DETROIT LAKES – For a music festival fans often don’t remember from the night before, WE Fest’s comeback year involved a surprising amount of nostalgia.
Headlining Thursday, members of the Florida Georgia Line recalled their first appearance in Northwestern Minnesota’s nationally renowned country music marathon.
“We played and then we drank, then we played and then we drank,” Tyler Hubbard recalls of their straight set / one day debut in 2012.
Friday’s grand finalist Dierks Bentley looked back on his 2008 entry into “the wide world of WE Fest” and handed out a cooler of beer cans from the stage to celebrate his and everyone’s return.
“Thank you for making my dreams come true year after year, especially after the year we have had,” he said.
This year marked a new era – as well as a decent lineup of newcomers. But WE Fest 2021 also seemed to be so much a celebration of the good old days.
The nostalgic headliners jokes were echoed by many of the more than 20,000 daily attendees. Most of the fans were happy to have the festival back and under new semi-local management.
Last year’s installment was canceled even before COVID-19 hit, after five years under a Connecticut-based interim owner (gasp!) That led to a drop in attendance.
“It wasn’t broken, so why try to fix it?” Maria Miller of Coon Rapids remarked while spending time with friends next to a large inflatable pool at their RV site in the Northwoods campgrounds of the festival.
“We have so many great memories from WE Fest, and we’re ready to do more.”
History is one of the big things WE Fest has yet to do compared to the other big twang festivals that have popped up in the Upper Midwest in recent years.
Officially launched in 1983 with Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette and Alabama – Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney and the newly announced 2022 headliners Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean have all starred in recent years on their way to mega-star – the three-day field camp held its own for three decades before its recent decline.
This story was undoubtedly a big reason why Live Nation, the world’s largest concert company, signed with landowner and local promoter Matt Mithun to restart the festival.
The location remains another asset for We Fest. Concert and camping sites are sandwiched between scenic lakes where attendees can soak up the dirt and damage from the night before. The host site, Soo Pass Ranch, has been refined over the years to provide excellent sightlines, smooth traffic and camping facilities.
Being away from any major city – Fargo is the closest 80 km away – could also be a plus; especially in the polarized environment of 2021.
“I want to get out of town, not spend more time there,” said David Kallsen Jr., sitting with friends outside of a motorhome under a banner that read, “Born, Raised and Protected by God, guns, courage and glory. “
In the campgrounds it was clear that many participants did not just miss the WE Fests of yesteryear. They also seemed to yearn for other things that they thought had been lost over the past year and a half.
They floated Trump banners and Confederate flags over their campsites. They have ignored renewed masking warnings to defend new COVID variants. They repeatedly told this reporter that they let off steam at the festival after losing “personal freedom” and “sanity in America.”
“It’s always legal to have a good time, isn’t it?” Lino Lakes’ Kyle Baldus asked, donning a red, white and blue cowboy hat.
Having fun actually seemed like a contractual obligation at WE Fest ’21, at least as far as the performers were concerned.
Aside from yelling at “hard-working healthcare workers,” the singers avoided mentioning the pandemic and the politics onstage, just as people offstage seemed to avoid all hand sanitizer stations.
“We’re in Minnesota, so I know you all drink,” Hubbard shouted to the crowd at the start of the often hokey but unmistakably catchy Florida Georgia Line set. This comment came after they delivered “It’s About Time” with the opening act of Russell Dickerson, who sang the same song (a collaboration with FGL) during his set with a case of beer cans wrapped around his waist. .
The lyrics of this song – “It’s time for a drink / It’s time for a cold drink” – have been covered in slightly altered words countless times by other performers.
“Make a quick stop at the Kwik Stop to catch a cold,” the Nashville band Lanco sang in their anthem “Wild Again,” one of many snippets from a new album that sounds like U2 channeling bro-country. . His lyrics were about as mundane as singer Brandon Lancaster’s voice was flat. How about a quick stop at a vocal coach?
Several young artists have fared much better, in part by raising the bar beyond songs about going to the bar.
Harmonious High Valley Canadian singer Brad Rempel, who mentioned being raised as a Mennonite, avoided drinking songs altogether and still delivered one of the funniest sets of the weekend. It’s funny? His band covered Post Malone’s “Circle” in a bluegrass montage, ironically one of the only old-school twangs heard all weekend.
After a scream in Grand Marais (where her parents have a place), recent best new Grammy nominated artist Ingrid Andress playfully played up gender stereotypes in her pink anthem “Lady Like”.
Lindsay Ell, another Canadian, also brought much needed musical variety with her bluesy guitar playing in songs like “The Other Side” and “Good on You”, posing as the musical child lover of former in-laws. Taylor Swift and John Mayer. .
To top it off on Friday, Bentley hit a home run by covering all the crowd-pleasing bases in slacker anthems hinting at beer and trucks like their new single “Beers on Me” and their mega-bit “Drunk. on a Plane “- the latter delivered as a reminder in pilot uniform with a” Dude Air “logo on the video screen.
But Bentley has gotten more serious every now and then, reflecting on the chaos of the past year and a half in songs like “Riser” and “I Hold On,” the latter triggering a “to relive” speech.
“No one in the country makes a living more than those of you at WE Fest tonight,” he said.
Times like this are probably what will help WE Fest live.
Four unique signs of WE Fest ’21
No deed of inheritance. While festival host Kellie Pickler and members of FGL recalled seeing Wynette and Alabama at previous WE Fests – veteran acts that are still on tour – the oldest act this year was the head of Saturday poster Blake Shelton at 45. Hopefully, in the years to come, Live Nation delivers artists who predate their dominance in the industry, and not just artists who have exclusive deals with the company.
The Selts have overtaken beers. Despite all the beer songs and sponsorship banners for Miller Lite and Coors, the festival actually had more varieties of hard seltzer and fruity cocktails on its bar menus and handed them out lavishly. Maybe this is a sign of the changing demographics of WE Fest, or just a hint that it could offer better beer.
Canadians were MIA The festival generally draws a lot from Alberta and Manitoba, but not this year with the continued closure of the Canada-U.S. Border. “They are a big part of our WE Fest experience,” said Christy Fiedler of Lakeville, whose group of friends hoisted the maple leaf flag above their camper van to honor their fallen friends.
Low on masking. Yours truly was one of the few people who donned a face mask in the crowded areas of the festival, and boy, have I heard of it. “Why did you come? A guy yelled. Another guy accused me of being “a government spy taking COVID notes” while I was interviewing his friend. Too bad he couldn’t see my broad smile on that one.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • @ChrisRstrib