By: Natalie Gallagher
Photos: Jenna Klein
Rock the Garden is one of those uniquely Minneapolis events: local and national acts brought together to play at an outdoor stage at one of the country’s finest art museums, an event that heralds the arrival of summer and brings together 10,000 music lovers from around the state.
This year’s line up was no exception to the reputation RTG has for bringing in solid acts: Howler, tUnE-yArDs, Doomtree, Trampled by Turtles, and the Hold Steady contributed to a bill that Walker and MPR members didn’t even know about until after the tickets were sold out (within an hour). Kind of a ballsy move for the Current and Walker, to rely so heavily on local acts for one of the biggest summer music events in the state—even the Hold Steady can claim something of a local draw (lead singer Craig Finn grew up in Edina, and many of the Hold Steady songs feature Minneapolis).
Howler, for all the press the young band has been getting, seemingly doesn’t care for its hometown (Jordan Gatesmith is now notorious for his spring interview with the Guardian, where he bashed the Minneapolis music scene) but certainly put on a nice opening set, beginning with the Hüsker Dü classic “Don’t Want to Know if You Are Lonely.” If Gatesmith was at all begrudged about playing, he certainly didn’t show it (smart lad). The set was rousing, even in the early afternoon.
tUnE-yArDs took the stage next, and the crowd was still filling up when Merril Garbus unhinged her jaw and unleashed her larger-than-life ferocious voice, a strange mix of scat, yodel, and Bob Marley-like voice inflections. Standing barefoot behind a drum kit and a pedal-looping station, Garbus, with her metallic war paint, is the very image of musical innovation. Anyone not familiar with tUnE-yArDs—even anyone who might be slightly turned off by Garbus’ astounding vocal somersaults—was definitely infected by Garbus’ enthusiasm.
“I know it’s early so you’re feelin’ shy,” Garbus teased the crowd, “but it’s time to loosen up!”
Even halfway up the hill, beyond the pit, Garbus had people jiving—though the real fun was being had right in front of the stage, with die-hard tUnE-yArDs fans going nuts with their war paint on.
Doomtree followed, and it seemed that the crowd had finally filled—it was starting to look a lot like all 10,000 of those tickets were there. As P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Dessa, Sims, and Mike Mictlan took over the stage, the crowd was ready. Doomtree doesn’t put on a down show; their energy is always on. With the five emcees jumping around the massive stage, it was easy for them to wake up the few audience members that hadn’t quite had enough beer yet. The pit moved with bouncing hands, and it seemed the party was officially in full-swing.
Duluth-based folk-bluegrass outfit Trampled by Turtles followed Doomtree, and if no one else is going to say it, I will: It makes no sense for the lauded Minneapolis rap collective to precede the banjo-pickin’ band. Sure enough, Trampled by Turtles brought a great set—they always do, with their furious playing and feet-stomping good tunes—but who wants to go from a high-energy, sweaty rap set to bluegrass? The transition is a hard one to pull off, and as many in the crowd wandered off to find food or more drinks while Trampled by Turtles were playing, this arrangement seemed to be an oversight by event curators. Trampled by Turtles may sell out First Avenue every time they come to town, but when the audience is 10,000 strong and the other acts are comparatively high-energy (not that TBT is low-energy, just comparatively), perhaps they’re more suited for an early set, before the sun is going down and people are finding their attention spans waning.
Hold Steady was the night’s headliner, and they gave faithful fans a solid mix of hits and popular tunes—which is really what people are looking for from a headliner at an outdoor show. And while Craig Finn’s big voice spread out over the field and his band brought a giant feeling of satisfaction to the crowd, it was hard not to notice the few concert-goers that were scattering off a little early.
So: Rock the Garden 2012. Its reputation has been building since its reincarnation in 2008, when the Current joined in sponsorship and the focus shifted to incorporating more local bands. This year, the local dial was turned way up—maybe a nod towards the “golden age of Minnesota music” that we’ve been hearing so much about lately (which, frankly, as a young Minnesota transplant, I can’t really comment on).
Successful? Of course. 10,000 tickets sold out within an hour, before the line up was even announced. That’s a giant vote of faith in the Current, that’s for sure. But that tells us something else, too: Maybe Rock the Garden has become less about the line up and more about spending a full day guzzling vodka-kool-aids in what is essentially a giant backyard barbecue (with less emphasis on the barbecue and a little more emphasis on tacos). Would the audience at Rock the Garden have been at all disappointed with the musical acts picked, had they been different? Probably not.
Cynicism aside, it’s hard not to love Rock the Garden. It’s hard not to want to be part of it every year, because there’s hardly anything more glorious than watching the sun go down just beyond the massive stage, on the hill beside the Walker Art Center, surrounded by enough people to populate a small city of indie music fans (wouldn’t you want to live there?). It’s hard not to appreciate what Rock the Garden encapsulates for Minneapolis: a community that appreciates its creative class, where all the clashing opinions and high expectations mean that we are passionate. That’s the greater success of Rock the Garden.
Now, next year, let’s hope they expand their drink selection.