St. Paul music lovers are spoiled for choice in the summer months, particularly when you consider that much of this season’s live performances are not only plentiful, but free, in the form of outdoor concerts: Minnesota History Center has “Nine Nights of Music;” there’s the Twin Cities Jazz Fest and Ordway’s Summer Dance series, not to mention the city-sponsored “Music in the Parks” program, which brings live shows by regional and local acts to neighborhood parks and rec centers all summer long.
Out of all these, early September’s Concrete and Grass festival in Lowertown (a Knight Arts grantee) is the one I make sure to catch, without fail, every year. It’s not the largest music festival around here by a long shot, and while the lineup is always eclectic and beautifully performed, the musical fare isn’t flashy. But the logistics are so inviting: Concrete and Grass draws a good-sized crowd to Mears Park every year, but it’s never a madhouse. This time of year is particularly congenial, too: gorgeous, late summer/early fall weather – still warm, but noticeably free of the oppressively damp heat of mid-summer.
By my reckoning, Concrete and Grass is also the friendliest of the warm season’s music festivals: people bring lawn chairs and actually sit and listen to the players; in the grassy areas of the park, small kids have room to run around and play – far enough away from the stage that young families need not fear bothering those listening up front, but still plenty close to hear the music and feel part of the action. One feels welcome to come and go (another huge plus for those of us with antsy children). It feels like a townie crowd; the vibe is more National Night Out than Rock the Garden. (You can get a feel for what it’s like in Matt Peiken’s little 3-Minute Egg clip on the festival from 2009, embedded above.)
And of course, the roster is always strong: musicians from the Twin Cities Jazz Fest and a sampling of the fall performance season in store from the Ordway Center for Performing Arts and its “Arts Partners” (all of which also perform from the venue, and happen to be Knight Arts grantees): Schubert Club, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Opera. For three days, festival-goers are treated to a grab-bag of genres and styles: from chamber music to hip hop, opera to New Orleans jazz, American roots and global pop sounds. The headliners this year are aces, too: Minneapolis-based polymath jazz instrumentalist, Dosh; Jayhawks frontman and co-founder (and supergroup Golden Smog regular) Gary Louris; and the New Orleans-style Jack Brass Band.
This isn’t the biggest of the Twin Cities music festivals, but don’t overlook it – Concrete and Grass just may be the most convivial of them all.
Concrete and Grass music festival runs Thursday (7-9 p.m.), Friday (5-10 p.m.) and Saturday (4-10 p.m.), September 6 through 8, in Mears Park, St. Paul. To see the full schedule of performances, logistical information and more about the participating artists, visit www.concreteandgrass.com.