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New tower, full stage, lets acts pull out all the stops

Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line screams out a song during the band’s WE Fest main stage performance Thursday night. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham

For one week in August, the Soo Pass Ranch outside Detroit Lakes plays host to one of the biggest country music festivals in the world.

Over the past 32 years, WE Fest has gone from hay bale seats and a small, uncovered stage to stadium-style seating (in the VIP section) and “the largest outdoor stage in the world,” says the festival’s chief marketing officer, John Gourley.

In fact, that stage, which was purchased from the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee, is so large that the stage crews can set up the instruments and microphones for an entire day’s worth of performers at a time, Gourley added.

“Every act has their equipment in place and tested in the morning,” he said.

The earlier acts on stage have a smaller setup area toward the front of the stage, and as their equipment is moved out to the side, “the stage becomes larger and larger as you progress through the evening,” said Gourley.

“It makes for a really quick, smooth and efficient changeover,” he added.

By the time the headliner takes the stage at 10:45 p.m., the whole stage is open and ready for them. This year, those headline acts — Jason Aldean, Brad Paisley and the Zac Brown Band — took full advantage of that fact.

“This is the first year that the stage has been fully utilized,” Gourley said on Wednesday, adding that all three headliners were planning to bring their “full stadium stage shows” for the first time, with all the accompanying technology.

“It’s a chance to see this stage in its full glory,” Gourley said, adding that there are “no sightline problems” in any of the seating sections.

Part of the reason for the expansion is that this year marked the debut of WE Fest’s new media tower, a permanent structure that was erected behind the VIP section and completed just before the start of the festival on Monday.

The three-tiered tower puts the controls for sound, light and video on separate levels, allowing for greatly expanded capabilities in all three areas.

“People have come to expect perfect sound, lighting and video,” Gourley explained, noting that lighting and special effects have become just as much a part of the show for country performers as they are at rock concerts.

“In the old days country music didn’t have that,” he said, “but now the country guys are bringing out the big production too… it’s a show you just can’t believe.”

And to accommodate the bigger shows that the headline acts brought with them this year, Gourley said WE Fest also doubled the size of its production crews.

“We’ve improved the sound and video (quality) pretty dramatically this year,” he said. “The state of the art keeps evolving… the goal is for the sound to be the same in the front row as it is in the back of general admission, and I think we’ve done that.”

But that’s not all the new technology that has come to WE Fest this year… the festival now boasts its own smart phone app, which debuted about a week before the gates to the Soo Pass opened to welcome the 30,000 or so campers that congregate there each year.

“Now with all the social media that’s available, we get instant feedback, which is one of the reasons why we did the app this year,” Gourley said. “We’ve had a massive number of people downloading it.”

The new app includes not only a full schedule of performers for each day, along with their bios and other helpful information about each of them, but also a listing of all the vendors on site, complete with a map that shows their exact location.

And speaking of maps, the WE Fest app also includes a GPS locator that allows festival attendees to “drop a pin” on the location of their car, campsite, meeting location, or simply to locate where their friends are at the site.

“It allows you to plan your day the way you want,” Gourley said.

And from the vendors’ standpoint, it also allows them to offer more instant specials to entice shoppers, he added.

“You have to continue to evolve and change to keep up with expectations… our audience knows we’re going to give them an experience they can’t get anywhere else.”

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454