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.
YOU'D BE HARD-PRESSED to pick Matt Mithun out of a crowd—especially the crowd at SoundTown, which was made up mostly of city kids in their 20s and 30s. Youthful and easygoing, the owner of the Somerset Amphitheater's sprawling property is energized about his long-term plans for the venue and hoping that a couple million dollars and a dream will be enough to reinvigorate the once-popular site.
On the second day of the festival, Mithun is starting off his morning by tooling around on a small golf cart, overseeing the setup of the Flaming Lips' complex stage show and surveying the 160-acre grounds that he's spent the past year renovating.
"This is my first time producing a live show," Mithun declares, laughing nervously. "It's always been a dream of mine, something I wanted to do." He exhibits a modest, Midwestern ambition that's heavily rooted in pragmatism. "This is a real estate venture, but it's also just something I've wanted to do forever, so I followed this land, followed this venue, and it came up for sale. Last July is when we got involved."
Since purchasing the site and neighboring farmland with investment help from his ad exec father (Raymond Mithun Jr. of downtown Minneapolis's Campbell Mithun agency), Matt drafted a laundry list of improvements he hopes to make to the property and had already crossed off several items before opening the gates for this summer's inaugural event. In addition to building a mammoth permanent stage made of indestructible concrete, Mithun installed permanent bathrooms complete with automatic-flushing toilets, running water, and hand soap—luxury items in the music-festival world—plus started developing the layout for several areas of campsites that will be able to accommodate overnight visitors on the same grounds as the amphitheater. Those campsites weren't up and running yet for SoundTown (instead, campers were set up at the neighboring Float-Rite Park), but Mithun predicts that a small lot of VIP campsites with electrical hookups and two large fields of general admission camping will be ready well in advance of next summer's concert season.
For all the time and money he's poured into the Somerset grounds, though, the most impressive feat for a newbie in the concert business is that Mithun says he handled most of the booking for SoundTown himself. "There's a million pieces to it, like anything," he says. "It's all about getting the headliner. Once we had the first few acts in place it was pretty smooth sailing. I think it's a good way to really learn the business."
The billing for this year's SoundTown seemed to be aimed squarely at fans of the tastemaking, indie-heavy public radio station 89.3 the Current (which was also a sponsor), with many of the acts barely large enough to draw a full house at First Avenue's 1,800-capacity Mainroom, much less an outdoor space that can hold up to 40,000 people. So the relatively low turnout for the festival was hardly a surprise, and Mithun seemed unfazed by the slow ticket sales.
"We're probably going to lose money this year, but I can't tell you how much I'm enjoying it," he says, beaming. "I think that's just the reality of the business, and especially with a new venue. We worked hard to get the bands we wanted here, and we're very happy with the lineup, but we also didn't want to put millions and millions into talent this first year. We'd rather really get the venue where we want it, and then grow SoundTown over the years. I was realistic about what this would be and the turnout. After all the improvements, I knew I would be anxious if we didn't do something this year. I'm proud of it, and I wanted to let people see it and enjoy it."
Mithun says he plans to book SoundTown similarly in future years—heavy on indie rock, with a smattering of other genres like hip hop, folk, bluegrass, and electronic—and that he's also starting to produce another festival that he's not quite ready to reveal but that will feature "a different feel and a different kind of music."
For now, the task at hand seems to be reacclimating metro-area concertgoers with the town of Somerset and its new amphitheater. "We look at ourselves as a brother to the Twin Cities, or a cousin. It's just across the St. Croix. We hope people realize that, that we consider ourselves a Twin Cities venue."
And given its promising infrastructure and its close proximity to the Cities, it's looking like Somerset could be our best bet for major music-festival action. Someone had better get Thom Yorke on the phone.
For more on the inaugural SoundTown Festival check out our series of interviews, recaps, photos, and videos on our music blog, Gimme Noise: GIMMENOISEBLOG.COM.