By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
California has Coachella. Tennessee has Bonnaroo. And Chicago has recently played host to both Lollapalooza and the Pitchfork Festival. But for Twin Cities music lovers, the only option for enjoying the full-on festival experience is to either spend a full day on the road or buy a plane ticket.
In recent years, the economy has hardly been kind to large-scale concert producers in the region. The jam-band-heavy 10,000 Lakes Festival in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, and the Rothbury Festival in Michigan have both gone on hiatus, and the Taste of Minnesota declared bankruptcy despite tying in sponsorships from four commercial and public radio station in the Twin Cities last year. The day festival Soundset has continued to thrive at Canterbury Park thanks to the stellar reputation that Rhymesayers has earned in the hip-hop community, but when Lilith Fair tried to bring its roster of all-female acts to the same space the ticket sales were so poor that the event was downgraded to an indoor arena.
All of which begs the question: Can the Twin Cities concert market support a major festival? And could that festival sustain itself long enough to grow into an influential event that could entice a major act like Radiohead—who haven't been to Minneapolis since they were touring for OK Computer—to make a stop in flyover country?
Both the village of Somerset, Wisconsin, and the owners of the newly purchased and redesigned Somerset Amphitheater are hoping the answer is yes. A mere 45-minute drive from downtown Minneapolis, Somerset is directly across the Wisconsin border from Stillwater and was the site of successful heavy-metal festivals like Edgefest, Ozzfest, and X Fest during the '90s and early aughts. In 2005, the 40,000-capacity Float-Rite Park amphitheater underwent a management change and started veering toward bankruptcy, and after a couple of failed country festivals the property shut down and was auctioned off by the county sheriff for $700,000 last July.
A year later, the amphitheater is being reborn, starting with last weekend's inaugural SoundTown festival. The property has been purchased by 34-year-old real-estate entrepreneur Matt Mithun, who has poured money into a series of renovations that included merging the grounds with 100 acres of neighboring farmland to turn Somerset into a one-stop camping-and-concert spot.
Though the turnout for SoundTown was a mere fraction of the venue's capacity (attendance was estimated to be between 4,000 and 5,000), it gave attendees the chance to comfortably roam the acres of space and get a feel for the layout of the venue, which last weekend included the main stage, two side stages, a row of food and clothing vendors, and plenty of open lawn for lounging and soaking it all in. The biggest draw at the festival was headliners the Flaming Lips, and the band flooded the amphitheater with an onslaught of sights and sounds that transformed the experience from a run-of-the-mill outdoor show to a full-on freak festival.
As expected, the crowd swelled to its largest for Saturday night's closing set, with the entire main area in front of the stage packed with fans who were eager to help Wayne Coyne surf above their heads in his giant clear plastic space ball. Coyne didn't waste any time pulling out that notorious prop, either, inflating it and rolling it off a runway and into the crowd while the band was playing its very first song. Each song was presented like a movement in a symphony and assigned its own set of antics and props: confetti cannons, giant hands that shot lasers, a megaphone that poured smoke out into the crowd, giant balloons filled with more confetti (and that seemed to somehow float in slow motion above the crowd), psychedelic visuals played on a giant hemispherical screen, and a video camera mounted on Coyne's microphone that projected live footage of his sweaty, wild-eyed face. In other words, it was a perfect act to break in Somerset's new stage.
There are no definite answers about the venue's long-term success at this point, but one thing's for sure: Even before all the renovations have been completed, the infrastructure is in place for gigantic, venue-defying acts—think U2, Radiohead, Bjork—to perform comfortably for tens of thousands of fans. The new permanent stage is an enormous five-foot-tall concrete slab that could comfortably host the entire Polyphonic Spree collective, a stage that immediately dwarfed many of the smaller four- and five-piece rock acts that graced it last weekend. And with a massive PA that pumped the sound to the back of the property and out into the neighboring campground, there's no question that a packed house could be happy in Somerset's environs. The question at this point seems to be whether the amphitheater's management can book acts big enough to fill the space.
"It's the first year, let's hope this goes on for a long time," Zach Coulter of Solid Gold said toward the beginning of his band's mid-afternoon set Saturday, which ended up being one of the many highlights from the weekend. That sentiment seemed to be shared by the concertgoers at SoundTown, who chose to politely overlook the paltry attendance to focus on the potential of such an ambitious event. And with more than half of the 30 acts on SoundTown's bill hailing from the Twin Cities, it created a supportive, celebratory community vibe that was distinctly Minnesotan.