Having attended three of the first four Lollapalooza tours in the early ‘90s on St. Paul’s Harriet Island, and watching from afar the rebirth of the franchise take over Grant Park more than a decade later, it was with tempered enthusiasm that I set foot back onto the Island for the inaugural River’s Edge Fest. Conceived and organized by Live Nation as a multi-day festival to rival the likes of Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, and Coachella, this was the first true summer music festival in the Twin Cities since the demise of Lollapalooza. The prospect of having a legitimate festival experience was genuinely intriguing (the gorgeous weather certainly helped), but at least for this first year, the musical offering left considerable room for improvement.
Harriet Island, St. Paul, MN
Day 1 – Saturday, June 24th, 2012
Sublime With Rome
Motion City Soundtrack
Coheed And Cambria
The difficulty with some of the stacked bills of those successful festivals listed above (and we admit, this is a good problem), is that it’s tough to decide which killer act you’re going to see and which one you’re going to regret missing. This was largely not a problem with River’s Edge Fest. Bookers got a late start securing talent due to negotiations; but wisely understood the appeal of each of the acts, and set the line-ups accordingly to maximize audience appeal and build momentum to the day’s headliner, while judiciously timing set times to minimize overlapping performances. Thus, on Saturday, I ping-ponged between the main stage and a smaller second stage to see Coheed And Cambria, Motion City Soundtrack, and then Brand New, none of which are particularly well-suited for this type of environment. At least Motion City Soundtrack’s summery, New Wave-inflected pop-punk has hit appeal and a peppy, feel-good vibe, even more so playing to a hometown crowd. Brand New just seemed lost. As powerful and incendiary as “Jesus Christ” and “You Don’t Know” are on album, or in a small club, they just don’t engage at this expansive level. Add in some questionable set choices (“Tautou”; “Bought A Bride”), and it was a disappointing showing.
Growing weary of Brand New’s uninspired failings, I wandered far afield to a much smaller (and much louder) side stage to check in with the Scissor Sisters, foregoing much of Sublime With Rome’s set. Similar niche acts (Diplo, Mutemath, Delta Spirit) were relegated to this performance area that was well out of earshot of the two primary stages, connected to the main festival grounds by a 10-minute walk past lonely food trucks, and a mish-mash of tie-dye clothiers and shags hawking over-priced junk jewelry. At least for the Scissors Sisters, it was worth the trek. Its jubilant retro-disco dance party transformed the little grassy patch into an afternoon, outdoor rave. The band may have been crowded on the stage, but it radiated plenty of energy to shower an enthusiastic audience with the communal vibe that the best music experiences share.
I made my way back in time to catch a breathtaking, mammoth performance by Saturday’s headlining act, Tool. A concise 75-minute set of big hits (“Lateralus”; “Stinkfist”; “Forty-Six And 2”) was sequenced with a stunning display of visual fireworks – multi-tiered videos of sinister faces, abstract collages, and Tool’s trademark biological decaying morphs were illuminated by laser lights piercing through dense fog. Billed as Tool’s only North American performance for 2012, the band didn’t disappoint, even for this casual observer. Closing with a monstrous rendition of “Aenema,” backed by seizure-inducing cascade of flickering videos, strobes, and light beams, Tool stamped an exclamation point to close the first day.
Day 2 – Sunday, June 25th
Dave Matthews Band
The Flaming Lips
Another sparkling summer afternoon and a crowd that seemed 3x as large as yesterday’s greeted us as we maneuvered our way through the dense throng to catch a glimpse of Minneapolis’ own Polica. Its shimmering electronica-cum-rock pastiche was punctuated by its dual-drummer attack, and slathered with enough hooks and pizzazz to thrive in the bright sunlight. Sultry front-woman Channy Leaneagh echoed Karen O, but with more accessibility. Already rapturously hyped in the Twin Cities, Polica has the sound and star-power presence to makes waves on the national level.
