It's a daunting task. Filling 11 nights at the State Fair grandstand with a diverse, compelling lineup is about as challenging as winning a blue ribbon in a Great Minnesota Get-Together craft or cooking competition. Some years, you fare better than others.
This won't be a blue-ribbon year for the grandstand. Here's a rundown:
REBA MCENTIRE & RONNIE DUNN
Freed from her sitcom commitments, the queen of country is back at the fair, promising to do many of her No. 1 songs from the past four decades. Dunn, freed from Kix Brooks, is promising to do material from his impressive 2011 solo debut.
- 7:30 p.m. Thu 8/25 • $45 & $55
DEF LEPPARD & HEART
This formula always works at the fair -- package two classic-rock oldies who still have their chops. Def Leppard still adrenalizes fans, and Heart's Ann Wilson has maintained her Zeppelinesque vocal power for 35 years.
- 7:30 p.m. Fri 8/26 • $41-$61
BIG TIME RUSH
Maybe there will be a stage rush for this Prefab Four, sort of the Monkees of Nickelodeon. Their self-titled debut is generic boy-band material that sounds two decades out of date.
- 7:30 p.m. Sat 8/27 • $35
CARNIVAL OF MADNESS
This six-band hard-rock fest features a trio of second-tier groups: Theory of a Deadman, those Nickelback protégés from Vancouver; the post-grunge quartet Alter Bridge, essentially Creed with new singer Myles Kennedy; and Southern rockers Black Stone Cherry.
- 5 p.m. next Sun 8/28 • $30 & $35
HAPPY TOGETHER TOUR
AARP cards not required for admission to this package of 1960s hitmakers: the Turtles ("Happy Together"), the Association ("Cherish"), the Grass Roots ("Midnight Confessions"), the Buckinghams ("Kind of a Drag") and Mark Lindsey of Paul Revere & the Raiders ("Kicks").
- 8 p.m. Aug. 29 • $18
This will make two consecutive years at the grandstand for Donald Fagen, who shared a band with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald last year. Fagen and partner Walter Becker are not expected to play a Steely Dan album in its entirety, as they have done in other cities. But they have enough material and a crackerjack large band to deliver it with finesse and sophistication, punctuated by twisted humor.
- 7:30 p.m. Aug. 30 • $45 & $55
TOBY KEITH & ERIC CHURCH
In his first Twin Cities concert since 2008 at the fair, the country superstar will offer bravado, chauvinism and even ballads for lovers. Country climber Church's "Chief" is one of the stronger Nashville releases of 2011.
- 7 p.m. Aug. 31 • $39-$59
The soon-to-be ex-Mr. J.Lo is a magnetic performer, a bilingual superstar with an emotional, elastic tenor and an irresistible stage manner.
- 8 p.m. Sept. 1 • $50-$60
"A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION"
Garrison Keillor has mentioned retirement, so could this be his last time at the grandstand? The fair-loving raconteur always gives a longer show at the Great Minnesota Get-Together, forcing his editors to work overtime before its broadcast on Saturday.
- 7:45 p.m. Sept. 2 • $42 & $29
At the Basilica Block Party last year and Xcel Energy Center in '08, these nerdy modern-rockers proved to be a big-gig band. Frontman Rivers Cuomo finally seems comfortable in his own skin. Opening are local heroes Motion City Soundtrack.
- 7:30 p.m. Sept. 3 • $35
AMATEUR TALENT CONTEST FINALS
They competed in their counties and then at the fair's bandshell. See who wins the open, teen and preteen competitions.
- 8 p.m. Sept. 4 • free
MAROON 5 & TRAIN
Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine elevated his profile and reputation as the winning coach on NBC's "The Voice." Train's Pat Monahan won't have to take a back seat, though, because his band's "Hey, Soul Sister" has been ubiquitous for the past couple of years. Matt Nathanson opens.
- 6:30 p.m. Sept. 5 • $37 & $47
Morris Day & the Time: Day still has compelling comic presence, and the band, featuring original drummer Jellybean Johnson and keyboardist Monte Moir, still finds those classic Minneapolis Sound grooves. (8:30 p.m. Thu.-Fri., bandshell. )
Ricky Skaggs: In the 1980s, he was one of country's biggest stars. Now the mandolin man is hooked on bluegrass, carrying on Bill Monroe's traditions and tunes. (8:30 p.m. Sat.-next Sun., bandshell.)
Don Felder: If the ex-Eagles guitarist's playing is as searing as his 2008 tell-all autobiography, "Heaven and Hell," then this should be one of those nights. (8:30 p.m. Aug. 29-30, bandshell.)
Dr. John: A recent inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the piano man is a one-man encyclopedia of New Orleans music -- not to mention his own hits "Such a Night" and "Right Place Wrong Time." (8:30 p.m. Sept. 2-3, bandshell.)
Junior Brown: No one mixes clever humor and hot guitar licks better than this deep-voiced Texan. This guitar master plays everything from honky-tonk and Hawaiian to blues and bluegrass. A guaranteed good time. (3:30 & 4:45 p.m. Sept. 2-3, bandshell.)
The Quebe Sisters: If Bob Wills had married one of the Andrews Sisters and had three daughters, the girls might have sounded like these fiddling, harmonizing sisters from Fort Worth, Texas. With their western swing, vintage country and bluegrass, the Quebes promise a swingin' good time. (10:30 & 11:45 a.m. Aug. 27-28, bandshell.)
The McClymonts: The three singing sisters have grabbed a bunch of awards in their native Australia. Will they become the best Aussie country export since Keith Urban? Their slicked-up Dixie Chicks sound has U.S. potential. (10:30 & 11:45 a.m. Sept. 4-5, bandshell.)