As the Tom Petty cover band Free Fallin' played "Don't Come Around Here No More" in the background, Shannon Grady explained why he finally came back to Taste of Minnesota again after an eight-year absence. "I come for the music more than anything," said the 38-year-old Minneapolis resident, a fan of headliners Staind (Thursday night) and Judas Priest (Friday). "The bands are better this year." A boost in star power was the first big goal for the new owners of Taste of Minnesota, which continues today with fireworks and Elvis Costello.

Taste's new three-man ownership team, including a software businessman and an attorney, took the reins 10 months ago hoping to revive one of the Twin Cities' most time-honored/worn events -- which even they said was "stale" and "running on auto-pilot" after 26 years.

To reach their goals, though, they had to change the one attribute that has kept Taste the No. 1 entertainment fallback for Twin Citians stuck in town over the 4th of July: It's not free to get in anymore. Not exactly, anyway.

Many of the 15,000-plus people who followed the lingering aroma of funnel cake and the booming sounds of heavy metal to Harriet Island in St. Paul on Thursday and Friday had to pay a $10 fee at the gate. The new charge does not apply before 3 p.m., nor to anyone over 55 or under 12 -- and it comes with $10 worth of food/drink tickets.

"That'll only get you like, one sandwich, but you'd probably spend that anyway," said Robert Danaher, 25, of Hastings, who arrived early to avoid the $10 charge.

Willernie resident Hannah Wallenstein did not mind paying it, which was by far the most common reaction Thursday.

"I still look at it as a free concert," she said, arriving with two girls, ages 4 and 14 (one got in free, one cost the extra $10)..

After paying to enter, though, Taste '09 appears stubbornly unchanged.

While organizers nearly doubled their talent budget this year to land bigger-name headliners, they mostly stuck with the white-guy classic-rock mold (interpret "mold" either way), including Sunday's headliner, Bret Michaels.

The food -- despite talk of returning to the days when Taste hosted well-known local restaurants -- is more in line with county-fair fare, including corn dogs, mini-doughnuts and turkey legs, with very little available under $5. Among the 10 new vendors are a watermelon stand, a sub shop, a calzone-on-a-stick place and one selling drinks flavored like Jolly Rancher candies.

The uncanny mish-mash of merchandise booths includes Rosie B's Yarn Marionettes, Lena's Palm & Card Reading and -- for those looking for pewter dragon or Viking figurines (Mom?) -- Fantasy World.

And despite talk about lowering prices, beers are still between $5 and $8, once you count the $3 charge for an alcohol wristband. Organizers are expecting between 35,000 and 50,000 people each day.

New owners, new challenges

"There were a lot of things we wanted to accomplish but ran out of time," said new Taste co-owner Andy Faris, standing next to his golf cart not far from the 1-800-BASEMENT trailer.

To complicate things further for Faris and his partners, the economy's downturn forced several sponsors, including a casino that was a major backer, to pull out of Taste this year.

"It might not be the best year to be trying this," Faris said, "but then again it might be. People need cheap entertainment more than ever. We're certainly cheaper than a concert at the Xcel Energy Center."

A new sound system that Faris said cost twice what the old one did -- was a clear improvement. The new owners also paid for a JumboTron screen next to the main stage.

But the JumboTron is more of a necessity now, thanks to another add-on: a $50 Gold Circle seating area, which was half-empty on opening night while fans lined the barricades around it.

"I liked the first-come, first-served seating arrangement better," said Rebecca Trost, of Eden Prairie.

John Janis, 59, of St. Paul, was one of many Taste regulars who recognized the improved production value: "It sounds great. It makes me wish they had more concerts down here now."

There is less music overall at Taste, though. The second stage, now located under a giant tent, hosts only three bands a day. The new Taste-meisters hope to add more stages in the future, including one on neighboring Raspberry Island. They're pledging to offer a wider array of music, too.

"Next year, for sure," Faris said.

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658