Grand Old Day, 6/1/14

Grand Old Day, 6/1/14
Photo by Tony Nelson

Grand Old Day
with Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, General B and the Wiz, White Iron Band, and Heiruspecs
Grand Avenue, St. Paul
Sunday, June 1, 2014

Grand Old Day was shaped, but not defined, by Sunday's overcast and rainy weather. Though the showers in the morning and early afternoon kept crowds slightly subdued, the festival still had plenty to offer. It lived up to its billing as the first rite of summer -- crowded, loud, over-the-top, and lots of fun for all.

See also:
Slideshow: The Faces of Grand Old Day 2014

My Grand Old experience began early. I live on Grand, so I was able to watch the parade from my front porch. There was a drum line, there was a hot air balloon basket spewing flames into the sky, there were bagpipes, there was U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. After listening to the incomparable Ramsey Middle School Marching Band play "Celebration" by Kool and the Gang, I began to walk down the avenue against the flow of the parade, like a salmon swimming upstream, toward the festival gardens at the eastern end.

Grand Old Day, 6/1/14
Grand Old Day, 6/1/14
Photos by Tony Nelson

The first event of the day was what fairs and street festivals are to many who attend: an eating contest. Specifically, Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. St. Paul's edition, held at Dixie's on Grand, was one of the qualifiers for the big dance on Coney Island on July 4. The winner would go on to face Joey Chestnut and the rest of the titans of competitive eating in the super bowl of the sport. Several of the competitors flew in from around the country to compete for a shot at immortality in the world of gastrointestinal strength.

It was part professional wresting, part colosseum spectacle, and as American as baseball -- I'm surprised they didn't begin the ceremony with the National Anthem. Instead, George Shea, the chairman of the Major League Eating group, kicked off the introduction with a well-placed dubstep music cue -- showing that the tendrils of that genre have reached further than we had previously imagined. Shea, who wore a trademark straw porkpie hat with a red, white, and blue ribbon to complete his summer suit, delivered a bombastic and tongue-in-cheek monologue to open the ceremony.

His imagery and delivery throughout the contest was marked by strong literary and biblical overtones. Hot dog eating is "sanctified by tradition and honored by time," Shea said, and the annual contest formed "the battleground on which God and Lucifer battle for men's souls." It set the tone perfectly for what was to follow: a self-aware spectacle so visceral and gluttonous that it would be grotesque to take it entirely seriously. At the same time, competitive eating can be serious business for those who take part, and there is sometimes money at stake, so a little bit of gravitas is warranted.

"When you get that full, it's the last thing you ever want to do again," said competitive eater Josh Miller, ranked 36th in the world by Major League Eating, from Montana by way of Denver. He took third in the contest, eating 19 hot dogs and buns. From watching the proceedings, I can believe it. This particular match went into a rare overtime. Both Yasir Salem of New York (ranked 12th in the world) and Steve Hendry of California (ranked 24th) downed 27.5 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. They both used the same efficient and unappetizing technique, eating multiple hot dogs at once, and then dunking the buns in water to make them go down easier. In the two-minute overtime, both struggled and seemed to still be neck-and-neck. "We may have a Roman Moment here," Shea said at one point near the end of the contest, foreshadowing what was to come.


Then... disaster. Right at the end of the 30-second chewing period immediately after the overtime, Hendry lost his composure, so to speak. He spewed, which is a disqualification in competitive eating. Salem had won by default, but didn't savor his victory, at least not right away. He puked too, not long after. The crowd, a couple hundred people, was understandably grossed out, but still game -- a few even started chants of "USA!" after both incidents.

The strange spectacle of the hot dog eating contest would be hard to top in terms of entertainment value and novelty, but there was a still a full day of music ahead. Many of the bands I was able to catch were state fixtures who have been around for many years and played most of the area's summer festivals. Overall, it was a great demonstration of how great it can be to see a professional and experienced live band go to work.

The first band I caught was General B and the Wiz, at the Whole Foods Market Stage. The Minneapolis band describe themselves as indie blues, which seems to be apt. A lot of their guitar, along with their spare but driving rhythm section, wouldn't seem out of place in a smoke-filled dive, while their emotive and occasionally inscrutable lyrics ("Even Eagles die in the dirt") and falsetto-tinged creative vocal style called to mind Modest Mouse. The crowd was about 100 people and one frazzled but happy black lab. 

General B and the Wiz were greater than the sum of their parts. 

Grand Old Day, 6/1/14
Grand Old Day, 6/1/14
Photos by Tony Nelson

I was able to catch another long-time act soon after, Heiruspecs. Headed up by Midway Felix, this hip-hop outfit based in St. Paul is one of the most versatile out there, and they put on a set perfectly suited to the atmosphere. "You see that guy out there?" Felix asked at one moment, pointing out a 30ish dude near the front of the stage. "That's my neighbor Dan -- give it up for him. It's St. Paul, you gotta know your neighbors." Heiruspecs gave their whole performance a community vibe, and they felt at home, leading the crowd in call and response and hitting all their spots.

Their style of rapping over beats built on rock music heightens their honesty, directness, and clarity -- as one of their lines said, smart not clever (or too-clever-by-half). Felix was more of a direct storyteller, while Muad'Dib -- also a virtuoso beat boxer -- was more staccato and metaphoric in his verses. Though there was a brief lull during a few of the less immediately engaging tracks, it was still easy to see that Heiruspecs were polished veterans. "Get Up" closed the set out strong, and though Felix has some choice words for the local music scene -- "Leave me the f--- out of it, I'm just tryna pay rent" -- it was clear at that point that he and Heiruspecs had nothing to prove.

Critic's Notebook

The crowd: Basically everybody in the Twin Cities metro area, it seemed. There were a lot more beer-related shirts than one would expect on a typical Sunday.

Random Notebook Dump: I chose what music to see largely the same way most folks at Grand Old Day would -- by wandering around the festival and dipping into any garden that sounded good from the street. As such, the selection is pretty haphazard, so apologies if I didn't cover a band you were hoping to hear about.

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