The Walker Art Center originally launched Rock the Garden in 1998, but its current iteration in conjunction with 89.3 The Current has packed the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden with eager music fans since 2008. The festival has played host to countless legends over the years: David Byrne, Sonic Youth, Sharon Jones, Stereolab, Spoon, Chance the Rapper, Belle and Sebastian, Wilco, Modest Mouse… the list goes on and on. Bon Iver once played the opening spot, usually a place for up-and-coming local acts, before returning to deliver an astonishing headlining set a few years later in 2017.
This year was no different at Rock the Garden. A mix of emerging artists and globe-trotting headliners packed the newly-renovated sculpture garden with eager fans, despite the oppressive heat. Early-arrivals experienced some of the most enticing sets of the day.
Dem Atlas started the day on the main stage. The Minnesota-based rapper immediately brought a sun-drenched crowd to life with high-energy renditions of songs from Bad Actress, his new release on Rhymesayers Entertainment. Particular highlights were “Pneumonia” and a crowd-pleasing appearance by Lady Midnight.
One of Rock the Garden’s best attributes is its propensity for head-turning genre shifts. This was on full display following the melancholy hip-hop of Dem Atlas. Moments later, Heart Bones, a collaboration between Sean Tillmann (aka Har Mar Superstar) and Sabrina Ellis (A Giant Dog/Sweet Spirit) danced onto the stage in color coordinated outfits, like extras from Dirty Dancing (a movie soundtrack they’ve covered in full).
Both Tillmann and Ellis are captivating performers in their own right. Combined, they are a force of nature. Their obvious chemistry and 80s nostalgia was the perfect cocktail for Rock the Garden fans soaking up the sun, splayed across the park’s hills in the midday heat.
As Heart Bones closed their set, The Beths took the stage across the sculpture garden. The critically acclaimed indie-rockers from Auckland craft easily-digestible songs that belie their complexity. The quartet met while studying jazz at university, and their current sound seems, in part, a course correction from those studies. Future Me Hates Me, the band’s 2018 release, plays like a greatest hits collection. Hook-filled, confident, full of get-stuck-in-your-head melodies and climactic harmonies, the 10 tracks plumb the depths of self-doubt while cloaking it in shout-along choruses.
Across the way, first-wave punk legends X enthralled the Rock the Garden crowd with their unique blend of punk and folk rock that rightfully earned them two places on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums of all time (Los Angeles and Wild Gift). While the band achieved limited mainstream success initially, their wide-ranging influence brought about a career resurgence. Before their performance, fans enthusiastically traded stories of seeing them in their heyday. Just short of 40 years since they formed, their sound hasn’t lost a step.
One of the day’s biggest revelations was Adia Victoria. The Nashville via South Carolina singer and songwriter stunned the audience with her gothic blues, permeated by southern influences that bring to mind the writing of Flannery O’Connor. Aaron Dessner’s collaboration on her most recent album, Silences, ensured her ruminative lyrics and magnetic voice were backed by lush, atmospheric arrangements.
Following Adia Victoria onto the Garden Stage were Minneapolis darlings Bad Bad Hats. Grounded in the contemplative lyricism of frontwoman Kerry Alexander, the band’s inversion of common pop tropes adds an interesting twist to what would otherwise be straightforward indie-pop. Alexander paused during the set to explain the origin of their recent earworm “Nothing Gets Me High,” inspired by an inability to associate with Tove Lo’s “Habits (Stay High).”
While Rock the Garden offered revelatory set after set, the day was slowly building to much-anticipated appearances by Courtney Barnett and The National.
Barnett’s humility, conversational lyrics and razor-sharp wit anchor songs that meander between heartbreaking anecdotes and casual observation. During her meteoric rise, she’s been subject to countless attempts at categorization and defied them all. What is clear is Barnett’s place among the strongest songwriters of this generation.
Her rolicking, crowd-pleasing set touched on all stages of her career, with “Avant Gardener” and “Pedestrian at Best” serving as standouts. Her final song of the night repeatedly reminded the audience, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you.” After countless awards, worldwide critical acclaim, and one very pleased Rock the Garden audience, it’s clear that disappointment has yet to arrive.
The National’s booking at Rock the Garden coincided with the promotional tour for their acclaimed new album I Am Easy to Find. The record itself is a 16-track odyssey that reinvents the band’s sound yet manages to solidify their place as an essential act of the last few decades. It eschews the well-trod ground of its predecessors, embraces a new chorus of female voices and thrives amid the Dessner brothers’ pensive, pulsing arrangements. While the band has frequently embraced vulnerability, Beringer’s lyrics — on this effort — balance on a knife’s edge of anxiety and hope.
While I Am Easy to Find is a great record, it isn’t the sort you’d typically hear as the climactic end to a festival. Fortunately, the songs unfolded in new and interesting directions live, buoyed by Matt Berninger’s restless stage presence. Highlights like “Bloodbuzz, Ohio” and “Don’t Swallow the Cap” maintained momentum until the night’s cathartic ending “Terrible Love.”
Andy Witchger (@andywitchger) is a naturalist and concert junkie from Minneapolis. You can find his work on Bring Me The News, The Current, City Pages, and his mom’s refrigerator.