Hey, Twin Cities, welcome to the Big Leagues of Concerts.
We’ve finally got an amphitheater. Or do we? We have two major facsimiles and whether they’re reasonable or not, that’s debatable.
This summer, Treasure Island Casino in Red Wing assembled an ambitious schedule with nine outdoor concerts, featuring the likes of Willie Nelson, Adam Sandler and Journey, which drew 14,000 people on July 1. Mystic Lake Casino in Prior Lake has once again put up an outdoor stage and chairs, making room for 8,000 people to see Lionel Richie, Santana and Blink-182.
Let’s be honest: Despite many popular attractions onstage, these amphitheaters are as temporary as Katy Perry’s hairdo. Erect a stage in a grassy field, set up some chairs, present a big-name act under the spotlights and, yes, people will come.
But going to the amphitheaters at Mystic Lake or Treasure Island isn’t like going to Milwaukee’s American Family Insurance (formerly Marcus) Amphitheater or Chicago’s Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre.
In Minnesota, we’re talking portable toilets, inadequate concessions and chairs worthy of an assembly in a high school gym (unless you opt to sit on a blanket on the lawn).
You’d think a metro area that can build three impressive stadiums for sports and concerts could erect at least one amphitheater for music shows by household names.
“Get outside while the getting’s good in Minnesota in the summer,” said Johnny Mackin, director of brand marketing for Mystic Lake Casino.
Yes, we like to.
There are about 30 shows this summer at the 1,500-seat amphitheater at the Minnesota Zoo, now celebrating its 25th season. There are well established outdoor festivals like Rock the Garden at Walker Art Center (capacity about 10,000) and the Basilica Block Party (capacity 15,000) now in its 23rd year at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. Don’t forget about the Minnesota State Fair with 11 shows including Nickelback and Stevie Nicks at the 13,000-capacity grandstand and a dozen performances by the likes of George Clinton and Tanya Tucker at the Bandshell, which accommodates perhaps 6,000-plus. And don’t overlook the underutilized Hilde Performance Center in Plymouth, which has a permanent band shell but no permanent toilets and seats in its attractive, expansive lawn.
Over the years, entrepreneurs — from presenters such as the Minnesota Orchestra to promoters such as Randy Levy — have hatched detailed plans for a permanent amphitheater in the Twin Cities, but they got derailed for one reason or another such as traffic issues and environmental concerns. First Avenue has its eye on a site on the Mississippi River near downtown Minneapolis for an 8,000- to 10,000-capacity concert venue, but that project is still in the talking stages.
So let’s talk about what we have at Treasure Island in Red Wing and Mystic in Prior Lake.
We couldn’t find a better guide than Chloe Caplan, 41, of Minneapolis, who goes to two or three concerts a week. And she went to Treasure Island (Sandler) and Mystic (Richie) on consecutive nights last month.
She was happy to score last-minute tickets on the lawn to Sandler’s show for an “inexpensive” price. But she found it a challenge to get to Treasure Island.
“I felt like it was farmland in the middle of ‘Friday Night Lights,’ ” she said. “Like it was supposed to be a football game but it was a makeshift concert setup. In general admission, I didn’t feel like I was at a concert as much as I was looking at a screen.”
She found the lines for food and drink to be “extremely long” and she was frustrated by the “cash only” policy. She left the concert early because “I didn’t want to walk out to a massive parking lot in the middle of a field with 10,000 drunk people when it’s about to start raining.”
If Treasure Island’s amphitheater felt like it was “on a farm,” then Mystic felt like “a luxury resort,” Caplan said. “It was more refined. They run a tight ship there.”
She also appreciated the view of the rolling hills and the sunset at Mystic Lake. “There is no view at Treasure Island,” she pointed out.
Caplan didn’t visit concession stands at Mystic, which include food trucks. But Katie Batten, 41, of Appleton, Wis., did. She and a friend from Michigan paid $300 for third-row seats for Richie and they were disappointed by the beer selection at the Mystic Amphitheater.
“The choice of beer was limited and there was no wine. But there were lots of bartenders,” said Batten. “Otherwise, the venue was exactly what I wanted in the summertime.”
Tom and Kristen King of Burnsville had similar issues with the Treasure Island amphitheater concessions.
“He was forced to drink [Miller] Lite beer and he was not pleased,” said Kristen, 36.
“The selection of food was limited,” moaned Tom, 37, as he waited in line at a casino restaurant after the Sandler concert.
Luring into casino
Entering and exiting Mystic was relatively smooth at the Lionel Richie concert, whereas there have been hourlong traffic jams before and after Treasure Island shows partly because there is only one road in and out of the island.
“We try to encourage people to come early and stay late,” said Kevin Smith, Treasure Island’s director of media and public relations.
To entice concertgoers to stay, Treasure Island hands out coupon booklets, good for a free alcoholic drink and gambling specials from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Is that drawing concertgoers into the casino?
“A lot more people headed into the casino after Journey. Anecdotally, I could see them,” said Smith. “We’ve had incremental increases in the usage of the slot machines.”
Although both Treasure Island and Mystic hope concerts will bring new audiences into their casinos, neither entertainment complex sees the concerts as loss leaders.
Mackin said Mystic hopes to at least break even on its concerts. The casino offers a variety of entertainment from rapper Flo Rida and classic rockers ZZ Top in its 2,100-seat showroom to Ribfest and other events with live music in a parking lot.
After trying an ad hoc amphitheater with rented bleachers in 2011, Mystic gave careful consideration to building a permanent facility.
“That has a high price tag,” said Mackin. “We have come back every year with a different iteration. The footprint itself is a natural bowl shape. It’s a good setup.”
Treasure Island, which has similar outdoor events as well as a 3,000-capacity indoor theater featuring the likes of Rick Springfield and Loretta Lynn, is also taking a wait-and-see attitude about its amphitheater. Officials there were pleased with how a Toby Keith concert went in 2016, so they became more ambitious this year. And they have been tweaking things after each amphitheater event.
“It’s a learning curve,” Smith observed.
So, in the summer of 2017, we have Twin Cities music lovers paying good money to see well-known stars in large ad hoc facilities with minimal amenities, all in the name of outdoor music. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for with our short, unpredictable summers. But music fans will tell you that if someone builds a permanent major amphitheater, they will come.