While Naw’lins it ain’t, Sioux Falls is the home to a respectable – in terms of music and attendance – JazzFest each summer. The latest edition wrapped up Saturday night with an estimated 60,000-70,000 people checking out headliner Sheryl Crow at a soccer complex located near the Big Sioux River.
Per usual, the event was free – or, at least, there weren’t any admission fees. Things work out financially, we’re told, thanks to corporate sponsors and donations and parking fees and beverage sales. That fan friendly business model does not prevent JazzFest from bringing in big names (Crow, Joe Walsh, Bo Diddley) or critical darlings (Dr. John, North Mississippi All Stars, Robert Cray Band). By my count, there were at least three Grammy winners on this year’s main stage over three days. There’s a second stage, too, reserved for local and/or up-and-coming acts that often play to a younger crowd. Sioux Falls rap crew Soulcrate, to name one, upped its stock through a series of high-energy, late-night shows there.
The lack of ticket sales shapes the proceedings – that can’t be understated. It’s the only way to draw numbers like that in a community of 154,000 (and, in this extremely odd case, on the same day Tim McGraw, REO Speedwagon and KISS also were in town). For example, I had no problem taking my family of six despite the threat of rain and a considerable walk – the parking lot reached capacity – because there was nothing to lose. At the very least, we’d be treated to some portion of an evening of food, music and people watching with little to no safety concerns.
Why not drop some cash on food when you’re not paying to get in the hypothetical door? JazzFest isn’t the Minnesota State Fair in terms of grub, but it’s not far off. In the two evenings I spent there, I ate or sampled: brisket tacos, funnel cake, beignets, cheese curds and strawberry and Nutella crepes. (The same place – a truck with bricks drawn on it called The Castle – made the beignets and crepes, and somehow had relatively short lines … because people prefer corn dogs? Sacrebleu!) I didn’t walk more than maybe 150 yards for any of it because we’ve made a tradition of sitting in a spot that gets shade late in the day – a must for the little ones – and is a whiff away from the main section of food stands. A new event app made scouting vittles easier, but proved to be less fun than the old-fashioned way.
As for the people watching, it’s fantastic throughout due – again – to the lack of barriers for getting in. It’s as diverse a scene as you’ll find in South Dakota (except maybe Sturgis – I may never know). But I’ve settled on a favorite group: The late arrivers, folks that show up around 11 p.m., less than an hour before close. They’re usually in the 18-35 demographic and often dressed to attend a club rather than an outdoor festival. If they’re on the prowl, and I assume that they are, shouldn’t they show up at least a little earlier in order to give themselves more time to find Mr. or Ms. Right (or Mr. or Ms. Good Enough)? The math from my awkward pre-married years says, yes. Definitely, yes.
Of course, that would take away some of the charm; JazzFest is a great scene in part because it’s the same and different year-to-year, day-to-day. We’ll be back next year no matter the headliners to eat and play and listen and contribute to the atmosphere.