This was hard.
“Let’s rank all the Rock the Garden lineups,” we decided one day not so long ago when we were much younger and more carefree, unaware of how daunting a task we’d proposed.
Turns out, RTG lineups are pretty damn consistent. They’re constructed to appeal to a broad audience of music-lovers, and damn if they don’t usually succeed. Even when the headliners aren’t jaw-droppers, there’s a cumulative effect of one solid act following the other. The distance between the best and the worst of them is all-but-infinitesimal.
Still, everything must be ranked eventually. Those are the rules of the internet, and we didn’t make ‘em. Don’t believe me? Read the Telecommunications Act of 1996. (Actually, just don’t believe me.) So, on the eve of Rock the Garden 2018, here -- for your grumbling, dissenting, begrudgingly assenting (dis)pleasure -- is every Rock the Garden lineup, from its humble beginnings 20 years ago as a Walker Art Center event to its later reinvention with the Current’s participation, ranked
MGMT, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, OK Go, Retribution Gospel Choir
The consensus pick for weakest Rock the Garden, if only because formerly charming electro-indie-poppers MGMT had made themselves over as self-indulgent experimentalists, and their set had garden-rockers streaming from the hill long before they played their signature tunes. Not that they had much chance of topping the hot Sharon Jones set that came before.
The Jayhawks, Hot Head Swing Band
It seems unfair to even rank the inaugural Rock the Garden, which was basically an embryonic version of the more elaborate festivities to come, a Jayhawks concert that was unfortunately interrupted by outdoor rock’s greatest nemesis, rain. But like we said, we have to.
Metric, Silversun Pickups, Bob Mould, Low, Dan Deacon
An eventful year, with the headliners all-but-upstaged by two standout performances. When an early thunderstorm sent everyone scurrying inside the parking garage, an undaunted Dan Deacon threw an underground dance party. And Low’s famed 27-minute version of “Do You Know How to Waltz?” was capped by Alan Sparhawk’s concise political statement “drone not drones,” which launched an activist avant-garde movement.
14th: 2014 (Saturday)
De La Soul, Matt & Kim, Best Coast, Jeremy Messersmith, Lizzo
Really, what is the deal with Matt & Kim? Are they some sort of elaborate twee meta-troll? A cutesy-pop long con designed to test the patience of Current listeners? Rest of the lineup slapped though.
The Hold Steady, Trampled by Turtles, Doomtree, Tune-Yards, Howler
The safest, most locally geared RTG ever. With the exception of Oakland’s looptastic tUnE-yArDs, Minnesotans were very familiar with every act on the bill. Still, nothin’ wrong Edina’s favorite son shout-singing the hits on a perfect Minneapolis summer night.
Medeski Martin & Wood, Marc Ribot and Los Cubanos Postizos, Iffy
Probably the jammiest of all RTG jams, as you’d expect with the open-ended post-jazz of MM&W atop the bill. But while we’ve got your attention here, can we put in a good word for Marc Ribot? Whether you know it or not, you’ve heard him make brilliantly weird guitar noises on Tom Waits and Elvis Costello records. His two albums with Los Cubanos Postizos, The Prosthetic Cubans and ¡Muy Divertido! were excellent, and his current work with Ceramic Dog is among his best.
11th: 2015 (Sunday)
Modest Mouse, Babes in Toyland, Seun Kuti and Egypt 80, JD McPherson, The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger
The final two-day RTG experiment! Sunday’s big event was the deafening hometown victory lap of Babes in Toyland, Minneapolis’ freshly reunited grunge icons. The sons of two legends performed -- Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger’s Sean Lennon and Afrobeat torchbearer Seun Kuti—as did Modest Mouse, who were touring on their worst album. JD McPherson's fashion choices were criticized by some:
Summer in Minnesota is like Winter in Oklahoma. I was freezing. ☃❄️— JD McPherson (@jdmcphersonjr) May 27, 2016
The Decemberists, Calexico, Yeasayer, Solid Gold
RTG's early white indie dude theme steamrolls ahead. Brooklyn’s Yeasayer and locals Solid Gold—both late products of the short-lived “blog band” era—were beginning to break nationally, something Latin-tinged Calexico accomplished a dozen years earlier under blogless circumstances. On their second major-label album, that year’s The Hazards of Love, the the headlining Decemberists began heaping ambitiously prog-y impulses onto Colin Meloy’s bookish storytelling. At the time, Solid Gold and Yeasayer could have probably opened for the Decemberists at First Ave, so not much festival value here.
