political, the band delved into the hot-button topic of American police violence last year with its video for the single “Nobody’s Praying for Me.” The video depicts a police encounter from multiple perspectives. Stewart says the band’s intention was to encourage viewers to “learn the facts” about such situations and “make up your own mind.”

Seether performs with the Winery Dogs and Ezra, on the Budweiser National Stage at 6:30 p.m. July 3.

Stewart says his and his bandmates’ time in South Africa has given them a unique perspective on American issues.

“When people ... complain about America and how things have been pretty crazy here lately, I say, ‘It could be worse,’ ” Stewart says. “The president of South Africa (Jacob Zuma, who South Africa’s High Court in April said should face 783 charges of corruption, fraud and racketeering leveled against him but dropped in 2009) is the biggest crook in recent years.”

Festival activities

Stewart and Gowan have more in common than just their foreign citizenship. Both also have been forced to reconcile advancing age with the rigors of touring life. Although the Seether members are only in their late 30s and early 40s, Stewart says he and his bandmates are “making more intelligent decisions” while remaining “extremely motivated and passionate about what we do.”

Although he’s more than two decades older than Stewart, Gowan says a similar motivation and passion have carried him through. The 59-year-old Gowan, who has been with Styx since 1999, is still well known for climbing atop his keyboard and jumping off it during the band’s classic anthem “Sail Away.”

“The price is paid a little more severely the following morning,” Gowan laughs. “That’s the best way I can describe that. In the moment onstage, honestly, I’m more in touch with the 15-year-old in my spirit than I am in touch with the guy who’s been around for over five decades.”

In addtion to its big-name headliners, the festival also will spotlight favorite local musicians, including Critical Bill and Nina & the Buffalo Riders, all weekend on its Pavilion Stage. The festival has brought on new contractors to present the largest fireworks show in the event’s history (scheduled for July 3), as well as the festival’s largest carnival yet. An art fair, a dog show and BMX bike shows are also scheduled.

The Stars and Stripes Festival attendance has held steady at 150,000 visitors in the event’s 10-year history.

The BMX shows, produced by Wyandotte-based Rise Above Entertainment, return for another year. Owner Ron Thomas said the company’s 14 bikers perform their X Games-style stunts in 800 to 900 shows a year around the world, and the Stars and Stripes Festival is always a highlight for the crew.

“It’s not often you get thousands and thousands of people who are lively showing up to every performance,” he says. “You do at Stars and Stripes, though. It’s a good time.”

The festival has drawn consistently high attendance since it debuted in downtown Mount Clemens in 2007. Nieporte says crowd tallies have held steady around the 150,000 mark throughout the festival's history. Those whopping numbers are due in part to the fact that the event remains accessible to the festivalgoer who, in Nieporte’s words, “literally doesn't have a dollar in their pocket.” There are charges for concessions, carnival rides and parking, but admission and all other attractions are free. A free shuttle is also available from the nearby Meijer’s store lot at Utica Road.

As the festival approaches its 10th anniversary, Nieporte says there’s no single element of the event that he personally enjoys most.

“I love it all,” he says. “It’s really the whole fact that you’re just turning an empty field into something spectacular that people of all ages enjoy.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

Stars and Stripes Festival

June 30-July 3

Budweiser National Stage:

Styx

with Led Zeppelin 2 and Heaven’s Wish

7 p.m. July 1

Uncle Kracker

with Josh Gracin and Jocaine

7 p.m. July 2

Uncle Kracker takes the Budweiser National Stage with Josh Gracin and Jocaine at 7 p.m. July 2.

Seether

with the Winery Dogs and Ezra

6:30 p.m. July 3

Pavilion Stage:

June 30

4:15 p.m. Jackstand

5:30 p.m. Madhouse

6:45 p.m. Nina and the Buffalo Riders

8 p.m. Dead In 5

9:15 p.m. Critical Bill

July 1

3 p.m. The Static Dial

4:15 p.m. Rock N Roll Prep School

5:30 p.m. Blackmail

6:45 p.m. Highballs

8 p.m. Siva

9:15 p.m. Under the Covers

July 2

3 p.m. Allie Louise

4:15 p.m. Rock N Roll Prep School

5:30 p.m. George Aneed

6:45 p.m. Lisa Mary Band

8 p.m. Rye Whiskey

9:15 p.m. Dave Hamilton Band

July 3

1 p.m. Phoenix Rising

2:15 p.m. East Side Elvis

3:30 p.m. Sexy Monster

4:45 p.m. Wrecking Crue

6 p.m. Short On Shame

7:15 p.m. Chit

Cost: Free

Where: Freedom Hill County Park, 14900 Metropolitan Parkway, Sterling Heights

Call: (586) 493-4344

Information:funfestevents.net