Rock the Garden: Rock solid

My Morning Jacket couldn't save the crowd from the dreary weather, but it did rescue fans from another drab finale.

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My Morning Jacket's lead singer, Jim James performed during Rock the Garden on Saturday at the Walker Art Center.

Photo: Leah Millis, Star Tribune

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After two years of quizzical and even laughable finale performances, Rock the Garden's headlining set rebounded in leaps and bounds Saturday night -- literally.

My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James leaped, bounded, bounced, twirled, gyrated, shimmied, slid and made a whole lot of other flashy moves during the closing set of the four-band, six-hour ninth installment of the ever-sold-out music bash outside Walker Art Center. James's physical expressions weren't just for show, though. His band matched his every movement musically.

What a sharp contrast MMJ's stratosphere-punching performance was to the hazy, sleepy finale by MGMT at last year's Rock the Garden, and to the quirky, fairy-frilly rock-opera performed by the Decemberists at the end of RTG 2009. This is how big outdoor summer music fests are supposed to end: with fists in the air, lighting rigs in full motion and guitars disturbing the neighbors.

Not that MMJ's set could be called conventional. Those furry boots and that vampirical cape James wore on stage Saturday would have fit right in with the Zelda-like fantasy spectacle of the Decemberists'. His band threw in plenty of oddball musical moments, too, starting with the freaky opener "Victory Dance" and especially including the disco-beaten space-funk of "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream, Part 2."

With every odd turn MMJ made, though, the hair-rich quintet seemed to circle back around and add momentum to the moments that really mattered -- and really were not short of mind-blowing. The first came with the operatic twang of "Circuital."

The best came at the end with the guitar-wizardry closer "One Big Holiday."

The prettiest came when James unplugged for "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)," proof of his gorgeous voice.

My Morning Jacket was about 85 percent the reason it became one of the best Rock the Gardens of late, but there were other grounds for declaring it a good year -- despite rain spilling down for the first half of the concert. Among the other memorable moments:

• Booker T. Jones's a-ha moment. The Hall of Fame organist pumped out "Green Onions" only three songs into his set, as if to tell the mostly under-40 audience, "You know me even if you don't know me." It worked. Fans continued listening as he and his young band rolled out the funky tracks off his new album, plus a few other Booker T & the MGs classics, including "Time Is Tight" and "I've Been Loving You Too Long" (with Jones spiritedly if incapably filling in for his late friend Otis Redding).

• Neko Case's delay-button moments. The redheaded alt-country queen dropped an F-bomb and another vulgarity between songs. She apparently didn't get the memo the show was being broadcast live on the Current. Alas, that's about the closest Case came to awakening fans from the slumber she instilled upon them. An unquestionably golden singer, she stuck to too many mid-tempo, downcast songs that were as gray as the weather. Vulgarities or no, she simply talked too much, too.

• Tapes 'n Tapes revisited "The Loon." In the opening slot, the kinetic chop-rock quartet weaved between each of its three albums but landed often on its breakthrough 2006 debut. The hometown crowd loved it, and so did anyone who remembered that frontman Josh Grier wrote those songs just across the street while living near Loring Park.

*Urban paradise found. Like the Basilica Block Party, one of the things that makes RTG such an inviting event is its downtown setting outside one of our local cathedrals. It’s too bad the Walker hillside site can’t be more of a full-time concert venue (the neighbors wouldn’t have it). The rain really put the site to the test Saturday, too. Aside from a wimpy sound system (blame those neighbors again), the production was strong. And aside from several unlucky, mucky tumbles down the hill, fans got out relatively unscathed compared to the usual middle-of-the-road (or field, rather) festival site.

*Junior lost. Before MMJ’s set, Mary Lucia made one of the more memorable announcements ever by a jockey from the Current 89.3, the event’s co-curator: “There’s a lost child,” she declared in a keep-away-from-the-brown-acid tone. “You can claim him at — ironically enough — the vodka tent.”
The Current 89.3 will rebroadcast portions of Rock the Garden 2011 on Sunday at 9 p.m.
 

chrisr@startribune.com • 612-673-4658 Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisRstrib

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