Grandstand review: Darci Lynne closes out Fair; Okee Dokee Brothers stand out

Where are you headed, Darci Lynne? Once you’ve carved out a niche as unique as hers in the entertainment world, what would be the optimal career move?

In case you haven’t heard of Darci Lynne, she was the 12-year-old girl from Oklahoma who emerged as 2017’s champion on the “America’s Got Talent” TV show. (The one with Simon Cowell and company, not to be confused with “American Idol,” which people do.) She wowed 52 million viewer/voters as a ventriloquist comedian and singer with a voice way outsized for her age, especially impressive since she sings with her mouth closed, letting her puppet companions seize the spotlight.

Two years later, she returned for a competition of prior champions, and finished as runner-up, although she arguably outdid herself in versatility by both channeling Tina Turner and singing an operatic aria. So what does Ms. Darci Lynne Farmer do for an encore?

She hits the road with a multi-city tour that closed the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand schedule on Monday afternoon into early evening. The most family-friendly offering of the year at the former racetrack on Dan Patch Avenue, it proved a combination of revisiting past glories and trying out a new direction as a pop singer and songwriter sans puppets.

Her 90-minute performance picked up momentum as it progressed, at its best when young Ms. Farmer unleashed her R&B pipes both via a large mouse named Oscar and without him on a fine interpretation of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing.” But the comedy part of her act lacked imagination and rhythm, seemingly holding for laughs that rarely arose from the 2,664 in attendance.

But it’s hard not to root for her, in that she has a terrific vocal range and tremendous versatility in her genre jumping. You’d be hard pressed to find a better closed-mouth singer. And there’s much fun to be found in her act, as when diva rabbit Petunia (who has an ego the size of the Muppets’ Miss Piggy and not too different a personality) engaged in a duet with Lynne and covered her ventriloquist partner’s mouth to take the highest notes for herself. Or when cowgirl Katie yodeled her way through a traditional country number. (O.K., you try yodeling with your mouth closed.)

Actually, this was a case where the warmup act proved more enjoyable than the headliner, in that one of the most popular groups in children’s music, the Okee Dokee Brothers, led things off with a far more inventive set. The Minneapolis-based band has secured almost annual Grammy nominations for its albums full of songs that celebrate the great outdoors, each inspired by some great adventure the singing and songwriting duo of Justin Lansing and Joe Mailander has taken together, be it canoeing down the Mississippi, hiking the Appalachian Trail, or taking on the Continental Divide on horseback.

The band’s sound is rooted in bluegrass, and it even has a clogger for a percussionist in the athletic Andy Lambert. The thing that stood out Monday in their songs for kids is that there’s a lot of heart in them, and a very clearly caring side, never expressed more tenderly than in “Hope Machine,” a song the group released early in the pandemic that’s a sweet but never cloying pep talk for kids caught in the middle of something challenging, offering tips for getting through it like “Talk quiet and listen loud” and “Open windows, open blinds, open hearts, open minds.” And open-hearted seems a good description of their style.

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