Milwaukee has the old Marcus Amphitheater, where its famous Summerfest is held. Duluth has the scenic Bayfront Festival Park, where Bob Dylan pointed from the stage toward his early childhood home. Even Moorhead and Mankato have sizable, cool outdoor venues.
Meanwhile, here in the Upper Midwest’s largest metro area, we have a bird-show plaza at a zoo and a big empty lot next to a brewery for seeing concerts outside.
Don’t get me wrong — the Minnesota Zoo’s small amphitheater and Surly Brewing’s Festival Field have their own unique charms. But they’re hardly the legitimate, full-scale amphitheater that a concert market the size of Minneapolis-St. Paul deserves.
Especially after this wickedly long and mean winter, the joys of live music are accentuated for Minnesotans by an outdoor gig. There really is no better place to enjoy a concert here than outside on a warm night.
First Avenue representatives — who book the Surly concerts — fully recognize this shortcoming. They are hoping to build an 8,000- to 10,000-person amphitheater along the Mississippi River just north of downtown Minneapolis. The project has been in the works for two years, and is moving ahead pending City Council approval and further community engagement.
The casinos in our area have been feeding the demand for outdoor gigs, too. In recent years, Treasure Island and Mystic Lake have upped the array of concerts at their “amphitheaters” — really grass fields with folding chairs outside their complexes. Treasure Island has been especially aggressive with bookings this year.
Until a real amphitheater is built in the Twin Cities area, these venues will have to do. Here’s a guide to where and when to see outdoor concerts outside in our area in the meantime, beyond the usual festivals, block parties and State Fair offerings.
Surly Festival Field, Minneapolis
It ain’t pretty, but it works. Housed in the once-industrial Prospect Park area just east of the U — where Surly opened its $35 million destination brewery in 2014 — the venue really is just a field, one that holds more than 5,000 fans. (surlybrewing.com.)
2018 shows: Spoon and Grizzly Bear (June 30), Sylvan Esso (July 20), Courtney Barnett (July 21), Gary Clark Jr. (Sept. 8).
Pros: Easy access to light rail, bike trails and Surly beer.
Cons: Portajohns, no seating area and no permanent infrastructure.
Minnesota Zoo’s Weesner Amphitheater, Apple Valley
The late concert-booking queen Sue McLean got music fans flocking to the home of the bird show 25 years ago, and it remains a popular and workable place for concerts. The sloped venue holds only about 1,500 people, which makes it feel intimate but limits its bookings. (suemclean.com/zoo.)
2018 shows: The 28-gig run kicks off June 2 with Los Lonely Boys and Ozomotli and includes Pat Benatar.
Pros: Scenic setting, permanent toilets and concessions, convenient for fans in the south suburbs.
Cons: Cramped, backless seats, pricey tickets and lots of (uncaged) insects.
Treasure Island Amphitheater, Welch
The Red Wing casino can host about 14,000 people in its makeshift, ultra-basic venue, which usually features a reserved seating area in front and a large general-admission grass area. (ticasino.com).
2018 shows: John Fogerty and ZZ Top (June 29), Vince Neil (July 2), Nickelback (July 22), Steve Martin and Martin Short (Aug. 10), Kid Rock (Aug. 11), Lady Antebellum and Darius Rucker (Aug. 31), Deep Purple and Judas Priest (Sept. 20).
Pros: Gambling and large hotel complex on site, lawn chairs allowed.
Cons: Traffic congestion, Portajohns, poor concession offerings.
Mystic Lake Amphitheater, Prior Lake
The bigger casino has the smaller “amphitheater,” which holds about 8,000 fans but is otherwise a similar low-frills, chairs-on-grass layout. (mysticlake.com.)
2018 shows: Barenaked Ladies and Better Than Ezra (June 1), Kesha (June 30), Pitbull (July 3), Reba McEntire (Aug. 11), O.A.R. (Sept. 7), Counting Crows and Live (Sept. 16).
Pros and cons: Same as Treasure Island’s “amphitheater.”
Grand Casino Amphitheater, Hinckley
The big casino north of town was way ahead of the others: It’s been hosting outdoor shows for two decades and has something of a real amphitheater, with a large covered stage and room for about 10,000 concertgoers. (grandcasinomn.com.)
2018 shows: Toby Keith (July 13), Brooks & Dunn (July 20), Rocktember metal fest (Sept. 6-8).
Pros: Partly covered, permanent seats and bathrooms, plenty of free parking.
Cons: A tad dated, with parking-lot-like aesthetics and limited concessions.
Vetter Stone Amphitheater, Mankato
Well worth the drive, this unique riverside venue by Mankato’s historic downtown strip is lined with giant limestone seating tiers courtesy of the company it’s named after. We love it. (verizoncentermn.com.)
2018 shows: Three Dog Night (June 15), Gary Allan (June 22), Turnpike Troubadours, Old 97s, Shooter Jennings (July 14).
Pros: Excellent layout, fun vibe, decent concessions and facilities, lawn chairs usually allowed (if you don’t have a reserved seat).
Cons: It can get a little buggy by the river.
Hilde Performance Center, Plymouth
Something of a hidden gem, this midsize amphitheater behind City Hall has long been used for orchestra concerts and community events but started hosting rock shows in the 3,000- to 5,000-person space only in 2014 after a $1.7 million overhaul. (suemclean.com/hilde.)
2018 shows: Alas, no rock gigs are confirmed this year.
Pros: Permanent stage and amenities, lots of grass space for blankets and chairs.
Cons: Only a handful of concerts are booked in a good year. Non-Plymouth residents have a hard time finding it (the venue and/or Plymouth).
Bayfront Festival Park, Duluth
Simply put, there’s no better outdoor venue in the state than this one, with the Lake Superior harbor to the front, the city’s hillside behind and ample room in between for up to 20,000 fans. Too bad there aren’t more big-name concerts there. It’s big-time fun. (bayfrontfestivalpark.com.)
2018 shows: Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Coolio (July 6), Trampled by Turtles (July 7), Bayfront Reggae Fest (July 21), Bayfront Blues Fest (Aug. 10-12).
Pros: Great setting and layout, walkable from downtown, ample grass, free for children, and sometimes a giant ore boat goes by for added production value.
Cons: Fans from the Twin Cities often forget to bring a jacket. (#NeverForget: Wilco in sleet, Sept. 4, 2007.)
Also recommended (but farther away)
Bluestem Amphitheater in Moorhead and the soon-to-be-made-over Big Top Chautauqua in Bayfield, Wis., are also terrific and sizable outdoor venues with excellent bookings this year, including Nathaniel Rateliff, Joan Jett and the Avett Brothers at the former and Brandi Carlile, Jackson Browne and Buddy Guy at the latter.