Wilco, The Bad Plus, Fog
Not long after Yankee Foxtrot Hotel demonstrated how far they broadened their sound from its alt-country beginnings, Wilco topped a lineup of local experimentalists: jazz heavyweights the Bad Plus and Andrew Broder’s avant-rock group Fog. Good arty fun for all.
My Morning Jacket, Neko Case, Booker T. Jones, Tapes 'n Tapes
Remember Tapes 'n Tapes? The local indie-rockers were among the buzziest of all the blog bands, and just sorta fizzled out. On the other end of the career spectrum, R&B great Booker T. Jones sizzled up “Green Onions” as a left-field yet delightful RTG booking. Two twangy, ‘00s-era indie heavyweights —golden-voiced Neko Case and jam-inclined My Morning Jacket—returned the fest to its stock-in-trade sound.
Andrew Bird, the New Pornographers, Cloud Cult, Bon Iver
Before he was a globetrotting, Grammy-winning, Kanye-collab’ing megastar, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon was the heartbroken Wisconsin cabin guy. Here, one year removed from his For Emma, Forever Ago debut, the RTG audience got to experience vintage, acoustically howling, bare-bones Bon Iver. Catnip for Current listeners came via indie-rock standbys Andrew Bird, the New Pornographers, and locally sourced Cloud Cult.
David Byrne, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, Barbara Cohen
Maybe the afterglow of Byrne’s recent triumph at the Orpheum is coloring our memories, but we have fond recollections of this groovy early RTG effort.
Sonic Youth, Stereolab, Sunship Sextet
A sentimental favorite. Sonic Youth really were meant to be heard outdoors, where their artfully mistuned clamor can drift and sprawl with multi-layered ambient grandeur. We miss them much.
The Flaming Lips, Chance the Rapper, Poliça, M. Ward, Hippo Campus, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, GRRRL PRTY, Plague Vendor
As City Pages refused to stop pointing out, this year’s RTG featured no garden and was held at Boom Island Park, which is not an island at all. The relocated fest was afforded the space for a jumbo lineup spread across two stages. The Flaming Lips, a reliably epic festival band, delivered the goods, but the real story was Chance the Rapper. The oozingly talented MC had just dropped Coloring Book, his star-making LP that would win the Grammy for Best Rap Album, and, somehow, RTG snagged him as the second-billed act. Locally, we said goodbye to Lizzo’s GRRRL PRTY, witnessed Hippo Campus’ continued rise, and enjoyed a sun-baked Poliça set.
Bon Iver, The Revolution, Benjamin Booker, Car Seat Headrest, Margaret Glaspy, Dead Man Winter, Bruise Violet, Dwynell Roland
Quality top-to-bottom. The vital timing of Bon Iver, returning champion with a brand-new album, and the Revolution, all-star backing band honoring their recently deceased leader, made this one feel special.
2nd: 2015 (Saturday)
Belle and Sebastian, Conor Oberst, Courtney Barnett, Lucius, thestand4rd
Saturday saw thestand4rd, a weirdo hip-hop supergroup from St. Paul, test the comfort levels of public radio listeners. Then came a parade of indie-rockers with serious songwriting chops—Courtney Barnett, Conor Oberst, and Belle & Sebastian, the later of whom encored with a giddy dance party. Oh, and Lucius was there, too.
1st: 2014 (Sunday)
Spoon, Guided By Voices, Dessa, Kurt Vile and the Violators, Valerie June
Though almost every Rock the Garden lineup has something for everyone (or at least everyone who might consider attending Rock the Garden), there’s usually at least one weak link. But from the taut precision of Spoon to the drunken raucosity of GBV to the finely tuned emotional pith of Dessa to the TCH sprawl of Kurt Vile to the ingenuous Afro-Americana of Valerie June, this was a veritable murderer’s row of Current-friendly musicians.