Stand on any corner inside the Minnesota State Fair — whether it’s at Carnes Avenue and Clough Street down by the sheep and poultry barn or at Underwood and Murphy up by the pet pavilion — and chances are you’re going to hear music being played.
There’s music being performed in bars and cafes all over the fairgrounds, in addition to the seven free stages that the fair’s own staff books with music. There’s music at the senior center, the education building and the DNR’s outdoor park. This year, there’s even music from the most famous Minnesotan of ’em all being played on repeat inside the newly purple-tinted Horticulture building.
On some corners you can hear music coming from multiple directions, a blurry sensation that’s sort of the aural equivalent of riding the Zipper at the Mighty Midway. On Friday, I stood near the corner of Cooper and Judson and could hear Louisiana zydeco master Chubby Carrier blended with the tropicali lounge band the Intoxicats and the heavy-metal music piping out of the haunted house.
That was at 4:50 p.m., and I was only about halfway through my 13-hour day/experiment of enjoying nothing but music at the Great Minnesota Get-Together. I took in 18 acts total, plus about a dozen more in the daily amateur contest.
Oh sure, I ate a lot, too; I’m not that dedicated to my job. But even a lot of my food stops were within earshot of someone singing a song. Twice, in fact, I stomached Jimmy Buffett songs while filling my tummy.
Here’s an account of the day.
10:33 a.m. / Café Caribe
The sign that hangs over one of the open garage doors outside the Caribbean-themed bar and grill proudly declares, “Live music daily, 10:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m.” Sure enough, fairgoers streaming in through Gate 10 just after 10:30 could hear Minneapolis twang-rocker Jim Staley strumming away on “Drift Away,” the great Dobie Gray song with the not-so-great distinction of briefly making Uncle Kracker famous.
“I wanna get lost in your rock ’n’ roll and drift away,” seemed like a fitting lyric for Jason from Burnsville, who didn’t want to give his last name because he was sitting there drinking one of the new Fulton Orange Push-Up Pop citrus beers that early in the day.
“I was already ready for a break from all the running around,” he said.
11:40 a.m. / Dino’s Gyros
How early is too early for dueling pianos? Cal Spooner and Jim Steinworth seemed to get the answer to that question as one of the biggest restaurant patio spaces on the fairgrounds was only half-full of people only halfheartedly singing along to songs seemingly made for barroom singalongs, despite the duo’s best efforts to prompt a more excited scene.
Spooner: “Well it’s bad, bad… who?!”
Mild audience participation: “Leroy Brown.”
Spooner: “Baddest man in the… where?!”
Mild audience participation: “Whole damn town.”
12:30 p.m. / Minnesota DNR Stage
A small group of toddlers is trying to imitate Kim Roe’s clog dancing on stage with her old-timey bluegrass/folk group the Roe Family Singers, but the soft, thick grass in the Department of Natural Resources’ oasis-like fairground space doesn’t offer for the same kind of clopping sound under the tykes’ feet. Our recent Star Tribune profile of the Roe Family dubbed them the “hardest working band of summer,” and they certainly lived up to the title at the fair on Friday. They played five sets at the DNR stage over the course of eight hours.
1:20 p.m. / Schell’s Stage, West End
You could tell the singer/songwriter on stage was a State Fair vet by the way she dropped her name into her cover of a David Allan Coe hit. For oft-gigging local musicians like her, playing the fair is a great way to get in front of new local audiences who might come see them perform one of the 353 other days of the year.
“You never even called me by name — which is Sarah Morris, by the way,” she sang.
Opened five years ago as part of the West End makeover, the Schell’s-branded Schilling Amphitheater has become a go-to spot for local live music lovers. Even the ever-expanding crew from Minneapolis’ most legendary rock club is putting its mark on the stage this year with two “First Avenue Goes to the Fair” shows Friday and Saturday.
After her first of three sets, Morris shared only one complaint — “Getting here on time with all our gear through traffic is always an adventure,” she said — but didn’t hesitate to declare, “This is my favorite gig of the year.”
