Liam James Doyle
Throngs of people, diverse lineups and a big ol’ hill: It’s Rock the Garden 2015. The two-day music festival had a little something for everyone this year — Minneapolis doesn’t usually offer opportunities to get down to Afrobeat and punk in the same hour. This iteration of the romp outside the Walker made big steps forward from last year’s fest.
Last Saturday’s forecast called for rain and thunderstorms, threating the scope of the two-day long Rock the Garden. But the clouds held out as the sweltering sun beat down on thousands of happy music fans eager to catch one of the festival’s best lineups to date. Music aficionados of all ages laid on blankets, stealing kisses and taking discreet puffs on one-hitters as throngs of people swayed their hips and bobbed their heads to seasonally appropriate R&B and rock ’n’ roll.
Day one began with the languid raps of thestand4rd. Though the crew was the youngest act to ever play Rock the Garden (the group’s baby, Corbin, once known as Spooky Black, is 17), the quartet possessed command and musicality well beyond their years. Rapper Allan Kingdom is the squad’s superstar, much to Corbin’s
chagrin it seemed. While Kingdom was inclusive and engaging, prancing around the stage with energy that couldn’t be stopped by the heat, Corbin’s crooning sounded indifferent. And while the talented wunderkind’s beautiful voice is a sign of great things to come, he seemed more interested in getting laid after the performance than pulling his weight in a group effort.
Bobby Raps is the glue that holds the group together. He’s a strong rapper, beat maker and singer with a silky voice that meshes well with Corbin’s. Bobby and Psymun held down the fort, letting Kingdom and Corbin shine but not letting them get lost amid their glory.
Lucius’ 21st century arena rock was a far cry from thestand4d’s baby-making music. The Brooklyn-based quintet’s female-fronted lineup evoked ’70s rockers Heart — if Heart weren’t totally lame. Lead vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig channeled cooler versions of Ann and Nancy Wilson on power ballads like “Go Home,” except they traded guitars in for Roland and Moog synthesizers. The set’s two small missteps — a version of “Don’t Just Sit There,” featuring too much reverb, and a minimalist cover of We Five’s 1965 hit, “You Were On My Mind,” that sounded out of sync with the band’s bombast — didn’t detract from Lucius’ driving intensity and put-together, cohesive image.
Courtney Barnett continued the hard-rocking trend. Barnett captivated the audience from the get-go, thanks to starting with the supremely catchy “Elevator Operator.”
Listeners take note; Barnett writes a hook better than just about anybody in the music business. While the rest of her music isn’t boring and her calling cards are her Joan Jett growl and inventive lyricism, Barnett understands the timeless staying power of her simple-chorded songs rests on the ability of those three or four chords to get the audience swaying their hips and thrashing their heads.
Slotting Conor Oberst after Barnett seemed an odd choice at first. But his sensitive-new-age-guy identity is why audiences respond to him. Instead of wowing the crowd with rollicking displays of masculine bravado, he pulls them in with poignant expressions of his innermost thoughts and secrets, like on “Artifact #1” and his stunning solo performance of “Milk Thistle.” When Oberst rocks, however, he channels a brand of Irish pub, indie soul that I’ve yet to hear elsewhere. Songs like
“Soul Singer in a Session Band” felt like they belonged in a bar during closing time and provided a pleasant contrast to his introspective numbers.
After Oberst finished his set, his slot behind Barnett gained clarity. Both Barnett and Oberst are master storytellers and suave wordsmiths. Barnett’s quirky phrases are absurdist, while Oberst’s haunting reflections fall in gothic lineage. Both have a way with words that few people can tap into.
Storytelling wasn’t the aim of Belle and Sebastian’s phenomenal set, though Stuart Murdoch’s witty quips were one of the night’s highlights. No one is better at bantering than Murdoch. Period. Try finding another musician who can fire off gems one after the other, like “We stay up all night and think of sex. Well, I do, at least. It’s good if you have a partner on the solstice.”
Murdoch expressed his sensuality through a riveting set, covering old favorites, like “Funny Little Frog,” and new classics like, “The Party Line” (even better live than on the Current). Guitarist Stevie Jackson contributed vocals to several numbers mid-set, but the numbers featuring Murdoch on lead vocals were stupendous, as was the string section featuring local orchestral favorites Laurels String Quartet.
When the band broke into “The Boy with the Arab Strap,” Murdoch invited audience members to join the band onstage and dance the night away. The crowd of two dozen continued into the final number, “I Didn’t See It Coming.” The song began with keyboardist Sarah Martin’s ethereal, airy vocals. Murdoch then came in like a storm, standing atop his electric piano declaring, “Make me dance. I want to surrender.” This moment summed up day one of Rock the Garden, a picture perfect garden party with spicy food, strong cocktails and top-notch, feel-good tunes.
