Twenty-five years ago, Steven Schmidt staged an outdoor concert in Mayo Park and summer Sunday nights in Rochester haven’t been the same since.
That first Down by the Riverside concert (by Asleep at the Wheel) grew into a series that soon became the place to be and to be seen, with music fans from all walks of life gathering each week in the park. As crowds sometimes reach 20,000 or even 25,000, Down by the Riverside has become one of the city’s most amazing success stories.
“I hoped it would get this far,” Schmidt, executive director of Rochester Civic Music/Riverside Concerts, said. “I didn’t think I’d still be here. When I joined the city, I was at that point in my career where I said, ‘Five years.'”
That was Oct. 2, 1989. Obviously, Schmidt, who is the Post-Bulletin’s arts and entertainment person of the year for 2015, stuck around a bit longer.
“There’s been good work to do here, there’s still good work to do,” Schmidt said.
As head of a four-person staff, one of the few city-funded music departments in the state, Schmidt oversees not only the planning for each season’s Down by the Riverside, but also the Riverside Live! indoor concert series, and the booking of music acts for each week of the popular Thursdays on First and Third summer market.
“We negotiate about 100 contracts a year,” Schmidt said. It’s likely that nobody in town has their fingers on as many entertainment offerings as Schmidt does on an annual basis.
His involvement in the arts doesn’t stop there. Last year, Schmidt launched his long-delayed second career as a singer/songwriter/recording artist with the release of his first album, “The Road.” Accompanying that, he performed about three dozen concerts at venues in the Upper Midwest.
“I’ve rediscovered the adventure of being a touring musician in my own right,” Schmidt said. “It’s humbling. The last year has been a wild ride.”
And while he insists on a wall of separation between his day job with the city and his own music career, Schmidt can see how the latter informs the former.
“I would hope people find it cool that the guy running the music department for the city is a musician himself,” Schmidt said. “It has given me an appreciation of how hard the people we hire have to work. It lends a different perspective to how I do the job.”
Actually, what most people probably really care about is who Schmidt and his staff have lined up for next summer’s 25th anniversary season of Down by the Riverside. No announcements yet, but Schmidt did say five of the seven Sundays are already booked. And, despite construction at Mayo Civic Center, Down by the Riverside will be held in Mayo Park in 2016.
After that? “Mayo Park just makes sense,” Schmidt said. “I hope it will be our home going forward.” But, he added, “We have talked about contingencies.”
For now, though, Down by the Riverside, with its mix of genres, introduction of new artists and concerts by popular classic rock acts, is a near-perfect mix of right time, right place and right plan.
“It’s a community celebration,” Schmidt said. “People come every week because they can’t miss it.”