Who’d have ever predicted that the two most punk-rock moments in Rock the Garden history would come back-to-back in the same year, during the two opening sets, delivered by an electronic dance artist and the Minnesota band that made “slowcore” a musical term?
Mind you, the latter three-fifths of Saturday’s lineup outside Walker Art Center genuinely rocked -- like full-on, gimme-earplugs, don’t-forget-the-smoke-machine rocked. The biggest indie-rock fest of the year has never sounded so mainstream rock. But the first two sets are the ones people are going to be talking about in weeks and years to come.
It was Dan himself who reportedly suggested it. He and the production crew then had about 15 minutes to make it happen. In that time, they managed to drag all his equipment – which had originally been set up on the grass, not the stage, as is his usual m.o. – down to the top level of the parking garage. All the while, the rain went from a hint to a bona-fide threat, and the audience started streaming into the increasingly soaked grounds.
Baltimore’s electronic mad-scientist then proceeded to work his usual magic in the unusual setting, hollering at fans to “get down to the dirty, carbon-monoxide-filled ground” while he cued up such playfully orchestrated urban-mash-up tunes as “Konono Rip Off No. 1” and “Get Older.” Sure, the sound system was less than resplendent, but nobody cared. As he has done at previous, riotously received club gigs at First Ave and the Cedar, Deacon organized dance-offs between different sections of the crowd and created a long human trestle of clasped hands for fans to walk/dance under toward the exit of the garage. In the end, he turned the most banal, soulless urban site we all know all too well -- is there an uglier place than a parking garage? -- into something nobody had ever seen before.
It started with a couple minutes of quiet hum, innocuous enough for audience members to wonder if the band had actually even started. A little ways in, longtime Low fans were able to pick up the faint melodies of the already distant-sounding nugget “Do You Know How to Waltz?,” from the band’s 1996-issued third album “The Curtain Hits the Cast.” The 14-minute song was then extended an extra 14 minutes or so of whirring, haunting, low-volume reverberation, filling up the Duluth trio’s entire set. At the end, frontman Alan Sparhawk tacked on an equally sparse, vague three-word statement: “Drone, not drones,” he muttered.
A good chunk of the crowd was indifferent. Some were genuinely angry and disgusted. Others, mostly longtime fans, were nothing short of thrilled. Everyone was baffled. The fact that the 30-minute performance -- or maybe you could call it an “anti-performance?” -- was broadcast live on 89.3 the Current made it all the more unsettling and audacious. The fact that it took place at a provocative modern-art museum, though, after a day/month of dreary Minnesota weather at least added a little subtext.
Armed with the same blue Stratocaster he bought a little ways up the road at a Forest Lake music shop in the late-‘80s, the ex-Minnesotan indie-rock pioneer played one of the blastingest, bruisingest sets RTG has ever seen. Mould’s killer band of late -- with bassist Jason Narducy and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster -- sounds like one he might’ve played with in his 20s. So no surprise the highlights of the set were the couple songs from his 20s, Hüsker Dü’s “Celebrated Summer” and “Chartered Trips,” dropped in back-to-back near the end of the set as Mould’s glasses steamed up on the drying stage, perfectly reflecting the music. The first half of Sugar’s “Copper Blue” similarly opened the performance with nonstop, full-tilt momentum, and that album’s “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” also made for a fun singalong finale.
“Is it too loud for anybody?” Mould asked after “Hoover Dam” ended the “Copper Blue” opening montage. That was a backhanded set-up for the five blistering tunes off last year’s return-to-roar record “Silver Age,” highlighted by stormy epic “Steam of Hercules” and the set’s penultimate climax “Keep Believing.” Unlike Low’s set, the only thing hard to understand here was why Mould hadn’t played Rock the Garden before.
A contrast to Mould’s all-go approach, SSPU built up its momentum a little more gradually, opening with the moody, rollercoastery, six-minute “Skin Graph.” That was the first of many tunes included from the Los Angeles quartet’s last record, 2011’s “Neck of the Woods,” with the frazzled and frayed “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)” soon following. Halfway through the set, the more arty and shoegazerly sounds gave way to grungier, heavier throttlers such as “Mean Spirits” and the panicked gem “The Pit.”
The band literally didn’t miss a beat playing with a new bassist, Sarah Negahdari, as Nikki Monninger is staying home to tending to new twins. And yes, it proved imperative that a woman take the positing, as Negahadari sang perfect back-up to frontman Brian Aubert. They tore through a few oldies, too, including “The Royal We” and the unbeatable closer “Lazy Eye.” Thanking longtime Twin Cities fans toward the end of the set, Aubert remembered with fondness the royal treatment the band got at its first gig in town at 7th Street Entry in the mid-‘00s. “The only thing that kept our heads [level] was the smell coming out of the bathroom,” he added. Clearly, he remembers the place/time well.
A group that has come even farther since their Entry days, Emily Haines and her three Toronto-reared bandmates made a strong case for earning this or any festival’s headlining slot. They brought their grand-scale neon-tinted light show with them, but they already had the crowd wrapped up in their spell even before those lights took full effect in the lingering daylight. “Artificial Nocturne” opened with its usual hypnotic, slow-building whir and provacative introductory line, “I’m just as [messed] up as they say.” “Youth Without Youth” and “Speed the Collapse” followed in order, same as on last year’s album, “Synthetica,” producing as much rocky head-bobbing in the crowd as all-out dancing.
Thanks to widespread radio support since Metric hit the State Theatre last September (right after “Synthetica’s” release), “Breathing Underwater” turned into something of a U2-esque, goosebump-inducing moment for the band. “Help, I’m Alive” went over equally large.
Thanks to complaining neighbors, though – remember the year the Decemberists went long into an encore with Becky Stark stretching her pipes to sing Heart’s “Crazy on You?” – RTG has to strictly enforce its 10 p.m. curfew. Thus, Metric had to scratch its encore and ended somewhat anticlimactically. We got the point, though.