Review: A new kind of Rock the Garden takes flight

The extended lineup emphasized what the host of the Walker’s annual garden party does best.

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There were twice as many performances, almost twice as much in ticket-sale gross for the nonprofit organizers — and probably five times the odds that Minnesota’s ever-maddening weather was not going to cooperate.

After a golden start to the summer music mash-up outside Walker Art Center, Rock the Garden faced a stormy forecast Sunday that never actually hit but did hurt attendance, which fell well below Saturday’s crowd of 10,000. Too bad, because the event really hit its stride in a new way Sunday.

Something Twin Cities music lovers don’t get to enjoy enough, there’s an added level of intensity and all-out insanity that rock festivals and other multiday concerts have over single-day shows, a quality that the concert tapped into this year. Fans blocked out the entire weekend to attend, then settled in and got cozy on the Walker’s amphitheater-like, sloped Open Field.

Turning the concert into a two-day party also offered a truer reflection of the eclectic playlist that co-sponsoring Minnesota Public Radio outlet 89.3 the Current has over more narrowly programmed commercial FM stations.

The two-day schedule provided room for not only the second rap acts in RTG’s 12-year history, but also the third and fourth – and the first-ever hip-hop headliner, as New York legends De La Soul topped off Saturday’s lineup. [Full disclosure: After reviewing De La their last two times in town, this reviewer skipped their set to cover Nick Cave’s sold-out State Theatre show instead.]

Sure, the added day of music also meant the Current was able to squeeze in one of its unbearably chipper and novel art-pop bands that older rock fans might equate to chalkboard scratching. [Full disclosure: This reviewer might go postal if he ever has to see Saturday’s penultimate performer Matt and Kim again].

Sunday’s lineup was a perfect Current concoction. It coolly veered from rootsy Memphis soul-rocker Valerie June to poetic hometown rap star Dessa before settling into the guitar-heavy indie-rock groove that is the station’s core sound.

Here’s a breakdown of Rock the Garden 2014’s defining moments.

Go home and go big: Back from overseas gigging, both Jeremy Messersmith and Lizzo made their homecoming appearances count. Messersmith brought along the biggest band of the weekend, with the Laurel Strings and both his old and current guitarists, Brian Tighe and Peter Sieve, as if to emphasize he’s not the quiet, demure indie-folker anymore. His new showstopper “Hitman” might have actually been the concert’s moment to earn the most noise complaints from neighbors, and it certainly won loud approval from the crowd.

Lizzo kept her entourage small (just producer Lazerbeak and some of her Grrrl Prty mates), but that only seemed to amplify her growing prowess as a lyricist and hard-grinding performer since leaving her old group the Chalice. She wham-bammed the crowd with 10 songs ranging from her breakout local hit “Batches & Cookies” to the heavier new romp “Luv It,” not letting the hot afternoon sun slow her down one bit.

The sunniest moment: Rock-fest vibes don’t get much more perfect than when Best Coast took the stage under gorgeous skies Saturday, with frontwoman Bethany Cosentino singing about how great the California sunshine is in “Only Place” and other songs. Even she was impressed by the summery setting, saying, “You guys sure know how to do the first day of summer.” Cosentino’s bandmate Bobb Bruno sure knows how to craft bright, burning, Dinosaur Jr.-style guitar parts, which helped turn it into one of the best Best Coast sets on record locally.

Hate to pop your balloons: From an energetic standpoint, Matt and Kim were like the high-school pep-squad leaders hitting a room full of the stoner and theater-geek kids. Singer/keyboardist Matt Johnson overexcitedly talked like “30 Rock” star Jack McBreyer after 45 Red Bulls and drummer Kim Schifino jumped atop her kit, oh, about 500 times. But their hyper pop songs such as “Don’t Slow Down” actually sounded rather lazy, with heavy use of prerecorded dance beats and synthesizers alongside rote ba-ba-ba melodies.

Lazy, hazy Sunday: Day Two got off to a coolly laid-back, warm and fuzzy start that matched the lukewarm gray weather. Valerie June kicked things off with her blues-tinged Southern folk, anchored by a willowy, drawl-like voice that proved as charming as her between-song hippie-dippie banter. Her juxtaposition of the blues standard “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” with her own “Workin’ Woman Blues” was a smart move, though.

There was a similar lackadaisical pacing to Kurt Vile & the Violators’ set at first, as the Philly rockers spun through their slow-grooving, Velvet Underground-echoing jams “Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze” and “Jesus Fever.” The pace picked up along with the crowd’s interest, though, with the snakier fuzz-rock epic “Hunchback.”

Heavy middle: The intensity level jumped tenfold when Dessa took the stage midway through Sunday's lineup. The omnipresent Minneapolis rap star — who was part of the rowdier, bawdier set with Doomtree two years ago — set herself apart with an hourlong performance that was heavy on her heaviest, most dramatic tunes, including the murderous “Alibi” and the breakup-haunted “Call Off Your Ghost.” She simply did not lighten up her set despite the more festive setting. Even her song with the biggest audience singalong, “Dixon’s Girl,” was about domestic abuse.

Dessa did have plenty of fun between songs, though, including a bit where she made a cameraman follow her to the side of the stage to get a double-take of her face on the giant Jumbotron screen. A reminder how much local acts are treated like rock stars at Rock the Garden.

Vets vetted: The veteran act on the lineup -- and seemingly proud about it -- Guided by Voices not only had their die-hard fans on an ecstatic edge for an hour straight, but they also had the bulk of their biggest Minnesota crowd ever wrapped up in their high-velocity power-pop.

The Ohio indie-rock gurus bounced between oldies such as “Cut-Out Witch,” “Teenage FBI” and a surprising handful from the 20-year-old "Bee Thousand" album with new cuts at breakneck speed. Their rapid pacing left little room for between-song banter, but frontman Robert Pollard did manage to slip in this gem about his nearest local peer: “We’ve played here 20 times, and not once have we seen Paul Westerberg.”

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