Rock the Garden grows up, a little bit

Rock the Garden’s 2014 iteration was pedestrian with a bit of flair.

Kim Schifino of Matt and Kim performs on Saturday at Rock the Garden.

Bridget Bennett

Kim Schifino of Matt and Kim performs on Saturday at Rock the Garden.

Grant Tillery

A sea of deep-fried food vendors, a portable stage framed by jumbo screens and a slew of “rock” puns provided a change of pace for the venue that is both the home of the Internet Cat Video Festival and a bastion of arts in Minnesota.

The Current and the Walker Arts Center came together yet again this past weekend to put on the 12th music festival, Rock the Garden; though this was the first year with two days of music.

There were some hiccups. The crowd of thousands formed queues scores long for inadequate water stations and the lineups didn’t flow well. But, the newly expanded festival showed flickers of what could be great — once organizers become accustomed to the new format.  

 

Saturday
Grade: C+

A healthy dose of sun kissed the festival on Saturday, which filled to near capacity by the middle of the afternoon.

Since the festival, located on the hill next to the Walker Art Center, only sported one stage, the actual square footage of Rock the Garden wasn’t anything massive. Considering that a sizable chunk of the crowd was more interested in sitting on the hill, folks in the pit received the uncommon privilege of breathing room. But even for those farther back, it was easy to get intimate with each act.

While welcomed, the extra space initially gave the festival an awkward spaciousness, compounded when Lizzo took the first stab at a crowd that didn’t match her energy.

Even when she brought fire with her group Grrrl Prty, the crowd seemed dedicated to bobbing their heads with their feet planted. Only her 2013 hit “Batches & Cookies” got people jumping, giving some momentum to the rest of her short but memorable set.

Jeremy Messersmith followed with a set typical of shows past. Most of the songs were from his 2014 project “Heart Murmurs,” but a hilariously sincere cover of “Wrecking Ball” broke the show up. Messersmith’s performance got the crowd’s energy to surge, though it petered off quickly in the wait between set times.

If anything, the half hour wait between musical groups necessitated by one stage made the onstage happenings feel less important than the social component of Rock the Garden.

California garage rockers Best Coast were up to bat after Messersmith, delivering by far the most underwhelming performance of the day.

Churning out songs ripped directly out of Kurt Cobain’s mid-tempo playbook and continuing to push the tired “don’t care” stage presence tactic, Best Coast played songs from their whole discography as well as some tunes from their upcoming record. The group’s weird trademark of feline images on signs helped add a degree of eccentricity to the set, but Best Coast made the Golden State feel more like copper.

Thankfully, Matt and Kim came through to save the day. Though their music feels redundant, their show was a tidal wave of fun. Splicing gangsta rap and a cover of R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” between their twerpy power pop, Matt and Kim got the entire Rock the Garden crowd on its feet. At one point, Kim, whose punk rock drumming paired nicely with Matt’s playful synth hooks, ran out into the pit and stood on the hands of concertgoers to do some impressive booty shaking.

De La Soul closed out the night with the funkiest of fun, opening the set by asking fans how long they’d known about “3 Feet High And Rising” in honor of its 25th anniversary. Playing jams from all over their lengthy career, the crowd erupted upon hearing the huge-hearted DJ Maseo bellow his trademark cackle for the beginning of “Feel Good Inc.”

Cohesiveness problems aside, Saturday’s crack at Rock the Garden improved significantly as the day went on.

What’s most exciting about the fest is its focus on including all ages of music fans. There were families with young children as well as hordes of tank-topped teenagers.

While the hefty $59 general admission ticket price undoubtedly kept some fans at home, Rock the Garden wasn’t a bad trip for someone looking to enjoy a varied day of music, food and conversation.

 

Sunday
Grade: B-

Though Sunday’s show looked to be a repeat of last year’s rained out ordeal based on preliminary forecasts, the music drove away the clouds and hazy, humid sunshine settled over the crowd.

Fashionable folker Valerie June kicked off Sunday’s show. While her songs were catchy — especially “Tennessee Time,” which showcased her lilt better than similar numbers — June sounded like she was holding back her chops. Her soft-spoken tone exacerbated her contrived twang, but when she did let loose on “Workin’ Woman Blues,” her acoustic styling became infected with soul.

Though June has solid underpinnings, it was difficult to tell most of her songs apart, and her two-chord tendencies felt simplistic and lackadaisical.

Even though simple chord structures are the basis of rock, Kurt Vile and The Violators didn’t seem to care. One part the Eagles, one part Lou Reed, Vile and the Violators bought a maniacal swagger to the stage. With Vile’s Kenny G hair and an Iggy Pop snarl, the musician’s prowess was most notable on acoustic guitar. He has a rare gift to make it sing as a lead instrument, rather than trifling background noise.

Vile’s not one for stage banter, and he reverted to monosyllabic grunts over the typical crowd placations. Vile’s finale was a solo number and out of place — he’s better with the Violators.

Compounding the awkwardness was Minnesota Public Radio’s Mark Wheat, who declared the U.S. vs. Portugal World Cup game over, rousing the crowd to halfheartedly chant “U-S-A.”

Dessa brought the rejuvenating factor when she strutted on stage. Her brand of rap rock incorporates R&B undertones and inventive, polite bluntness that makes her a natural ambassador for the maligned genre (take that, Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock).

Local singer-songwriter Aby Wolf joined Dessa on keys and background vocals, and Heiruspecs’ Sean McPherson was on bass. Their interplay on “Alibi” featured both women at their finest, with Dessa’s inner diva meshing well with Wolf’s rocker persona. Cecil Otter, the only rapper who looks like a dad from Linden Hills, also made a cameo in Dessa’s set, lending his voice to Doomtree’s “Little Mercy.” Otter’s sprightly, bombastic delivery was a pleasant surprise coming from a guy who’s the epitome of white and nerdy.

Guided by Voices was the biggest surprise and highlight of Sunday’s performances. At first glance, the band and roadies looked washed up. Guitarist Mitch Mitchell strolled on stage puffing a cigarette and continued to smoke during every song, even while singing (which was why his background vocals were out of tune).

Through a set of 20-some, 2-minute long, brash bangers, Guided by Voices rocked harder than anyone this side of the Stooges. Frontman Robert Pollard is America’s answer to Paul McCartney, if McCartney had the moxie and wherewithal to be a badass who drinks Cuervo instead of water for rejuvenation. Pollard’s signature leg kick is a stage theatric many half his age couldn’t pull off.

But Rock the Garden failed to book a closer worthy of the festival’s expanded timeframe. Though Spoon is an alternative radio and Pitchfork favorite, their set featured a band in an identity crisis. Without a distinct sound, they’re lost in the Bermuda Triangle between Arcade Fire, My Morning Jacket and Wilco.

And that’s not even the beginning of artists Spoon tries to emulate. The group’s “Rhythm and Soul” performance could have been a cover of Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing,” with a few chord changes. While “I Summon You” was the catchiest number of Spoon’s set, it felt like a rip-off of Paul Simon’s hit “Loves Me Like A Rock.” If Spoon played with an original identity — and on some songs there was a glimmer of something unique poking out — their show would have been a lot more compelling.

Rock the Garden suffers from the same problem Spoon does: it’s Minnesota’s chance to cultivate an event similar to Pitchfork Music Festival or Fun Fun Fun Fest. Expanding the event to a two-day affair was an excellent first step, but the event’s organizers need to rethink how they book acts — an important part if they want to make Rock the Garden a top-tier music festival.