Water music

Lake Harriet programmer needs to know who plays for free, and where the amps are

Every year around the time the groundhog starts looking for its shadow, Linda Larson starts thinking summer and booking bands for the Lake Harriet band shell.

Larson has scheduled music in the parks for 16 years.

The Lake Harriet concerts start June 2 and run nightly through Labor Day weekend, 93 shows in all.

Larson -- also the full-time director of the Loring Park shelter and executive director of the Hiking Club -- schedules music at Lake Harriet, Nicollet Island and Minnehaha Falls on a shoestring budget. She has $20,000 to $25,000 to pay for sound technicians, equipment repair and replacement and limited mailings for performers, she said.

The bands perform for free, Larson said. She even has a waiting list of roughly 20 groups who want to play at Lake Harriet.

She used to have an annual budget of about $50,000 to pay musicians, but it got cut eight years ago.

"Since I am able to put together a concert series without paying bands, I'm not sure we'll get it back," she said.

No rock Some people perform to get the exposure, she said. Others, like the Edgewater 8, gets sponsors for their concerts, and they put up a banner. Still others keep coming back as a way of saying thank you for past opportunities to play.

She tries to work in visiting groups when possible, Larson said. For instance, she slotted Garganta Profunda, a Brazilian pop/rock vocal group for Aug. 9. The group is in town for the 6th World Symposium on Choral Music.

Larson tries to provide enough music variety so everyone in the city can go to at least one concert where they really love the music.

Lake Harriet concertgoers get a heavy dose of classical, jazz and pops. The Minneapolis Pops Orchestra, for instance, plays 10 concerts a summer.

"They are grandfathered in," Larson said. "They always have had five weekends since time immemorial."

Unlike the other park venues, the park staff controls the sound system at Lake Harriet -- bands cannot have amps on stage.

"We don't have any rock 'n' roll," Larson said. "We encourage them to go to Nicollet Island or Minnehaha Falls."

"We are in total control of the volume. It has made it more comfortable for the neighborhood."

A music person Larson is a music person. Before working for the Park Board, she was the first staff person at the Southwest Senior Center, later becoming the director. She worked music into the job responsibilities.

"We had a performing group, and we sang for the seniors," she said.

But she came by the job as park band scheduler through a bit of serendipity.

She started with the Park Board in 1979, working as a shelter director before moving to the Board's downtown office in 1987. She was heading up women's sports and had only been downtown for a few weeks when John Hanson, the man who used to schedule concerts, retired.

"It was added to my responsibilities," she said. "I do have a music background. That was just lucky."

A few surprises The job is not without its surprises.

Larson recalled one incident early in her tenure -- way back when Don Fraser was mayor -- that is still talked about in Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church circles, she said.

Her duties have always included coordination of Sunday church services at the band shell; it was the first church service of the season at Lake Harriet and the seats were filled, Larson said.

"They got ready to speak -- and they got no sound," she said. "Someone had broken into the building and stolen all the amps. The Park Police brought enough bull horns for the sermon and for Mayor Fraser to speak."

Another Lake Harriet bandshell disaster story had a happy ending.

"The group didn't show up," Larson said. "My sound team had no band. The place was packed."

That's when one of the sound crew, Pat O'Loughlin, Larson recalls, got the idea to announce an open microphone concert for the evening -- "and was anyone interested in performing?"

"We had everything from kids to senior citizens, from tap dancing and mimics to a cappella singing," Larson said. "Someone ran home to get a guitar."

"I got several letters saying it was the best night they had ever been to at Lake Harriet."

Despite the success -- and some requests to do it again -- the band shell has not had an open microphone since, Larson said. "It's only good when it's not planned."