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Moondance Jam
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An inside look at what it takes to put on a music festival
Moondance Jam to crank up the amps this weekend
Festival starts Thursday

By Paul Nye

July 10, 1997

In 1992, Walker business owners Bill and Kathy Bieloh organized a music festival and barbecue as a way to promote their ranch, Moondance Ranch, then located in the woods of Turtle lake Township Road 46, seven miles east of Walker.

Since then, the ranch has moved to a more visible location on Highway 371 and 200, and has been combined with a wildlife park, formerly Deer Valley.

The music festival has also seen some significant changes, for starters, explosive growth. The first "Moondance Jam and Barbecue" drew between 500 and 1000 people and featured a musical lineup primarily of local and regional bands. The "big headliner" that first year was an acapella group called the "Blenders."

This year, some reports indicate that as many as 30,000 could attend the festival, which has been expanded to three days, to hear groups like REO Speedwagon, America, Corey Stevens, Grand Funk Railroad and more.

Those numbers bring a raised eyebrow of concern combined with an enthusiastic smile of excitement to Bill Bieloh's face. While planning for the Jam takes place all year, Bieloh Knows from the previous years of ups and downs and those surprises always occur. In fact, he's hoping these days that one consistent thing about the Jam doesn't occur this year . . . rain. Rain can affect daily gate sales dramatically and with all the careful planning that goes into the event and a budget that always seems to creep a little higher than the Bielohs care to see, rain has become somewhat of a nasty, but nonetheless "what the heck" kind of word. Whether there is rain or the mere threat of it, the festival still goes on.

Every year has its surprises, Bill says, but this year has seen some rather expensive ones. Just two weeks ago, the Bielohs learned that with the caliber of national bands performing at this year's festival, the production company needed three-phase power, which carried with it an unexpected price tag of $26,000. It had to be done. The irony is that in nearly every previous year of the Jam, Bieloh has had to increase power requirements to the site, and each year he asks the same question, "Is this the last time . . . will this take care of it for the next few years?"

Aside from the logistical details of putting on a growing event such as Moondance Jam, there are the high points. The Jam is continually earning credibility among the public, as well as musicians, promoters and the media, many of whom want a piece of the action, or at least to be involved in some way. The Bielohs make every attempt to accommodate those requests. Bill said that radio stations as far as St. Cloud want to promote the event in exchange for a few tickets. Other similar media offers have been coming in at a fairly steady pace. All of these types of requests help promote the Jam and in someway, benefit the city of Walker and surrounding towns with residual business. Certainly during the Jam, accommodations at hotels, motels and resorts are hard to come by.

A number of the Byrds Celebration, who performed at Moondance Jam V, called Bill last week and said that they had so much fun at the Jam last year that they are canceling two dates in Tennessee and are coming to Minnesota for the Jam this year. "He said if we were to have any cancellations, they'll be there to fill in," Bieloh said. "But they just want to be here to hang out and camp with the other Jammers."

Each year, Moondance Jam produces a clothing line primarily of tee shirts and sweatshirts. Traditionally, the bands performing at the Jam have been listed. However, with the caliber of acts scheduled to appear at this year's Jam, permission had to be gained from each of the acts due to marketing licenses. One of the headlining acts declined to grant permission to use its name on the shirt. However, somehow the band learned that they were the only act who wouldn't be listed on the shirts, which are becoming collector's items among faithful Jammers.

Last week, Bill received a call from one of the band members who was a little miffed over being the only band not listed. He said the band decided that they wanted their name on the shirt no matter what it cost. Bieloh told him that if the band would sign a release, he'd see to it that their name would be printed on the shirts. Fifteen minutes later the deal was done and production of the shirts was literally stopped so that a new plate for printing the shirts could be made. Fifteen shirts had been produced without the band's name. Those shirts will likely become hot collectors items.

Jack Thibault of TEA Productions, the agency which books the national acts and coordinates the production requirements, says that the Jam has a certain mystique about it, "a kind of '90s Woodstock feel-good vibe." Thibault, who promotes several hundred events each year, always manages to get away from the metro area office and come up to the Jam. Jack Jordan, who works with Thibault, also works the Jam. When the two arrive, they always have a smile on their faces, a look that says, "We made it . . . the Woodstock of Northern Minnesota."

Local businesses and residents have supported the heavily promoted Jam since 1992. That is increasing the Orton stations throughout northern Minnesota serving as ticket outlets, among a number of establishments in the area. A number of area businesses set up shop at the Jam site and become rock music festival food or clothing vendors for three days.

The three-day advance tickets sold for $40 until June 30 when they went to $50. However, only $30 daily gate passes are now available to those who didn't purchase advance tickets.

The financial risks of putting on a music festival the magnitude of Moondance Jam are enormous. Thibault says that it typically takes five years for a payback. Without divulging any personal financial information, Bieloh admits that he's had a few rough years with the Jam. There have been several times when he and Kathy have wanted to call it quits. However, Bieloh has heard that presale at ticket outlets throughout northern Minnesota are running at a good pace compared to previous years. That brings another hopeful smile to his face.

But what about the farmhouse on the jam site that is supposedly "haunted?" While Bieloh shared some pretty spooky stories about a refrigerator moving across the floor of the kitchen and leaving no marks and then reappearing while contractors were renovating the house, he added that getting too much into the house's history--both past and present--might not be in the best interests in putting on a successful Jam. Maybe something around Halloween might be in store.