There are few Minnesota institutions as beloved as the State Fair, and members of our local music community (including The Current staffers) have a lot of fond memories. As we learned, they also have some recommendations for hidden gems you might otherwise miss. Many of these artists are playing the fair this year, and you’ll find schedule information below.
If you’re going to the fair this year, be sure to bear COVID safety in mind and protect yourself with vaccine and face mask as appropriate.
Colin Campbell of the Shackletons
My favorite memory from the fair was probably the last time it was running. Usually my fair trips involve a handful of family and friends. I love spending time with these people but the days often become attempting to keep track of everyone’s location. Just my mother and I went together on a whim and we drank Mini Donut Beer and wandered around and it was the least stressed I have ever been at the fair.
Or when I was a kid: I sat outside the gates at the Rush concert at the Grandstand to listen because I was a food-motivated kid who spent my money on various “on-a-stick” items rather than a ticket.
Best sandwich at the fair: Turkey To Go (our bass player Evan Fox tipped me off to this place). It’s super juicy.
My favorite memory was definitely two years ago. I was asked by First Avenue to put together a 90-minute showcase and learn songs by multiple different artists each night to create a nonstop extravaganza of music. Mina Moore did a version of “Kiss” and we had the most epic dance party of all time on and off stage. We are doing it again this year!
The Flaming Lips and Sonic Youth at the Grandstand was definitely my favorite show, hands down.
(Also, if anyone has an extra Doobie Brothers ticket, please let me know.)
Al Church is bandleader for First Avenue Goes to the Fair at the Schell’s Stage, Aug. 3 and 4 at 8:00 p.m.
About a year after I moved to the Twin Cities, I befriended Sonia Grover and Jen Whittier. We were all talent bookers for differing venues. After attending First Avenue Goes To The Fair featuring Al Church and company, we gathered a group of pals to go amuse ourselves at fun houses, bumper cars and more. It’s been one of my most joyous Twin Cities memories, and our friendship bond remains strong to this day.
My favorite “hidden gem” is the Haunted House. I love a good/safe excuse to scream out of sheer terror.
I have more fond State Fair memories than I can count, but one that comes immediately to mind is launching The Current’s Sky Ride Sessions five years ago. If you think The Current studio is cozy, imagine the privilege of sharing a Sky Ride car with a gifted musician performing a song as you soar above the fairgrounds.
The hurry-up-and-wait dynamic is part of the fun: we wait in line for the Sky Ride along with all the other guests, and then as soon as the car takes off, it’s go time. We know we’ll get exactly two takes, each lasting just under three minutes. Unsurprisingly, the second take — recorded on the return trip — is usually the keeper.
I shot the first few sessions myself (starting with the perfectly poignant Savannah Smith), then handed camera duties off to the pros once the series, so to speak, took off. A couple more of my personal favorites are Bad Bad Hats doing (my request) “Skyway”; and State Fair superfans Now, Now doing “SGL.”
My recommendation for a hidden gem is a twofer. Grab a flight of craft beer from the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild in the Agriculture Building (or pick up your favorite non-alcoholic beverage elsewhere), then pick a bench in the adjacent Minnesota Christmas Tree Association exhibit. It’s a magical conjunction of summer, Christmas, and Octoberfest, and you can only experience it at the Minnesota State Fair.
Jay Gabler is a digital producer at The Current.
Here’s our favorite memories:
Evan: Seeing very first concert at the Grandstand at nine years old: it was “Weird Al” Yankovic.
John: Purchased our band’s stuffed animal “mascot” at the alpaca shop — which we nicknamed “Gownsie Bear.”
Bryan: Seeing Daughtry and Nickelback in 2017.
Andrew: Loved Sweet Martha’s so much that he ate too many and threw up.
Zach: Saw someone steal a giant stuffed bear from someone in plain sight.
There’s this place called Sweet Martha’s Cookies…such a hidden gem. Don’t put it in the article, though. We can’t let it get too popular or else there would be a crowd of people around it 24/7…
Seriously, though, my first State Fair experience here was a sensory overload. Lights, sounds, and a sea of people that stretched across my entire field of vision. That was probably the best memory to me. The Wisconsin State Fair is decent, but here is next level.
Julian Green is an intern at The Current.
To me, the Minnesota State Fair has a very specific “sound” to it, and in 2010 it was the sound of Rush playing “Tom Sawyer” on the main stage during our set at Heritage Square mixing with the sound of my friends apologizing that they were gonna head over to Boyz II Men at the Leinie Lodge…no apology necessary.
