Better Than Ezra plays to a crowd at the Brookhaven Cherry Blossom Festival.

It started small, but kept growing. 

Conceived in 2015 by the late District 1 Councilwoman and former Mayor Rebecca Chase Williams, Brookhaven’s first Cherry Blossom Festival originally offered road races, arts and crafts. The Pet Parade and a show headlined by rock ‘n’ roll legends The Coasters and The Drifters..

“There’s truly something for everyone,” Williams said at the time.

It attracted a crowd of a few thousand people. But in the years since, the acts have gotten bigger and the crowd has grown to more than 40,000. That puts Brookhaven’s hometown music-and-arts fest among the metro area’s big players.

“I can’t turn on the radio without hearing a song by someone who’s played at the Cherry Blossom Festival,” Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst said.

Internationally known acts such as Smash Mouth, the Spin Doctors, the Wallflowers and the Romantics have appeared at the festival 

In 2021, following two years of festival cancellations due to the COVID pandemic, the Brookhaven Cherry Blossom Festival Summer Block Party filled the Brookhaven MARTA Station parking lot with concertgoers clamoring to see acts like the Revivalists, Better Than Ezra, Rick Springfield and Collective Soul.

This past spring, with an estimated 40,000 concertgoers in attendance with Joan Jett & The Blackhearts as headliner, the 2022 Brookhaven Cherry Blossom Festival was the second biggest music festival in Georgia, behind only Shaky Knees.  “And that’s just because they had one more day than we did,” Ernst said jokingly

In 2018, the city began contracting with Splash Festivals to run the artist market, a move that expanded the arts portion of the festival from a handful of vendors on a grassy area of Blackburn Park to more than 100 artists’ tents lining Rebecca Williams Way – a road that winds through the park.

A second partnership put the Brookhaven Cherry Blossom Festival music lineup on the concert map in the Atlanta area. “Our partnership that began with Live Nation in 2018 was the linchpin,” Ernst said.

An avid music fan, Ernst said when he thinks about how concerts can bring people together, he always goes back 20 years in his mind. He said a New Year’s Eve 1999 party put the idea in his head of bringing free music to the masses. 

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst at the Cherry Blossom Festival.

“I was at a private party where Duran Duran played. I remember thinking: it’s not outrageously expensive to hire some of these acts. Doesn’t everyone deserve to see them without going broke?”

Ernst said that when he took office in 2017, he needed to decide how to move forward with the festival, then in its third year. “I think the founding City Council wanted the festival to be at least a little bigger than area events, such as Lemonade Days in Dunwoody. So, I needed to decide, ‘are we going to move forward with the festival, and how much bigger?’” 

Ernst said he saw the Cherry Blossom Festival’s potential that year when the headliner was The Sweet Tea Project, a side band led by Ed Roland of Collective Soul. “The Sweet Tea Project was the turning point for me; I saw what this could be,” Ernst said. 

That led him to call legendary concert promoter Peter Conlon, president of Live Nation Atlanta, to see if he could help. “I thought, ‘I might as well ask.’” Conlon agreed that Live Nation would book acts for the festival pro bono along with Andrew Hingley, a Live Nation talent booker and co-owner of Eddie’s Attic.

Hingley, a Brookhaven resident, said the Cherry Blossom partnership is a symbiotic relationship, explaining that while Live Nation may not charge the city a booking fee, the arrangement still helps the company as it arranges artist’s tours.

“There are certain periods of the year when artists may be looking for somewhere to play, but everything’s booked,” he said. “It’s great to have the Cherry Blossom Festival to offer them; it helps build a relationship with those artists.”  

Hingley said  he enjoys the collaborative nature of the festival. “To be honest, it’s one of my favorite things to do. Everyone is excited about it; everyone has a stake in it. And, if something doesn’t go well, we don’t point fingers. We get on the phone and figure out how to do that thing better next time.”

The music featured at the Cherry Blossom Festival tends to be a mix of up-and-comers along with legacy acts. “I think that’s where we hit the sweet spot,” Ernst said.

“We can afford to bring in these acts that would normally cost someone hundreds, if not thousands, to see. But we’re giving the festival to the community free of charge. We also invest in stage production. To these artists, it’s not a municipal event. It’s a concert, and they need to sound good. Organizers from other festivals have signed some of our newer acts from the side of the stage.”

A noteworthy up-and-coming act that opened for The Wallflowers at the 2019 festival was The Marias. Since then, the jazz-infused pop band has gone on to top the Billboard Adult Alternative Airplay chart and was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical. Other emerging acts include Morgan Wade and Brendan Abernathy.

Hingley said the festival is firmly on the concert map. “We now get calls from acts wanting to be in it. It’s been such an evolution, and the last few years have just been home runs.”

Ernst agrees. “I think Rebecca would be proud. She was a believer in doing things the right way, and I think we’ve hit the mark with the Cherry Blossom Festival,” Ernst said. “Besides, at the Summer Block Party, Ed Roland referred to his band as the ‘house band.’ What other young festival in a young city can say that?”

Ann Marie Quill

Ann Marie Quill is a former Associate Editor for Reporter Newspapers.