Review by Pat O’Brien
This past weekend Rock the Garden once more took place, but for the first time it spread the wealth over two days—with scant, if any, growing pains to be had in the process. Saturday went off without a hitch weather-wise, and while rain threatened for a bit on Sunday (and even gently showered during Valerie June’s southern-fried, neat-as-a-pin set, the rock gods must have brokered a truce with the weather gods, leaving the crowd dry for the remainder of the day.
What worked: Starting off with Lizzo’s 45-minute, atom bomb of a set was precisely the proper intro to the weekend. Nobody’s hotter locally right now and it’s no accident. The former Melissa Jefferson is on her way up at break-neck speed and her set mirrored that. Frenetic but on point for the entire time, Lizzo seems about six months from superstardom.
What worked: Hometown boy made good: Local vintage-dusted pop-rocker Jeremy Messersmith had the distinction of having the weekend’s biggest entourage on stage with him and didn’t disappoint with a tight, rollicking set that had him revisiting many high points of his career thus far (and there are plenty to choose from), as well as showcasing some newer material. He’s always a treat, but Messersmith really put together a tight set for what was his biggest crowd to date.
What didn’t work: Best Coast’s set, while appropriate for Saturday’s late-afternoon sun, seemed to drag on forever. They have an amusing shtick, but it’s best taken in bite-sized pieces—an hour-long set of three-chord, mid-tempo stoner pop gets old fast. Cosetino’s voice eventually becomes about as interesting as an oscillating fan and twice I found myself asking, “Didn’t they play this song already?”
What worked: Matt & Kim’s explosive, maniacally fun set on Saturday was the weekend’s highlight. From Kim Schifino’s penchant for between-song f-bombs and crawling on top of her drum kit, to Matt Johnson’s endless cheerleading of the crowd to have more fun, their set transcended their often too-goofy-by-half songs and made it seem as though they brought Saturday’s sun-drenched afternoon with them solely for our enjoyment.
What didn’t work: De La Soul, who I had been looking forward to seeing for weeks, dropped the ball as headliners on Saturday. The set was unfocused, muddy and they neglected to play their new single, which is the best thing they’ve had in a long time. They also managed to turn in an outright terrible version of “Me, Myself and I,” which was easily the biggest disappointment of the weekend. They seem to be on a creative resurgence lately, and I’m hopeful that there are just some growing pains involved in the process.
What worked – Ladies first: Both days saw a solo female open the show (Lizzo on Saturday, Valerie June on Sunday) but there were many more onstage during the course of the weekend, from Dessa who offered a heavy, thought-provoking set on Sunday and Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino, who put on a fairly one-note set Saturday (cats, weed and California only lend themselves to so much diversified material) and Matt and Kim’s Kim Schifino, women were all over this year’s lineup.
What worked – Stunt casting: Kurt Vile turned in the weekend’s most intriguing set. His jammy, ethereal guitar rock seemingly tailor-made for a festival atmosphere like Rock the Garden. Spreading just seven songs out over his set, and seemingly winning some new fans in the process–the crowd was abuzz about him by the time he walked off stage.
Middle Ground: Dessa put on a thought-provoking, heavy-handed set on Sunday and while it’s always a treat to see her, she felt just a bit out of place offering up domestic abuse ruminations just a few minutes before Guided By Voices. Maybe it was her placement in the lineup, or simply the nature of festivals where there always seems to be an odd man (or woman) out. She threw a jar of show-sponsor Talenti gelato in the crowd about halfway through and and at one point crowd-surfed, and even ended her set in the crowd, but, while Dessa is incredibly talented and has a lot to say, it’s hard to describe her as “fun.” This isn’t a knock, it’s grounded in the nature of the subjects (domestic abuse, etc.) she chooses to address.
What worked – Stunt casting: Legendary stalwarts Guided By Voices put on a pretty great set on Sunday, running through nearly two dozen songs both old and new. Lead singer Robert Pollard was slinging smart remarks (“We’ve played here at least twenty times and Paul Westerberg never shows up.”) while swigging from a handle of tequila and the occasional beer. It wasn’t their steadiest set and was easily the weekend’s most confusing for a good portion of the skewed-younger crowd. The short songs with odd names like “Cut-Out Witch” and “Tractor Rape Chain” are a love-it-or-leave-it affair, but they had the distinction of being the best example of what the Current is all about: new music that’s influenced by older, sometimes underappreciated music. GBV have the distinction of fitting on both ends of that spectrum.
What worked: Spoon closing Sunday’s show was also a masterstroke. Britt Daniel and company took a break for a few years but they’re back and the break seems to have rejuvenated them creatively – they show no signs of slowing down. From the opening notes of the new songs to old favorites like “I Turn My Camera On” and “Don’t Make Me a Target,” nobody put on a more fully rounded and solid performance over the weekend.
Overall, it was a pretty great lineup and, of course not everything can be a homerun. There were far more ups than there were downs and with roughly ten hours of music happening over the course of the weekend. It shook out to be a wise idea to host Rock the Garden over the course of two days. It had to have been a hell of a thing to plan, but the two-day format should be standard from now on.