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State Fair music: too formulaic in the grandstand and thin on quality talent on free stages

Blame excessive caution and/or tight purse strings in a down economy, but the musical offerings at the 2009 Minnesota State Fair scheduled to begin on Thursday stand as one of the venerable institution’s weakest and least imaginative lineups in the past quarter-century.

Yes, there are hedonistic revelries that are guaranteed money-makers, such as the Kid Rock-Lynyrd Skynyrd pairing on Saturday night and American Idol icon Kelly Clarkson on Sunday. Thursday’s double bill of Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal — dubbed with the New Orleans-oriented pun “Bontaj Roulet” — will meld blues, soul and various indigenous world musics with joyful aplomb. But both the star power and the capacity for serendipitous surprises deteriorate quickly after that.

Country fans will have to make do with rock-inflected demi-star Jason Aldean (this Friday) and the gospel-infused comfort food offered up by Randy Travis (Sept. 1) — not exactly a killer one-two punch. The die-hard political progressive Jackson Browne — who unplugged his old ’70s hits for a couple of discs before releasing “Time the Conqueror” last year — will vainly try to stave off nostalgia on Aug. 31.

The last six grandstand shows go through the motions. There is a sop to the jam-band throng via O.A.R. on Sept. 2, followed by the Christian band Casting Crows on the 3rd, another Prairie Home Companion fair show on the 4th, an REO Speedwagon/Styx/38 Special trifecta that will keep the dolts off Dan Patch Avenue for a few hours on the 5th, the free amateur show on the 6th and a ventriloquist, Jeff Dunham on the 7th. It’s a no-doz gauntlet that should keep the excitement meter hovering somewhere between comatose and taciturn.

The relatively sparse array of quality gigs scheduled on the free stages around the fairgrounds adds to the dolor. In the past one had to factor in at least one or two must-see gigs on the itinerary between the artwork, rides and animal barns, be it Los Lobos or Greg Brown or Robert Earl Keen or Wayne Hancock. This year, there is the perpetually touring Wailers — I’ve seen them three times in the past twelve months — a couple of solid Louisiana-based attractions in the Cajun accordion of Steve Riley and his Mamou Playboys and the jazzy showmanship of Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue (who were a pleasant revelation at the Iowa City Jazz Festival earlier this summer), and an appearance by the always intriguing Paul Cebar of Milwaukee, fronting what he calls Tomorrow Sound. But the heights and depth of previous years just isn’t there.

That said, I’ll wander the fairgrounds at least once or twice this season, hoping to be ambushed by a band or performer I previously hadn’t heard or properly appreciated before. And if it doesn’t happen, there’s always the carpet slide and the people-watching.

Here are the links to the free shows and the grandstand schedule for this year’s State Fair. And here is the 2009 Minnesota State Fair homepage.

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