Local music: Is Rock the Garden too Current?

This weekend's sold-out Walker Art Center bash clearly defines the 89.3 FM crowd, and that's a dangerous thing.

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Justin "Bon Iver" drank coffee at Racy D'Elenes in downtown Eau Claire.

Photo: Joey Mcleister, Star Tribune

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Because I'm shameless and because our music blog only gets "Farmer Wants a Wife" viewership numbers, allow me to regurgitate a line I used online when they first announced the lineup for Saturday's Rock the Garden concert at Walker Art Center: They'd better stock the backstage area with plenty of sunscreen.

Not only is the Current/89.3 FM-derived lineup for this Rock the Garden less ethnically diverse than the NHL, but even for white-boy rock it's a narrow niche of pasty-skinned, parka-wearing, bookwormy indie rock. Which isn't to suggest it's a bad lineup. I adore three of the four acts and came to appreciate Andrew Bird after his last album. It's just not anywhere near as varied a lineup as you might expect from a station that purports to be anti-format and gets public financial support on that premise.

Most of us hope for better diversity from the Current and -- despite continuing hubbub about its narrowing playlist and consultants being brought in -- we often get it. Never mind the hipper-than-thou complainers. But the variety could be better. Much better.

The Current revived Rock the Garden with Walker Art Center, which hosted the first Garden party in 1998 with the Jayhawks and moderately diversified over the years with jazzers like the Bad Plus and Medeski, Martin & Wood and Afrobeat giants Antibalas (who played before David Byrne at the last one, in 2004).

This year's lineup has the Current's stamp all over it, and the fact that the show sold out right away is solid confirmation that the Current has found its audience and knows it well. And that's what's scary. Cities 97 and KQ incessantly play the BoDeans and Styx, respectively, for the same reason.

I like the New Pornographers and Bon Iver but I don't want to hear them every day on the radio, as has been the case these past few months. I also deeply dig the new Lupe Fiasco and Roots CDs, but they seem to be the only newer hip-hop albums that the Current DJs own.

More hip-hop and soul/R&B/blues acts aren't all that's needed. How about some country/alt-country/rootsy stuff that's not the Drive-by Truckers, or anything with an accordion besides DeVotchKa? And is it just me, or is this station afraid to rawwwk? Anything heavy and hard seems to be avoided like steak at a vegan restaurant. And enough with those Scarlett Johansson and Bonnie Prince Billy singles!

One thing you have to give the Current credit for is its unwavering support of local music. Rock the Garden does demonstrate that, with one all-Minnesotan group (Cloud Cult), one regional act (Bon Iver, from Eau Claire, Wis.), and one act whose band is made up of Minneapolitans (Bird).

The Current is the main reason Cloud Cult can fill First Avenue these days, deservedly so. It's also why Bon Iver has yet to play a show in town that's not sold out (he'll try again at First Ave on Aug. 15). Although its playlist during the recent pledge drive was conspicuously lacking in locals besides Haley Bonar, Tapes 'N Tapes, the Replacements and Rhymesayers acts, the Current usually offers much more -- and even playing just those acts is better than every other station.

Comparing the Current to commercial FM stations is still like comparing "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Weeds" to CBS' sitcom lineup, although I must admit that both KOOL-108 and "Two and a Half Men" have been guilty pleasures of mine lately. No kidding. I flipped past "Hang on Sloopy" on KOOL driving home late one night and got hooked on hearing all the rock oldies that KQRS won't play, even the cheesy ones like Bread.

When KOOL-108 starts to sound more refreshing than the Current, you know something's amiss.

Random mix

Mason isn't the only Jennings with a big gig in town this weekend. His younger brother, Matt Jennings, performs at the 400 Bar on Saturday to promote his second disc, "Todavia." The title is only the first clue that the disc was influenced by Jennings' travels abroad -- especially to Mexico, where he studied Spanish. He sings half the songs on this all-acoustic, softly sung disc in español and spiked them all with flamenco-style guitar parts. Jennings' latest travels were with Australian band the Beautiful Girls on tour. ...

The White Iron Band's Log Jam Festival will roll once again this weekend up in Isle, Minn., on Lake Mille Lacs, with performances by Trampled by Turtles, Koerner & Glover, Charlie Parr, Trailer Trash and lots, lots more. In fact, the fest has expanded to four stages this year. Info at LogJamFestival.com. ...

Coming off a year when a thrash-metal band won (Rivet), the anything-goes spirit seems stronger than ever with Radio K's eighth Battle of the Underage Underground, which lands Sunday at First Avenue (5 p.m., all ages, $7, benefits Radio K). That open-minded vibe is part of what makes the annual contest so entertaining, also evidenced by 2006's fun-loving winners ZibraZibra. The other big reason is that a lot of the high-school-age contestants are often just plain good, as was the case with Rivet last year. Bands competing this year include Disposable Ponchos, Half Demon Doll, Kyle Has Jetlag and Burn All Flags. ... Another cool contest, mnSpin, is now taking submissions for its third round at mnartists.org, which runs the contest with the Walker. Round 2 winners Ben Connelly, Josiah Wordsworth and Glorious Monster perform June 28 at Grumpy's Northeast.

chrisr@startribune.com • 612-673-4658

COMING NEXT WEEK:

The best local CDs of the year ... so far.

  • ROCK THE GARDEN

    With: New Pornographers, Andrew Bird, Cloud Cult, Bon Iver.

    When: 4-11 p.m. Sat.

    Where: Outside Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.

    Tickets: Sold out. Listen to 89.3 FM for ticket giveaways.

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