The 10th installment of the Walker's daylong rockathon stretched musical boundaries while staying close to home.
There are all kinds of Hold Steady songs with all kinds of Twin Cities locations cited in them. The one that really hit home on Saturday during the closing set of the most local Rock the Garden concert ever was "Sweet Part of the City."
"It's great to be home, and in such a beautiful part of our city," the Hold Steady's frontman Craig Finn said in introducing the song outside Walker Art Center -- where the setting sun, the city skyline and the Sculpture Garden behind the stage all helped make the setting even sweeter. So did the fact that four of the five bands in the concert's lineup had local origins.
"Sweet Part" rang out with a bit of symbolism from a band of Midwestern boys who cut out for a bigger city, New York, but who come back to the Twin Cities nearly every summer to perform. Hold Steady's delight in playing to their biggest local crowd yet -- 11,000 strong -- swelled alongside organizers' and attendees' pride in having them and so many other locally rooted bands perform together at what is consistently one of the hottest concert tickets of the summer (this year's sold out in an hour).
With its picturesque location and backing from the coolest museum and radio station in town (89.3 the Current), Rock the Garden has heretofore been a foolproof formula. Well, except for maybe the year indulgent electro-pop band MGMT headlined (2010). So it was daring for organizers to mess with the formula and book so many Minnesota-bred bands, which have strictly played opening slots in years past.
How's this for daring, though? A punky hip-hop group -- the first rappers ever booked at RTG -- going on before a bluegrassy string band, both following an Afrobeat-influenced experimental group, with two straight-up, guitar-heavy rock bands for the opener and headliner. That's how widely Saturday's RTG lineup reached.
That Afrobeat-spiked band, New York's tUnE-yArds, was the only group without local ties, and indeed it fulfilled the role of discovery that Rock the Garden has served in promoting envelope- and genre-pushing new bands of the day. Frontwoman Merrill Garbus spent her 45-minute set at a stand-up drum kit channeling African legend Fela Kuti and loop-happy, modern electronic acts, peaking with the freakishly jagged "Bizness."
Even Garbus got in on the local pride fest in the end when she thanked the Walker, Current and "all the amazing things you have in your town."
Here are the most memorable moments during the rest of Rock the Garden 2012:
Howler doing Huskers: A band that has said less-than-amazing things about its hometown to the press, young Minneapolis pop-punk band Howler kicked off the show with a makeup-kiss of a cover song, Hüsker Dü's "Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely." The rest of the quintet's half-hour set sounded familiar, too, with echoes of the Modern Lovers, Feelies and other bands that were around before Howler's members were born.
Trampled by Turtles not alone singing "Alone": The Duluth-bred string band also chose a bold opening tune, their mellow and serene new single instead of one of their rapid-fire crowd-pleasers (such as "Wait So Long," which came last). It was a had-them-at-hello moment as half the crowd joined in on "Alone," about as close as RTG has ever gotten to a campfire singalong.
Hip-hop makes its debut: Hard to believe that no rapper has ever performed at RTG (and hard to explain why, too; the competing Soundset fest is partly to blame). Doomtree's opener "Boltcutter" cut right through the proverbial barriers, though, and the seven-member collective was soon treated like typical rock stars. They even beat rap stereotypes by cleaning up their act for the Current's live broadcast, though Dessa did joke about suffering from "pent-up obscenities."
P.O.S. makes the case again for "Get Down": As he did at Soundset and the Blowout concerts, Doomtree rapper P.O.S. turned the event into an all-out dance party with an electro-bouncing show-stealer of a song that hasn't even been released yet (it's on his record coming out Sept. 18).
The Hold Steady's "Killer" finale: Coming off an extended hiatus, Finn & Co. seemed a little off much of the night, and it didn't help that they pulled heavily from the poorly received 2010 album "Heaven Is Whenever." They hit their stride in the end, though, with "Stay Positive" and the closer "Killer Parties," dedicated to late Soul Asylum bassist Karl Mueller and spiked with Finn's comments about attending Rock the Garden last year as a fan. "Thanks for making another of my dreams come true," he said.
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