No matter what your interests are, there is something for everyone at the Minnesota State Fair. That goes for music fans, as well. In addition to plenty of free shows that take place throughout the fairgrounds every year, high profile acts and entertainers have been performing at the Grandstand since 1962.
Even though the Grandstand has undergone some dramatic renovations over the years, the site has hosted some truly historic events, including the first flight in Minnesota history, numerous Presidential speeches by William Howard Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, and Calvin Coolidge, as well as horse races, auto races, and other thrill-based entertainment. But now, the Grandstand is primarily known as the largest concert venue on the fairgrounds, and it has hosted some truly memorable—if a bit surreal—shows over the past half-century. Here, we take a look back at a few of the Grandstand shows that stand out.
1962: The first year of music in the Grandstand
Evening Grandstand shows underwent a transformation to attract a larger audience, so a variety program was introduced for the first time. Following the auto daredevil thrill show, stars like Jimmy Dean, Jane Russell, and Dennis Day performed. These shows were followed by a fireworks finale, a tradition that continues to this day. Profits at the Grandstand increased 30% with the introduction of the variety program, and live performances and entertainment became a nightly fixture at the fair. In the following years, Rosemary Clooney, Buster Keaton, the Ray Charles Singers, the Supremes, and many other legendary acts would grace the Grandstand stage.
1969-70: The Johnny Cash Show
For two years straight, the Johnny Cash Show made an appearance at the Grandstand. Following the runaway success of his TV variety program that debuted in June of 1969, Cash brought that show on the road to many different state fairs throughout that summer as well as the following year. For both of his stops here he brought along his frequent guests on the TV show, the Statler Brothers, to open up the night and perform with him and June Carter Cash and the Carter family (along with his daughter, Rosanne Cash). Bob Dylan performed with Cash on the very first televised episode of the Johnny Cash Show, but sadly Bob did not join his old friend at these string of shows, which started Cash’s longtime love affair with the Minnesota State Fair. The Johnny Cash Show would make frequent trips back to the Grandstand throughout the rest of the ’70s, culminating in their final Fair show in 1980.
1971: Tammy Wynette, George Jones, and Loretta Lynn
The concept of musical entertainment at the Grandstand had clearly caught on at this point, as the Minnesota State Fair had a bumper crop of high profile musicians on their concert calendar, with country music regularly taking center stage. The Carpenters, Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Liberace, Charley Pride, and the first of many Grandstand performances by Neil Diamond all took place in 1971. In fact, Diamond had such an enjoyable time that he returned again in 1972 to play the Grandstand once again. But what a treat it must have been for country music lovers to witness a summer night filled with performances by legends like Wynette, Jones, and Lynn, who were joined on that star-studded bill by Jack Green, Jeannie Sealy, and Roy Acuff.
1973: The Brady Bunch Kids
The immensely popular TV show The Brady Bunch was nearing the end of its historic run in 1973, and in order to capitalize on the phenomenon before the show would go off the air in 1974, the Brady Bunch Kids brought their charismatic songs and smile to the Grandstand for a variety performance that must have delighted the dedicated fans of the show. In addition to the innocent, upbeat entertainment provided by the Brady Bunch Kids, that night’s bill also featured the catchy, chart-topping pop group, Tony Orlando and Dawn, whose runaway hits “Candida,” “Knock Three Times,” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” most assuredly sounded golden coming from the Grandstand stage.
While country, pop, and comedy acts filled the calendar during the early days of the Grandstand, rock bands slowly started to make some headway in the late ’70s, as both Kansas and Blood, Sweat & Tears broke the ice a bit with their performances in 1977. But it was the Chicago classic rock band Styx who officially and emphatically broke the doors down for good with their ’79 show in support of Pieces of Eight. The group was supported by the equally boisterous (but predictably named) Boston-area band, New England. Styx busted out some of their biggest hits at this gig, as “The Grand Illusion,” “Renegade,” “Blue Collar Man,” and “Come Sail Away” all uproariously announced that rock — and classic rock in particular — would now always have a place at the Grandstand stage.
1982: The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys have made plenty of stops at the Minnesota State Fair over the years, but this was their first of many performances at the Grandstand stage. And this night was special because it was the only Beach Boys show at the Fair to feature both drummer Dennis Wilson (who drowned the following year) and his iconic brother Brian, whose erratic relationship with the band and their summery songs has been the stuff of both legend and genius. Brian was eventually dismissed from the group later that year, and apparently weighed 320 pounds when he was admitted to the hospital for detoxification. But on this night, the band kept things light and buoyant, and started a working relationship with the Minnesota State Fair that continued for many years.
