You probably couldn’t hear a pin drop — at least not on the newly replenished grass — but there were moments in the crowd during the final set of Rock the Garden 2017 that resembled the hushed, intense atmosphere of a funeral or a chess tournament.
Checkmate, Justin Vernon. The indie bard from that French-named town (Eau Claire, Wis.) with the French term for “good winter” as a stage moniker (Bon Iver, a play on “bon hiver”) might seem like a bad headliner for a big, fun outdoor summer festival; especially one where Prince’s band the Revolution went on right before him, partying like it’s 1999. Then out came the mopey cabin-in-the-woods guy singing in futuristic falsetto and dramatic despair like he’s already living in a post-apocalyptic world.
If ever there were an event and location for Vernon to pull off a big outdoor gig in Minneapolis and not lose the crowd to the distractions of summer, though, it would be Rock the Garden outside Walker Art Center, with a sold-out audience of sustaining members from the Bon Iver-worshipful radio station 89.3 the Current, which co-organizes RTG.
The elements all added up rather perfectly for Vernon on Saturday, including the weather (a sweaty but gorgeous night) and all the intricate musical pieces of his 2016 album, “22 A Million.” He performed the record in order. Despite being a studio-centric album with highfalutin’ numerical glyph titles, the songs off it felt organic and spacious in concert thanks in large part to an elaborate-sounding big band, anchored by maybe the most downcast horn section you’ll ever hear.
Twin Cities music vet Mike Lewis — who actually played bass guitar most of the night — hinted at just how integral horns would be when he turned in a hair-raising sax solo during the opening song, “22 (Over Soon).” The horns especially helped raise up “8 (circle)” into a peak showpiece.
Despite all the instrumental layering, the former folkie Vernon — wearing an Orioles cap and a T-shirt for the charity MySister.org — impressively sang his heart out at times, most notably in the a cappella portions of “715 CREEKS,” and for the whirring climax in its falsetto-ized successor “33 ‘God.’” He got back to his rawer past near the end of the set, too, during an acoustic “Skinny Love” and another strumming oldie, “Creature Fear.” How ironic that the songs where the band got quiet were the ones where many of the 11,000 attendees finally got loud and rowdy. You know: relatively speaking.
Here are other highlights from RTG 2017.
The old pros: Three months of touring since their April return to Paisley Park not surprisingly made a tighter unit out of the Revolution’s members. They hit a groove right away in the post-”Purple Rain” gems “Mountains” and “America,” as guitarist co-vocalist Wendy Melvoin gave the latter song a political edge: “This song is more appropriate than ever,” she said.
They made up for the lack of a bandleader with a few guest singers, most curiously Justin Vernon for “Erotic City” — which worked surprisingly well — and most effectively Stokley Williams of Mint Condition for “Let’s Work.” The crowd did a lot of the vocal work later in “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Purple Rain,” which prompted Melvoin to say, “These songs are yours now. We’re just the band.” (That band plays again Sunday night at First Avenue.)
The new kids: Benjamin Booker was totally in the right when he chastised a few (probably overheated) people near the front of the stage for sitting down near the end of his riveting set. The New Orleans-reared, punky soul-rocker, 28, hit the ground running with “Right on You” and “Have You Seen My Son,” then mellowed for the newer and bluer songs “Believe” and “Motivation.” But he was as blazing as the sun toward the finish line, steamrolling wildly through “Violent Shiver.”
The day’s opening set by California tunesmith Margaret Glaspy did warrant some sit-down time, but even her more dour songs like “Situation” had a nervy edge that kept the surprisingly large number of early arrivals interested. Middle-slot buzz kids Car Seat Headrest were on the verge of being this year’s MGMT (great record, hot-mess of a live band), but the Seattle-reared quartet tightened up mid-set with the long, howling epic “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” and chop-poppy “Drunk Drivers.”
The locals: About the only logistical difference from prior Rock the Gardens — and a welcome addition — was a smaller stage in the madeover, more open-feeling Sculpture Garden, where a trio of Twin Cities acts performed. Trampled by Turtles frontman Dave Simonett’s electric-twang band Dead Man Winter was a sure win as headliners, especially when lit up by a fiery sunset and Erik Koskinen’s burning guitar work.
The real reward were the rave receptions for high-wired, smart-alecky rapper Dwynell Roland — who brought out Doomtree hero P.O.S. for a guest but frankly didn’t need him — and the bombastic, even more wise-acrely punk trio Bruise Violet. Both acts were younger than the event that gave them such a great avenue for exposure. Given how popular the stage proved to be, it would be a shame if RTG organizers didn’t add an extra local band or two to the mix next year.