The 2016 edition of Rock the Garden may have taken place away from its titular patch of grass behind the Walker Art Center and instead at a park called Boom Island that is most certainly not surrounded by water.
But one thing was right about the nomenclature of this year’s festival: It rocked.
Headlined by Oklahoma psych-rock veterans the Flaming Lips and 23-year-old rap sensation Chance the Rapper, Saturday’s Rock the Garden brought 14,000 rock, hip-hop, and folk fans to northeast Minneapolis.
The annual fundraiser for the Walker and 89.3 the Current sold out earlier in the week, marking the first time it was at capacity since 2013, the year before it evolved into a two-day, one-stage event in the Walker’s backyard (it’s currently under construction).
That setup was the other way around at the festival’s temporary Boom Island Park home, with eight national and local acts gracing two stages throughout one day. California’s Plague Vendor kicked the festivities off with a sweltering mid-afternoon set, and the music kept going until the full moon lit the sky like one of the large, brightly-colored balls being bounced around by the crowd during the Flaming Lips’ trippy closing slot.
The Flaming Lips are no strangers to the Twin Cities in recent years — they've played First Avenue three times since 2014. Over the last two visits, the band treated First Ave to one-of-a-kind, full-album performances of 1993’s Transmissions from the Satellite Heart and 1995’s Clouds Taste Metallic.
Their 75-minute concert Saturday night played like a late-career revue that included Soft Bulletin favorites such as “Race for the Prize” and “Waiting for a Superman” and the now-obligatory “Do You Realize??,” but nothing released before 1999. Wayne Coyne & Co. also found time to honor their heroes, dedicating a song to Prince and covering David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” as the frontman walked over the crowd in his trademark inflatable, transparent “space ball.”
That maneuver would’ve been even more a sight to see on the Walker’s sloped lawn, but there were plenty of pluses to the brief relocation. Capacity was increased by 4,000 for the Boom Island site, which felt massive compared to the quainter Walker site.
That meant more food and drink choices, more room to escape the sun under shaded gazebos, and the ability to keep the music going non-stop. As one band played on Stage One (perhaps more imaginative names like the Current Stage and the Boom Stage if they go with multiple stages again?), crews were setting up another act’s equipment across the park.
One unfortunate oversight resulted in a lack of water-filling stations. A total of eight faucets were shared by the huge crowd, which meant choosing between parting with $3 for an ice-cold water or a 20-minute wait to fill up the empty bottle attendees were allowed to bring in. The hot weather was a boon for the wait times on the plentiful port-a-potties, however, as everyone simply sweat out their H2O.
Slotted just ahead of the Flaming Lips, Chance the Rapper showcased material from his critically acclaimed third mixtape (he’s yet to release an official “album”), this year’s Coloring Book. “This is the exact opposite of a garden,” the rising-star Chicago MC exclaimed during his hour-long set. "We do radio shows like this all the time, and it’s not fuckin’ like this."
That was hopefully meant as a compliment to the decidedly non-corporate vibe inherent to Rock the Garden, where local food trucks lined the park and concertgoers kept hydrated with beer from the nearby Summit Brewing Co.
Those of age, that is. Chance’s stock stage-banter command to “Make some noise if you’ve been to a festival before” spoke to the increased youth presence at this year’s Rock the Garden, which was well-populated by those who fill up all-ages Hippo Campus shows.
That band of Woodbury teens is well into its second year of being the hottest thing in Minneapolis. The polished pop-rock group's profile was further heightened with an energetic midday set that included Current-supported hits like “Little Grace” and “Suicide Saturday. Two new cuts sounded like strong contenders for the band’s yet-to-be-announced debut full-length.
The day’s lineup also included popular Minneapolis synth-poppers Poliça, Portland folk-rocker M. Ward (flanked by Young Fresh Fellows frontman and R.E.M. touring member Scott McCaughey on guitar), the farewell show for Lizzo-featuring local rap group GRRRL PRTY, and Denver soul-funk throwback outfit Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats.
Rateliff's band got a last-minute assist from Twin Cities trumpet player Matt Darling. The Honeydogs member learned the group’s setlist and synchronized dance moves in record time after receiving a call to fill in for an ill member an hour and a half before the Night Sweats were due onstage.
In more ways than one, 2016 was the year of temporary substitutions for Rock the Garden. The festival is expected to be back home at the Walker in 2017, but Boom Island Park proved a fantastic rental property for this annual cornerstone of the summer for Minneapolis music fans. Perhaps it’s time to give the park its own big shindig?