Review: River’s Edge Music Festival

In its first year, the Harriet Island festival went smoothly, but it will need a better lineup to compete with similar Midwest fests.

Holly Marie of Des Moines, Iowa crowd surfs during Diplo's set Sunday at River's Edge Music Festival in St. Paul, Minn.

Mark Vancleave

Holly Marie of Des Moines, Iowa crowd surfs during Diplo’s set Sunday at River’s Edge Music Festival in St. Paul, Minn.

Tony

The Twin Cities have a lot hanging on River’s Edge. The new music festival isn’t just replacing the defunct Taste of Minnesota — St. Paul and Live Nation hope to groom River’s Edge into a festival rivaling giants like Lollapalooza and Coachella.

This weekend’s fest, the first in a five-year deal, was a solid start for River’s Edge. It made a good case for why the Harriet Island festival might stick around past 2016. There are a few kinks to work out, but the framework is there.

Live Nation has called 2012 an “investment year” for River’s Edge. The concert promoter is expected to lose more than $1 million dollars while trying to secure a foothold in the Cities and teeing up for next year.

With this in mind, the focus this year seemed to be on booking the biggest, most reliable names possible, and the resulting lineup was scattershot and bottom-heavy. Prog-rockers Tool headlined on Saturday, and Dave Matthews Band — the ultimate in dependable, mass-appeal rock — closed out the fest on Sunday night.

Thanks to the other bands, there was little incentive to show up to Harriet Island before late in the afternoon, and so River’s Edge felt more like a very long outdoor concert than a day-long festival. On Saturday, approximately one third of the 25,000 attendees wore tacky Tool t-shirts. Sunday’s crowd was more diverse.

On both days, the mammoth main stage featured 93X-friendly acts like Coheed and Cambria, Brand New and the lame Tool side project Puscifer.

For those who wanted to rock but weren’t quite ready to RAWK, the nearby Chipotle stage offered more varied and local options.

“We’re Motion City Soundtrack and we’re glad to be home,” said front man Justin Pierre at the start of the band’s Saturday afternoon set. The crowd was happy to have them, singing along to older hits like “L.G. FUAD” and “The Future Freaks Me Out” with gusto.

Local electro rockers Polica got off to a rough start 24 hours later when they opened with an unreleased song and no sound check. The crowd didn’t seem to know what to make of the much-hyped band after the abrasive unoriginality of Awolnation. But then the band destroyed with the one-two punch of “Dark Star” and “Leading to Death,” and Channy Leaneagh kept the audience’s attention all the way through Polica’s hour-long set. Leaneagh delivered one of the best performances at River’s Edge.

A small DJ stage had an interesting gimmick: Two DJs performed simultaneously and the audience all wore wireless headphones (free with a deposit) that toggled between them. The “Silent Disco” DJ battle is a cool concept, but it flopped in practice. Without thumping bass or a unified groove people just weren’t dancing, and even with big names like Gigamesh at the helm, the stage couldn’t hold an audience.

The two larger stages featured almost all rock bands, and all of the other dance, hip-hop and R&B acts were pushed to the too-low Lynx stage on nearby Raspberry Island, a ten-minute walk from the rest of the festival.

Not many people made the journey, which was too bad because the stage boasted some great moments and the best scenery of the fest.

Scissor Sisters’ high-energy Saturday afternoon set was a highlight. Dozens of St. Paulites listened to the echo of their disco thump from under the Wabasha Street Bridge. The Sisters brought a little bit of Pride Weekend to to Raspberry Island with performances of “Let’s Have a Kiki” and “Take Your Mama,” two songs about being a young gay man. There was nary a Tool shirt in sight but audience members held up a few rainbow flags and co-lead singer Ana Matronic was met with cheers when she encouraged the audience to vote against Minnesota’s marriage amendment.

Although they weren’t the headliners, the Flaming Lips did their part to close out the fest on Sunday afternoon. Their performance, right before Dave Matthews, came with all of the confetti, balloons, and giant space balls one would expect, and many of the bros in the audience had their minds appropriately blown. The Lips may be in a bit of a creative rut, but they do their thing very well, and on a perfect summer day it felt just right.

The same can be said for Dave Matthew Band’s three-hour set, which attracted nearly the entire fest.

Across the river, Diplo closed the Lynx stage with a tooth-rattling DJ set before a modest crowd that was full of people dressed up in fruit costumes.

Despite lower-than-expected attendance, the River’s Edge Festival was a success and holds a lot of potential for the next four years. As the world’s largest concert promoter, Live Nation knows how to run an event like this, and all of the logistics of the fest were smooth.

Bathrooms and water were easy to find, entry (via RFID bracelets) was easy, and there were no shortage of places to buy a $10 beer. Food selection was not great, just about everything was fried and almost none of it was vegetarian friendly, but there were a few good food trucks.

Looking to next year, Live Nation has to figure out what kind of bands they want to bring to the festival. There’s nothing wrong with a diverse lineup, but River’s Edge needs to find its identity and curate accordingly.

The Twin Cities are due for a mid-sized music festival to attract a regional audience, and River’s Edge is well on its way. It will be interesting to see if they work out the kinks.