For the second year in a row, Rock the Garden boasted an esoteric headliner whose music is seeped in personal drama and sometimes dreary tones — the kind of act you might expect to see inside Walker Art Center on any another night, but not outside the museum in front of 10,000 fans topping off a hot-fun festival in mid-June.
Unlike last year’s dread-defying finale by almost-local hero Bon Iver, however, Saturday’s top downer-dog Father John Misty didn’t captivate the big crowd enough to make his more dour and drab tunes fly.
The real-life Josh Tillman — a playlist favorite on the Walker’s RTG partnering station 89.3 the Current — even cracked at his own expense after one of his more languid tunes, “I thought this was a festival!”
Held outside the Walker for the 17th time in 20 years, RTG 2018 certainly had all the makings of a good festival going into the final stretch.
The lineup was particularly eclectic. The beer and portojohn lines were ceaselessly bustling. And what’s strangely often a bellwether for a successful fest, the weather was absolutely miserable.
Even in a light, loose white dress with fans blowing on her, Canadian indie-pop hero Feist kept remarking during her early-evening set how uncomfortable Saturday’s dangerous heat made her. “Why don’t we just all go swimming?” she asked, though she still dove headlong into her performance.
Having Feist on after hotly hyped jazz wizard Kamasi Washington — who went on after Nashville country-rocker Nikki Lane, with hometown rapper P.O.S. playing later over on the Garden Stage — is a hallmark of Rock the Garden. At least among big fests, it’s still the most musically diverse and adventurous in Minnesota.
Granted, Lane and the day’s opening band, Low Cut Connie, weren’t exactly daring bookings locally. Each has already built up a strong reputation in town off prior gigs through First Avenue-affiliated venues. Nonetheless, each act had a true moment in the sun Saturday.
Leading his rowdy but soulful Philly rock band with an irrepressible sly grin, Low Cut Connie’s curly headed frontman Adam Weiner looked like a member of Sha Na Na in his vintage attire and a gold-lamé jacket that must’ve made his armpits around 200 degrees Fahrenheit by set’s end. He worked the stage with similar flash, too. Weiner repeatedly climbed onto his piano bench and at one point jumped into the crowd — all of which might have been hokey if his band didn’t match these shenanigans with an equally lively swagger in such songs as “Boozophilia” and “Oh Suzanne.”
Lane wore a cool outfit, too — a Nudie Suit bodysuit thingie — but put on more of a straight-ahead show that let her warbly but warm voice and wry but empowered songs do all the shining, including “Big Mouth” and “Right Time.”
Washington was more the unproven selection in the lineup, the first true jazz booking at RTG since the Bad Plus way back in 2003. A more apt comparison to prior RTG appearances, however, would be Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings’ unforgettable set in 2010, in the way Washington turned heads and generated wows.
The Los Angeles saxophonist and composer — known beyond jazz from his Kendrick Lamar collaborations — combined crowd-pleasing funk with aggressive, sometimes hyper virtuosity in such pieces as “Truth” and “Fists of Fury,” the latter of which ended in a blast of notes and wild cheers. He let his bandmates dazzle the crowd plenty, too, including his flutist dad Rickey Washington and dueling drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr.
Whereas Washington came off unusually suited to a festival setting — please don’t confine him to stuffy performing arts centers, bookers! — Misty’s performance would have been better in a nice theater like Northrop auditorium, where he put on a more compelling show in 2016.
Saturday’s set certainly had its moments, starting with the two older fan-fave openers “Nancy From Now On” and “Chateau Lobby #4.” One of the more somber and dramatic tunes off his new album, “Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All,” also came off gorgeously early in the set, like something off John Lennon’s “Double Fantasy.”
By the time the real-life Josh Tillman wrapped up the drab new tunes “Dumb Enough to Try” and “Please Don’t Die” — I mean, come on with that latter one — the crowd had cooled off figuratively if not literally. The mood dipped even deeper with the musty “Hangout at the Gallows” and confusingly sardonic “Pure Comedy.”
Tillman’s saving grace — and noble gesture to the Twin Cities music scene — was the added presence of local horn and string players, including Cameron Kinghorn, the Laurels String Quartet, Leah Ottman, Dan Lawonn and Devan Moran. Their prominent contributions dramatically elevated “Holy Sh — ” and the final gusher of a tune, “I Love You, Honeybear.” The Minnesota Orchestra couldn’t have brought some of those tunes to life, though.
Beyond the music, Rock the Garden continues to show other festivals how things should be done logistically. It had a fleet of easily accessible water filling stations to combat the heat, something Soundset organizers still haven’t gotten right. And it’s hard to argue with a grassy hillside and a sculpture garden for settings vs. the parking lots of Soundset and Basilica Block Party.
Due to construction on the nearby pedestrian bridge — because, by Minneapolis standards, one whole year was too long to go without major construction around the Walker — the Garden Stage with locals P.O.S. and Chastity Brown had to be moved to another, lesser corner of the garden, where the sound was too faint. But hopefully that will all be remedied next year.
Overheard at Rock the Garden:
“This is a song that’s equal parts sad and stupid.”
—Father John Misty introducing his self-skewering tune “Mr. Tillman.”
“This is a song about self-love, and also a song about ‘[Bleep] white supremacy!”
—Minneapolis singer/songwriter Chastity Brown telling an impressively packed Garden Stage crowd about an encounter with a racist man at a recent gig in Eau Claire, Wis.
“I wish there was no black and white. I wish there were no rules.”
—Low Cut Connie’s Adam Weiner, playing a grinding, full-bore cover of Prince’s “Controversy” to end their set.
“They were so hot, I think I’m going to try to make their First Ave set.”
—Nashville’s Nikki Lane raving about Low Cut Connie, who announced a Nov. 1 gig at the club from the RTG stage.
“I genuinely believe you’re doing the right thing, making Minnesota better.”
—89.3 the Current jockey Brian Oake, thanking Walker and MPR members.
“When you’re waiting for Feist to play, every second seems like a century.”
—The Current’s Mark Wheat, filling in Jarvis Cocker’s spoken-word portion of the Feist song “Century” with improvised lines about her long-overdue return.