First it was curious, then it got loud, and Day One of Rock the Garden finished downright jubilant Saturday outside of the Walker Art Center. Nearly 9,000 fans convened in the sticky heat for the Walker/89.3 the Current-organized festival, which featured weirdo R&B/rap upstarts thestand4rd, throwback girl-group harmonizers Lucius, wicked-clever rocker Courtney Barnett, reliably angsty Conor Oberst, and twee lords Bell & Sebastian. Here's a rundown of how each artist fared at rocking the garden. Tickets remain for Sunday's installment — will Woody Harrelson return!?
These experimentally inclined St. Paul R&B/rap greenhorns were the curiosity item of Rock the Garden. Members Corbin (aka Spooky Black) and Allan Kingdom have already scored national props, the teenage former for his lovesick viral hit "Without You" and the latter for his Kanye West collab, "All Day." Producer Psymun and producer/rapper Bobby Raps are also on the ascent. The crew came out to the woozy beats of "Binoculars," and the interplay between intonating MC Kingdom and singer Corbin felt practiced and natural. Bobby Raps - the only artist of the afternoon to give a shoutout to his in-attendance grandparents - displayed major improvements as a rapper on tracks like "Pretty." Moaning and swaying for most the set, Corbin elicited cheers when he uttered, "Stay hydrated — it's pretty hot." Older 89.3 the Current listeners weren't crowding the stage to hear the super-chilled, psychedelic beats; repeated calls for arm swaying were met with varying degrees of success. Despite the odd billing, thestand4rd delivered to a small crowd that puffed early afternoon weed smoke and shouted, "We love you Spooky Black!" The songs aren't there yet, but this group is bursting with potential.
If the notion of a hyper-stylized Brooklyn buzz band turns your off, you're not alone. Lucius fits that bill, but the quintet - comprised of a white-suit-clad backing band and singers Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig sporting matching pompadours and yellow dresses - proved anything but precious or cloying. Instead, the favorite band of rockin' economist Paul Krugman put on an aggressive performance, with Wolfe and Laessig's gorgeous, resonant harmonies charging in force with assertive, crunching guitars. "We got in yesterday and went straight to Nye’s. We had some pierogies and do-si-doed," Wolfe told the crowd between songs, summoning applause that was only matched when Lucius played "Turn It Around," a favorite of Current listeners. That tracks has the band at its poppiest and danciest, but they're best on slower, darker tracks that show off the their neck-vein-popping harmonizing chops. On "Go Home," the near a capella climaxes wowed the audience. At its best, the group's sound falls somewhere between Phil Spector's girl groups of the 1960s and the early, twangy female voices of Saddle Creek Records. Lucius' surprisingly voluminous set included a garage-rock cover of Sylvia Fricker's "You Were On My Mind" and concluded with the reggae-spiked "Genevieve."
The all-black outfits and billowing fog machine were obvious hints: Barnett intended to rock the hell outa Rock the Garden. And oh boy, did she ever. With a bassist and drummer in tow, the buzzy Australian launched into the Velvets-esque chug-a-chug rhythm of "Elevator Operator," the lead track from her undeniable debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. As far as turn-of-phrase is concerned, Barnett is the most dazzling lyricist in recent memory. She contrasts those brilliant words with disaffected delivery, prompting the question: How can someone give so much of a fuck while projecting the opposite? The formula worked in spades Saturday, where Barnett tied 2014 RTG act Kurt Vile for loudest guitars and coolest fan-blown hair. From the downtempo slack-rock of "Small Poppies" to the roar of set-capping single "Pedestrian At Best," Barnett only gained steam, her face smashed against the mic before dropping to her knees to shred. Her drawled delivery ramped up into hoarse shouts; her dense wordplay snowballed to the point of resembling rap. Barnett is very much the real deal, and anyone watching her hammer out guitar-blaring brilliance should have left RTG as true believers.
If this year's Rock the Garden has a theme, it might just be millennial nostalgia - Oberst, Belle & Sebastian, Modest Mouse. They're all viable acts, sure, but they cater to a certain mid-to-late-20s individual, one whose formative years were spent in the indie-rock heyday of the aforementioned groups. Oberst, the former emo-hunk wunderkind from Omaha, has gone from weepy teenage bedroom recordings to simply being one of his generation's finest songwriters. Backed by the Felice Brothers at RTG, Oberst sipped from at least three different cups and appeared a bit bleary-eyed. He didn't miss a word or a beat, though, vibing with his backing band on hard-rocking cuts from his recent solo LP ("Time Forgot," "Hundreds of Ways") but dipping plenty into his Bright Eyes catalog. Perhaps a carryover from his recent work with punk band Desaparecidos, Oberst tore through his deep reservoir of songs with an undercurrent of anger and urgency. He sprayed the mic with spit while forcefully delivering "Four Winds"; a messy orchestral swell entangled "Method Acting," true to its album roots; even the gently wistful "Cape Canaveral" featured a mellow bed of guitar crunch. "You're a radio station near and dear to my heart," Oberst said of the Current between songs. "Because you actually play my music, and that's a rare thing." The backing band sat out during the acoustic intro to "Poison Oak," as he bled mournfully into the mic before the band returned for an explosive conclusion. Oberst closed out his set out with just an acoustic guitar and a bassist on the verse-heavy folk song "Milk Thistle" - "a terrible song for slam-dancing or having a good time," he smirked. Everyone seemed to be having a great time.
Bell & Sebastian
Unabashed in their twee-pop daintiness ("This is my kind of party. I do like a little garden party. Very civilized," declared frontman Stuart Murdoch), Saturday was the first Twin Cities Belle & Sebastian show since 2006. The politely rocking set was a contrast to Barnett and Oberst, but fans ate up B&S classics like "I’m a Cuckoo" and "Piazza, New York Catcher," all performed with intricate, orchestral aplomb by a band featuring Minneapolis' Laurels String Quartet as guests. At one point, the mirthful Murdoch asked the "super aloof" rooftop VIPs how much they paid for their tickets, likening the Walker building to the Death Star. The Scottish indie-poppers doubled down on disco and dance on recent album Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, and those glitzy cuts came off like the rave soundtrack to a tea party; it's the indie-rock version of ABBA. And goddammit if it wasn't fun. Songs like "Funny Little Frog," that peppy ode to stalking, were performed with extra dance oomph, while horns, synths, strings, pianos, and accented other pulsing cuts. The party concluded with Murdoch inviting at least 20 fans onstage to dance along to the boogying piano groove of "The Boy with the Arab Strap." The throng of bobbing B&S fans stayed onstage for final song "I Didn’t See it Coming," closing out the night with handclaps and enormous smiles. Even the crustiest of cynics could not argue with vibes that joyous.