June 17--In the summer of 2004, Brian Horst approached then-St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly with a simple idea: Wouldn't a free concert series in Mears Park, the quiet gem of downtown St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood, be great?
"He called my bluff and told me to go for it," said Horst, the owner of St. Paul's Details Style Lab and a guy with zero experience in staging live concerts.
That September, Horst organized four concerts, with one beer stand, one food stand and tiny crowds. He tried again the next summer and expanded to six shows. The following summer, he doubled the number.
Now, the Music in Mears series is celebrating its 10th season, with a full schedule of free Thursday-night concerts running through August.
"In the beginning, there were days when it was rough," Horst said. "We'd throw a show on a cool evening with a little drizzle for 150. But the people in the neighborhood always seemed to love the series. It's a gorgeous park that just needed something with a little more vitality."
These days, an average of 500 to 600 people show up for Music in Mears each week, with that number sometimes bubbling up into the thousands depending on the bands performing. Horst won't take credit for it, but in the years since the concert series launched, the park has hosted other musical events, most notably the early-September Concrete and Grass Music Festival.
Over the years, Horst has added staff, including a booker/publicist and sound engineer. Paying for it
all has always been a challenge, but grants and sponsorships help cover expenses. Last year, Horst struck a deal with the Lowertown Entertainment District for a share of beer sales, which put the series in the black for the first time. The goal, Horst said, is to eventually fund Music in Mears without grants.
"It's been a labor of love," Horst said. "It's great to see people having fun in the park and being part of the community. I'm proud to be a part of it."
Music in Mears is just one of many options for free outdoor concerts. Indeed, it's possible to book a gratis gig for every day of the summer. Here's a look at what the Twin Cities has to offer:
MUSIC IN MEARS
What: A weekly series of concerts featuring acts like Haley Bonar (July 11), the Twilight Hours (July 25) and Heiruspecs (Aug. 15).
When: Thursdays through Aug. 29 (no show July 4)
Where: Mears Park, St. Paul
SUMMER DANCE SERIES
What: A social dance event sponsored by the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts that pairs live bands with dance instructors. Styles include salsa (June 20), polka (June 27) and swing (July 18).
When: Thursdays through July 25 (no show July 4)
Where: Rice Park, St. Paul (In case of rain, events will move into the Saint Paul Hotel or Landmark Center)
MUSIC IN THE PARKS
What: St. Paul's collection of more than 100 band, dance and choral performances. The lineup includes everything from the Minnesota Sinfonia to the North Star Barbershop Chorus to the Bavarian Musikmeisters.
When: Nearly every day through Sept. 1
Where: Como Lakeside Pavilion, Phalen Amphitheater, Rice Park, Raspberry Island and Mears Park
CONCERTS IN THE PARKS
What: A series of more than 200 outdoor concerts sponsored by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. The dizzying array of performances include everything from cover bands to orchestral ensembles playing dozens of genres, including jazz, blues, country and swing.
When: Every day through Sept. 2
Where: Five Minneapolis venues, including Lake Harriet Bandshell, Nicollet Island Amphitheater, Father Hennepin Bluffs Park, Minnehaha Falls Park and Bryant Square Park
NORTHROP SUMMER MUSIC FESTIVAL
What: The University of Minnesota's long-running series, now in its 59th year. It includes lunchtime shows on Wednesdays and Friday night gigs.
When: Evening shows include Chastity Brown (June 21), Toki Wright (July 19) and Voices Merging (July 26), while the lunchtime performances feature Steve Kaul and the Brass Kings (July 10) and Gloss (July 31)
Where: Northrop Plaza, 84 Church St. N.E., Minneapolis
TWIN CITIES JAZZ FESTIVAL
What: An annual festival. This year it features headliners Kenny Werner, Cyrus Chestnut, Matt Slocum and Walter Smith III.
When: June 27-29
Where: Mears Park acts as the anchor, with additional shows taking place at Union Depot (on an outdoor stage) and in nearby venues (some of which may charge admission)
NINE NIGHTS OF MUSIC
What: Evening programs that open with dance lessons and close with a live band and dancing, in styles ranging from Balkan party music to Finnish tango.
When: Nine consecutive Tuesday nights starting July 2
Where: Minnesota History Center, 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul
What: Community festival that includes live music on two stages. The Tim Sigler Band, 1985, the School of Rock, Viva Kneivel and Armadillo Jump are booked this year.
When: July 19-21
Where: Cleveland Avenue and Ford Parkway, St. Paul
SUMMER MUSIC AND MOVIES
What: Four-week series of live concerts and film screenings sponsored by the Walker Art Center. The lineup includes bands like Prissy Clerks, the Roe Family Singers and the Chalice paired with films chosen by Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas.
When: Four consecutive Monday nights starting July 29
Where: Loring Park, Minneapolis (In case of rain, events will move to the Walker Cinema)
IRISH FAIR OF MINNESOTA
What: An event billed as the largest free Irish culture celebration in the country. This year's headliners include Gaelic Storm, the Tossers, the Belfast Cowboys, Wild Colonial Bhoys and Boiled in Lead.
When: Aug. 9-11
Where: Harriet Island, St. Paul
Pop music critic Ross Raihala can be reached at 651-228-5553. Follow him at Twitter.com/RossRaihala.
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