The sun is oppressive, the humidity just monstrous in Minneapolis today. Good music trumps bad weather it seems, as the sculpture garden behind the Walker Arts Center is packed full of sweaty and smiling bodies. Hundreds of twin-citians have braved the heat today for Rock The Garden, Minneapolis’ own outdoor summer music festival. Last year marked my first time attending the event and the lineup this year is even more impressive: Low Cut Connie, Nikki Lane, U.S. Girls, Chastity Brown, P.O.S, Kamasi Washington, Feist, and Father John Misty. Can I see everyone?
Act one: Low Cut Connie
I’m through the gates and out of the beer line just as Low Cut Connie starts their last song. Though I’ve missed most of the set, I’m immediately drawn in by the energy emanating from the main stage: frontman Adam Weiner stands atop the war-torn upright piano for a guitar solo, jumps off and runs back to the mic to head back into the chorus. The bass player crouches cool in the back. We have a classic blues/garage rock vibe with touches of Strokes-esque indie here and the crowd is well into festival bliss, already.
Act Two: U.S. Girls
Rock The Garden is set up with two stages on opposite ends of the festival space, one large main stage and a smaller side stage. I’m out at the side stage for U.S. Girls, the endlessly weird experimental pop outlet of Meghan Remy. We’ve got quite an assembly on stage: rhythm and lead guitar, bass, drum kit, sax, keyboards, and of course Megan on the microphone. The addition of the saxophone really brings this group outside of the accepted bubble and into the outskirts (this is a good thing). The sax plays a supporting role onstage – he rarely solos, instead provides subtle textural additions. He harmonizes with other melodic lines, inserts thematic fills, really just hangs back and holds the rhythm section up, it’s tasty. Meanwhile, our singer, Meghan Remy, explodes at stage front with constant motion and unrelenting vocal power, she isn’t breaking a sweat. We get long, jammy episodes in the middle of songs where the keyboards and guitars really get to shine. This music is pop in essence but just weird enough feel fresh: it’s unusual, danceable, fast, fun.
“We’ve got SIX MINUTES LEFT TO DANCE!”
Remy shouts as the band starts what must be their last song: it’s a quick and heavy 4/4 club beat that really showcases the lead guitarist’s ability with a wah pedal. And what! Our frontwoman has left her mic on the stage and hopped right off, she’s dancing with us, wading through the crowd, getting down. She hops back on stage for one last chorus and that’s it! Set times are pretty rigid at all-day, multi-act festivals like this. We’d cry for an encore but, alas, it’d be fruitless. Until next time, U.S. Girls.
Act Three: Kamasi Washington
I’m back to the main stage now, and this is the act I’ve really come here to see. Kamasi Washington: saxophone superstar, funk wizard, ultimate weirdo. I get to the stage a few songs in and immediately notice Kamasi’s got his signature beanie on, despite the punishing heat. We’ve got a very full stage: two separate drummers on risers on either side of the stage, upright bass, a vocalist, Kamasi on sax, trombone, piano, soprano sax. Our bassist’s name is Miles Mosley (I know because he’s got a chalkboard at the top of his bass and he’s scrawled his name) and he’s truly a magician. I’m far too far back to see, but I can tell he’s got some sort of pedal board set up because he is making some really off-the-wall unique sounds. He also uses a bow frequently, a technique usually reserved for classical music, and it’s just to the left of the border of the box that jazz usually lives in.
After a few songs Kamasi takes a minute to talk to us:
“I travel a lot and I see a lot of different people and it’s the coolest thing. I’ve been making this statement everywhere I go: the diversity we have on this planet is not something to be TOLERATED it’s something to be CELEBRATED! This song is called Truth!”
“Truth” is the closer for last year’s six-track album, Harmony of Difference. This has got to be the most comfortable song I’ve ever put my time into. The live presentation is so much more impactful even than the studio recording, though it lacks the full chorus and string section. This music is so immediate, so personal, it’s right there in you, like it’s been there since you were born, waiting. Kamasi’s sax speaks like a grandfather, telling you ‘yes, you’ll make it through, I promise, don’t worry, you’re far too young.’ There is something eternal and ancient in the air tonight, older than the heat, than the sun. Our soprano saxophonist has a flute now and provides haunting and ghostly upper harmonies.
