Review: Rock the Garden

For one day a year, Claes Oldenberg’s Spoonbridge and Cherry is not the main attraction in the newly-renovated Walker Sculpture Garden. Instead, Rock the Garden takes the honor. Since 1998, the festival has successfully presented a wide variety of quality music to the Twin Cities.

The forecast called for thunderstorms, but leave it to Minnesota’s unique weather patterns to make it 90 degrees and sunny. The melodious music was almost as all-consuming as the sweat coating everyone’s body.

Even if the heat and sweat was too much for my liking, the incredible music that the festival provided was not. Margaret Glaspy took the stage first. Hailing from California, Glaspy kicked off the day with much of her recent album, including highlights “Emotions and Math” and “You and I”. The Rock the Garden first-timer slowly won over the crowd as people filtered into the festival, staking claims to shaded spots on the hill facing the stage.

“I don’t understand why people aren’t more famous when they are this good,” a nearby fan claimed of indie-rock group Car Seat Headrest. Will Toledo, who fronts the group, sang exceptionally well for someone who was wearing a black turtleneck on the hottest day of summer. The band has quickly risen to prominence on the strength of their recent release, Teens of Denial, which was named to a many best-of lists, including a spot at number four on Rolling Stone’s Best Albums of 2016.

Starting things on the smaller stage, under the refreshing mist of Spoonbridge and Cherry‘s fountain, Minneapolis’s own Dwynell Roland, brought his humor and easy-to-love personality to an enthusiastic crowd. His debut album, The Popular Nobody, discusses Roland’s successes and disappointments in the past year. Throughout the set, he made it clear that performing at Rock the Garden was one of the successes. His interaction with the audience demonstrated his belief in the importance of his connection with the city: “We’re like a family, right.”  

Benjamin Booker finally brought some coolness to the boiling day with his bluesy rock. After seeing his performance, I believe that is the best way to describe him: cool. His music is a mix of rock n’ roll, R&B, and soul. While listening to his set, I struck up a conversation with the woman wildly dancing and singing next to me… I took it she was a fan. With emotion and fervor, she explained her obsession: “He writes music that is vulnerable and approachable. He writes about issues that are important, plus he makes you want to dance your ass off.”

Further on in the day, the Garden Stage was taken over by Bruise Violet and Dead Man Winter. The local all-girl punk rock band, Bruise Violet, celebrated their drummer’s birthday, while Dead Man Winter requested updates on the Twin’s game being played simultaneously just down the street. Bruise Violet’s enthusiastic punk rejuvenated an audience who’d begun to settle into a mid-afternoon lull because of the heat. Then, as the sun began to set, Duluth’s own Dead Man Winter settled the audience into a folk-induced trance with hits like “Destroyer” and “This House is on Fire.”

During one of the most highly-anticipated performances of the day, Prince’s former backing band, The Revolution, emphasized their connection to Minneapolis and the importance of the city carrying on Prince’s legacy. “These are your songs,” Wendy Melvoin told a growing audience, as she and the rest of the band powered through hit after hit, including “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy”, reaching a cathartic peak as the entire crowd of 12,000 enthusiastically sang along to “Purple Rain”. 

While Minnesotans went wild when they came on stage, those coming from Eau Claire went even crazier when Justin Vernon of Bon Iver appeared to sing “Erotic City” with the band. It was so lively, that I felt like I was at a real dance party in the 80’s with a perm and everything. “You don’t even have to see the stage to have a good time,” explained one concert-goer, alluding to the fact that it was all about the music.

Closing the night was Justin Vernon himself. The anticipation of seeing Bon Iver rippled through the crowd as everyone at the festival shifted to the Walker’s hillside to watch the final set. Justin Vernon really has a knack for captivating an audience, let me tell you. Vernon and his band played almost all the songs from his latest album, 22, A Million, to a hushed crowd and then closed with a few favorites from earlier albums, like “Beach Baby” and, finally, a solo acoustic performance of “Skinny Love”.

As the music came to an end and the band took their final bows, people streamed out with smiles from ear to ear. The booming sound of fireworks from the Aquatennial was no match for the spectacle that the crowd watched throughout the day.