Hidden Gem: the third viewing box cage in Ye Olde Mill where crazy dark-angel elves are playing banjo underneath a poisonous mushroom…
David Huckfelt will be performing at Dan Patch Park as part of MPR Day on Sept. 3 at 1:00 p.m.
Shaun Johnson of Tonic Sol-fa
My favorite State Fair memory is making up a “jingle” on the spot for Sweet Martha’s Cookies that has somehow made its way into our fair shows. And though the song has most likely never even been heard by the cookie makers, it has thousands of people singing along, and its success has earned us hundreds of buckets of free cookies.
Admittedly, this gem is not all that hidden, but I can’t leave the fairgrounds after our performances without grabbing a fish taco from Los Felipe Tacos in the Food Building.
Ka Lia Universe
My favorite Minnesota State Fair memory was back in 2019 when I first came back onto the music scene. My partner Chin Chilla and I went to the fair one of the last weekends and spent half a day hitting up all the vendors, eating the delicious food, playing at the arcade and winning some stuffed animals. Then, we finished the day off by going to a restaurant on the grounds and playing an epic giant Jenga game that lasted over 30 minutes! I ended up winning, too!
Ka Lia Universe & Friends are performing at the International Bazaar Stage on Sept. 5 at 8:00 p.m. and Sept. 6 at 7:30 p.m.
Jo Kellen of Products
I’d say my favorite memory, by far, was when Parliament-Funkadelic played the Leinie Lodge. I texted pretty much everyone I had ever met to try and find someone to come with — everyone bailed, but I didn’t care. I ended up running into a couple friends at the show and had my life changed by George Clinton spinnin’ around in that office chair.
Meghan Kreidler of Kiss the Tiger
Favorite memory: seeing Paramore headline the Grandstand stage in 2008. I was a senior in high school and I just remember being in awe of Hayley Williams. Jack’s Mannequin opened and I used to be a huuuge Something Corporate fan in middle school (the lead singer’s other band) so it was also super cool to see him live.
“Hidden gem”: definitely the Dole Whip. Also, two years ago I talked to a bee expert in the Agriculture Building for a very long time and learned a lot about bees! There are a lot of educational opportunities at the fair as well!
Sarah Krueger of Lanue
Not sure if this is considered a “hidden gem” but my advice would be don’t get so distracted by the food that you forget to visit the farm animals, especially the baby piglets!
My best friend makes the trip from Boston to visit the Minnesota State Fair (and me) every year. One year we got a little too buzzed on s’mores beer and got really into heckling the neighboring lumberjack competition. I don’t think we got kicked out per se, but it was strongly suggested that we leave. In retrospect, you probably shouldn’t yell at people while they’re operating chainsaws, but if there was ever an exception it’s at the State Fair.
I love picking out a ring at the Bazaar every year. I don’t remember what the shop is called, but somehow we always find it. There are literally many hidden gems there.
Monica LaPlante will be performing at the Schell’s Stage as part of First Avenue Goes to the Fair on Sept. 4 at 8:00 p.m.
My favorite State Fair memory is the first ride my husband and I shared on Ye Olde Mill — and all the ones since then! Also our annual spin art growing collection.
Once many, many years ago I had popped out to the fair by myself and stumbled upon an event that even the next day I wasn’t sure I hadn’t dreamt it. When I told people about it they looked at me in doubt. I was sitting in these stands with about 20 people when all of a sudden llamas in costumes came out with their costumed people and paraded around. It was a magical experience. It took some effort but I found it the next year and brought my camera to get proof…and the next year, and then it really caught on. It’s quite an event these days. Happiest place on earth for that hour. First Wednesday of the fair at 6:00 p.m. Llamaste…
The Molly Maher Band will be performing at the Schell’s Stage on Sept. 1 and 2 at 4:00, 5:00, and 6:00 p.m.
Sean McPherson of Heiruspecs
The State Fair was one of the first high-profile gigs Heiruspecs got way back. We were doing long sets trying to keep people interested who were just sitting there finishing their pronto pups. We learned a lot about how to take care of each other on stage and support each other in front of disengaged crowds. Our stage was right next to Green Mill those days and the manager told me that every time we said “Green Mill Pizza” on stage they’d give us a free pizza. I asked Felix if he’d say “Green Mill Pizza” six times in a row the minute we stepped on stage. We did and the manager stuck to his word and gave each of us a free pizza. I believe I got pepperoni.
Hidden gem: Hot dish on a stick. Please don’t tell anyone about it, the lines are beautifully short right now and it’s the perfect way to start your State Fair day.
