Rock the Garden at Walker Art Center, 06/16/12

Rock the Garden
With the Hold Steady, Trampled by Turtles, Doomtree, tUnE-yArDs, and Howler
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
Saturday, June 16, 2012

10 gorgeous GIFs from Rock the Garden 2012
Slideshow - Rock the Garden 2012: Music
Slideshow - Rock the Garden 2012: People/Scenes

Reverence for the Twin Cities music scene was in overflowing supply during the 2012 running of Rock the Garden. With more than 10,000 people packed into the lawn next to the Walker Art Center, this is always one of the largest music gatherings of the year.

Not only did the day feature four Minnesota-connected acts (and another adored by the locals), but much-discussed garage punks Howler kicked things off with a reverent cover of a classic song that burst from this lake-filled land a half-decade before singer Jordan Gatesmith's birth.

The day's opening song, a rework Hüsker Dü's "Don't Want to Know if You Are Lonely" from Candy Apple Grey, proved to be one of the most overt statements of the day. Even if Gatesmith's supposed disloyalty to the mighty Twin Cities scene is very old news, this cover found him honed in to get into the Grant Hart mode of the song. Although it would be fun to see Howler do the Dü again, it'll be even better once they can throw it in with the same level of raw kinetic energy that filled their own "Black Lagoon" or "Told You Once" later on.

Rock the Garden at Walker Art Center, 06/16/12
Photo by Erik Hess

Notably, this date also officially marks Howler's split with bassist France Camp. His energy was missed, but the guys' mix of cocky banter -- about Ritalin and the pastel look of the day, this time --  and raw chops got people moving early. As the Prairie Vodka and fruit punch started making its way through the crowds' veins, the threatening clouds kept moving up above.

tUnE-yArDs proved to be the closest act to a typical show indoors at the Walker Art Center. Though the rest of the day was filled with various "alt" signifiers, there's no doubt that mulleted Merrill Garbus represents one of the most progressive performers in pop music right now. Critics (aside from Chuck Klosterman) love her for the scope of her massive voice -- Nina Simone, Bob Marley, and Shirley Bassey come to mind within a single song -- and forward-looking beats and melodies that nod to and subvert Afrobeat, hip-hop, reggae, and R&B. But audiences love the face-painted Garbus because she creates everything even more thrillingly on the stage.

Rock the Garden at Walker Art Center, 06/16/12
Photo by Erik Hess

With precision that puts her among the great drummers of our era, the barefooted Garbus performed each tUnE-yArDs song -- many from last year's ebullient w h o k i l l -- standing behind a small kit and triggering sample pedals with her feet. No motion was wasted, and no sound from her vocal chords went unused as songs grew from loops into enormous things. Electric ukelele and some jazzy backing instrumentation was intense enough to have a pit of devotees dancing fiercely, but Garbus was okay with the majority of the crowd just chilling on their blankets -- until the three-song closer of "Gangsta," "Bizness," and "My Country." These she delivered with joy, and a reminder to vote in the fall. 
Then, we got a festival-sized helping of Doomtree. Performing in the daylight can weaken some performers, but the very first hip-hop act to grace the Rock the Garden stage took no chances and pushed hard to keep the intensity and tempo up. Dropping "Bangarang" early on and riding the loud response from the lawn, the rapping team of Cecil Otter, Dessa, Mictlan, Sims, and P.O.S. made a compelling case for what Soundset fans have known for years -- Minnesota loves live hip-hop.

Rock the Garden at Walker Art Center, 06/16/12
Photo by Erik Hess

If the first half of the set felt particularly expletive-free, it was because it got broadcast on 89.3 FM the Current, Dessa explained. The pent-up obscenities flew out soon after via "No Way" and Mictlan was definitely "goonish as all fuck" with a fresh rat tail hanging off the back of his otherwise closely shorn head. "Little Mercy" brought out Otter and Dessa's most dramatic moments of the set. Eventually, the on-stage fury built to the point that Sims proclaimed something on the order of "this might be the best time in all of recorded music" to lead into "Burn it Down," so P.O.S. had to introduce his new single "Get Down" as the "greatest song ever made." These plays on hip-hop posturing were fun, and it was infectious enough to get Garbus bobbing her head from side-stage. "You just burned 412 calories," Dessa congratulated the front row at the end.

Pretty much the only complaint about Trampled by Turtles is that they had to follow Doomtree. Although the group's string-snapping fury certainly has its own brand of vigor, singer Dave Simonett has not yet developed a latent wildness that carries to the back row in the same way that five pogo-ing rappers can. The Duluth folk-bluegrass fellas did get a hearty crowd clapping along up close as soon as "Alone" echoed off of every surface of the place.

Rock the Garden at Walker Art Center, 06/16/12
Photo by Erik Hess

Ryan Young's fiddle expertise has always been a personal fave within any given Trampled by Turtles set, and the hot sun was no deterrent for his bow all the way til the satisfying closer "Wait So Long." Should there be an entire Rock the Garden concert series that allows for folk-oriented, or other themed afternoons? Just sayin'.  
Although it might not be intended as such, but when the sun began to hang low in the Western sky, the grounds and flashing concessions lights gave off the feel of a county fair. This would be the right stage-setting for the last bit of abandon: The Hold Steady. The drunks were at their most wobbly, the TP-throwers were enabled, the crowd-surfers were limber, and a guy with a fake yellow mustache was ready for whatever.

As Eddy Grant's "Electric Avenue" boomed from the speakers, the best Minnesota band that's not really a Minnesota band anymore took the roost. What unfolded was an amalgam of the smoky Americana of Cracker, the bar ballast of Thin Lizzy, and Craig Finn's never-ending lyrics. This was a set that went back to the beginning ("The Swish"), dipped into the lesser-known (b-side "Girls Like Status"), and moved up through the present material like "The Weekenders," which assures that "In the end, only the girls know the whole truth."

Rock the Garden at Walker Art Center, 06/16/12
Photo by Erik Hess

The whole truth of the Hold Steady is a complicated, nostalgic one. With dozens of songs to choose from, the set still hit a lot of familiar notes for long-time fans. It's brilliant to see the fist pump and hear the rasp of spittle-inducing "Little Hoodrat Friend," but also a question of whether or not their more-recent work even matches up to the band members's standards. Perhaps now that Finn has taken a break for some solo work, the next Hold Steady album will be a refreshed statement. Still, Craig Finn and his band threw fits so large on stage that even the food vendors could see them.

"Killer Parties" was what had just occurred, so it seemed the right way to finish out Rock the Garden. There was a dedication to the departed Karl Mueller, and gushing thanks for all that occurred. "There is so much joy in what we do here. We're the Hold Steady, we're in Minneapolis, and we love you." The night ended promptly at 10 p.m. with the squall of feedback reverberating from the stage.

Critic's Notebook

Mosquito bite count: Three

Overheard: "Cheers, and suck" in reference to one of the fruity cocktails.

Random detail: Workers were already taking tents down by the last quarter of the Hold Steady's set.

No waste: Means that a volunteer manning the compost and recycling bins will remind you that the gum you're spitting out will take 1,000 years to decompose.

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