With mope kings like Bon Iver and The National among the standout headliners of the past, Rock the Garden isn’t exactly known as the feel-good music fest of the summer.
What a perfect year to break this mold.
After a full two-year hiatus — it was Minnesota’s first major music festival to be canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19 and one of the last holdouts of 2021 — the eight-hour, seven-band marathon in front of the Walker Art Center benefited from livelier, more upbeat performances at the Year 2022 and the general happiness of finally being together again at a big outdoor concert. You’ve never seen Gen X music lovers treat each other as lovingly as they did during Saturday’s festival.
The fact that Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats brought the day to a close certainly contributed to the warm, happy atmosphere.
The Van Morrison-channeling Denver soul rock big band would have made a tax code seminar feel like a party with Saturday’s energetic, blistering 75-minute set. No-nonsense frontman Rateliff didn’t even waste time walking offstage for the encore, instead blasting into the day’s wannabe anthem “Out on the Weekend.”
“Send the kids to bed and let the drinks out,” Rateliff sang. “We play favorite records and kiss on the mouth.”
More anxious co-headliners Sleater-Kinney seemed determined to have a good time too.
When singer/guitarist Corin Tucker roared “Dig me out / Out of this mess” towards the end of her influential punk band’s hour-long set amid wild cheers, her smile shot out as sharply as the beach balls being twirled around by many of the 12,000 or so attendees.
Between the two main stage headliners on the second stage at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Minnesota’s own indie rock influencers Low gave the most emotionally exuberant performance of the day.
A far cry from their previous appearance on Rock the Garden in 2013 — when they played a booming, improvised one-song performance to the great dismay of audiences — the Duluth trio steadily and triumphantly pounded through five songs on their wildly inventive new record, Hey What’, including the harmonically apocalyptic ‘Days Like These’.
What followed was something of an abbreviated Low greatest hits set. The powerful closing movement “Canada” even drummed synchronous hand clapping into the crowded audience like something out of a Bon Jovi video.
“Did you think we’d be up here leading a gossip all these years later?” Low frontman Alan Sparhawk nailed it.
The rest of Saturday’s lineup was as diverse as any in RTG’s 19-year history; or 24 if you count the years the fundraiser was sporadically canceled before 89.3 the Current signed as a partner with Walker in 2008.
Nigerian guitar groover Bombino opened the music on Saturday, followed by London pop-rockers Beabadoobee on the main stage. Quite a few contestants got those names mixed up on paper, but the artists certainly excelled on stage.
Bombino (aka guitarist/vocalist Omara Moctar) and his boisterous band performed an intriguing blend of desert blues, afrobeat and reggae that spoke the universal language of funk. The audience would have liked to hear more, but bassist Youba Dia admitted: “We have to catch a plane to Morocco.”
Newcomer Beabadoobee (aka Beatrice Laus, 22, London-Philippines) pulled off a surprisingly rocking 45-minute set laced with gnarly guitar work over straight-forward pop hooks. Her louder stage show belied her softer viral TikTok hits “Coffee” and “Sorry,” both of which were still performed with a stripped-down approach that made it easier to hear all the younger fans in the crowd singing along.
On the garden stage – whose other acts were “curated” by Low – Australian-based duo Divide & Dissolve played instrumental noise rock complemented by clarinet and saxophone parts looped over guitars and drums. Lead looper Takiaya Reed (who is of Cherokee descent) built her frayed and desolate sound between songs by alluding to various injustices, including those committed against the Dakota Indians on whose land the sculpture garden is located.
Also on the garden stage, California synth-funk wizard Dâm-Funk (aka Damon Riddick) paid homage to another Minnesota ancestor, Prince, and channeled his playful swagger through his set, then culminating in a jubilant version of “Controversy.”
Of all the wildly different sets on Saturday, Sleater-Kinneys should go down as the crown jewel of RTG ’22.
The band that helped shape the ’90s riot-grrrl movement from Olympia, Washington, went through a difficult line-up in 2019 when drummer Janet Weiss left and three new members joined. They sounded tighter and much gelled on Saturday, though, than they did when they performed at the Palace Theater in 2019, and new songs ‘Worry With You’ and show opener ‘High in the Grass’ saw them move forward with panache.
Of course, a lot has happened since 2019, which may have sparked new energy in the band.
“All of us up here appreciate this cathartic experience of making music for you all again,” said SK vocalist/guitarist Carrie Brownstein ahead of the aptly chosen closing track, “Entertain.”
“Cathartic” could have been printed on this year’s Rock the Garden souvenir t-shirts.