Some of you 23-year-old indie-rock hipsters might have trouble believing this, but there actually were cool things in the Twin Cities before the Current came around six years ago -- including the concert that has become the radio station's crowning event of the year.

Rock the Garden, the Twin Cities' hottest annual outdoor concert in terms of ticket demand, lands again Saturday at Walker Art Center. This year's 10,000 tickets sold out in one day. They probably would have vanished even without the newly rock-godly My Morning Jacket as headliner.

The event's popularity can be traced directly to the rise of the Current, which helped rescue Rock the Garden from a four-year hiatus in 2008. However, back when 89.3 FM was still a classical music station, the Walker staff found a way to draw big crowds and Current-cool bands for five previous garden parties.

"People seemed to get it right away," recalled Walker associate curator Doug Benidt, a former First Avenue staffer who has overseen RTG bookings since the first one in 1998.

Intended to raise the Walker's profile among hip young rock fans, and maybe recruit some new members, the inaugural concert drew a sellout crowd of 4,000. Headliner the Jayhawks managed to escape a bad storm, which ruined the middle band's set and sent attendees running inside (mission accomplished!).

With help from Walker staffers, here's a look back at that and the other previous Rock the Gardens -- all of which seem to have at least one especially killer set to remember, plus a quirky memory or two.

1998 Lineup: The Jayhawks, Steve Millar Band, Hot Head Swing Band.

The best: At the tail end of the Jayhawks' first go-round without co-leader Mark Olson, Gary Louris proved his chops as the sole frontman. Between that, the rainstorm and typical first-year jitters, Benidt remembered, "There was a lot of nervousness, but it all worked out well in the end."

The weirdest: Those other two acts seem like pretty peculiar choices at this point. That, and photos of Louris playing a Flying V guitar sure look odd.

2000 Lineup: Sonic Youth, Stereolab, Sunship Sextet.

The best: Walker Art Center senior curator Philip Bither vividly remembers the sheer joy of seeing Sonic Youth outside the Walker: "Thurston Moore totally shredding it, creating layers of beautiful distortion, with Kim Gordon, hair blowing in the wind, keeping the pulse with huge bass in hand. The epitome of cool."

The weirdest: Up until 2009, RTG was always held on the street between the museum and the sculpture garden, where the pavement only amplified the heat. Benidt remembers Moore's greeting to the sweaty crowd: "Hello, Minneapolis ... you freaks!" Said Benidt, "It was like he was saying, 'Why are you here?'"

2002 Lineup: Medeski, Martin, & Wood; Marc Ribot and Los Cubanos Postizos; Iffy.

The best: Guitar ace Ribot joined his pals in MM&W for much of their set.

The weirdest: The mere fact that the "rock" in the garden this year meant Iffy's bouncy dance music (greatly missed), Ribot's Latin ensemble and Medeski, Martin, & Wood's freakish jazz. Also, MM&W's Deadhead-ish fans seemed oddly mesmerized by Shirin Neshat's multimedia installment inside the Walker, showing stark black-and-white footage of Iranian women.

2003 Lineup: Wilco, the Bad Plus, Fog.

The best: Wilco was still touring behind its most-heralded album, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," but debuted two staples off the next album: "At Least That's What You Said" and "Handshake Drugs." Benidt also remembers Wilco's members -- bemused by the idea of a jazz band opening for them -- watching the Bad Plus and "showing total reverence."

The weirdest: Andrew Broder and Fog (featuring Andrew Bird's current backers) made music out of smacking gum in the song "Girl From the Gum Commercial."

2004 Lineup: David Byrne, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, Barb Cohen.

The best: Accompanied by Tosca Strings, Byrne was spectacular. Blither remembers him "wailing into the setting sun his own very moving version of Verdi's 'Un Di, Felice, Eterea,' and soon after kicking it with a blistering version of 'Burning Down the House.'"

The weirdest: Urban-bicycling advocate Byrne was spotted riding to the show from his hotel in striped red-and-white overalls. He, too, had something to say about the old pavement-bound concert site: "They should have called it Rock the Parking Lot."

2008 Lineup: Andrew Bird, New Pornographers, Cloud Cult, Bon Iver.

The best: Bon Iver had just broken big and probably could've headlined. Said Benidt, "Most people didn't know what to expect, and everyone was just blown away."

The weirdest: Once again a bad storm came and went fast enough for the headliner to go on. Bither marveled at how Bird and his band "were able to play a completely magical set as the sun burst through the sky."

2009 Lineup: The Decemberists, Calexico, Yeasayer, Solid Gold.

The best: Solid Gold played in the hot late-afternoon sun under a long shadow of hype, and did not disappoint.

The weirdest: Seeing audience members dance like munchkins around Spinal Tap's Stonehenge while guest singer Becky Stark danced onstage in a willowy princess dress, all during the Decemberists' fairy-tale rock opera "The Hazards of Love." Benidt also remembers Solid Gold's members stealing a golf cart backstage.

2010 Lineup: MGMT, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, OK Go, Retribution Gospel Choir.

The best: Jones' crew electrified the young crowd of indie-rock fans, many of whom previously thought the Beastie Boys were the funkiest thing on the planet.

The weirdest: MGMT's set was a bit of a head-scratcher, but who could forget OK Go performing their song "What to Do" as a handbell choir?

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisRstrib


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