Taking it to the River

REVIEW Harriet Island was a fine site for a world-class music festival. But future River's Edge fests need to up the ante on talent.

It boasted unbeatable summer weather, top-notch audio and visual production, many nifty diversions and doodads, and an agreeable layout and setting. Now all the ambitious River's Edge Music Festival needs is a better lineup -- one that's worth spending 10 hours (or two days) on St. Paul's Harriet Island. Or 6 to 10 bucks on a beer.

This weekend's inaugural rock bonanza felt more like a concert by each day's headliner than a true, mosaic-like festival. As groundwork-laying goes, though, it was a solid start.

On Saturday, psychedelic and harrowing crunch-metal band Tool treated more than 20,000 fans to a Cliff's Notes set of its signature tunes. Each song was lit up with a wow-inducing arsenal of lights and video, and with the festival's own dramatic backdrop: the city skyline, a reddish crescent moon and even a mayfly swarm on the river.

Sunday, maybe 25,000 fans turned out for the climax: nearly three hours of music by the feel-good kings of outdoor venues, the Dave Matthews Band. It took the stage 20-some minutes late, but connected instantly with its horn-accented funk.

As festival settings go, we'd rank Harriet Island above those of the biggest "urban" fests, including Chicago's Grant Park (home to Lollapalooza) and Austin's Zilker Park (Austin City Limits Festival).

But attendance came up short, with the total reaching perhaps 45,000. That means promoter Live Nation probably lost more than $2 million in what one official called "an investment year." (It signed a five-year commitment to the city.)

There were more than two dozen other bands and plenty more enjoyable performances. You couldn't find much more colorful acts than the Scissor Sisters or Flaming Lips. The former turned the far-removed Raspberry Island stage into a truly far-out affair with its retro soul-pop disco tunes while the Lips brought their full psychedelic circus.

Gazing downtown, Lips frontman Wayne Coyne warned, "There are people in those apartments and buildings thinking St. Paul is such a nice, quiet town. We're here to interrupt their day."

Aside from those bands and '90s radio staple Sublime, name-brand recognition dropped off as quickly as the sobriety level Saturday night. That wasn't entirely a bad thing. The fest offered many pleasant discoveries, from Baltimore rap/romp princess Rye Rye to Georgian grunge-boogie rockers the Whigs to Mexico City's rowdy techno-punk trio the Mexican Institute of Sound.

To rise to the level of a Lollapalooza or Austin City Limits, River's Edge needs more marquee names, however. That shouldn't be a problem. Talent booking started late in the game in December, pending the city's approval of the fest. Next year, organizers will not only have more time to plan, they also should have a good reputation to build upon.

A few more observations:

Silent Disco is a big chill

It took a while for the much-ballyhooed Silent Disco to catch on in a remote, shady area of Harriet Island. The bit featured cordless headphones (free with a $10 deposit) and a chance to switch channels between two DJs on stage. But the novelty wore off quickly. The booming bass of electronic dance music got lost in the tinny headphones, and so did the communal vibe. Next year: Save this for late nights only.

Where's the (non-processed) beef?

Instead of the restaurant-level flavor that festivals like Austin City Limits or New Orleans' Jazz Fest are famous for, concession offerings hewed mostly to a stale, county fair menu. A handful of healthier food trucks were tucked away in a corner of the fest, but the sit-down Seven restaurant was a nice touch. Next year: More trucks, fruits and veggies, and restaurant stands in better sites -- and some ice cream, please.

Local flavor on stage

A few local bands got to play to big crowds, particularly hypno-electronic rockers Poliça and punky power-poppers Motion City Soundtrack. Poliça debuted several strong songs to go along with its thundering "Leading to Death." Motion City inspired audience sing-alongs with old favorites while making a strong case for the climactic new gem "Timelines." Next year: Maybe the Silent Disco area could be a local-music stage by day.

About that Tool set

River's Edge organizers' promises of a bigger, better, bolder kind of rock fest than what the Twin Cities have seen before were proven in 75 minutes flat by Tool.

In its only concert of the summer, the Los Angeles quartet pretty much stuck to its best-known songs in an abbreviated set, which had to be held off till 8:45 p.m. (Matthews went on a little after 7 p.m.!) Lingering daylight stymied the band's visual trickery at first, but the opening tune "Hooker With a Penis" was freaky enough without the creepy video accompaniment. "Stinkfist" set the crowd on fire three songs in, and then that's when the real show began.

"Either this acid is really strong, or there was just a juggler on stage," singer Maynard James Keenan said after "Forty-Six & 2," where the myriad eye candy indeed included a guy twirling metallic objects. Throw in the fog machines and laser lights, and the rest of the set was nothing short of jaw-dropping.

Chris Riemenschneider: 612-673-4658 Twitter: @ChrisRstrib Jon Bream: 612-673-1719 Twitter: @jonbream

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