It was too hot to rock much.
Not that Saturday’s 90+ temperatures stopped soulful Philly retro-boogie partiers Low Cut Connie from whooping up a sweaty good time or slowed down the aggro-rap assault of hometown MC P.O.S. But overall, the 2018 iteration of Rock the Garden, the annual music festival organized by the Walker Art Center and the Current, was less about driving energy levels into the red and more an opportunity for a sun-beleaguered throng to settle back in a spirit of buzzed, humid reflection.
Granted, the day’s biggest mainstage acts wouldn't exactly have kicked up a midday dance party had the afternoon been more temperate. Kamasi Washington’s tempestuous yet contemplative jazz epics, Feist’s spiky yet genteel folk-pop, Father John Misty’s swollen yet gorgeous psychodramas—each fit the day’s sultry, half-zoned-out vibe in its own way.
In typical RTG fashion, the earliest acts trafficked in the kinds of rootsy styles a crowd can get into even if the material’s unfamiliar, and this year’s warm-up throwbacks were top-shelf. By the time Low Cut Connie closed with Prince’s “Controversy,” piano-banging singer Adam Weiner, who’d been addressing us as “boys and girls” and “hippies” throughout the set, had long since doffed his gold lamé jacket and all but torn off his white T-shirt, leaving suspenders to chafe against his sweaty torso as he led a chant of “I wish we all were nude.”
Nikki Lane rivaled the most fashionable concertgoers in style, encased in a brilliant blue, thigh-baring bodysuit with a Nudie design as she ripped through her rejiggered traditional country barnburners. Lane did right by her roots in a with a cover of Jessi Colter’s “Why You Been Gone So Long.” and introduced her 2011 song “Lies,” by saying current events had her thinking about the song a lot lately.
The “garden stage,” inaugurated in 2017, was tucked this year at the far end of the Sculpture Garden. Here Meg Remy led her smartly subversive, lithe dance-pop outfit, U.S. Girls, their groove punctuated by an alternately smooth and honking alto sax and slathered in wah-wah grime. The stage was also home to two solid local sets from singer-songwriter Chastity Brown, who capped a story about a racist incident during an Eau Claire show by declaring “Fuck white supremacy!,” and from P.O.S, who began with a wise PSA about wearing earplugs at loud shows and was joined at one point by the terrific local rapper Dwynell Roland.
The standout performance of the day came from Kamasi Washington, the Los Angeles jazz saxophonist whose collaborations with Kendrick Lamar opened the door to mainstream audience appeal. Washington understands that the way to pull in new jazz listeners isn’t to make the music “accessible” through weak pop moves, but to make its unfamiliarity inviting. With his forthright melodic themes, adventurous and heroic (but never too avant-garde) improvisations, and choral spirituality tangentially referencing ‘70s soul, Washington entrances by intriguing.
In a warm-up for Father’s Day, Washington brought his dad, Rickey, onstage to jam out on flute. The composer and bandleader’s grand sense of scale was ideal for the setting, and the unfurling grooves were just the thing on a day when humidity altered your consciousness as thoroughly as the weed that was not entirely absent from the Walker grounds. What’s more, Washington pulled this off while perversely attired in a knit hat. (And as a bonus, if you got to the fest on the early side, you’d have caught the saxophonist conducting a late soundcheck.)
Washington’s jazz odyssey was a hard act to follow, and I’m not sure Feist’s pleasant set rose to the occasion. In straw hat and loose, long dress, looking as though she’d emerged from an Impressionist painting of a boating excursion, Leslie Feist alternately strummed and skronked on guitar, pulling out old favorites like “Mushaboom” and “Let It Die,” but the pacing was too moderate to give off sparks. She was charmingly preoccupied with how much fun it would be to go swimming, and the Current’s Mark Wheat, our cities’ most notable Briton strode onstage during “Century” to take on the spoken word part that Jarvis Cocker adds to the recording, declaring that century is “almost as long as since Feist played in the Twin Cities.”
Abetted by a squad of local string and horn players, including the Laurels String Quartet (who also backed Belle and Sebastian at the 2015 Rock the Garden), headliner Father John Misty (né Josh Tillman) brought a sound that could more than fill the Walker hillside. With his dark sports jacket and lycanthropic hair, Misty stalked the stage, gesticulating as though conducting the world’s most dispiriting TED talk as bugs swarmed around him in the onstage light. His days of crowd antagonism seem behind him; instead he joked about being “a hollow, empty shell” of a man and imagined the freeloaders watching from a condo balcony outside the park wondering “What the fuck kind of music do these people listen to?” after “Bored in the USA.”
If, like me, you respect Tillman’s talents but aren’t wholly enchanted by his mystique, I recommend his latest, God’s Favorite Customer, which keeps his self-mythologizing in check, all the better to showcase his gift for soft-rock melodies. Though he sampled the new disc (he introduced one new tune, “Mr. Tillman,” as “equal parts psycho and stupid”) the crowd was there for the big statement songs like “Bored in the USA” and “Pure Comedy,” and he obliged. By the time he closed with “I Love You Honeybear,” his geopolitical ironies, problematic meta-commentary on fame and masculinity, and epic self-deprecation had all but dissolved in a lush summer swoon.
A good show, all in all. Still, next year, let’s hope for some cooler temps and a little more rhythmic propulsion from the stage.
The crowd: Oh, come on. I’m not even gonna answer that.
Overheard in the crowd: “Father John Misty? He’s kinda funny. People either love him or hate him.”
See our full Rock the Garden photo gallery here.