Two negatives from last year’s Northern Invasion that will probably stand out in years to come: 1) Attendance dipped slightly in the metal fest’s third year, and 2) Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell delivered his third-to-last performance there before his untimely death.
Of course, Cornell’s passing will forever remain a tragedy, but organizers behind the western Wisconsin metal marathon did everything they could to correct that other lingering disappointment from 2017 — which is good news to Twin Cities metal fans in 2018.
“We really doubled down on talent this year to show that we want this thing to be big and long-lasting,” bragged Joe Litvag, senior vice president in AEG Presents’ Midwest office in St. Louis, which produces the event.
Set at the historically metal-leaning Somerset Amphitheater in Somerset, Wis., Northern Invasion’s 2018 roster should once again make it one of the area’s biggest music festivals this summer. About 25,000 fans are expected each day this weekend, and maybe more if the weather cooperates.
The two-day, three-stage, 40-band schedule includes enigmatic rocker Maynard James Keenan’s two cult-loved groups, A Perfect Circle and Tool, playing Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
Other names on the lineup include Avenged Sevenfold, Breaking Benjamin, Black Stone Cherry and Atreyu on Saturday, plus Alice in Chains, the newly remade Stone Temple Pilots, Black Veil Brides and Andrew W.K. on Sunday.
The revamped amphitheater just across the border — much easier to get to from Minnesota since the new St. Croix Crossing bridge opened near Stillwater last summer — was the site of many prior metal events of lore, including the old Ozzfests and 93X Fests. Northern Invasion has reclaimed the former tubing campground for black-clad Upper Midwest hard-rock fans, who find themselves craving some sun by early May, just like everyone else.
“You’ll see a lot of them arriving with their pale, pasty-white skin and leaving with a sunburn,” said Graham Swart, promotions director at 93X-FM, who made it to all three prior Northern Invasions.
“It’s kind of become the unofficial kickoff to summer for a lot of us,” Swart added.
Somerset Amphitheater owner Matt Mithun said he’s happy to have the metalheads back at his 160-acre venue near the Apple River, better known in prior years as the site for the electronic-dance/hip-hop festival Summer Set (canceled this summer after a six-year run).
“You don’t have an amphitheater this size in the Twin Cities, and even if you did it probably couldn’t be the kind of thing Northern Invasion is,” Mithun said.
It’s no secret that metalheads like to party. Somerset’s abundance of camping options suits that revelry, and it’s a big reason for Northern Invasion’s success.
After installing a permanent stage when he took over the property in 2011, Mithun also added hundreds more campsites and permanent amenities (read: real toilets and showers). That lessened complaints from Somerset residents, heard during prior metal fests. Said Mithun, “Most of the fans stay on site the entire weekend now.”
“It’s really a pretty laid-back, friendly bunch of people who treat each other well,” he added, laughing at memories of the year (2016) when weather felt more winterlike for the Invasion.
“They’re such a hardy crowd, they just made a big bonfire and cranked their music and still had a great time.”
A mold for metal fests
Just as there was plenty of metal history at Somerset, there was also a set formula for the festival’s promoters to follow.
Northern Invasion is just one in a chain of similar two-day hard-rock festivals that AEG Presents puts on around the country each year with Los Angeles-based metal promoter Danny Wimmer. Others include Rock on the Range in Ohio, Welcome to Rockville in Florida and Louder Than Life in Kentucky.
Many participating bands wind up playing several of these fests, building a whole tour around them.
“We saw a pretty big hole for an event like this near the Twin Cities,” said Litvag, citing metal’s relative popularity in the area while reiterating the long-term commitment to the Invasion.
“Metal and hard-rock fans get a bad rap in the industry, but the truth is it’s a very loyal audience that will come out through thick and thin for an event like this.”
Litvag also singled out the Twin Cities market as “one of the more progressive scenes musically,” he said, “so we push the envelope there a little more. There are more new bands at [Invasion], and a little more experimenting with the lineup than the other festivals.”
Booking Soundgarden for last year’s festival was an example of that edginess. The ’90s grunge heroes earned a rave reception, too, which added to the shock when local fans got news just five days later of Cornell’s suicide following his quickly spiraling addiction to prescription drugs.
“I’d seen [Cornell] perform a lot of times over the years, and I was struck by how spot-on he and the whole band were at this one,” said Litvag. “You’d have never known there was any trouble.”
“It was a total shock, because they sounded so good,” agreed 93X’s Swart, who said he makes a point of checking out newer bands at the Invasion in addition to older favorites like Soundgarden.
“Last year was a really good year where I saw some bands I hadn’t seen before and loved them.”
A fan from Hutchinson, Minn., who’s been to all three Invasions, Chris Bick said the people-watching sometimes outshines the music.
“There have been bands we loved, bands we didn’t, and we’ve always found a couple new ones to get into,” Bick said. “We always have fun.”