Despite the scorching heat this past weekend, nearly 10,000 music lovers took over the Walker Art Center hillside for the 17th annual Rock the Garden. This popular, local summer fest showcased eight unique acts ranging from throwback punk rock and Nashville gothic blues to quirky 80’s electronic duos and deadpan indie rock. The National was the big-name headliner that closed things out in the evening, but a densely-packed, sweaty crowd showed up all day for hours of music in the sun.
I met Gen-X’ers who showed up just to see legendary, punk rock band X but stayed to rock out to Courtney Barnett, a woman in her forties who proudly told me over a Summit IPA that this was her sixteenth time seeing The National, and a familiar, outspoken St. Olaf crowd psyched to see Bad Bad Hats make their festival debut. I shared smiles and stern nods in agreement with Adia Victoria fans who teared up after she devoted her song “Heathen” to women battling reproductive rights in Alabama.
There were plenty of enthusiastic Har Mar fans dancing it out to Heart Bones’ 80’s pop despite the heat, but also a more laid-back Rhymesayer crowd chilling on the hillside–including the producer of “Tuesdays with Lazerbeak” who opted to volunteer all day for the event. A little bit of everything, for everyone.
The all-day event attracted a diverse crowd brought together by not only the adversity of the sweltering heat, but a love of live music. As always, The Walker did a great job facilitating the event. Water lines were short, bathrooms easily accessible, the indoor A/C between sets was a godsend, and the sign language interpreters featured up on the big screen did a fantastic job.
We decided to really dive into each artist on the line up this year. Here’s our detailed run-down of each performance of the day, start to finish.
By: Kathleen Ambre
deM atlaS woke up a relatively lethargic crowd with an energetic set of intense glares, high jumps, and of course his signature mid-air splits. It wasn’t my first time seeing him perform, I knew he would bring movement and energy to the main stage. But, wow, he put in the effort. He almost sweat through his entire ratty, grey tee thirty minutes in.
For those of you not familiar, Minnesota-native Joshua Turner (aka deM atlaS) can be called many things–rapper, painter, poet, beat-maker, versatile vocalist, and self-proclaimed “bad actress.” The nickname seems ironic, given his very dramatic and convincing performance on stage. However, “bad actress” comes from what he calls “an inability to hide his true feelings” and also happens to be the title of his sophomore album.
deM bends genres, dabbling in rock, gospel, hip-hop and funk. Saturday, he showcased a little bit of everything from the gritty, funk hit “Gratitude” to more subdued acoustic ballad “Music Man” alongside close friend and fellow artist “Lady Midnight.” He even threw in a Lauren Hill cover of “Doo Wop” end of his set just for kicks (haha, literally).
By: Tom Smouse
Sean Tillmann (Har Mar Superstar) and Sabrina Ellis (A Giant Dog, Sweet Spirit) have been collaborating together as Heart Bones for well over a year. Although most people were introduced to them through their “Dirty Dancing” tours, Rock The Garden was treated to a plethora of new material as they embark on their newest tour. As Sean shared two songs into the set, it appears they may have a leak as he noticed people singing along. One thing that became apparent during the set was the danceability and strong pop lyrics that should propel them more and more into our attention.
Heart Bones took the steamy stage in color block shirts that as Har Mar Superstar expressed, “Good thing this shirt is made of a towel. This could go one of two ways.” Starting with a newer track, “Open Relationships,” Heart Bones eased into their set. The audience was soon connected to one of their releases “Tiny Dancer.” In true title form, Sabrina and Sean weaved around the stage, getting everyone twirled up.
The fourth song into the set opened with Sabrina Ellis singing French in “Unforgiveable.” The disco beat ballad spotlighted their harmonies and catchy melody. Two songs later “I Like Your Way” revealed another dimension of the band. The pre-chorus includes a flangy, slowed down, distorted vocal effect that breaks into a clean, splashy hook that will soon be burned into all of our heads.
They ended the set with an auto-tuned version of “Hungry Eyes” and their largest single, “This Time It’s Different.” Both songs providing the crowd with familiarity and an outlet to sing along. We will definitely be seeing more from this pairing as they recently wrapped up recording in Minneapolis. Music in Minnesota recently featured Heart Bones on Song-Telling Tuesday, a series where you can learn more being their songwriting and collaboration.