Puscifer and The Flaming Lips are already established national acts, although by entirely different means – Puscifer because of Maynard James Keennan’s involvement; The Flaming Lips because they’ve been grinding away at this for nearly 30 years (The Lips were here for Lollapalooza in ’94). Ostensibly as Keenan’s solo project, Puscifer doesn’t offer much beyond Tool’s/A Perfect Circle’s already established oeuvre, except perhaps exchanging some pretentiousness for juvenile cynicism. The music was appropriately bombastic and punishing, but didn’t linger once the feedback faded.
The Flaming Lips eschew overt cynicism, but relish in juvenile antics and irreverent visual spectacle; its time-tested tricks may seem like safe and predictable gimmicks at this point, but the cumulative effect is perfect for a festival setting. Rainbow streamers and relentless blasts from confetti cannons shot from the stage, overflowing with dancers dressed as Dorothy from the *Wizard Of Oz*, as boulder-sized balloons came careening towards us. There was Wayne Coyne, ever the carnival showman, cheerily bouncing over the crowd ensconced in his clear plastic bubble, as waves of psychedelic noise and candy-coated fuzz pop washed over us. Its oldest hit is still its biggest and most popular, and so The Lips dutifully mesmerized us with “She Don’t Use Jelly,” its hiccupping hook and absurdist lyrics ringing joyfully across the park.
Following The Flaming Lips, all eyes turned to the main stage for the grand finale of the Dave Matthews Band. Having achieved legendary status where the mere initials “D-M-B” have become cultural signifiers in the proper musical context, the Dave Matthews Band has become a reliable stalwart of such festivals. Massively popular, DMB gathers a multitude of diverse cliques and subcultures that otherwise would never intersect. Its rock-jazz fusion, laced with R&B, blues, and the occasional country twang, appeals to J. Crew co-eds and middle-aged men; jocks inked with an array of Affliction-inspired tats nodded and hand-rapped alongside bespeckeled gals in flower-print skirts, and aging, barely-there hippies. And there’s something for all of them: bluesy rockers (“Shake Me Like A Monkey”) grassy, soul balladry (“Big eyed Fish”), extended improv jams (“Funny The Way It Is”; “Jimi Thing”). Noisy and raucous flare ups of Tim Reynolds’ blistering guitar and white-hot brass leads courtesy of Jeff Coffin’s fiery sax and Rashawn Ross’ molten trumpet contrasted with serpentine moments where Boyd Tinsley wrangled his violin against Matthews’ crunchy acoustic guitar. A kaleidoscopic light show added some flash and ambience to the 2.5 hour set and the band’s consummate musicianship kept a captivated audience in thrall for the duration. When Matthews glibly pronounced that “Love is the best thing there is, next to tacos,” he knew of the devotion of which he spoke.
Best of the Fest
Hydration Stations – No need to pay $4 for an 10 oz. bottle of water.
Numerous Beer Tents – Never waited more than 10 seconds for a refill.
No Music Lulls – Bands pretty much started the second the previous act finished (DMB excepted).
Shuttle Service – Although Harriet Island is not actually an island, the park grounds are nearly impossible to access for this type of event. Round-the-clock bus service from several routes solved that problem.
Security and Staff – Friendly and professional, they were visible but not obtrusive; definitely contributed to a safe and happy atmosphere.
Wristband Access – Easy-scan bands allowed for re-entry, no lost tickets; easy access to partitioned areas (media, VIP).
Silent DJ Battles – Sparsely attended; novel concept doesn’t withstand scrutiny, reality; the title was your first clue.
Abandoned Food Trucks – Isolated away from crowds, more than half didn’t bother returning on Sunday.
Busted Gut – Lousy state fair-style fare; expensive and bland, choices were heavy on meat, grease, and coin.
Lynx (Grrr!) – Ironically named after MN’s women’s professional basketball team, this stage received slight attention and barely-known artists; astute observers could watch for free from the walking bridge overpass.
– Patrick Conlan
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