This year’s Rock the Garden was rather local-heavy, so it seemed only natural that the local band that’s been creating quite the local buzz of late was first up on the bill. That band is Howler. I may be biased in saying this, but they are not to be underestimated by their age (which, mind you, is not that young at all). I’ve seen them once before at their Varsity Theater show and so I have a bit of a comparison point.
The feeling that I mainly got from this performance was one of iciness. Not from the band themselves, but from the crowd, minus the perhaps, oh, 10-15 people head-nodding and the maybe three people actually dancing (me included). The entire band seemed more reserved than the last time I saw them. I’m not quite sure of the source of that reservation was, though. Perhaps it was the crowd’s generally stoic mood. Or it could’ve been the no-swearing rule made by The Current (they were live-broadcasting the show). In any case, I’ve seen the band in a livelier mood.
That being said, the music itself was still lively despite the short set time that they were allotted. Jordan Gatesmith tried to keep the mood up with quips about Ritalin (directed at the band’s drummer, Brent Mayes) and ticket scalping. Most of the reaction and crowd comments came from people who personally knew the band, which was perfectly fine. I was just glad that there was some kind of reaction. Jordan’s voice throughout the show was a bit sloppier than last time, but he did make a comment between songs about how he “messed up his voice” (or something to that effect).
The set was naturally filled with songs from their only LP, America Give Up, but they first song they played was a cover of Hüsker Dü’s “I Don’t Want to Know if You Are Lonely.” Although the crowd was less than enthusiastic and the mood a bit more tense than I would have liked, Howler still put on an enjoyable show. If this was your first time seeing them, I recommend giving them a second chance within a more personal setting or with a crowd that are actually there to see them. I can almost guarantee a more enjoyable time.
The next band was the only band of non-Minnesotans on the bill. TUnE-yArDs (a.k.a. Merrill Garbus and her touring band) were the second act of the show, and debatably the biggest nationwide band on the bill. TUnE-yArDs’ sound is characterized by Merrill’s unique vocal style (which is yodel-esque at times) and their ethnic drum beats and grooves. The performance sounded clean. Merrill created the vocal harmonies by recording her voice onstage and then looping it through. She also did the same with the drum bits, as she only had a bassist (Nate Brenner) and an alto sax and tenor sax as backup.
Their show overall was enjoyable, and I was especially impressed by the musical skill of the two saxophone players, who were the perfect accent to Merrill’s voice and beats. I found that few songs dragged on for a little too long for the outdoor festival setting. I feel like if you’re going to play at a festival, you’ve got to keep the mood up and running for most—if not all—of the time. And with the drum and vocal loops, the background beats of the songs weren’t entirely dynamic, which makes it hard to really keep the crowds’ attention riveted on the performance. There certainly were jumping and pump-it-up moments, but I didn’t personally feel too invested in their show. I am a tUnE-yArDs fan, but from this set I got the impression that they are best to be appreciated from studio rather than stage.
The third band up and from my perspective the most anticipated band of the day was the local hip-hop outfit Doomtree. Doomtree are a collective of local rappers, including Dessa, Sims, Mike Mictlan, P.O.S., and Cecil Otter, with Paper Tiger and Lazerbeak running the beats. To be perfectly honest, I’m not really a big fan of rap and hip-hop in general, but it is a huge part of music culture here in Minnesota, seen especially through the Rhymesayers record label and the always-successful Soundset festival.
Doomtree, to my surprise, played their most-hyped song “Bangarang” very early in their set. Not to be confused with Skrillex’s “Bangarang,” this is a song that features all of the rappers in Doomtree and resounds with a catchy and repetitive chorus. I was a little disappointed because (at least from where I was standing, which was right next to the speakers) it was really difficult to hear the background of the songs, which I feel sets Doomtree apart from most rap groups. The crowd was really amped up by Doomtree’s set, though, and the whole barrier shifted so that I happened to be against the plywood board which was attached to the barrier in order to allow the electrical cords to run underneath and to the stage. I mean, I get that they had to do something to get the cords under. But putting a plywood board that is taller than the actual barrier up and has rough edges is a little hard for whichever unfortunate people happen to be squished against it. Because of my relative shortness and desire to actually remain upright, my arms ended up rubbing against the board for the whole of Doomtree’s set, which detracted from the enjoyment.
