If all those Counting Crows, Deep Purple and Lady Antebellum billboards and ads around town haven’t clued you in already, the two casinos nearest to the Twin Cities have doubled down on their outdoor concert offerings this summer.
Treasure Island Resort & Casino and Mystic Lake Casino Hotel each got more ambitious about their bookings to try to attract summer concert crowds. They booked so many summer shows, in fact, they left the Minnesota State Fair with pickings slim enough to choose the Spandex-clad cover band Hairball — ironically, a casino staple — for one of its Saturday night grandstand concerts. (Casinos have an advantage over other music venues, since they can make up losses on ticket sales via gambling revenue.)
The upcoming offerings at Treasure Island include the Deep Purple and Judas Priest twofer, Kid Rock, Lady A with Darius Rucker, and good ol’ Nickelback. Mystic Lake has hosted big gigs by Kesha and Pitbull and has more to come with O.A.R., Reba McEntire and the Counting Crows tour with Live.
But the uptick wasn’t just in bookings, at least not at Treasure Island. The Red Wing complex has built a large amphitheater with 9,400 permanent seats and a large, general-admission grassy area. It’s the kind of legitimate concert amphitheater that the Twin Cities area should’ve had decades ago — though perhaps somewhere closer to town with better road access.
We were there for the inaugural concert two weekends ago with ZZ Top and John Fogerty and were pleasantly surprised by the new place. A night later, we took in the Kesha concert at Mystic Lake and were not all that impressed.
Not that we had much affinity for the previous years’ outdoor setup with folding chairs laid atop grass, but the casino in Prior Lake is now mostly hosting general-admission concerts with no seats. (McEntire’s show will be an exception.) Word came from the Pitbull show that many women in the crowd — clearly unaware of the outdoor setup — dressed up for the occasion in fancy party dresses and high heels, which wound up sinking into the grass.
Love them or hate them, you’d better get used to the casinos for outdoor concerts. And you should know what you’re getting into, too. Here’s a comparison and a rundown of each venue.
Layout and design
Treasure Island: The large new spread of concrete-laid seats is set off to the western side of the casino’s newest hotel tower, in a fenced-off area that’s not exactly scenic but functional. Seats are set on a very gradual but effective slope, aren’t at all cramped and are easily accessible via wide aisles. The grassy area behind the seats — open to folding chairs and blankets — has something of a drive-in movie theater vibe.
All told, the new venue can host more than 16,000 people, itself an impressive trait.
Mystic Lake: Set on a more steeply sloped patch of grass between the casino’s RV park and golf course, the layout here doesn’t really deserve to be called an amphitheater. Concert staff spray-paints the grass with white stripes to create “aisles.” Otherwise, it’s essentially just a big field that holds about 10,000 people. Foldable chairs and blankets are allowed only toward the back.
For the more dance-oriented shows, the lack of seats up front might be an asset. Even if you don’t want to dance, though, you’ll do plenty of moving and grooving trying to swat away mosquitoes.
Winner: Treasure Island by a mile.
Parking and traffic
Treasure Island: This is still T.I.’s Achilles heel. The casino’s location by the Mississippi River and surrounding swamp areas means there are very few ways in and out by car; all roads essentially lead to the two-lane Prairie Island Boulevard. Once you finally get there, most of the concert parking is done in a big, dark field that seems destined for mud-pit status should a heavy rain come down. But hey, it’s free parking!
All told, concertgoers can expect to be in traffic an hour or more before and after each concert — unless you want to hang out inside the casino and arrive early or stay considerably later.
Mystic Lake: With lots of roads in, a sizable on-site parking garage and many other free, paved parking areas, this is where the casino in Prior Lake shines brightest. For the Kesha concert, it took all of five minutes to pull into a parking space from the main road (Mystic Lake Drive), and just a three-minute walk from there.
Winner: Mystic Lake by a mile; or however far the line of cars usually is outside Treasure Island.
Acoustics and production
The two venues are about equal in this department, each faring pretty well. Neither facility has a permanent stage, but the temporary setups are quite large, sturdy and hi-fi, with large video screens flanking both sides. Acoustics were B-plus in both cases, too, although Mystic’s sound was a little echoey, and Treasure Island’s could have been louder in the back on the grass.
Amenities and concessions
Treasure Island: It’s surprising that construction of a big permanent amphitheater did not also include permanent restrooms, but there were plenty of portajohns on opening night. Concessions were plentiful, too, including several food trucks, a Corona party tent and numerous beer huts, with basic beer choices and pretty quick lines.
The one big glitch at the ZZ Top/Fogerty concert was a crazily understaffed security entryway, where fans (many of whom waited in traffic lines getting there) had to wait well over a half-hour to get through metal detectors. Word is the casino will improve this.
Mystic Lake: It’s all portajohns here, too. There’s no Corona party tent or much of anything, really, besides ugly, cardboard-like beer huts, where the selection was also lacking and the lines were disastrously long. At least things went quick getting through security.
Winner: Treasure Island, but it could do better, too.
Sunday: Nickelback ($41-$89)
Aug. 10: Steve Martin and Martin Short ($55-$149)
Aug. 11: Kid Rock (sold out)
Aug. 31: Lady Antebellum and Darius Rucker ($30-$325)
Sept. 15: Amy Schumer and Friends ($46-$112)
Sept. 20: Deep Purple and Judas Priest ($30-$90)
July 27-29: Great Midwest Rib Fest with LeAnn Rimes, WAR, Foghat (free)
Aug. 11: Reba McEntire (sold out)
Sept. 7: O.A.R. and Matt Nathanson ($40)
Sept. 16: Counting Crows and Live ($45)