Heiruspecs are performing at the Schell’s Stage as part of First Avenue Goes to the Fair on Sept. 3 at 8:00 p.m. Sean McPherson is also a host at The Current.
My favorite state fair memory…hmmm…I think it would have to be seeing Matt Nathanson, Maroon 5, and Train live in concert. It was such a fun show and I had never seen any of them play live before that. Train was honestly more fantastic than I could have predicted! There were quick changes and all sorts of wild things going on stage. It was so much fun.
I think the hidden gem at the State Fair is Mini Donut Beer. Now I don’t drink, but I have had a sip of that stuff and, real talk: if I was a drinker I would probably be posted up there the entire time, no lie. LOL.
Five years ago but I went on the Sling Shot with a friend of mine. I am the type of person that uncontrollably laughs on any kind of ride. Takeoff happened and…let’s just say I am really glad we never saved that video. I’m pretty sure my laughter led to some drool, but hey! It was worth it!
Then there was the time I refused to stop playing the basketball shootout game in the midway…one hour later and 60 bucks down, I won that prize!
For a hidden gem, I love all of the shops with the best sweatshirts in the Merchandise Mart!
Charlie Smith of Eleganza
My favorite memory from the fair is from 2008. I went to see Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings for my first time at the Leinie Lodge. At the start of the show security was standing at the front preventing anyone from dancing in front of the stage but one defiant guy ran up there anyway and started to dance. As security went up to escort him away, Binkie Griptite, the guitarist, waved them off and at that moment everyone who wanted to dance ran up to the stage. I ended up being front row in the crowd looking up at the legendary Miss Jones and her amazing band. At one point, she pulled me out of the audience to get up on stage and dance with her. It was the best live show I’ve ever seen and maybe will ever see. Here’s a photo someone captured of me up there with her that I didn’t know existed until after she passed. R.I.P. Sharon Jones.
Sometimes the best times are when we make sure others are having a good time. One day at the fair after a rainstorm I took a listener’s son to the midway to play some games. After spending over $50 we had won a bunch of stuffed animals, a Nerf gun, and some other prizes. All it took was spending some money to let a kid be a kid so that we all could experience a moment of pure joy.
Only having attended the fair in 2018 and 2019 I’m not sure that I have any secrets to share or hidden gems that I can reveal. But I can say the best day to be at the fair is a rainy day, as it’s significantly less crowded and you can easily get all the snacks your heart desires.
Christy Taylor produces The Current’s Morning Show.
Zach Beinlich: My favorite State Fair memory actually happened at The Current booth in 2010. I was just about to head off to college and going to the State Fair was my last kind of sendoff. We stopped at The Current booth because Trampled by Turtles was playing and I was obsessed at that time. It was the perfect end to the last summer before college and honestly planted the seed of wanting to play at the State Fair someday!
Lars Pruitt: My favorite State Fair memory was seeing Now, Now and Phantogram at the Grandstand. I don’t know if it’s a hidden gem, but seeing the the dogs jump into the water is one of my favorite things.
Seth Blum: I didn’t grow up going to the fair, so my experiences are fairly limited. But seeing Hippocampus at the Leinie stage was pretty cool. And I’m always a sucker for baby animals, so the farm animal area is a must stop for me.
Jake Felstow: I also didn’t grow up in Minnesota, so the State Fair has been a new tradition over the last couple years. It’s definitely one of my wife’s family’s favorite summer activities. My favorite memory is going on the Sky Ride at night and seeing the craziness from the air. The hidden gem has to be stuffing your face with the vegan Minneapple Pie.
Since I was 18 I’ve worked at the Minnesota State Fair and spent multiple days there. Met a lot of cool people, rode all the great rides, saw some great shows, ran around backstage at the Grandstand, met a few artists like Weezer, G-Eazy, AJR, and more. Yet nothing stands out or changed my life until about four years ago when I was taking a walk around the fair and saw this bright yellow stand across from the DNR building. Now, I’ve passed this stand a few times in the times I’ve spent at the fair but something about the first day of the Minnesota State Fair four years ago was a different day. I decided to give that bright yellow stand that said “Dole Whip” a try.
I had no clue what in the world Dole Whip was. It looked like ice cream, but when I got this magical dish for the first time my taste buds were the happiest they have ever been. This very day changed my life forever. I would go to the stand every day I was at the fair. Sometimes I would go three times a day. So my favorite memory has to be the day I had Dole Whip for the first time at the Minnesota State Fair. If you have never had a Dole Whip you are missing out on greatness at the Great Minnesota Get-Together!
Zeke is a host on The Current.