Despite the uncomfortable barrier situation, I was impressed by the skill that was exhibited in Doomtree. All of the rappers had tight and clean performances. I was especially impressed by Sims’s rapping. I can’t quite put my finger on the reason why he stood out from the rest, but his voice seemed more powerful and backed by more emotion. And guys, guess what? He totally spit on my face. OMG I’m never washing my face ever again. But yeah, he didn’t like, come up to me and spew in my face, but I got a stray droplet. Wowza.
In any case, I was impressed by the talent present in Doomtree, and their live show has a much higher energy level than their recorded music. They ran into the same problem that tUnE-yArDs did with dragging on a bit too long with one song, but closed their set with “Little Mercy,” which was especially impressive live, and then two more danceable songs. Again it was a bit disappointing to not be able to hear the background music, but maybe that was just a product of where I was standing. The crowd reaction was warm and lively, as to be expected for this widely-praised local band.
It was especially funny to see The Current DJ Mark Wheat swaying offstage. I mean, not to say that all white adults can’t listen to hip-hop and look cool, but there was just something wholly entertaining about watching Wheat doing little neck bobs and knee bends along to a hip-hop beat.
After Doomtree, I decided to ditch the barrier as the last two bands were ones that I thought I would better enjoy from a distance. That, and there were some friends who I wanted to meet up with. After grabbing a (not-too-impressive, really) taco from the busy Barrio food truck, I planted my butt on the slope to catch the set of the Duluth-native band Trampled by Turtles. Their folk rock sound, which is vaguely akin to that of Mumford and Sons, was given a warm reception by the crowd. I personally don’t find their music to be impressive or innovative, but they did put on a good show.
TBT mixed up the mood by switching between slower, lilting songs and raucous hoe-downs, which featured some very skillful fiddling. They were a good soundtrack to the cloudy-morning-turned-cool-evening, but I wasn’t invested in their performance on its own. I’m going to go ahead and make a hipster remark here, but their sound was like, reaaaally mainstream. Just way too mainstream for me. I like stuff that is waaaaay more obscure. But in all honesty, if I was a suburban adult who is known to listen to folk rock now and then, I would probably love them. Not to detract from TBT’s talent (which is impressive), but they just didn’t offer up anything that I haven’t heard before. I’m just way too alt for that shit.
The final band of the night was the semi-local band The Hold Steady. Their frontman, Craig Finn was Minnesota-raised so that counts as local, right? In any case, they were the band that most people were standing for. As per my friend Nikki’s explanation, “at [that] point everybody [was] a little bit drunk.”
I don’t know much about the Hold Steady, but I was given some insight to their show via another friend, Jared, who’s a fan of the band. He said that they were missing a keyboard player and therefore missing an important element of their sound. The band are lyrically interesting (they wrote a song about a University of Minnesota professor’s suicide), but their sound was unimpressive to my ears. Again, they were talented and certainly had the most stage presence among the bands present, but I just wasn’t interested. Nikki and I were discussing their sound and she used cake as a comparison. She said that if rock & roll is shortcake, then The Hold Steady are pound cake. Ask Nikki if you want further explanation.
The pictures that I got in my head whilst watching The Hold Steady were of a neighborhood block party. Image the dads gathered around a stereo drinking beer and talking about whatever dads talk about. The Hold Steady is probably what would be playing on that stereo. I know that they’re big and they seem to be loved by the local scene, but I just didn’t like them that much.
Well, after a day of sun-clouds-sprinkling-sun-clouds-sunset, tacos, cake discussions, ageism (some guy literally stopped talking to me when I told him that I was 16. I mean, it’s illegal to have sex with me but not to talk to me. Seriously), and music, I bothered Nikki’s mom by asking her for a ride to my car (sorry again, if you’re reading this) and drove off into the sunset.