We’ve all heard the adage that to be especially happy in your profession, ensure you’re doing something you’re passionate about. While Gary Jacob, founder and producer of Abbey Road on the River (AROTR), didn’t expect that he would produce the world’s largest Beatles-inspired music festival, he always had a passion for the band and their music.

“I first saw The Beatles on ‘Ed Sullivan’ in 1964 like so many people of my generation,” he says. “I guess they were always my favorite band through the years.”

In 1984, the 20th anniversary of The Beatles’ invasion of the United States, Jacob says he “backed into” music festival production. At the time he had his own restaurant in Ohio and converted it for two weeks into a Beatles restaurant. This initial dabbling in event production led to his work on music festivals in the greater Cleveland area.

abbey road
abbey road

As part of the lineup for these shows, Jacob would often hire several Beatles look-alike bands and found that they were as well-attended, if not more popular, than the headliners. “That always stuck with me,” he says.

Years later, in 2002 he was hired to produce a grand opening for a venue. Based on his various Beatles-related experiences over the years, Jacob suggested a Beatles festival theme. With the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame being so close, it seemed like a natural and exciting fit. Abbey Road on the River was born, and continued in Cleveland in 2003 and 2004.

In 2005, however, the festival moved to Louisville. One of Jacob’s clients lived in Louisville and suggested the city would be very receptive to a Beatles-inspired music festival. Jacob himself had, in the late 1980s, met with Mayor Jerry Abramson and discussed some business possibilities, but the stars didn’t align until after the millennium.

Abbey Road on the River at Big Four Station Park
Abbey Road on the River at Big Four Station Park

“AROTR was just doing OK in Cleveland,” Jacob says. “We were competing against the Cleveland Indians, the Cleveland Browns and the Cavaliers for sponsorships.” Cleveland was also one of Live Nation’s biggest markets, which made it harder for Abbey Road on the River to break through.

Louisville had a responsive tourism bureau and mayor’s office, as well as a river, so the festival name could remain the same. Plus, the city wanted AROTR to take place on Memorial Day weekend as a signature event, which delighted Jacob. “Fifth Third Bank agreed to be the title sponsor after hearing a 10-minute pitch,” he says. “When everything came together, we said ‘We’re moving.’” Despite some negative press in Cleveland about the relocation to Louisville, he felt like it was the right decision.

For several years AROTR took place at the Belvedere, but by 2015 Jacob and his team began to consider a change of venue. There were some structural issues that concerned him, with the weight of the stages and trucks on the Belvedere. Plus, similar to Cleveland, competition grew from sports and other music events in downtown Louisville.

“We knew sponsorships in Louisville were going to be harder to acquire,” Jacob says. “Jeffersonville called us and we just fell in love with it.” In 2017 AROTR was held at Big 4 Station Park, a site that has been developed and offers plenty of restaurants, parking, and space for festival attendees.

Now, producing a music festival in Kentuckiana while living in Cleveland is no picnic. Jacob estimates he has driven back and forth at least 100 times, which clocks in at about 70,000 miles (he could have traveled across the globe a little under three times at that number). “I know every exit on 71,” he says. Despite the distance, throughout his time producing AROTR, he has developed a great network of Louisville and Jeffersonville event professionals who make the process much easier.

Aside from travel, one of the challenges of producing a music festival can be keeping things the same for individuals who love routine, while also freshening things up for attendees who don’t want to see the exact same thing every year. “We’ve always worked on adding fresh elements, but we’ve had major headliners going back to 2012 when we first started bringing in national classic rock hall of famers,” he says. “What stays the same is the music of The Beatles. It’s so timeless. They are as important today as they were 60 years ago.”

One of the most critical areas of focus is keeping the event family oriented and affordable, because young people are the future of AROTR. “We cannot keep this thing fresh if all of our customers hit retirement age and have to start doing other things with their savings instead of traveling to Jeffersonville,” he says. Jacob and his team are committed to this family focus, with a policy of free admission for anyone aged 21 or under.

Crescent Hill resident Steve Bennett and his young-adult son, Tanner, share a love of Beatles music and regularly attend AROTR. Like Jacob, Steve’s first encounter with The Beatles was in 1964 on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

“One remarkable aspect is its diverse intergenerational attendees – a testament to the music’s ability to transcend time,” Steve says. “For me it’s a nostalgic journey, yet surprisingly present.”

His son echoes this enthusiasm. “I attend because I’m a huge fan of The Beatles,” Tanner says. “The setup and bands are always amazing.”

Sheila Quire of Jeffersontown and her husband, Jack, try to make it to at least one day of AROTR every year. “Abbey Road brings in some of the best Beatles tribute bands in the world,” she says. “My favorite is the Rigbys from right here in Kentuckiana.” Even more than the music, the event is just a good time. “Everyone is happy and friendly,” she says.

Aside from a fantastic lineup, which this year includes Dean Torrence from Jan & Dean’s Beach Party, the Royal Guardsmen and the Cyrkle, attendees can expect comfort and security, which are integral aspects of the festival. “We keep the event comfortable, and I’m not sure there is another music festival in the area where there is as much space and comfort for people,” Jacob says. “I know our security is the best.”

AROTR runs from May 23 to 27 and offers numerous ticket packages depending on how many days you’d like to attend. Jacob sums up what attendees can expect. “They are going to be immersed in this amazing music in this wonderful venue, hopefully with lots of sunshine, great food, great vendors and a playground for the kids,” he says.

Go to arotr.com for more info.

Comments 1

  1. Cheryl Neal says:

    Such an Exciting time of year!! for Southern Indiana!!!
    Peace, Love, Music!!!
    Let’s GoSoIN.com

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