By: Kathleen Ambre
Ah, the Beths. Their new song “Future Me Hates Me” has found itself on my scuzzy, indie-rock list of favorites for the summer next to the likes of Gang of Youths, Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, and Lady Lamb. I’ve got a weak spot for knotty, distorted guitars and female vocals. Throw in that New Zealand accent, the Beth’s front woman and guitarist Elizabeth Stokes was not a hard sell.
The Beths are a New Zealand four-piece band that carry a effortless, sixties bubblegum rock sound bursting with bright guitar riffs. Stokes’ wry lyrics touch on the typical throws of early adulthood–self-doubt, self-discovery, love that makes you weak in the knees, and love that brings you crashing right back to the ground.
Primary songwriter in the group, Elizabeth Stokes (apparently, the only Beth in the group) came across a little unsure of herself tuning her guitar on stage. Plenty of artists throughout the day recycled the same crowd reminder, encouraging everyone to drink lots of water and keep hydrated. Stokes attempted to do the same, but you could tell it came across a bit forced, yet endearingly awkward.
“Um, I hear the water’s good here in Minnesota. I didn’t actually hear that, but I assume it’s fine, ha. Yeah, drink water.”
She may not come across very certain of how she feels, but she definitely knows how to express it through her songwriting. Title track and probably the most popular off their debut full-length album “Future Me Hates Me” showcases a tentative Stokes torn between a comfortable, taciturn life and the excitement of someone new.
“Oh and then the walls become thin
And somebody gets in
But it won’t happen again
It probably won’t happen again
If anything, her hesitancy on stage added to the weight of the lyrics. Another fan favorite of the night was “Happy Unhappy,” a beloved “sad girl” song (lady counterpart to the stereotypical “sad boi”). Their jangly pop-punk sound is sweetened by “woo-ah” backing vocals echoing Stokes’ words, occasionally interrupted by witty, quick-fire lyrics.
Stokes goes full emo-punk with “Uptown Girl,” dispersing death wishes, odes of regret and rage, accompanied by blistering guitar solo. Girl’s got moxie, and the crowd was digging it.
New Zealand indie-rock bands tend to bend in the jangly-pop direction; the Beths fit the bill. However, I was surprised to hear that before forming the band, all four members studied jazz at the University of Auckland. Before focusing on The Beths full-time earlier this year, Stokes taught the trumpet to children. No brass in this band though, it’s all guitar.
“The Beths is almost a reactionary to jazz school and trumpet,” Stokes told Rolling Stone in an interview, “It’s a guitar band. We make guitar music. I like it that way.”
The feeling’s mutual.
By: Kathleen Ambre
I left The Beth’s a little early, following a wave of people to the main stage. On the walk over, as we passed the spoon and cherry, another photographer and I chatted about the New Zealand band we just shot and the fact that we were sweating profusely over our equipment. I asked him who he was most excited to see next. He replied, “Oh, The National of course and I’ve always been a big Courtney Barnett fan. I don’t know X. I think I’m gonna head home and come back in time for Barnett’s set.”
The middle-aged couple walking in front of us looked back and shot him a dirty look. I attempted a friendly, “oh, I’m assuming you guys are big X fans? I’ve heard great things. I don’t know them well, but I’m excited to check ‘em out.”
The husband tersely replied, “They are the reason I’m here.”
That short, abrupt interaction set the tone for the set. It became very clear to me that the people that love this band, love this band. However, it wasn’t a crowd only dominated by fans in their fifties or sixties. There were plenty of twenty-somethings jamming out too.
The Current’s Brian Oake walked out arm in arm with front woman Exene, with a giant, goofy grin on his face–you could tell he was a big fan. Mary Lucia said a few words before the four started their set. She announced to the crowd that once we hear this band, “Food will taste better, the sun will shine brighter and you will get laid.” What an intro.
Sure, the X were not the first punk rock band to hit their stride in LA, but many will argue that they put punk on the map in the first wave of the late 70s, early 80s. A group steeped in warped glamour and nihilism, they brought punk into the conversation with “flyover states” back in the day, and overtime their style even touched on the ley lines of country-folk and Americana.
Guitarist Billy Zoom’s vamping riffs resemble a Chuck Berry-inspired, early rock and roll sound. Exene Cervenka’s raucous vocals, paired up with bassist John Doe, proved sharper than ever. This badass, witchy woman sported red-magenta highlights, a black tee, and a slightly torn lacy min-skirt; her arms passionately swayed overhead to a blend of gnarled guitar and off-kilter harmonies.