Saturday’s grade: A
Another lineup spanning the globe enchanted dancing sunbathers on day two of Rock the Garden.
The eclectic lineup consisted of psychedelic rock from the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, Babes in Toyland’s punk, http://http://www.jdmcpherson.com/’s ’50s rock and roll, Seun Kuti and Egypt 80’s Afrobeat and the noisy pop of Modest Mouse.
The varied genres made for a compelling show. Similarities extended among the bands — crowds jammed to back-to-back themes of resistance with Seun Kuti and Babes in Toyland, albeit in different ways. Before that, Kuti’s 12-piece band and JD McPherson both got people dancing.
The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger bore the duty of capturing the crowd, which they accomplished after their first song. The audience reacted enthusiastically with warm applause and cheers between each song. However, the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, in comparison with the rest of the bands, seemed to be in their own
world. The relative aloofness may have been purposeful to reinforce their spacey, laid-back psychedelic vibes, but the hyped response was unexpected after front
man Sean Lennon spun in circles from time to time.
Although Lennon is the son of the late Beatle, the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger only channeled his father’s group at times. It would be a mistake to say they’re out to
replicate the Fab Four, though it’s hard to ignore how much Sean reflected John Lennon’s voice and physical appearance.
Though the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger may have been a tough goodbye for the crowd, JD McPherson was probably harder to watch leave the stage. McPherson and his band epitomized a class act and captivated concert-goers.
“I know it means a lot to you [pause] Northerners,” Oklahoman McPherson said. “Summer is coming!” And with that, the band broke into their third song, “It Shook Me Up.”
The ’50s rock ’n’ roll fit right in with the sunshine and the beach ball that bounced around among concert-goers. He briefly slowed things down for the introspective
“Precious,” and when he picked up the tempo again for “Head Over Heels,” the crowd followed right along, instantly bopping and swaying with plenty of full on jammers.
It was quite the Father’s Day — after hearing from Sean Lennon earlier, the crowd then looked to Seun Kuti, son of the legendary Fela Kuti.
In honor of Fela Kuti, Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 opened with “Opposite People.”
The roughly ten minute jams had people grooving again, though some folks sat down during longer instrumental breaks. When Kuti wasn’t dancing his way across the stage, taking his shirt off or singing, he supplied bari saxophone.
Their song “IMF” made the crowd explode. They fired things up again approaching the end, and closed with a bang. Each member enjoyed ample applause as the band posed and gave formal bows. Babes in Toyland took the stage amid the audience’s roar.
The three legendary ladies dove into “Bruise Violet,” during which drummer Lori Barbero continuously beamed.
The performance marked Babes in Toyland’s first time playing in Minneapolis since 2001, as they recently ended a 14-year hiatus. Barbero commented multiple times that she was going to cry.
The masters of punk slayed their performance with plenty of screeching, kicking and flailing. Maureen Herman swayed and flipped her hair across her face. At times, Kat Bjelland’s eyes were louder than her voice. Her dramatic facial expressions got plenty of camera time on the two screens alongside the stage. In every aspect, they commanded the space in volume and stage presence. Set highlights include “Vomit Heart,” “Drivin’” and their closer, “Dust Cake Boy.”
At the end of the set, Barbero and Herman both captured the riotous audience with their phones.
Modest Mouse took the stage with dramatic flashing lights. They opened with “The World at Large” and a delivery more composed than the two previous acts.
Though the band presented themselves as polished and collected — potentially striking a sour chord with longtime fans — the concert goers were as frenzied as ever. “Lampshades on Fire” spurred an instant crowd reaction. Modest Mouse didn’t focus solely on their new record; rather, they sprinkled in songs from several albums in their discography. Highlights included “Float On,” “Black Cadillacs” and “This Devil’s Workday.”
“Dramamine,” with its slower intro spritzed between two fast pacers, mesmerized the crowd as light and fog poured onstage. After wrapping everyone in, they jumped into the chorus, to which many immediately started jumping.
Without warning, front man Isaac Brock thanked the audience and the band exited after “A Different City,” despite the fact nine minutes remained until the sound curfew of 10 p.m.
It came as no surprise that the band filed right back on stage after a few minutes of cheers. They closed with “The Good Times Are Killing Me,” giving a satisfying end to Rock the Garden 2015.
Sunday’s grade: A