Rock the Garden Day 2, 6/22/14


Rock the Garden Day 2
With Spoon, Guided by Voices, Dessa, Kurt Vile & the Violators, and Valerie June
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
Sunday, June 22, 2014

The garden has proven fertile for the Walker Art Center and 89.3 the Current. On the second day of an unprecedented weekend-long Rock the Garden, the festival spanned soulful and psychedelic indie rock, the rap/R&B hybrid of Dessa, and a heaping of Southern hospitality via Valerie June. It benefited from stellar weather, strong attendance, and a lineup that wouldn't quit. Rain threatened early, but June's rootsy "Rain Dance" -- a tribute to departed blue guitarist John-Alex Mason -- proved to keep the storms away.

See also:
Rock the Garden 2014: The Faces of Day Two

The pleasures of Valerie June were numerous. From her swirling, serpentine dreadlocks nestled atop her head down to her turquoise boots, the Tennessean had flourishes aplenty to entrance the early arrivals. With an inflection-rich voice splitting the chasm between Joanna Newsom and Odetta, June intertwined old-time folk, blues, and gospel into her own language. The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach co-produced her 2013 album, Pushin' Against a Stone, but almost none of his flashier aesthetic was felt here.

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Recap: Rock the Garden Day 1, 6/21/14

Her songs came without grand gestures, aside from an occasional curl of her lip. She let the intricate strumming of an acoustic guitar, a banjo ukulele, or a regular banjo -- plus a two-piece accompaniment of bass and drums adding subtle touches when needed -- provide the movement for her. Undaunted by the large crowd, June did most of the flexing on "Workin' Woman Blues" and a cover of the standard "Rollin' and Tumblin'" -- popularized by Muddy Waters. She's going to be a headliner in a lot of places before much longer.

The afternoon hit its stride with the feel-good dizziness of Kurt Vile and the Violators. Slow, circular strummer "Wakin on a Pretty Day" was a pretty accurate portrayal of the current climate. Nodding behind his long, curly hair and wearing a military-green shirt, Vile looked a bit like a psych-rocking Lieutenant Dan. Mellow proved only half the story for the Philly-based act, though.  His glistening cover of Richard Hell's "Monkey," off 2009's Childish Prodigy, signaled a rougher patch ahead. The vintage Vile of "Freak Train" brought out his raspiest vocal, and got more than a few cool dads banging heads along.

Minnesota's own Dessa returned to the Rock the Garden stage -- she performed with Doomtree in 2012 -- with her ever-tight touring band. After a bit of teasing of the camera men on either side of the stage, she laid her vocals bare through a lengthy set of opportunities to harmonize deeply with backing vocalist Aby Wolf and strike emotional poses. The darkness of her material -- "Call Off Your Ghost" and "Dixon's Girl," especially -- was admittedly offset by the lightness of the day. By the time her Doomtree cohort Cecil Otter hopped up to do "Little Mercy," her feverish local fans were right there in the tumultuous fray. 



The obligatory chants of "G-B-V" began just before the Dayton, Ohio, efficient-rock titans plowed through a couple dozen nuggets. Bob Pollard still has that kick in his leg and beer in his cooler, but a businessman's approach permeated Guided by Voices' set. Numerous references to the 20th anniversary of landmark album Bee Thousand trickled into his wiseacre banter. Punched-up versions of "I Am a Scientist" and "The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory" were among its representative numbers. Threaded into the list of songs they've been playing since first declaring that "the club is open" were newer pleasures in "Vote for Me Dummy" and "The Challenge Is Much More."

With his sometime songwriting cohort Tobin Sprout adding scratchy backing vocals and a few leads -- "A Good Flying Bird" off Alien Lanes was a quick reminder of why this band will always trump Neutral Milk Hotel for lo-fi prominence -- Pollard still got plenty of star time. (He did note that after playing Minnesota about 20 times that he's still never seen Paul Westerberg at one of their shows.)

In the final slot, Spoon have always been nontraditional rock stars. They do stir in us the love of great songs, classic melodies, and the power of performance. But it happens without showy guitar solos, complicated drum parts, or eye-snaring outfits. Instead, they're more like an ambient noise-rock wolf lurking within the luxurious sheep's wool of their pop creations. Perpetually bedheaded Britt Daniel is prone to writing beautifully, but then sandpapering his glistening melodies with his voice. The rest of his band -- anchored by drummer Jim Eno -- couldn't help but let cacophony ooze out between the seemingly tight stitches of their arrangements.

"Who Makes Your Money" has always been an upper-echelon Spoon song for its well-chosen hook, and the opportunity it provides the laid-back Daniel to accompany himself with an auxiliary percussion item. Like many of his songs -- "I Summon You," "I Turn My Camera On," and "Black Like Me," as well -- a slight tweak would be all it would need to be stolen by Frank Ocean. On the other hand, "Rhthm & Soul" played out more as an homage to the genre-choppers of the past like Elvis Costello.

The one thing truly missing from Spoon's performance -- which was just fine without "The Way We Get By" and with White Rabbits' Stephen Patterson ably filling in on bass -- was a horn section. "The Underdog" lacked its recorded luster without the brass and sass and just a Smart Car of a keyboard line to fill a Hummer-width lane of the song. Still, Daniel's crooked smile and encouragement to the crowd ("Last night wasn't quite this good") kept the throngs clapping and begging for more all night. Especially for those who had made it a two-fer -- a 12-plus-hour live experience spanning back to mid-Saturday -- Spoon was the right type of closer. Not an overly challenging listen, but not an easy one either.    

Critic's Notebook

The Crowd: Still sipping antifreeze-colored cocktails and beer into the night. Bedecked with colored sunglasses that the Current was handing out. Ready for a third day of this madness.

Overheard: "These white people sure love Spoon!"

Personal Bias: Guided by Voices is one of my favorite groups of all time. Should they have been the headliner in my book? Absolutely. Am I still hoping that I'll get to see the ferocity the band had a decade ago or more whenever I see them live? Guilty as charged.  

Spoon Setlist:

Knock Knock Knock
Rent I Pay
Don't You Evah
Small Stakes
Who Makes Your Money
Don't Make Me a Target
The Ghost of You Lingers
The Beast and Dragon, Adored
I Turn My Camera On
Rainy Taxi
Rhthm & Soul
I Summon You
Trouble Comes Running
The Underdog
Got Nuffin

Black Like Me
You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb
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