The recent storm clouds of public dissent seem to have momentarily lifted as Rock The Garden was once more held at The Walker this year after a ten million dollar renovation of the Sculpture Garden and a delayed re-opening celebration. The delay happened due to the controversy surrounding the sculpture “Scaffold” by Sam Durant, a controversy that resulted in its subsequent removal. The sculpture depicted the gallows and public executions of not only John Brown and Saddam Hussein, but The Dakota 38. The latter being the Dakota men who were publicly executed following the US-Dakota War of 1862. The sculpture was removed after tremendous public outcry. At this year’s festival there was no sign of the recent controversy however, as the sold out event returned to The Walker grounds.
This year’s hot and humid weather was very similar to 2016’s which was temporarily held at Boom Island during The Walker’s renovation. Last year in the 90 plus degree heat water access was an issue, but this year several water filling stations were available for the public. A change from previous Rock The Gardens was that the event featured not only the hill stage near the Walker as before, but the addition of a second smaller Sculpture Garden stage that was across the grounds near the iconic “Spoon & Cherry” sculpture. There were plenty of spots to settle between the two stages, but there was a huge bottleneck when attempting to leave the hill stage to make the next set at the garden area. The matter of two stages and pretty tight set times was tricky if you wanted to see every act. Add to that a no blanket and no chair policy, and you were left without a base camp. Each time you returned to the main hill stage you had to clamber for a good spot. Is that a bad thing, or does it level the playing field? Who doesn’t get irked when every good spot is taken up by a sea of lone blankets while the owners are absent? Be that as it may I do commend the crowd, people were super patient with being walked around, and over. Further complicating matters was the location of the sound area–smack dab in the middle of the hill behind the concert pit area. The sound area not only blocked the view of many concert goers and took up a large portion of the seating area, but created a jam for foot traffic as well. Perhaps in the future there will be a better way to position it?
As for the music acts themselves, each and every one persevered through the heat and I didn’t see any Diva moments. The line up was largely made up of artists that frequent the Current’s playlist, not a surprise as the radio station is the co-organizer of the festival. Even less of a surprise was the choice of the headliner, who is a particular darling of The Current. In fact The Current was the first radio station to put Bon Iver in rotation according to Current DJ Mark Wheat who introduced the artist.
Margaret Glaspy opened the festival with her brand of smokey indie pop-rock. If you are a fan of the late Jeff Buckley than you should certainly give her a listen. I think that you will be hearing a lot more of this New York based artist from California who delves into the personal side of the touring life on her critically acclaimed 2016 release Emotions and Math.
If you don’t like bands or artists that are worth the hype then NEVER go to see Car Seat Headrest, they will be a band that you will love to hate! Car Seat Headrest are squirrely tight, and they really dominate the lo-fi indie rock sound. The electric combo of Will Toledo’s fantastic vocal prowess and Ethan Ive’s phenomenal guitar chops (left handed) made for a winner of a live experience. Add to that the totally identifiable teen angst that permeates the lyrics of their catchy tunes from last year’s release Teens of Denial and you might feel like a teen again yourself as you listen to songs like “Drunk Driver” and “Destroyed by Hippie Powers”.
The first performer of the day to play the garden stage was local North Minneapolis rapper Dwynell Roland. The Current station does an exemplary job of promoting local music and artists who are on the rise, and Roland was their answer to that call. The young artist spins an honest thread in his raspy way, and like on the track “Been Here” from The Popular Nobody, was joined by local star P.O.S onstage. Roland has been rapping since the age of thirteen and has shown tremendous growth in both his stylistic approach, as well as his subject matter. Stay tuned.
Benjamin Booker heated the show up with his version of indie rock flaming with elements of gospel, soul and the blues. Booker played several songs from his recently released album Witness, and the crowd of MPR/Walker members seemed to be very knowledgeable of his catalog. Those familiar with Booker’s past work may miss the punk undertones, but if you listen to what he is doing now you might overlook it as he addresses the ills of our society, namely our nation’s complicated present and past relationship with race.
Back at the garden stage local puck rock trio Bruise Violet experienced some tech sound issues during their fierce set that happened to fall on drummer/vocalist Danielle Cusack’s 21st Birthday. Great Happy Birthday sing along BTW! 89.3 The Current’s Mary Lucia introduced them with “It’s Rock The Garden, had to bring the rock!” Lucia knows her stuff, and the trio of young women enthralled the audience with aggressive music and lyrics, such as “Gutter Boy” from 2017’s Trophy Wife which is commonly known as the “Asshole” song. Highlight of the set was the equally speedy musically and time wise song “Nightmare” that deals with taking no for an answer. Minneapolis riot grrrl rock, LOVE it!
The highlight of the festival was undoubtedly The Revolution. Hands down the talent onstage was mesmerizing–there is a reason Prince chose these musicians! To the crowd’s delight they were joined by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon for “Erotic City” and The Mint Condition’s Stokley on vocals for most of the set. The iconic face melting guitar solo of “Let’s Go Crazy” did not happen, but happily “Purple Rain” did. Wendy Melvoin rocked the guitar and really bonded with the audience, pulling at some collective emotions with her performance, and her words. Melvoin intoned that she felt that “he” was looking down on us from up there, and that “The music belongs to you now, it’s yours. Sing it.” Tears were shed not only offstage, but on. At the final moment of the set The Revolution joined hands and together took a bow. A moment of real healing.
After that touching, and I mean literally touching set (the crowd had been tightly packed on its feet dancing for The Revolution’s performance) the music moved down to the garden with Dead Man Winter taking the stage. The solid Americana rock of The Trampled by Turtle’s frontman Dave Simonett and his band provided the perfect reflection time after the emotionally charged previous set. After taking a hiatus from Trampled by Turtles, Simonett’s venture Dead Man Winter put out Furnace this January after he went through a divorce. It is a starkly and startlingly honest album that anyone who has been divorced, or experienced the fall out that follows a divorce, can relate to. A real gem of authenticity.
Bon Iver was the headliner and an absolute crowd winner. I’ll admit that I wasn’t so sure of his electronic everyman ethos being the right choice for top billing. It isn’t that I don’t on some level like Bon Iver’s artistry and the musical community that he (Justin Vernon) has built including the Eaux Claires Fest, it was just that after last year’s epic headlining performance by The Flaming Lips I wondered how the toned down approach would fly. If I had considered the crowd (largely Caucasian and mid thirties to mid forties) I could have predicted what the organizers already knew. I am not used to a nearly silent and still audience for a headliner but there it was. A relaxing way to end the extremely hot and humid day with temps/dew points dropping while Bon Iver put on a beautifully lit show and hit the emotional mark with songs like “715 – CRΣΣKS” and “Minnesota, WI”.
Overall the return of Rock The Garden to The Walker was a success. I recommend it for people who want an easy access Twin Cities festival that is extremely clean (zero waste event) and delivers a solid line up for those who really enjoy just what The Current is doing. The event satisfies what I think the average festival goers have bought the ticket for–to hear the songs that they are familiar with, and like. After several years of going to Rock The Garden, I would like to see edgier, less known acts peppered throughout the day, last year’s Plaque Vendor was a good example of this in action. I think that the event is perhaps too dependent on The Current’s playlist? I do give kudos to the organizers for supporting local acts, and for doing what they do really well. All in all, job well done.
~By Rebecca Marx, Photo Credit Tony Nelson