After already commenting on the blazing orange and pink sunset that greeted his band — as picture-perfect as so many other things Saturday at Festival Palomino — Dr. Dog's co-leader Toby Leaman took an informal poll about the rest of the surroundings inside Canterbury Park horse track in Shakopee.
"How many of you have actually come out and placed a bet here?" he asked the crowd, to a meager response.
Attended by about 9,000 music lovers who probably know where the Turf Club's restrooms are better than what a turf race is, Palomino was nonetheless a safe bet that paid off in steady increments for fans in its second year.
The weather was as pristine as September gets. The grassy grounds inside the track were in great shape even after the prior day's heavy rain soak. And the lineup of nine bands offered for $60 was both a step up from year one and a side step into more mixed-breed musical territory from year one's more thoroughly rootsy flavor.
Headlining home state favorites Trampled by Turtles — who help curate the festival with First Avenue nightclub — seemed almost quaint and conventional compared to the rest of the acts. As if a hyper-plucking bluegrassy string band from Duluth could ever really be deemed everyday rock 'n' roll fare.
Before Trampled, the music ranged from Calexico's gorgeous Mexican orchestration to Benjamin Booker's raw, punky Southern boogie, and from Laura Marling's sacred, personal folk to Father John Misty's psychedelic, romantic rock balladry.
Marling and FJM were both especially stunning Saturday. Each eschewed the jubilant outdoor-festival vibe and delivered dramatic, deep-well material better suited for dark, intimate theaters — Marling with stark conviction, FJM with his usual theatrical flair.
Even Trampled by Turtles seemed more serious and downcast than usual, starting out with the hallowed-sounding "Wild Animals" and including a slow-stirring, Dylan-ized "Bloodshot Eyes."
The one set that was all fun and no woe-is-me games was Dr. Dog's, as the Philly sextet prompted excited dancing and rowdy singalongs with buoyant poppers such as "That Old Black Hole" and "The Beach."
Saturday's festival was also boosted by a new layout, with two side-by-side stages that made for fast transitions between bands and a better configuration of concessions.
About the only thing that didn't improve for the festival's second year was attendance. Perhaps local music fans were fatigued after a busy summer of concerts, or perhaps these particular acts have overplayed the market for now. In keeping with the equine theme, though, Palomino is still a filly in festival terms, and a dark horse worth cheering on.
Best excuse to keep it short: For his second Twin Cities show in a row, Father John Misty was at his best while being limited to just over an hourlong set. He kept up a breakneck pace, avoided some of the filler from his first FJM album and capped his madcap between-song banter. Although he did slip in this nod to the horse track: "It's great to be here in these historic dogfighting pits."
Best screaming silence: Marling started her set with the lengthy opening suite of her 2013 album "Once I Was an Eagle," and the audience — not yet tipsy from a day of beer drinking — listened intently straight through to a captivating version of "Master Hunter" reinvented by her new band. End result: Almost 15 minutes of nonstop goose bumps.
Best cover song: Marling also did a lovely cover of Dolly Parton's "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?" but the real prize was Calexico's mariachi-flavored take on '80s punk trio the Minutemen's "Corona," a wonderful blend of Mexi-Cali flavor.
Best reason to need earplugs: New Orleans rocker Benjamin Booker was literally buzzing when he took the stage, and he stayed plugged in and wigged out for an hour straight, blasting and stomping though such ragged glory as "Have You Seen My Son" and the set climax "Violent Shiver." He's due to update his show now after three too-similar local visits over the past year, but it was a great first year.
Worst reason for earplugs: Curiously sporting sunglasses befitting Randy "Macho Man" Savage, Shakey Graves sounded like he was also trying to toughen up his sound. His over-cranked guitar and sped-up tempos not only buried his intimate charm as a soulful ex-street-busker but also just suffered from poor sound quality.
Worst idea for making over the band: After already adding a fiddler and a cellist to its permanent lineup over the years, Trampled by Turtles may have been toying with yet another expansion when they brought out bagpipers for a legitimately glorious finale of "Alone," augmented with "Amazing Grace." Sounded great, guys, but there's no room for those bulky instruments on your already crammed tour bus.