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Let the celebration begin!: WE Fest's 35th anniversary kicks off Thursday

Audience members enjoy country music band LOCASH during WE Fest 2016 at Soo Pass Ranch. The 35th annual festival gets underway this Thursday, Aug. 3. (Photo by Matt Hellman/Forum News Service)1 / 2
Wednesday morning was already cookin' out at the We Fest gates, as cars and campers were rolling in. (Photo by Paula Quam/Tribune)2 / 2

Though the celebrating has already begun for some — campers began lining up outside the festival grounds as early as Monday morning, and the first of two "pre-party" concerts took place last night (Tuesday), with another to follow this evening — the 35th edition of WE Fest doesn't officially get underway until Thursday afternoon, when the gates to the main concert bowl open for the first time at 2 p.m.

In honor of the 35th anniversary, festival presenters Townsquare Media have made some impressive upgrades that concert goers are sure to notice.

"We've got a great new bar that we've built in the bowl that will be open to all of our guests," says Sally Lidinsky, the festival's assistant director. "It's in a brand new building... and I believe it's almost 100 feet of bar space in there."

There are even a few TVs where guests can watch the Main Stage performances while they relax and enjoy their drinks, she added.

"We also have a brand new VIP hospitality area with an upgraded WE Club experience," said Lidinsky, adding that they've brought in a new caterer this year as well.

"We really feel with those two things (the new bar in the concert bowl and improved VIP hospitality area) that we've upgraded the entire WE Fest experience for everyone," she said. "As you know this is our 35th anniversary so we really wanted to take it to the next level."

There are a few new food vendors in the concert bowl as well, Lidinsky added, and guests will also notice that there is a larger selection of liquid refreshment available.

"For the first time, we're selling liquor in the concert bowl this year," she said (previously, only beer and nonalcoholic beverages were available outside of the VIP and saloon areas).

The WE Fest app, which is available to both iPhone and Android users via their respective app stores, has also been updated.

"We recommend that everyone at the festival download the app," said Lidinsky. "We have a 'find your campsite' feature to help you remember where you're camping and help you get back there, we've got a chance to win some great prizes (only available through the app), and it's also a way to keep our guests informed."

Things like an up-to-the-minute schedule and complete festival lineup, with quick filters for finding your favorite artists; severe weather notifications and other last-minute happenings not listed in the official program; and in-depth information about all the scheduled performers can all be found there, along with a scavenger hunt, a "My Schedule" feature for creating a personalized daily calendar during the festival, and even ticket purchasing for next year's festival — yes, 2017 guests can already renew their seats for 2018, even before this year's festival has officially gotten underway!

Of course, as usual, the main attraction at WE Fest is the music — and the lineup includes an impressive mixture of up-and-coming and veteran performers, from headliners Lady Antebellum, Luke Bryan and the Zac Brown Band to returning favorites Alan Jackson and Darius Rucker.

But first, for those who would like to get a little preview of what the festival has to offer, there will be a "pre-party" at the Barn Stage tonight (Wednesday), featuring regional artists Dan Brekke, the Devon Worley Band and Boots, who will take the stage at 7 p.m., 9 p.m. and 11 p.m., respectively.

"The pre-party is free and open to the public," says Lidinsky. Gates open at 6:30 p.m., and both the Barn Stage and saloon will be open throughout the festivities, which wind down around 12:30 a.m.

Main stage lineup

Solo artist Michael Ray is excited to be making his WE Fest debut on Thursday, Aug. 3 in the 4:30 p.m. slot.

"After living vicariously through the photos and videos of my other artist friends, being a part of it all... I think it's going to be a really good time," he said in a telephone interview.

It will also be an opportunity for many of his fans to hear his latest single, "Get to You" — which was just released to radio a couple of weeks ago — performed live for the first time.

And Ray has also been selected as the up-and-coming artist to be featured for the first night's "After Party" on the Barn Stage, which is designed to have a more intimate, up-close-and-personal feel than the Main Stage.

"That's where we shine," says Ray, who travels with a six-piece touring band — several of whom shared the same apartment that Ray moved into when he first came to Nashville from his hometown in Eustis, Fla.

"There were six of us sharing a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment," he said, joking that it was "like a KOA."

Today, however, Ray has his own home on the outskirts of Nashville, though he tries to get back to his native Eustis — which featured prominently in his debut single, "Kiss You in the Morning," a No. 1 hit for him back in 2015 — as often as possible.

"I try to get back there when I can, but it's mainly around the holidays, when the touring kind of slows down," he said. "Luckily, my family likes to travel to see the shows... if we're playing anywhere in Florida, they're all there."

For now, however, he's focused on Thursday's show, which will also feature Brett Young, Kelsea Ballerini (who made her Shooting Star Casino debut earlier this year), Alan Jackson and headliners Lady Antebellum, who will close out the main stage performances at 10:45 p.m.

Friday's lineup will start off with another WE Fest first-timer, Logan Brill, who makes her Main Stage debut at 2:45 p.m. She will be followed by Cody Johnson, the Eli Young Band, Darius Rucker and, last but not least the Zac Brown Band, who take the stage at 10:15 p.m. Brill will tackle the "after party" duties as well, taking the Barn Stage by storm at 12:30 a.m.

Saturday's Main Stage lineup kicks off with another female artist, RaeLynn, who first came to fame as a quarterfinalist on the second season of NBC's popular TV singing competition, "The Voice," back in 2012, when she was just 17.

"I've been singing my whole life, but I started honing my talent and performing professionally when I was 16," said the artist, whose full name is Racheal Lynn Woodward, in a recent telephone interview.

It wasn't long after that RaeLynn landed on "The Voice," where she reached the quarterfinals as a part of Team Blake (Shelton). She says she's grateful for the experience.

"I think it's all about how you take it," said Woodward. "You have to know going in that when the chair turns around for you, you're not a superstar — yet. But It's a great promotion tool for any artist to have instant fans and have that connection with them."

The real work begins when the show is over, she added. "It's just like anything you do — you have to work hard toward it. It takes time and commitment... showing up every day, for every gig, and just putting your whole heart and soul into it. Music is the only thing I could ever see myself doing. It just comes naturally to me."

RaeLynn will start things off on the Main Stage at 3 p.m. Saturday, followed by Kane Brown, Randy Houser, and Brett Eldredge. Headliner Luke Bryan takes the stage at 10:45 p.m., and his set will be followed by some Finale Fireworks, at approximately 12:15 a.m. Sunday. The action will continue over at the Barn Stage, however, where the "after party" featuring Kane Brown gets underway at 12:30 a.m.

For more information, or to purchase tickets, please visit www.wefest.com.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 18-plus years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Detroit Lakes School Board. 

(218) 844-1454
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