1:44 p.m. / Dino’s Gyros
Sorting through the requests written on slips of paper handed up to him at his piano, Cal Spooner announced with a vague wince, “We got a lot of Billy Joel songs here.”
Nope. It’s still too early for dueling pianos.
2:35 p.m. / Leinie Lodge Bandshell
After opening with the Jimmy Buffett and Alan Jackson hit “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” — which he dedicated to the guy who walked in front of the stage with two beers in hand — Nashville songwriting veteran Mac McAnally turned to a batch of songs he wrote for bigger stars.
“This is what I call a medley of my children’s college funds,” he said, going through a checklist of hits by groups who’ve played the fair’s grandstand over the years, including Alabama (“Old Flame”), Sawyer Brown (“Thank God for You”) and Shenandoah (“Two Dozen Roses”). Audience members who never heard of McNally realized they knew his work well.
3:05 p.m. / Giant Singalong
In the shadow of the SkyGlider’s last stretch along Machinery Hill, a dozen or so kids stepped up to the rows of microphone stands that faced a giant video screen counting down to the beginning of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.” What followed was a burst of whoops, screams and manic, monotone singing so bad it could be used for covert torture operations.
“It’s pretty much like this all day with the kids,” said an amused Danny Sigelman, who was working inside the Giant Singalong’s DJ booth, where the playlist is predetermined. “And the evening’s more lubricated adult crowd doesn’t sing much better.”
3:20 p.m. / Ramberg Senior Center
With its strong air-conditioning and rows of rocking chairs, the senior center might be the most comfortable indoor space at the fair; which makes it both good and bad for the bands who perform there.
“This is a dancing song,” one of the members of the a cappella quartet the Fairlanes announced before “I Saw Her Standing There.” The only one who danced, however, was a woman twirling her toddler granddaughter.
4:30 p.m. / Leinie Lodge Bandshell
As the audience members who danced in front of the stage for the duration of his set finally sat down to rehydrate, Chubby Carrier walked off to the side of the stage looking like he’d barely broke a sweat.
“This feels like paradise to me,” he said of the 75-degree weather. He’s used to singing such bayou classics as “Walking to New Orleans” and “Don’t Mess With My Toot-Toot” under much swampier conditions.
The temperatures weren’t the only thing Carrier raved about: “The atmosphere at this [bandshell] is so much fun,” he said. “I feel like I’m playing my own backyard.”
4:55 p.m. / Minnesota Public Radio stage
After a rough week of backlash over the ousting of popular morning DJ Brian Oake, the crew at 89.3 the Current used their second afternoon broadcast at the fair to reiterate one of the things they do best: promoting Minnesota music. They invited that night’s Schell’s Stage headliners, R&B/funk band Nooky Jones, to play a few songs and talk about their upcoming album release party at Paisley Park, a gesture much appreciated by the band.
“It’s all great exposure,” said keyboardist Kevin Gastonguay, who laughed at the suggestion that playing two different fair stages in one day was an easy twofer.
“The guy driving our van [from the West End] didn’t really know where he was going and got stuck in traffic. So we just got out and booked it to get here on foot.”
5:20 p.m. / Schell’s Stage, West End
After offering a great sales pitch of her talent — with a deep-bellowing voice that’s equal parts Big Mama Thornton and Bonnie Raitt — Twin Cities area blues singer Joyann Parker ended her last of three sets promoting something else.
“If you feel like you’re in total darkness, there are people and services out there waiting and wanting to help you,” Parker said in moving speech about her own struggles with mental health before her song “Home,” which she wrote after a friend’s suicide. The audience gave her a doubly deserved standing ovation at song’s end.
6:15 p.m. / Leinie Lodge Bandshell
A 15-year-old from Hastings named Aubrey sang Miranda Lambert’s “More Like Her.” A 17-year-old from Sartell named Andy picked out Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness” on acoustic guitar. Two teens from Minneapolis, Shane and Coco, did an elaborate dance routine to a mashup that included “Old Town Road” and Wham’s “Careless Whisper.”
