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Q&A: X-Fest originator looks back, ahead

You never know what might happen when you put on a mammoth music festival.

Chris Ricci has seen it all and then some in his decade running the Xclamation Festival in downtown Modesto.

The event, which usually features about 50 bands, has drawn an attendance ranging from 7,500 to 15,000.

Ricci has dealt with undependable security crews, poorly designed beer gardens and overexcited heavy metal fans. He also has had the pleasure of seeing big-name national acts come to his hometown.

As he prepared to open the 10th X-Fest on Saturday, Ricci sat with The Bee to share some of his memories, talk about what's worked and what hasn't, and discuss his goals.

Q: What was your favorite year of X-Fest?

A: Last year, because I got to have some of my personal favorite bands on the show — Pepper, Expendables. There was something for everybody.

Simple Plan was there, and they were great. It was exactly what X-Fest is supposed to be — a little bit hip with some bands maybe that aren't on the radio that are big, and some great bands that are well known nationally as well.

Q: Tell me about the first X-Fest, in 2000.

A: The first year of X-Fest was pretty amazing. So many good and bad things happened. It was so spontaneous. We went from two days before the event, having no tickets sold, to the day of the event, having a line of 5,000 people trying to buy tickets.

That was back when (Modesto band) Flying Blind was starting to blow up and just before they got their record deal with Universal. Their performance that night was amazing — watching the crowd erupt when they were on the stage and (bass player) Andrew Franca coming out in a thong.

We hired this security firm out of the Bay Area, and about halfway through the event, they had enough, so they all left. I talked to the police, and my recollection is that the police called in every police officer to come in.

We ordered this beer booth from St. Louis that was built into a semi-trailer truck. So the X-Fest crowd comes in and it was set up so you walked in the beer garden, picked up your beer from a table and paid cash as you walked out. Instead of going to the cash register like you were supposed to, people would drink it there or they would take the beers, walk to the edge of the tent, hand them to their friends and not pay. It was just insane.

It didn't take long for that to get a little bit out of control, so we ended up shutting down the beer at 9 (p.m.), which made any person who wanted a cocktail have to go to the bars and restaurants, which had no idea what X-Fest was and were not prepared in any way, shape or form for the event. So they didn't have enough of anything, so everyone sold out of every single thing they had everywhere. There was not a drop of refreshment left downtown.

Q: Tell me some other X-Fest memories.

A: Second year was an interesting year for X-Fest. We did 80 bands that year on 10 stages. My goal was to do 100 bands, but it didn't work at all. I noticed this pattern of the people congregating down the middle of J Street just kind of hanging out avoiding all the stages because the bands I had booked were not popular enough. The crowd just wasn't into it. The next year, it wasn't about how many bands we had, it was about bringing in good bands.

Another X-Fest memory was the year Built played (2001) — one of the last years the State Theatre was involved with the event. We had all the hard-rock bands in the State Theatre. Built at the time was really one of the hottest hard-rock bands in the valley, a really talented band. They did one of the most inspired performances I ever saw. They were just completely off the hook. They went into their hit song, and the crowd just went bananas.

They (State Theatre officials) weren't set up with an open floor where people could dance and get into it. Some of the guys that were dancing started leaning on the seats — the State Theatre wasn't nice like it is now — and some of the seats were falling apart. You've got the fans throwing the cushions and the seats all over the theater, and the theater manager is calling me going absolutely nuts.

We let them finish that song and we turned on the house lights, we turned off the (sound system) so they couldn't make any more noise and everyone walked out and left. The next year, we had jazz in the theater.

Q: What was the year you think X-Fest hit its groove?

A: Five years ago. We finally got the map right. We did so much research with the merchants down here. Those that don't want to be involved, how can we make it a little more comfortable for you? Maybe we can't make you 100 percent happy, but maybe I can make you 10 percent happier.

Listening to what the merchants think is one of the main reasons why X-Fest is still happening. I think it helps that I'm down here a lot.

Q: When was the point X-Fest changed from where you had to sell it to national bands to bands wanting to come to you?

A: X-Fest is a pioneer for Modesto in the sense that I think we're still writing that story. We're still trying to get people to understand that Modesto's a great city and that you need to be here because you're going to have a great time. The word isn't out yet, and it won't be for another five to 10 years, but it will be.

But there are bands that keep coming back. DJ Skribble has been in Modesto three times in the last three years and that's because they like it. We find that once a band's played Modesto, they're going to come back to Modesto because Modesto is a really fun place to play.

Q: What was the worst year of X-Fest?

A: The worst year was the year it was 130 degrees (actually 111 degrees, in 2006). People were moving kind of slow, it was very eerie. People have never stopped talking about it.

Q: How do you feel about where X-Fest is right now?

A: I'm thrilled with where X-Fest is right now. I think it's an event that's maturing. I think we've been able to make it safe but at the same time keep an edge. I think we are doing a good job of penetrating the community so people know it's not out of control. It's fun, it's a night when you can go hang out.

Q: What is the biggest misconception about X-Fest?

A: The biggest misconception about X-Fest is that the city of Modesto pays for the cost of police, the cost of firemen, the cost of the ambulances, the cost of city personnel. X-Fest covers every dollar of expense of this event.

Q: Will there be another 10 years of X-Fest?

A: I'm planning on doing X-Fest indefinitely. It's my baby, it's what I do.

Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at lmillegan@modbee.com or 578-2313.

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