X certainly marked their spot on the Rock the Garden main stage. Standout tracks included slower, doo-woppy “Come Back to Me” featuring Zoom on the sax and fast-paced staple track “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not” off debut album Los Angeles. Moving at a blistering pace, Cervenka trades lead vocals with Doe between guitar wails. You would think the explosive energy and frenzied vocals would go off the rails, but drummer D.J Bonebreak keeps the sound tight and controlled.
“Nausea” was another crowd favorite and then the obvious highlight was classic title track, “Los Angeles.” The song is about a girl leaving the city after succumbing to xenophobia–one of many examples of X’s dark, unfiltered look on sex, love, and life in Los Angeles. There was a bit of a false start with “Hungry Wolf,” but the crowd didn’t seem to mind.
A calm, content Billy Zoom was probably the most endearing stage presence of the night. Sure, Exene and John Doe’s chemistry is undeniable, but Zoom’s coy smile and gracious “thank you” to the crowd after every song made it clear to everyone there that he truly loves what he does. He even gave a sax solo at one point, guitar pick stuck to his forehead from the sweat.
“What a beautiful park and a beautiful city,” Exene raved after a throttling 50-minute set.
By: Tom Smouse
Current host Mark Wheat introduced Adia Victoria by describing her as gothic modern blues sound that even Nashville is having a hard time categorizing. Adia established her presence early into the set with sharp movements and confident vocals. The opening song, “Clean,” started with heavy strings and a melting pot of swampy blues, garage punk, and an intensity that quieted the crowd. The next couple of songs were a mesh of subtle electronic noises, dual saxophones, and a heavy wave of sonic tensions. “Dope Queen Blues” was a prime example of this blend.
She revealed to the audience that she didn’t have a ton of friends and books were like friends, and shared that Sylvia Plath provided the inspiration behind “Cry Wolf.” Halfway through the song, climbing down from the stage, she tossed herself back into the audience. Crowd surfing and belting the chorus, Adia finished back on stage to loud applause.
Finishing up the set with “Different Kind Of Love,” Adia gave a defiant performance, teeming with poeticism. Her horn section filled out the sound, while the dirty guitar and big drums gave her vocals a heavy foundation to sit atop. It was a distinctive performance and one that Rock The Garden won’t soon forget.
By: Kathleen Ambre
Melbourne’s Courtney Barnett found herself a Rock the Garden veteran on the main stage. Her last appearance was RTG 2015, and more recently she headlined her own show at Surly last summer. Eager fans welcomed her back with open (albeit sweaty) arms. Like sardines up against the rail, everyone was rarin’ for a glimpse of that bright red guitar, signature mullet, and deadpan lyrical wit — altogether a style ripe for parody.
“Tell me how you really feel” could be seen printed across the kick drum. For an artist who seems to vacillate between self-loathing and despair via her lyrics, she seemed very lighthearted, candid, and comfortable up there on stage. But Barnett is quite familiar with her bounding Minneapolis fan-base by now. Saturday marked her sixth Twin Cities show in the last four years, while her tour mates The National haven’t been to Minnesota since their Roy Wilkins show in 2013.
As the sun was setting, she kicked things off with breakout hit “Avant Gardener” off The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. But she bounced between albums. Barnett played quite a bit from her latest, Tell Me How You Really Feel, an album about the messy snare of miscommunication, or lack of communication, that often accompanies long distance relationships, and the pitfalls of the internet where people say what they feel even to the detriment of others.
One of the best lines off her sophomore album, from track “Nameless Faceless,” is actually a quote from an online troll:
“He said ‘I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup And spit out better words than you’”
Her perfectly-timed, arrogant response? “But, you didn’t.” The witty putdown line spurred cheers and the younger crowd only fed off her dry cynicism.
Barnett was joined by just two bandmates– bassist Bones Sloane, and drummer Dave Mudie. It’s easy to forget that she is the sole guitarist of the crew. Oh, and she flexed those guitar skills Saturday. Barnett would often stutter-step from the chorus and break for instrumental guitar fills. The 12-song set did seem awfully short though, scuzzy intermissions and all.
She let the crowd pick one of the last songs of the night, “Nobody Cares if You Don’t Go to the Party,” then polished things off with hit 2015 track “Pedestrian at Best.”
