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Social media always buzz with debate when each year's Rock the Garden lineup is announced: are these bands any good? But are they good live? Did the Walker and The Current want someone better who wasn't available or was too expensive? Is it worth buying a ticket if you only like the second or third artist?
I can never get too interested in those debates. My position has always been that if the sun is shining and the beer is flowing, Rock the Garden is pretty much bulletproof—especially since the stage was reoriented to face the grassy hill that was formerly home to the Guthrie Theater. But what it rains? I wasn't sure any lineup could overcome bad weather over several hours.
As it happened, the 2011 lineup succeeded—with a little help from God, and with a lot of help from Jim James of My Morning Jacket. God dried the skies after first opener Tapes 'N Tapes; and Jim James took the stage with gusto, like the headliner he was, to bring the show to a rousing conclusion.
Tapes 'N Tapes played a spirited set in the RTG opening slot that's the next signifier of national prominence for a local act after they headline First Ave—but the poncho-clad crowd were in resolute mode, fully expecting to be standing knee-deep in mud within the next couple of hours, and were not about to dance their pants off.
The rain had largely abated by the time Booker T. Jones took the stage, and hot damn! At 67, the living legend is looking good and sounding even better. Grinning widely and introducing his songs to an audience he was fully aware would hardly recognize many of them, Booker T. played with the balance of flourish and restraint that have made him one of the most respected instrumentalists and highly-sought sidemen in rock history. His three-piece backing band were tight, with guitarist Vernon "Ice" Black playing fiery licks that nearly stole the show. What seemed to most enthuse the crowd, embarrassingly, was drummer Darian Grey's rapping, which reminded me why you don't hear Us3 cited very widely as an influence by up-and-coming MCs. Diggy diggy flop, y'all.
Indie siren Neko Case was the act many Garden-goers were most excited to see, but unfortunately her set was the flop of the show. Bedeviled by a rented amp that rendered her guitar inaudible—only the most pronounced among many problems with her band's aptly muddy sound—Case performed a set that was professional but not compelling. Even Case's powerful, expressive voice couldn't save her disappointing set.
By the time My Morning Jacket took the stage, the sun was setting and the clouds were finally beginning to break. I've never been particularly moved by MMJ's cinematic swamp-rock, but the band charged into action with a forceful, dynamic set that finally roused the crowd into crushes and cheers. It was, in the end, a joyful day in Mudville.
photos above by Jay Gabler; photos below by Meredith Westin
Tapes 'N Tapes
Booker T. Jones
(above: introduced by Bill DeVille [far left] and Dave Campbell of The Current)
(above: introduced by Mary Lucia of The Current)
My Morning Jacket
(above: introduced by Mark Wheat of The Current)