Beer in hand, music lover Laura Horner of St. Paul surveyed the scene Monday night at Canterbury Park. She was evaluating a new outdoor concert site at the Shakopee horse racetrack, an alternative to the Minnesota Zoo's longstanding Music in the Zoo series.
"The zoo is much more intimate, and the sound is better there," she said. "But we're happy to be back. Any [live] music is good music."
Music at Canterbury Park kicked off Monday with Old Crow Medicine Show, a veteran Grammy-winning band that is equal parts bluegrass, country and folk — and wholly entertaining. The two-hour performance was an unqualified winner. And Canterbury offered some advantages over the zoo in Apple Valley, which is not hosting concerts for the second year in a row because of uncertainty over COVID protocols.
Parking is free vs. $7 at the zoo. Canterbury has a full-service bar (and wait staff for VIP) as well as an air-conditioned grandstand with nicely appointed restrooms. Some Canterbury seats are at picnic tables, some at tall table tops, some in the grandstand.
The stage, set up on the track facing the grandstand, is deeper and wider than the one at the zoo's Weesner Family Amphitheater. Canterbury accommodates about 2,000 people, nearly 500 more than the zoo. Some seats have backs, some don't; the zoo's backless benches require concertgoers to squish together.
However, the Canterbury setup lacks the intimacy and sightlines of the zoo. Like the State Fair grandstand, the one at Canterbury is much, much wider than the stage, and there are no giant video screens to benefit concertgoers who aren't close to the performers.
Aside from the bars, concessions were limited to two food trucks, one selling hamburgers and the other selling burgers, cheese curds and pulled pork sandwiches. Neither offered beverages, and there was about a $4 price disparity on the burgers between the trucks. So much for planning.
The Canterbury series is being presented by the racetrack and Sue McLean & Associates (SMA), longtime promoters of Music in the Zoo. While the zoo series usually offers about 30 annual shows, SMA is staging just a half-dozen or so concerts at Canterbury, including En Vogue on Friday, Steve Earle on Saturday and Robert Cray Aug. 16.
Old Crow frontman Ketch Secor was acutely aware that he was kicking off the series at a horse track in Shakopee. The charmingly goofy motormouth made mention of that several times along with the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Babe the Blue Ox, walleye and polka, and he joked about Wisconsin and North Dakota. He obviously did his homework as did other musicians who, in improvised sung verses, rhymed Willy Wonka with Lake Minnetonka and "far" with Amy Klobuchar.
While they can be as corny as "Hee Haw," the high-energy group is as instrumentally talented as any award-winning bluegrass band, as topical as your favorite folk singer and as entertaining as any CMA entertainer of the year. They may not capture any vocal prizes, but Old Crow keeps you smiling for a nonstop two hours. And they even prompted a fan rush into an unplanned dance space in front of the stage just 30 minutes into the concert.
Old Crow was hard to resist. It wasn't just the fancy pickin' and nonstop humor, but the versatility, as the mostly acoustic group delivered a slow blues, a two-step, a waltz, a polka (with a melodica instead of accordion) and plenty of bluegrass hoedowns along with John Prine's "Paradise" and ZZ Top's "Tush."
While their hit "Wagon Wheel" inspired a giant singalong, two new topical tunes truly hit home — the Prine-like country ditty "Quarantined" and the toe-tapping country blues "Medicine Man," which deals with health care and politics.
By night's end, concertgoer Horner and her friend Mike Ferstle were very pleased. They had made their way from the back of the grandstand to join dancers in front of the stage.
"You can't do that at the zoo," he said of the sizable dance space.