So went the second night of the MSF Amateur Talent Contest, a popular attraction held nightly at the bandshell starting at 6 p.m. up until the big finale at the grandstand on Sunday night.
7:25 p.m. / The Hangar
A well-established Twin Cities musician who’s served as a sideman in the Jonas Brothers’ band, Ryan Liestman played to a tough crowd in the giant new beer hall on the newly renovated North End, now a popular spot at night for young adults mingling and drinking. He sang a series of soulful, reggae-infused original tunes — like a cross between Citizen Cope and John Mayer — over loud chatter. When he started up a cover of Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” though, audience members streamed onto the dance floor like it was feeding time in the swine barn, including a guy in a “Christ Saves” T-shirt who excitedly sang along to the ultra-horny lyrics.
7:55 p.m. / Giggles Campfire Grill
The members of All Tomorrow’s Petty seemed to be giggling among themselves as they waited for the cue from Wayne Wagner, who just finished singing “Sweet Caroline” on one of the two stages in the log-lined beer hall while they plugged in on the other.
“Thanks, Wayne!” co-leader James Diers yelled across the hall as Wagner ended and Diers’ band launched into “Listen to Her Heart.”
After a few more Tom Petty songs, a 40-something audience member asked me what the tribute band’s name is. Looking confused by the explanation of the moniker (based off the Velvet Underground song “All Tomorrow’s Parties”) and how the members all play in well-known Twin Cities groups, the gentleman simply responded, “I [bleepin’] love Tom Petty!” Good enough.
8:38 p.m. / Leinie Lodge Bandshell
Two songs into her second night at the fair, Belinda Carlisle reminded the standing-room-only bandshell crowd of her storied past as she delivered the 1984 hit “Head Over Heels” from her old band the Go-Go’s. Apparently, Carlisle herself needs some reminders of those days.
“Who remembers the ’80s?” she asked after the tune, prompting a hearty cheer. “Good, because I don’t.”
Part of a growing number of Gen X nostalgia acts taking over from the boomers as popular nighttime headliners at the Leinie Bandshell — R&B trio Tony! Toni! Toné! are there Friday and Saturday — Carlisle also served up reminders of her once-successful solo career via bubbly versions of “Circle in the Sand” and “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.” She didn’t seem entirely sure if she’s a full-time solo singer again or not.
“Last time I checked, I’m still in the band,” she said of the ever-tumultuous Go-Go’s.
10:05 p.m. / The grandstand
While it seemed hard to break away from his group’s tightly choreographed stage production — in which every high-five and backspin jump off a riser looked like it had been rehearsed — Jonah Marais of the boy band Why Don’t We finally got to explain why the night was so meaningful to him as he recounted his prior gig at the fair.
“I was an ice boy and I worked right over there,” said Marais, pointing toward the fair’s West End. A Stillwater native now living the dream in Los Angeles (full name: Jonah Marais Frantzich), he recalled, “I would sit and listen to acts at the grandstand and imagine that some day I could be one of them.”
Only in its third year as a group, Jonah’s quintet drew just about 5,500 fans, one of the weakest turnouts among grandstand concerts this year. Even the tired, old Happy Together Tour — with musicians nearly four times the age of the WDW boys — will probably draw more there on Monday night. But when the audience members at that show gasp and buckle at the knees, it won’t be because one of the band members pointed at them.
11:05 p.m. / Café Caribe
The sign out front doesn’t lie. After the fireworks ended behind the grandstand, the live music started back up at the bar stage that had been active since 10:30 a.m. It looked as if some of the audience members still on hand had been drinking the whole time, too, based on the hard time they had clapping on cue during the cover of Fitz & the Tantrums' sports-arena anthem “HandClap.” As off-kilter as the claps were, though, it seemed like an appropriate end to a mostly applaudable day at the fair.