Of all the years for We Fest organizers to press "pause" on their mega-sized country music festival, last year was definitely a good one. Every festival had to postpone its 2020 plans in the end.
On the downside, though, the yearlong hiatus — planned before anyone had even heard of COVID-19 — put We Fest a full year behind its competitors in lining up performers for 2021.
"A lot of the other festivals around the country just rolled over their 2020 lineups into 2021," explained Matt Mithun, the festival's majority owner. "So we had to play catch-up."
Thus, Mithun was all too happy to have a new partner that happens to have the biggest footprint of any company in the concert industry: Live Nation.
It's thanks in large part to Live Nation that We Fest was able to cobble together a strong lineup of headliners for Minnesota's longest-running and typically biggest music festival. Its new era begins Thursday with Florida Georgia Line and continues through Saturday with Dierks Bentley and Blake Shelton.
Mithun and Live Nation hope to correct a downturn at We Fest that began around 2014.
That's the year an East Coast radio company, Townsquare Media, bought the festival from its original co-founders for around $21.5 million. Townsquare sold it five years later for less than half that. Attendance had also waned, often less than half of the 50,000 people per day who attended the festival in its prime.
"They tried their best, but in the end I just don't think they were meant to be [event] operators," Mithun said of Townsquare.
Mithun, who also owns Somerset Amphitheater in Somerset, Wis. — no, he's not planning to move We Fest there, but he does hope his Live Nation partnership will help bring other events there — took over Soo Pass Ranch from his father, Ray Mithun Jr.
While his dad was mainly involved in We Fest as the property owner, Mithun wanted to take over the festival itself, if only to save it.
"This festival has been a huge part of my life," he said, citing an extra-long Willie Nelson performance in 1997 as his all-time favorite We Fest moment.
"Meeting Dolly Parton as a kid was quite a thrill, too," he no-duh added.
Mithun also noted how big a deal We Fest is for the Detroit Lakes area. He and Live Nation have worked to involve more locals in the event's planning and management. That's one reason they announced in the fall 2019 that the festival would take a year off.
"We just really needed to regroup and reassess everything," Mithun said. "Little did we know."
COVID-19 threatened to force another year off, and it is still a concern on organizers' minds. Among the ways they're addressing it are adding extra portable toilets and hand-sanitizer stations, offering face masks on-site, and tightening security backstage for the artists.
The damage that COVID-19 inflicted on the area's tourist-driven economy made local residents and business owners all the more eager for We Fest to rebound in 2021, said Carrie Johnston, president of the Detroit Lakes of Chamber of Commerce.
"I think it's a win-win having a big dog like Live Nation, but also having the local connection with Matt and his family," said Johnston, who was already seeing signs of the festival's imminent return last week.
"We're starting to see cowboy hats around town."
The new ownership also earned a vote of optimism from Randy Levy, the veteran Twin Cities concert promoter who was part of the festival's original management team.
"We Fest's better days are here again," Levy said. "I think a really professional and highly experienced team has been assembled, between Live Nation and site ownership. It will be a fun return."
Here are five changes to look for in 2021 as the new We Fest crew aims for its comeback.
1. Live Nation's heavy presence. It already can be seen in the lineup, featuring many artists who have exclusive deals with the company, such as Florida Georgia Line and Bentley. Live Nation's massive network also bodes well on the production and marketing end, and tickets and camping passes are being sold to fans through Front Gate Tickets via Ticketmaster, which is owned by Live Nation.
2. Reconfigured audience viewing areas. During the year off, Mithun said, his team significantly spruced up the place. Foremost was removing a lawn-chair area on the east side of the bowl area to move standing-room general-admission fans closer to the stage.
Next year, they plan to build a new pit area in front of the stage for fans want to get extra-close to certain acts.
3. Return of old, familiar faces and sites. One criticism of the previous ownership was that it did not hire staff from the community, including a lot of workers who'd been there for many years. "We hope to bring back that friendly, local touch, which really starts with the staffing," Mithun said.
Also back this year is the Ranch House, the saloon next to the Barn Stage, which had been closed some of the previous years.
4. Fans can come and go as they please. Another oft-voiced complaint in recent years was the rescinding of come-and-go parking privileges, which encouraged campers and other attendees to stay on-site instead of heading into town for meals, liquor or other supplies. This obviously was as unpopular with music fans as it was with Detroit Lakes businesses.
5. New faces on stage. We Fest's long line of music discovery continues. Most of this year's headliners could be seen in the midday slots earlier in their careers, as could Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, etc.
Newcomers this year include Lindsay Ell, a protégée of BTO's Randy Bachman; hunky band of brothers High Valley and "More Hearts Than Mine" singer Ingrid Andress. And both LANCO and Maddie & Tae have been teetering on greater fame for several years.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658
When: 2 p.m.-midnight Thu.-Sat.
Where: Soo Pass Ranch, Detroit Lakes, Minn.
Headliners: Florida Georgia Line (Thu.), Dierks Bentley (Fri.), Blake Shelton (Sat.).
Tickets: $99 per day, $169-$975 three-day pass, $65-$435 for camping.
More info: WeFest.com.