After a year in exile (Boom Island) Rock the Garden returned to the newly remodeled Walker Art Center Garden. With headliner Bon Iver announced early, the festival managed to sell out to members of MPR and the Walker only. The updated grounds worked quite well, allowing for two stages to be set up and the festival condensed to one day with less wait time between sets. The Garden Stage was dedicated to local artists and drew onlookers from the pedestrian bridge. The weather was textbook summer festival, hot, humid and sunny and 11.000 fans had plenty of opportunity to stay hydrated and if all else failed could cool down in the pleasant spray from the Spoon and Cherry Fountain.
Kicking off the steamy afternoon at the Walker Sculpture Garden was California-native Margaret Glaspy. At just 28-years-young Glaspy packs a serious punch with a depth and maturity to her music – both in sound and lyrically – not often seen from a singer/songwriter in their 20s. There is a rawness to Glaspy’s vocals that just draw you in, demanding to be listened to. There’s a bit of 60’s folk/rock vibe to Glaspy’s tune, an obvious fave for host’s The Current. Though early in the day Glaspy drew quite the crowd, with folks singing and dancing along to her set.
Car Seat Headrest
Next up for the afternoon was Car Seat Headrest – who have gained quite the serious following in recent years thanks to radio stations like the current. With a dozen studio albums under their belt this four-piece is no strangers to massive crowds like the one in the at the Walker on Saturday afternoon. One thing they do seem to be strangers to is the sweltering midwest summer heat and humidity. Frontman Will Toldeo rocked a black turtleneck like a serious champ. They closed their set with their hit Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales. “Oh – I know this song!” someone behind me added.
Making his Rock the Garden debut was new-comer, Dwynell Roland. Roland undoubtedly has the Minnesota hip-hop vibe but with a twist all his own. His contagious laugh (think the Lil Wayne laugh) and off the wall sense of humor, paired with tight rhymes made for perhaps one of the best sets of the weekend. “So I know you all probably looked at the lineup and were like ok I know them, I know them, but who the hell is Dwynell Roland,” Roland joked, “well I’m that guy.” No lack of self-awareness there. Despite the heat, Roland still got the crowd dancing and jumping around – which is a feat for any artist considering the classic stoic Minnesotan vibe. The surprise of the set was undoubtedly P.O.S. ( Minnesota hip-hop legend if you live under a rock) joining Roland on stage for a song. We’ll call that a ringing endorsement.
Back over on the main stage (Roland was on the newly-added Garden stage) was Benjamin Booker, or as a slightly inebriated female in the crowd referred to him as “Benjamin Button,” (close enough). Booker has been buzzing in recent months with the release of his new album Witness which came out earlier this summer. There is something magical about Booker’s ability to blend elements of blues, rock, garage/punk rock and soul into a special sauce so uniquely his own. Booker did just that on Saturday afternoon – his set included Right on You, Witness, and perhaps his biggest hit Violent Shivers.
Zipping back down to the Garden Stage – was Bruise Violet. These girls all ring at barely 18 but rock hard enough to turn anyone into fan. They take their name from Minnesota legend’s in their own right – Babes in Toyland. And to say Bruise Violet is keeping the spirit of Riot GRRRL alive in Minneapolis would be a massive understatement. What is so incredible about Bruise Violet is besides their ability to shred harder than just about any other band I’ve seen is the way that alternate between pitch-perfect harmonies and blood-coiling screams. Their set on the garden stage definitely had mixed reactions from the larger Current/Walker Art Center crowd but you could tell a lot of people were loving every minute of it. The crowd took a moment to sing drummer Danielle Cusack happy birthday – who just turned 21, the oldest member of Bruise Violet.
The undeniable highlight of the day had to be The Revolution. The crowd at Rock the Garden was a mix of people who probably lived to see Prince in his prime and others who were too young to even know the words to Let’s Go Crazy. Regardless, The Revolution put on one hell of a set – it was heartfelt, it was fun, it was a celebration of the Purple One, it was a moment to remind you of why we’re all so damn proud to call ourselves Minnesotans. It’s really hard to capture the magic of seeing The Revolution live, just barely a year and a half since the passing of Prince but the emotion was thick in the crowd. Their set included just about every mega-hit including 1999, Let’s Go Crazy, When Doves Cry, and I Would Die 4 U. Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) joined The Revolution on stage for a sexy rendition of Erotic City, so that is probably the first time I have used Justin Vernon and sexy in the same sentence. They aptly closed their set with Purple Rain, “oh gosh, I think I’m gonna cry, yep I’m crying,” a woman in the crowd next to me joked. “Don’t worry, I’m right there with you,” I told her. “We’re giving these songs back to you. So take them and sing them,” Wendy Melvoin charged the crowd with. “He’s watching, he’s here,” Melvoin went on, choking back tears. We can only hope it was a day of music that would have made The Purple One proud to also be a Minnesotan.
Dead Man Winter
The solo Project to Trampled by Turtles’ Dave Simonett released their new album earlier this year and drew a large crowd to the Garden Stage even before the Revolution’s set ended. Simonett was supported by drummer JT Bates, guitarist Erik Koskinen, bassist Tim Saxhaug , and pianist Bryan Nichols. Dead Man Winter’s style is indie rock with occasionally a bit of TBT sound thrown in. Unpretentious, straight forward yet refined, perfect for a warm summer evening outdoors. The addition of the Garden Stage was a great success allowing local artists exposure to large crowd instead of having them play early in the day. Hopefully we will see even more local talent next year.
Closing out the evening was what we’ll call honorary Minnesotan – Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Thought hailing from Eau Claire, Wisconsin – Minnesota has played a special part in Bon Iver’s career. “It’s really good to be back here, it’s a been a while,” Vernon said quietly during his set. 2008 to be exact, when Bon Iver was one of the opening acts for Rock The Garden. Since then, he’s been a busy guy – headlining Coachella, collaborating with Kayne West, putting on the massive Eaux Claires festival, we don’t blame him. Bon Iver closed out the evening with a roughly 75-minute set which largely included variations on songs from his 2016 22, A Million album. He even mixed in some of the original Bon Iver hits. “This is for those of you who’ve been there with us since the start,” Vernon said before taking a seat behind his guitar for Skinny Love. He closed out with Beth/Rest.
Bon Iver decided that he did not want any press pictures taken, sorry 🙁