By Tanner Kent
---- — MANKATO -- After a lower-than-usual turnout for last year's event, Solstice organizers have doubled down for this weekend's annual festival of music.
Last year marked the first in Solstice's nine-year history that it wasn't held at Land of Memories Park. After Land of Memories was beset by a string of natural disasters in 2011, city officials relocated its campground and renovated the grounds. Those upgrades, however, changed the layout of the park, making a music festival that typically draws several thousand spectators unfeasible -- at least without spilling onto the nearby soccer fields, a risk that organizers weren't willing to take.
The city did, however, allow Solstice to use Riverfront Park. The change made for much easier preparation -- the stage, sound system and other technical equipment are on-site -- but parking proved a challenge with Riverfront Park's downtown location.
Changes this year include a drop-off zone -- which allows for visitors to drop off their coolers and gear at the Riverfront Park entrance, and then leave to find parking -- as well as a pre-Solstice party tonight at Red Sky Lounge. In addition, organizers feel they have the best musical lineup in recent memory and have designated two new charity benefactors: VINE Faith in Action and Life-Work Planning Center.
"I think parking was a reason for people not going last year," said organizer Val Curtis. "The pick-up/drop-off zone should help."
Tonight's pre-Solstice party begins at 9 p.m. at Red Sky Lounge and includes musical performances from Cornerstone Dub and Ipso Facto.
Curtis said the idea has been fomenting among organizers for several years.
"We finally said, 'You know what? Let's just do it and see what happens,'" she said.
Gates will open at Riverfront Park at noon on both Saturday and Sunday. The musical lineup includes a diverse collection of genres and mix of local and regional bands. The lineup is, of course, anchored by a pair of Solstice regulars: Angry Waters and The Murphy Brothers Band.
The latter is fronted by Steve Murphy, a longtime Mankato musician who was inducted into the Mid-America Music Hall of Fame in 2012. The guitar-heavy rock band is rounded out by Greg George (guitar), Jason Anderson (bass guitar), Dale Bjorklund (drums) and Mark Asche (keyboards).
After a short hiatus from the band, Angry Waters co-founder Carter Johnson has returned to the band. Dan Wiechert said the group is nearing completion on the writing portion of the band's fourth album and said Sunday's 90-minute set will include a mix of old and new material.
"It's been us and Murphy Brothers that have been at every, single Solstice," Wiechert said. "That's a point of pride for us."
This year's event also serves as the endpoint of the inaugural William Wild Memorial Ride. Bikers, bicyclers and walkers will meet at noon on Sunday at Sibley Park to memorialize the Mankato teenager found dead at Riverfront Park in March from a self-inflicted wound. Bikers will ride to Judson and then back to Riverfront Park. Bicyclers and walkers will travel from Sibley Park to Riverfront Park.
The memorial ride is intended to raise awareness for the Yellow Ribbon suicide prevention program. A free-will offering for the organization will be accepted at the gate for Solstice.
If You Go What Solstice When and where Pre-party is 9 p.m. today at Red Sky Lounge; Gates open at noon on Saturday and Sunday at Riverfront Park. Admission $5 to the pre-party (ages 21-plus only); $15 for Saturday admission, $10 for Sunday admission, or $20 for the weekend. Note Coolers are allowed, but plastic bottles only Saturday lineup 1 p.m. - Cornerstone Dub Rock and reggae four-piece from Omaha, Neb. 3 p.m. - 77 Jefferson Original Kansas City reggae band 5 p.m. - TUGG Laid-back alternative reggae band from Wisconsin 7 p.m. - Heatbox Minneapolis one-man beatboxer, live-looper and vocal percussionist 9 p.m. - Useful Jenkins Locally formed festival favorites fresh off fall 2012 CD release Sunday lineup 1 p.m. - good night, gold dust Lyrical, atmospheric and ambitious Mankato five-piece 2 p.m. - Dead Larry/Smokin' Joe Funky, eclectic rock transplants from Iowa 4 p.m. - Angry Waters Solstice mainstays playing rock that is "distilled in Judson" 6 p.m. - Murphy Brothers Band Guitar-heavy power band with hall of fame frontman