Re-christened in the sweat, Summit, and molten tattoo run-off of nearly 11,000 music lovers, Rock the Garden returned to the Walker Art Center grounds Saturday after a year on Boom Island.
A cloud of laid-back joy hung over the crowd in the afternoon, and the energy crescendoed to a climax of '80s nostalgia and cry-shouting that night. Was the Garden sufficiently rocked? Read on for a run-down of each of the day's performances.
Glaspy's voice, modulating between a matured growl and an anguished cry, could have creaked straight out of a cabin-marooned ham radio. The slow strum 'n' twang of her guitar work brought a live intensity to the introspective mood of last year’s debut full-length, Emotions and Math, while fitting the fuzziness of the sweltering day. Glaspy rasped on through the self-conscious “You Don’t Want Me” and an angsty “Situation,” and eventually she and her mustachioed bandmates won over the chatty, still-gathering crowd.
Car Seat Headrest
Car Seat Headrest didn’t kick over mic stands. They didn’t climb up light fixtures or thrash their way into the growing onlookers. What frontman Will Toledo did was the most punk move of all: He wore a black turtleneck through a 45 minute set in 90 degree weather. This getup prompted more than one “wow” and even a “What is he hiding?” The lament-rockers entered apprehensively on the repeated loops of “Vincent,” then the mood rose from quiet to austere, guitars shredding by the end of “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” as Toledo clutched his face and sank to the ground. When Toledo mumble-screamed through “Fill in the Blank,” the band throbbed like a collectively anxious heart.
“Who the fuck is Dwynell Roland?” the rapper asked, acknowledging the question on many Garden-rockers' minds. (Of course, City Pages readers already knew.) The first performer on the exclusively local Garden Stage (and the event's only hip-hop act) the fresh-faced swaggerer answered the query with a distinctly high-pitched laugh and the most stage presence to be seen that day. His flow started controlled and serious, then grew feverous and urgent, and he jumped into the crowd barely three songs into his set. Eventually pulled back up by his crew, Roland continued to bounce around like the stage was his own personal playground, leaving room for bars from his friend and producer Travis Gorman. Roland's Doomtree godfather P.O.S also showed up for a giddy, crowd-pleasing rendition of Roland’s “Been Here.” Later, Roland shouted out his family in the back, who had never seen him perform before, asking the crowd to wave to them before launching back into another torrent of party rap. Adding to the fun was Roland’s t-shirt, which displayed a tweet from Brian Oake extolling his talent.
Sweating along with a crowd whose faces were reflected off his Ray-Bans, Benjamin Booker came out fast and edgy, the hip-shaking whisper heard on his recordings beefed up to a rock and roll roar. Booker and his gang plowed through their set, though he made sure to take time between songs to remind everyone to stay hydrated so they wouldn't get “pebbles in their penises” – a reference to a time his father got kidney stones from not drinking enough water on a camping trip. There was a slight lull at the start of “Off the Ground,” with Booker opting for a quieter, bluesy tone, but soon he ripped back into his Epiphone for a raucous finale. But maybe the biggest cheer came when Booker mentioned that he'd brought along his high school friend Kelly, because she was from Minnesota.
The youngest act of the day was there to celebrate, and their first time playing Rock the Garden wasn't the only occasion: Before even picking up their instruments, Bruise Violet encouraged us to sing “Happy Birthday” for drummer Danielle Cusack’s 21st. Between harmonic punk tirades, the trio recounted the time at RTG 2015 when they basically cried through Babes in Toyland's entire set. The show breezed along quickly even by punk standards, getting louder and sweatier until “Birthday Beyotch” sash, sunglasses, and composure were all discarded. Amid frequent waves of feedback, the band chanted “Maybe You’re the Problem” and “Gutter Boy” to a crowd of older millennials, teenage girls, and some gutter boys who maybe are the problem.
In front of their biggest audience since reuniting, Prince's old crew valiantly channelled their late purple leader's spirit, jamming to classics like “Kiss” and “I Would Die 4 U” with the chops of a legendary touring band. Justin Vernon joined them on the main stage for “Erotic City,” and the response was fittingly orgasmic, helping to wrap up nearly an hour of nostalgia-dripping funk. Ear-muffed children cried. 40 year olds danced. A few under-30s rolled their eyes. VIPs looked down on the throng from their ivory-rooftop’d vantage. It was truly a spectacle for all.
Dead Man Winter
The only proper follow up to one group of local heroes was another: Dead Man Winter on the smaller Garden Stage. Lead by David Simonett of Trampled by Turtles (profiled in City Pages earlier this year) and abetted by local blues rattler Erik Koskinen (who literally smoked a cigarette the entire set), the folk collective played sunset tunes from behind the silhouette of the Spoonbridge and Cherry, pausing once to ask the score of the Twins' game. If the crowd hadn’t been treated to a set of Prince classics just moments before, it would have easily been the most Minnesotan moment of the day.
I'm a Bon Iver skeptic, but the earnest commitment of Justin Vernon and his “sad sax of shit” (his words for his horn players, not mine) melted even my own cold, meme-filled heart – it's hard to deny the effect that dude’s voice has when sync’d over a brass section. The show traced a path of 22, A Million almost perfectly from beginning of album to end, with brief detours for the likes of “Minnesota, WI” and the quintessential “Skinny Love,” which nearly brought the extravaganza to a close. But Vernon rushed back onstage after perhaps the shortest encore interlude in history to say “Hey, we’ve got two more minutes. I hope no one get sad or mad or fired but we’re gonna play another song” – and that song, to no one's apparent disappointment, was “Beth/Rest.”
Click here to see our photo slideshow of Rock the Garden 2017