1985: Neil Young
Neil Young changed musical directions frequently and quite radically throughout the ’80s. After experimenting with both synthy New Wave and throwback rockabilly earlier in the decade, he eventually hooked up with a talented bunch of country musicians from Nashville whom he dubbed the International Harvesters. Young and his new band brought their classic sounding, countrified tunes to the Grandstand in 1985, but rather than deliver a set featuring songs from their just-released collaborative album, Old Ways, Neil and the Harvesters reworked some of the real gems from his back catalog. “Heart of Gold,” “The Needle and the Damage Done,” “Old Man,” and even a couple of CSNY songs, “This Old House” and “Helpless,” all stand out in the 17-song set that makes me envious of all who had the pleasure to attend this performance.
1993: Bob Dylan
While Bob Dylan’s Grandstand debut in 1990 is frequently viewed as disappointing (especially considering the high expectations going in), his return to the Fair in 1993 was far more enjoyable and rewarding. And, as a new student at the University of Minnesota, this show was also my first State Fair experience, and quite a memorable one at that. While Santana’s guitar-fueled opening set didn’t really hold my interest, Dylan’s set was feisty and fun. He chose to be shrouded in shadows towards the back of the stage, not trying to make what remains his final Grandstand performance any bigger than it was. The setlist was stellar, as the one-two punch of “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” and “All Along the Watchtower” was an early highlight, along with spirited versions of “Tangled Up In Blue,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” and “Maggie’s Farm.” Dylan even played “The Man In The Long Black Coat,” perhaps as a subtle nod to another Fair favorite, Johnny Cash. Bob should really come back and play another show at the Grandstand, for the Fair atmosphere really suits him, especially on this night.
2001: Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band
My first time seeing a Beatle play live was at the Grandstand, as Ringo Starr & his All-Starr Band delivered a set filled with classic hits. Prince’s onetime protégé, Sheila E., was featured on drums and vocals at the show, along with Supertramp’s Roger Hodgson, Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter, Howard Jones, and Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake & Palmer/King Crimson. So, the band was indeed star(r)-studded, and suitably brought the Beatles’ songs to life, along with a sampling of their own material. Ringo was clearly running the show, though, and I remember him regularly coaxing the audience to scream his name on a number of occasions, still starved for attention as well as his proper due, all these years late. But all of that preening was ultimately more than worth it, just to hear an actual Beatle sing, “Act Naturally,” “Yellow Submarine” and “With A Little Help From My Friends.” And the hits from the All-Starr Band were pretty great too (“A Love Bizarre,” “The Glamorous Life,” “Take The Long Way Home,” and “All The Young Dudes”), on a night that was tailor-made for the Grandstand, if ever there was one.
2006: The Flaming Lips and Sonic Youth
There are summer storms, and then there is the storm that thundered through the Twin Cities on August 24, 2006. A torrential downpour and high winds struck the fairgrounds shortly before show time, putting the highly-anticipated performance by the Flaming Lips and Sonic Youth in serious jeopardy. In the end, only the opening slot by the Magic Numbers had to be canceled, and the two indie legends eventually turned the night into a truly memorable one. There was only one song that Sonic Youth could start with after a deluge like that, and the band dutifully kicked off their inspired opening set with “Teen Age Riot,” and it’s all-too-appropriate lines, “Everybody’s talking ’bout the stormy weather/And what’s a man do to but work out whether it’s true?” I never imagined that I would be seeing Sonic Youth play at the Minnesota State Fair, and it still seems odd to think they played the Grandstand. It ultimately was quite a surreal experience, especially given the thunderstorms, but the relentlessly experimental New York band delivered an incendiary set that the Flaming Lips only built on during their celebratory headlining performance. After Wayne Coyne’s familiar human hamster ball crowd excursion, and some standouts from Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the show came to a fitting end with Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” that put an emphatic exclamation point on a day none of us who experienced it will ever forget.
These momentous musical traditions have carried on at the Minnesota State Fair in recent years, with stellar shows filling the Grandstand with indelible songs, unforgettable moments, and plenty of lasting memories that only adds to the lore and luster of the venerable old venue that has truly seen a little of everything over the years.
Special thanks to Minnesota State Fair staff Keri Huber (Archivist Specialist) and Brienna Schuette (Marketing & Communications Manager) for their help researching this piece.