Review: Rock the Garden 2015, Day Two

Modest Mouse at Rock the Garden 2015

Modest Mouse at Rock the Garden 2015

Thematically, Day Two of this year's Rock the Garden carried appropriate Father's Day connections with Sean Lennon, son of John, and Seun Kuti, son of Fela. The final day of the sweaty festival outside of the Walker Art Center also featured two unhinged, animated singers in Babes in Toyland's Kat Bjelland and Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock. JD McPherson was there, too. Here's a rundown of how each act fared at rocking the garden on Sunday.

Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger

The sight of Sean Lennon onstage must have been a thrill for Beatles completists ("he looks just like his dad!," was heard multiple times from the crowd). Musically, the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger singer proved far less thrilling. Alongside girlfriend/bandmate Charlotte Kemp Muhl and seemingly disinterested backing band GOASTT, he tore into aggro-funk opener "Too Deep" with a throaty yelp. The rest of the set attempted merge Lenny Kravitz-style guitars with various celestial trappings, namely Lennon's reverb-coated psychedelic vocals. The band had trouble locking into grooves through all their distortion-heavy, meaty riffs, and appeared less-than-authentic in ritzy, faux-hippie duds. The downtempo psychedelia worked better, but contemporary bands like Temples and especially Tame Impala are mining those sounds with much better results. 

JD McPherson

JD McPherson pulled the craziest stunt of the day when he took the stage wearing a jacket (temps were in the high 80s). His performance was hot, too, featuring throwback '50s rock 'n' roll executed with impeccable chops. The hard-boogying shuffle of "Fire Bug" even got attendees dancing in the peak afternoon heat, while 89.3 the Current hit "Let the Good Times Roll" worked fans into a tizzy. McPherson — who dedicated another public-radio favorite, "Northside Gal," to us "Norlanders" — has the vintage wail, cocksure strut, and everything else that makes an artist qualitatively "good." He resurrects such a specific style and era, though, one has to wonder: Is he a jukebox from a retro diner or an artist with exciting ideas? Fans of his dancehall rock seemed content with letting the good times roll. 

Seun Kuti and Egypt 80

If Seun Kuti, son of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, couldn't get a Minnesota crowd dancing, what hope do we have? Thankfully, the relentless energy from Kuti resonated as he led his dad's former band, Egypt 80, with pulsating joy. The set featured more than a dozen musicians and was less about individual songs, and much more about setting the mood for a party. Kuti, an electric frontman, never stopped moving through more than hour of extended horn breakdowns, propulsive rhythms, and gyrating backup dancers. A sweat-drenched Kuti even let us in on a "top secret" bit of itel: THC stands for "The Higher Consciousness." "Opposite People," a song by the elder Kuti, was dedicated to his memory on Father's Day. A standout performance from one of the weekend's few diverse acts. 

Babes in Toyland 

I had almost zero context for Babes in Toyland prior to our cover story last week. But after being witness to the reunited hometown grunge-punk trio at the Rock the Garden, I get it. Holy hell I get it. The pummeling, triumphant set was sparked by Babes hit "Bruise Violet," a showcase for frontwoman Kat Bjelland's piercing howl and Lori Barbero's monstrous drumming. "I promised I wouldn't cry," Barbero said from behind the kit, the only vulnerable moment of her band's bruising show. With the way she jumps from girly coos to viking roars, Bjelland is similar to another explosive Minnesota great: comedian Maria Bamford. In terms of her shape-shifting vocals, Bjelland was a mountain lion, a cryptkeeper, and Shirley Temple; she's a force. And so is Barbero, whose walloping assault on the drums made for maximum impact on songs like "Vomit Heart" and "Dust Cake Boy." A couple hiccups aside, Babes in Toyland bludgeoned through a set that proved they're as vital and volatile as ever.   

Modest Mouse

Babes in Toyland still sound dangerous. Indie-rock giants Modest Mouse? Different story. That's indicative of their last album, the disappointing Strangers to Ourselves, and the fact that Isaac Brock & Co. aren't the challenging, weirdo rockers they were in the '90s. Having lost founding bassist Eric Judy three years ago, Modest Mouse circa 2015 is built for big festival stages. There are dissonant underpinnings on tracks like the opening "The World at Large," but the nine-piece band mostly approaches its deep and rich catalog with expert precision. Disco-accented current single "Lampshades on Fire" got asses shaking; fan-favorite "Dramamine" locked into an enormous groove. Though Brock's mad-dog bark and occasional freakouts behind the mic keep things interesting, his earlier/artier inclinations are squashed in favor of a fan-first mentality onstage. Ask anyone joyously shouting along to megahit "Float On" if they care. Modest Mouse mostly avoided the new LP on Sunday, even going way back to 1998 with "Broke," a song that reminded us Modest Mouse are best when they avoid danciness and let songs breathe and simmer. Encore "The Good Times Are Killing Me," played to a throng of folks who spent the afternoon guzzling beer in the hot sun, was an apropos closer to Rock the Garden.