Wallflowers and McBride bring musical flavor to revamped Taste of Minnesota

The location, format and general atmosphere may be very different this year. Like Taste of Minnesota festivals of yore, Saturday’s free music lineup in the revitalized downtown Minneapolis offered an odd mix of nostalgia and crowd-pleasing goodness.

Country music veteran Martina McBride, ’90s rock hitmakers Wallflowers and homegrown alt-country veterans Gear Daddies were the most popular acts on the first of two days of Taste’s second year, in a setting that also feels rather cluttered.

The fenced-off Taste lots are scattered among empty parking lots and blocked-off streets around the Minneapolis Central Library and the north end of Nicollet Mall. It’s not the prettiest spot, and finding a seat is harder than finding a low-calorie place to eat.

The new location, however, was able to accommodate the large turnout effortlessly, despite the beautiful weather on Saturday. The organizers reported that by 3:30 p.m. more than 35,000 visitors had already passed through the gates.

The largest of Taste’s four new stages sits on a crumbly lot wedged between the library, the Four Seasons Hotel and other high-rises. The location means that US Bank Stadium can no longer claim the honor of being Minneapolis’ most echoey music venue. An afternoon set by rapper and DJ Sophia Eris with beatmaker pal Makr was marred mostly by bouncy acoustics and other technical issues.

The atmosphere at the Jazz 88 stage on the north side of Taste was much more inviting, partly because it was one of the few places with trees or grass. Jazz stylist Jennifer Grimm had fans cooling off in the shade there, singing along to Billie Holliday’s “I’ll Be Singing You.”

Since none of the other headliners had much of an Instagram or TikTok following, it was no surprise that many of the attendees who remained on the main stage looked old enough to have been regulars at Taste of Minnesota’s previous editions, which ran from the mid-’80s through the late 2000s on Harriet Island and the State Capitol grounds in St. Paul.

Between Eris and a super-hyped intro from comedian Fancy Ray McCloney, Gear Daddies frontman Martin Zellar joked that his band would “cut the energy in half.” Of course, old favorites like “Zamboni” and “Stupid Boy” did the opposite, drawing large, joyful crowds to sing along. Even the Daddies’ downers were well-received, including “Color of Her Eyes” and “Cut Me Off.”

The Wallflowers opened loud and hard with songs from their latest album, culminating in “The Dive Bar in My Heart” — a nod to Minnesota legends the Replacements, whose bassist Tommy Stinson watched from the sidelines. Wallflowers frontman Jakob Dylan greeted the crowd by cheekily noting that, unlike his father Bob, he wasn’t eligible for a taste of Minnesota.

“You know I’m not from here?” he burst out. “But I thank you for this as a kind of homecoming.”

Despite personnel changes over the years and a long hiatus in the 2010s, the rock singer’s band sounded as solid and energetic as ever. They revisited some of their best-known songs, including the rootsier “6th Avenue Heartache” and “One Headlight.” Instead of giving a (Bob) Dylan preview for the Minnesota festival, Jakob paid tribute to Tom Petty at the end of their set with covers of “Refugee” and “The Waiting.”

In the headline slot, McBride played to a smaller crowd but showed why she’s endured for three decades in Nashville’s male-dominated music business. Her 1993 breakthrough hit “My Baby Loves” led to a string of feel-good love songs, including “Safe in the Arms of Love” and “Love’s the Only House.” Her covers of country classics “Rose Garden” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough (to Take My Man)” also landed well, given that they were launched by two female country music legends. Too bad Taste’s shoddy sound system broke down during the first song.

Taste of Minnesota continues Sunday with a more quintessentially Minnesota music program — and one that should attract plenty of Prince fans — as Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Morris Day and other members of Time stage a rare reunion for the 40th anniversary of “Purple Rain,” preceded by Sounds of Blackness and more.

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