Twin Cities residents are notoriously prone to overstating the virtues of our mid-continent, mid-size metropolitan area, but it was hard not to belive that the Power(s) That Be were somehow smiling especially upon us Saturday afternoon as the clouds parted for an afternoon of radiant sun at the heart of what may have been the summer’s best music weekend—and, overstate though I may, around here that’s saying a lot.
As the Stone Arch Festival roared on to rave reviews, a sellout crowd of around 10,000 gathered on the grassy hill adjacent to the Walker Art Center for this summer’s installment of Rock the Garden, an annual outdoor music event co-sponsored by the Walker and 89.3 The Current. This year’s show featured national headliners MGMT, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and OK Go along with Duluth favorites Retribution Gospel Choir.
Though the hillside was already filling up by the time Retribution Gospel Choir took the stage at 4:15, there was plenty of room down front for those who wanted to get up-close and personal with the louder band fronted by Alan Sparhawk of Low. Both of Sparhawk’s bands have rabid local followings, but I was personally bored by Low when I saw them at the Varsity last month, and Retribution Gospel Choir similarly failed to excite me. Though Retribution Gospel Choir have a different texture than Low, in both bands Sparhawk evinces a taste for songs that are ambling and atmospheric rather than momentum-building. Sparhawk is certainly a passionate (and animated) musician, though, and the crowd clearly appreciated the band’s opening set.
OK Go, taking the stage next, left nothing to chance: as insurance against the possibility that their amply catchy melodies wouldn’t snare every last Garden-Rocker, the band led a singalong, played a song as a bell choir (complete with white gloves), enlisted audience help in guitar-playing, climbed into the crowd multiple times (frontman Damian Kulash came about 100 feet into the crowd for an entire song, performed solo), and fired several barrages of confetti from a specially built cannon device. (A favorite topic of discussion was whether the confetti spray violated the enviro-friendly event’s zero-waste policy.) Everyone seemed utterly charmed.
Soul revivalist Sharon Jones’s reputation preceded her, and with good reason. Jones implicitly poses the question: if the showmanship and musical style of R&B performers from the 50s and 60s never needed fixing, why break from it? After a theatrical introduction by her bandleader, Jones boogied onstage in one of her signature sequined gowns, sticking the crowd right into her figurative back pocket and leaving us there for the duration of her generous set, oozing soul and shimmying with such spirit that she might as well have reconstructed the Apollo right there on Hennepin.
The top-billed MGMT also have a reputation that had preceded them—but in this case, the reputation wasn’t good. Ever since the announcement that the trendy indie rockers would lead the lineup, the Cities’ most knowledgable music buffs had been grumbling that the band was lousy live. While many found that reputation to be justified—”MGMT are boring me to tears,” tweeted City Pages music editor Andrea Swensson—my impression was that though the band’s laid-back style was a decided contrast to Sharon Jones (“Now is the time for MGMT to play some music,” mumbled frontman Andrew VanWyndgarden as the band took the stage), they sounded good and seemed to be exactly what the crowd was looking for. Sometimes the best isn’t good enough, but other times good enough is more than enough.
The Scene (JG)
Retribution Gospel Choir (MW)
OK Go (MW)
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings (MW)
People of the Garden (JG)