For the second year in a row, Rock the Garden lasted two days instead of one and aligned with the first day of summer — somehow adding up to five times as much fun as a result.
“I know (it’s) a big deal to you Norlanders,” Oklahoman vintage rocker JD McPherson rightfully remarked of the summer solstice Sunday outside Walker Art Center, his beige jacket a sharp contrast to the 10,000 Minnesota fans’ bright, light wear in the blazing sun.
A rite of summer for Twin Cities music fans since it took on cosponsor 89.3 the Current and moved onto its grassy knoll location in 2008, Rock the Garden’s greatest trait is more its springlike rebirth year after year.
Unlike the Basilica Block Party — Minneapolis’ other big two-day music fest — Rock the Garden maintains a fresh, unpredictable music lineup most years.
There were no repeat acts in 2015 from prior years. There were no slick, gimmicky pop acts like last year’s RTG misfits Matt and Kim. Instead, this year’s lineup was led by three long-adored, cultish indie favorites who hadn’t played in town in a half-decade-plus, including Saturday’s Scottish headliners Belle & Sebastian and Sunday’s finishers Modest Mouse.
The longest wait and clearly the biggest buzz, however, was for Sunday’s penultimate act, Babes in Toyland, playing their first hometown gig in 14 years.
After a dramatic but hyperbole-free introduction by 89.3 the Current jockey David Campbell — “They’ve each lived a lifetime of challenges to be here” — the local punk heroes launched straight into one of their biggest and most blistering songs, “Bruise Violet.” The excitement in the crowd felt as heavy as drummer Lori Barbero’s blunt jackhammer beats and frontwoman Kat Bjelland’s caterwaul shrieks.
“We really missed you,” Bjelland sweetly told fans later, including many attendees too young to have ever caught a Babes’ show. Before her turn at the mic, “Drivin’,” Barbero said, “I’m gonna cry. But first I’m gonna sing a song.”
Though riddled with a few technical glitches and musical miscues, the impact of Babes’ hourlong performance provided the most classically punk, hardest-thrashing RTG set since the year Sonic Youth played it pre-Current (2000). Bjelland’s hard-whipping hair wrapped around her sweat-drenched face in “Spun” and “Dustcake Boy” like a dark spiderweb, but it couldn’t veil how convincingly she has returned to force after a decade away from the stage.
Even before Babes’ set, the unpredictable and adventurous spirit of Rock the Garden shined as brightly Sunday as the Post-it note artwork over at the festival’s big 3M booth (hey, at least it’s nice to have some homegrown corporate sponsors).
Afrobeat music heir Seun Kuti — previously seen in town at the dark confines of the Cedar Cultural Center — turned on a different kind of summer heat just before Babes.
With his 90-or-so-member band Egypt 80 (I couldn’t keep count the way they moved around), the Nigerian music star integrated horn-driven jazz, soukous, reggae, calypso and rock sounds like an electric blender on its deepest-churning speed. Songs like the tensely paced “Opposite People” also instilled some of the sociopolitical lyricism employed by his late legendary father, Fela Kuti.
The second of two famous sons to play Sunday — Sean Lennon opened with his new band Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger — the younger Kuti even made the day’s only (spoken) feminist message.
“Women are supposed to change the world, too,” he grandly declared (sadly more of a grand statement in his native West Africa).
There wasn’t anything radical about McPherson’s set, but it stood out as the day’s most straight-ahead rollicking and entertaining.
As was the case with the razor-tight and broad-smiley RTG performance by Brooklyn’s harmonious, candescently dressed art-rock quartet Lucius, McPherson rode a series of steadily ascendant local club gigs and regular radio play on the Current into the Walker garden party and treated the event like it was his big pay-off. After the slow and gritty opener “Bossy,” he kicked it into gear with “Fire Bug” and kept rolling full-steam through “Head Over Heels” — the song that finally induced him to take that jacket off.
Modest Mouse finished off Sunday with a 75-minute set that came off less like an alternative music affair and more like a full-blown arena-rock performance. And that’s not a dig.
While the Oregon/Washington band’s frontman Isaac Brock kept up an arty-farty mystique — blue fingernails, abstract between-song banter and even a riddle for fans — he and his ambitiously re-sized nine-piece band put on a brawny and just plain total-pro performance (the latter quality not often a Modest Mouse trait).
They went straight into the new single “Lampshades on Fire” for the second song but didn’t delve too heavily into their new record, instead peppering in nervy, madcapped older rockers such as “Black Cadillacs” and “Dashboard.” The 2004 hit “Float On” made for an all-out blissful moment toward the end of the set. By then, though, such moments had become the most predictable thing about the fest.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658