Tuesday, June 22, 2010

In review: Rock the Garden

Text by Jahna Peloquin
Photos by Robyn Lewis

The Twin Cities are rife with outdoor block parties and festivals during the summer months, but it's quite possible Rock the Garden is the festival of the season. Packing national music acts and stands of locally-made food and locally-brewed beer onto the Walker Art Center's grounds, 89.3 The Current's annual outdoor music fest didn't have any trouble selling out within days of tickets being made available exclusively to MPR members - despite this year's show lacking a heavy-hitting headliner.

Gorgeous weather greeted the throngs of festival goers as they made their way onto the lush grounds of the Walker, picnic blankets in tow. Kicking off the show was local act Retribution Gospel Choir, Alan Sparhawk's rockin' sort-of side project. Though his guitar tone couldn't be better - gearheads were most definitely freaking out about his complicated onstage setup - the dark-and-heavy trio seemed better suited to a sweaty, crowded rock club than a festival setting. Regardless, their Current-rotating single "Hide It Away" got heads nodding.

Next up, OK Go hit the stage, and they did so with typical bombast. The group's been around for a decade, so it's no surprise they knew how to put on a big festival show, complete with brightly colored suits and explosive, red-white-and-blue bursts of confetti. Their feel-good, fuzzed-out guitar pop ran the gamut of their extensive catalog, from 2002 hit "Get Over It" to its big Current hit of the moment "WTF."

The day was hitting its halfway mark as Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings - the purported "best live act" in the country at the moment - hit the stage, Jones in an aqua sequin-and-fringe minidress. It really can't be argued the soul revivalists weren't in top form, ably led by energetic bassist Bosco Mann as Jones shimmied around the stage. The band blew through hits like "If You Call," "If I Give you My Love," and their radio hit of the moment, "I Learned the Hard Way" with aplomb.

But the biggest surprise of the night came in the form of headlining act MGMT. Whether due to low expectations or out of a genuinely magical performance, the band won over the crowd soon after hitting the stage with "Pieces of What," a laidback psychedelic groove from its debut album as the sun set behind the stage. It was a sure sign of what was to come, as the band thankfully mixed songs from both its stellar debut and its recent sophomore effort, Congratulations, which has been met with mixed reviews. As the band went into '60s-surf-inspired tunes like "It's Working" and "Brian Eno," it was greatly invigorated by the rounded-out live band, which also gave new life and dimension to older tunes like "Weekend Wars."

Thanks to recognition alone, the band's hit “Electric Feel" got the crowd feeling it, even though frontman Andrew Van Wyngarden's weak falsetto couldn't match the pitch of the recorded version. "Time to Pretend" also got the crowd going, with neon lights shooting over the crowd like a Too Much Love dance night under the stars. But the band’s encore “performance” of "Kids" was embarrassing to watch for anyone who wasn't drunk from a day's worth of drinking, as it basically amounted to Van Wyngarden doing karaoke over his own song. As the band members dropped their instruments to lackadasically shake a tambourine, one could only wonder if it was the band's way of thumbing its nose at its own hit - or its simple inability to perform the hits live.

But overall, it was a feel-good and strong showing from the reputedly weak live band. Its hazy in between song banter was particularly indicative of their chilled-out mind states. “It’s a half moon! But really, when you think about it, you can only see half the moon, so it’s more of a quarter moon, you know?” frontman Andrew Van Wyngarden warbled. Totally, dude. Totally.

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