Next we get “Space Traveler’s Lullaby,” the first single off Kamasi’s upcoming record Heaven and Earth, due on the 22nd. (You can listen to the song on Spotify, but only if you click here first.) This is a long, meandering, spacy, quick, slow, mournful song. This is the sort of genre-bending composition that makes Kamasi Washington such a powerful voice in the world of jazz. He closes his set with the second single from Heaven and Earth, “Fists of Fury.” Kamasi’s sax has found a place to SCREAM here and it makes for an incredibly powerful closer. My mind is mush and I must meander mindfully for a bit. Whew.
Act Four: Chastity Brown
Back to the small stage now but it feels exceptionally larger this time ‘round because Chastity Brown has pulled seemingly everyone from the main stage and the back half of the Garden is body-to-body. Chastity is a hometown hero of sorts – she’s been playing her unique brand of singer-songwriter folk-rock for us for a solid decade. I haven’t seen her perform in far too long – this is a treat.
We have a traditional four-piece here: Chastity on acoustic guitar and vocals, an electric guitar, a bassist, and a drummer. Our lead guitarist has a beautiful mint-green arch-top guitar and as I wade through the crowd he leads Chastity in to “Carried Away” from last year’s album Silhouette of Sirens. This song is a reminiscent smile on a long train ride in the rain, a breakup song, something of which to sway. It’s real pretty and sad and I’m alone in the crowd (my friends are getting drinks) and it’s hard not plug right into the ambient emotion and get swept (Carried?) away. Next, she tells us a story.
“A few months ago I was playing in Eau Claire – it was sold old and I was excited. I was outside smoking and a white supremacist came outside and starting screaming in my face – I wasn’t safe it wasn’t okay. There were two other people outside and no one said anything and I was faced with this fear and suddenly I started fucking GROWLING at him, and that’s not the kind if spirit I try to go through life with, but it’s a necessity for people of color. But luckily my band mate came out and saved me. I wrote this song, called Mad Love, about greeting fear with love. It’s also about FUCK WHITE SUPREMACY.”
Oh, and she screams. This song has everyone at attention: an experience so true and personal and necessary to hear that mostly no one makes a sound. There are hundreds of people here, listening, quiet, captivated. The duration of her set has her audience at full attention, enthralled. A powerful force on stage, Chastity Brown. I leave feeling a bit drained, in the best sense of the word. Time for one more beer to gather my wits.
Act Five: Father John Misty
Back to the main stage now and the heat is wearing on me. I’m feeling the sort of blissful nausea one can only acquire from an outdoor summer festival. I’m barely here, I’m mostly floating somewhere above the crowd, but this sort of drunken-sweat of an out-of-body experience could really not be any more contextually necessary than for the reigning king of weird folk, Father John Misty. He’s fresh off an album drop, April’s God’s Favorite Customer, and his momentum is only building. He and his band are utilizing all the space they have: there’s a mini orchestra towards the back and stage right, full string and horn section. There are keyboards and guitars and a bassist and Father John with his acoustic up front. This is the fullest I’ve seen this stage all day.
They open with “Nancy From Now On” from 2012’s Fear Fun. An early hit for him, this is an easy place to start. We can dip our toes into familiar waters, we all know the words to this one. He peppers in songs from I Love You, Honeybear, God’s Favorite Customer, Pure Comedy. It’s all just gorgeous and aesthetic and topical but I can’t pull myself down from the clouds. About eight songs I’ve talked myself into calling it a night. If you want to make it all day at Rock The Garden you’ve got to drink more water than beer, is my advice to next year’s self. That’s good advice for your whole life too, kiddos. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. One nice thing about leaving early is the Uber’s cheap. I’ll pay the full price in tomorrow’s hangover.
With this, I’ll leave you: you may think (as I did for so long) that Rock the Garden tickets just ain’t worth it. It’s too expensive, isn’t it? How great could it be? Wouldn’t the sound be all echoey? (the answer to that last one is yes, but only in this one tiny pocket of occupiable space – you’ll find it – and you can just stay outta there.) But I’ll tell you, it’s most definitely worth it. I guarantee you whatever else you had planned for your midsummer Saturday won’t hold a candle. Even if you don’t make it to all the acts (which I didn’t) you’ll have a verified ball. See you next year!