Barnett’s introspective songwriting is candid and relatable, and her brand of garage rock the kind of music to which you can air guitar and headbang. She ripped through her set, I wish she could have played longer. But, something tells me Courtney Barnett will make it back to Minneapolis soon.
Bad Bad Hats
By: Tom Smouse
The Bad Bad Hats battled the bad bad sun for most of their set. The band expressed how playing Rock The Garden was what every local artist worked for. Two songs into the set, they definitely made the most of their spotlight with “Joseph.” The song has a strong mid 90’s rock simplicity that blends seamlessly with singer Kerry Alexander’s vocals. The authenticity of the lyrics and hometown band had the packed crowd swaying.
After a long lead-up story about the Buffalo Bills and how their kicker missed a field goal wide right, which here in Minnesota, we can all relate to, the Bad Bad Hats played “Wide Right.” With football as a metaphor, the song speaks of how you always miss out on life. Transitioning into “Nothing Gets Me High,” the pop track speaks an honest and sincere peek at love.
“And I would love if you loved me
I wish I was seventeen again
Back when love really moved me
But that was then, yeah”
The group ended their 8-song set with a chorus of “oohs” and claps. After verse one of “It Hurts,” the chorus dropped and everyone started jumping up and down, singing along. You could see the reimbursement and fulfillment in Kerry’s face when everyone knew the song. She smiled and soaked in the sun-splattered crowd. It was the type of moment where a band knows they are doing something good and able to connect to a large crowd, the type of moment where the bad bad band is better than the bad bad sun.
By: Kathleen Ambre
It’s been six years since broody frontman Matt Berninger and The National have visited the Twin Cities. Headlining Rock the Garden, hot off their eighth studio album release I Am Easy to Find this past May, they have returned in full force. This album is not only their longest, most collaborative to date, it’s got a star-studded cast of female vocalists in tow.
For long-time fans following them over the course of the past seven albums, it was obvious Saturday they fully embraced Berninger’s stage antics and Leonard Cohen-esque persona. Even before his first song, he tossed a towel into the crowd with a melted weed gummy on it from earlier in the day; it was so hot his edibles melted. Throughout the set, he messed with the lights, threw water (at least I think it was a red solo cup filled with water) into the crowd, and often jumped off stage as his winded tech guy closely followed. Spirits were high, and Berninger was in full form.
In the crowd, I happened to be shoulder-to-shoulder with an awestruck, tipsy couple raving about his “sexy baritone.” The guy next to me kept drunkenly muttering, “god damnit, now that is sexy dude. You hearing this?”
The National is known for deep, broody indie-rock compositions about loss and regret. The production was slick, the musicianship seemed effortless, and the lyrics mournful. If my breakups were set to a movie soundtrack — yours truly wallowing on a rainy afternoon as a single tear rolls down my cheek — songs like “Quiet Light” or “Nobody Else Will Be There” would be on said soundtrack.
It was interesting to see what I expected to be a very mellow, weepy show evolve into such a high energy performance. Berninger can shift from soulful melodies high-energy collective wallowing. Disclaimer, it was my first time experiencing The National live. Initially, I found them to be an interesting pick for a fun-loving, summer music festival setting.
Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing quite like getting lost in a Berninger ballad. But it was a relief to see the pace shift throughout the set to prevent the audience from sinking into a sea of existential despair.
The five-piece band has taken in many collaborators behind the scenes with Easy to Find, but the most noticeable shift was the emphasis on female guest vocalists and rather unorthodox musical arrangements. Singers Zoe Randell and Pauline de Lassus’ were majestic on “Oblivions.” The duet-centered songs with poignant piano melodies and elegant string arrangement in the background, I found to be the strongest.
Full-out, angsty Berninger was on display for highlight tracks “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Fake Empire.” He politely paused during “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” to call attention to an audience member who fainted and needed medical attention. Everything turned out just fine, the band fiddled around and got their bearings again as Berninger offered up some comic relief, shouting out to the apartment residents nearby watching from their balcony.
“So, you’re hosting the afterparty right? I’ll see ya after the show”
The delay set them back, and they had to rush the end of the set as their 10pm curfew neared. After running around in the crowd for fan-favorite “Mr. November” — guitarist Bryce Dessner and his wife Pauline shaking their heads laughing to themselves — the crew snuck in one more song to top off the night: “Terrible Love.”
The heat of the day had subsided by the last song of the night, but the energy had yet to cool down. Without question, the National certainly lived up to the title of RTG headliner.