FOR THOSE WHO have met the musical challenges of The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Seattle's Bumbershoot Festival, or Austin's South By Southwest, you should know the routine for planning your days and nights at this weekend's massive Mill City Music Festival. With shows happening on seven stages simultaneously, "planning" is the key word. If you keep a copy of the festival schedule in your pocket (preferably the bar chart version in the glossy pamphlets scattered around town--they're more legible and less messy than newsprint), you'll be able to maneuver your way to as many great performances as possible before you collapse.

           For many folks, financing the Fest will be an issue. If you can swing the $60 for all 3 days ($70 on site)--not a terribly unreasonable fee, we suppose, given the quantity of acts--then you're all set. That gets you access, via a color-coded bracelet, to all four "paid stages," as well as the three free stages. Others might want to pick one day to hit the paid stages (single day all-access bracelets are $25/$30 on site). And still others will be content scamming off the free stages all three days, with a backpack full of bottled water and home-made tomato-cheese sandwiches so they won't even need to patronize the food concessions. Thus, to help you navigate the Fest and its many choices, what follows are some subjective, but informed, recommendations to help you make the most of the weekend.

           If you can just spring for one day, it's a tough call--but our choice would be Day One, Saturday. Get an early start, go to one of the on-site ticket booths if you still need a bracelet (cash and checks only, no credit cards), then head off to catch local roots rock legend Curtiss A on stage 6 (92KQ/93.7 EDGE) at 12:45 p.m. Then you can shoot over to stage 5 (Cities97/KDWB) for the gospel-powered r&b grooves of Sounds of Blackness (1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.), after which you should head to stage 1 (REV105) to catch lounge revival originators Combustible Edison, who should slink up to the mics around 2:30 p.m.

           Now things get knotty. From 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on stage 5 is the Reggae Madness showcase, with dancehall veteran Shabba Ranks, crossover crooner Maxi Priest, and vital upstart Shaggy making up a mighty nice bill. Meanwhile, Festus, Missouri's Bottle Rockets redeem Southern rock yet again on stage 6 at 3:45 p.m., while the Texas Tornados--a Tex-Mex supergroup featuring Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, Flaco Jimenez, and Augie Meyers--turn on their party machine at 4 p.m. on stage 3 (KOOL108/BOB100). Local punk forefathers The Suicide Commandos make another comeback at 4:30 p.m. on stage 1, while The Band, who've been as strong as ever in recent performances, perform on stage 6 at 5:30 p.m. After the 6 p.m. set by the much-beloved singer-songwriter Freedy Johnston (where you been, G? We missed ya...) on stage 1, you might want to regroup for some food and then decide whether to beat the crowds and chill with the deep and charismatic acoustic bluesman Ben Harper (8:45 p.m., stage 1), see what the Crash Test Dummies are up to lately (8:45 p.m., stage 6), or get stoopid with the masses at the laser-enhanced Village People set (9 p.m., stage 7). Either way, the true believers will be heading over to the Elektrik Disco technofest at the St. Paul Civic Center to dance the night, and the rest of their brains, away. (See A-List, p. 35). When that's over--at 9 a.m.--well, it's back to Minneapolis to do it all over again.

           For the scammers, especially those with a taste for dancing and global grooves, I'd suggest making Sunday your top priority, when the free stages boast the strongest array of talent. Sleep in if you like, but make it down to stage 4 (Cafe 105.7) for the 1:30 p.m. set by the strong local Brazilian pop outfit Mandala. That should ease you into a groove in time for Latin salsa/jazz legend Eddie Palmieri, who should start a fire on stage 2 (KMJZ 104.1) around 3 p.m. When the dancing finally stops, you should have a half-hour or so before New Orleans brass band legends The Dirty Dozen start blowing on stage 7 (KS95/Best Buy) at 5 p.m. After this, your feet will probably need a rest. Listen to them: grab your tomato-cheese sandwiches and find a place to chill for a bit (maybe the top of a nearby parking garage, or, if you're lucky, snag a table outside the New French and order drinks). Finish off your evening with the tail end of Rhea Valentine's set on stage 4, which begins at 7:30 p.m., followed by the sweet, guitar-powered dance grooves of Zairean bandleader Tabu Ley Rochereau on stage 2 from 9 p.m. to close--outside under the stars, exactly where his sparkling music belongs.

           Other crucial Mill City shows on Sunday include the return of alt-country's still-reigning queen Lucinda Williams (stage 5, 3:30 p.m.)--now where's that new album, already, huh?--and Philly-bred white boy delta blues hip hoppers-turned-pop heartthrobs G. Love & Special Sauce (stage 1, 4:30 p.m.). After dark, braceleted types also get to choose between saints (Christian rock-hip hoppers DC Talk, stage 6, 8:30 p.m.) and sinners (funky sex-bomb Chaka Khan and crew, stage 1, 8:30 p.m.). Ain't life always like that?

           On Monday, you can get another dose of great (and free) multiculti sounds beginning with the lovely Tish Hinojosa (stage 4, 1 p.m.), whose bi-lingual mix of country-western and Mexican song is a beautiful rebuke to the Congressional idiots pushing legislation to declare English our country's "official language." Also free are sets by salsa legend Ray Barretto (stage 2, 4 p.m.) and Cajun buzz band Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys (8:30 p.m.), who our two-stepping pals tell us have been fabulous on their last few visits north. Bracelet-wearers might start with Tish and then shoot over to stage 1 for non-denominational pop-rockers National Dynamite (1:30 p.m.), stick around for Christian pop-rockers Jars of Clay at 3 p.m., and decide between Ray Barretto and the great r&b diva Etta James (stage 5, 4:30 p.m.). Then it's either a dinner break or ex-Box Top, ex-Big Star, Memphis legend and National Dynamite spiritual adviser Alex Chilton--who has been delivering fine shows lately, I hear--on stage 1 at 6:30 p.m. To wrap things up, you can rock with Soul Asylum (8:30 p.m., stage 1) or roll with the tag-team of The Neville Brothers (8 p.m.) and B.B. King (9 p.m.), both on stage 6.

           Then it's home to bed to dream of fall colors and a convincing excuse to stay home from work on Tuesday. And also, if you're so inclined, to pray the promoters do well enough so that they'll actually make the Mill City Music Festival the annual event they're promising. (Will Hermes)

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