A Definitive History of Rock the Garden
Launched in 1998, Rock the Garden has gone through plenty of changes—from an intermittent, on-the-street jam to a 10,000-fan party on the Walker’s hillside, an off-site two-stage affair at Boom Island Park to, in 2017, an eight-band homage to the newly renovated Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Here’s an authoritative look back at the varied and vibrant history of what’s traditionally been considered the launch of the Twin Cities’ summer concert season.
The Jayhawks headlined the inaugural Rock the Garden—preceded by the Steve Millar Band and the Hot Head Swing Band—in an event that was deluged by rain, sending scores of fans into the Walker lobby to await a break in the clouds. Returning to the stage, Gary Louris, in a green Lacoste windbreaker, a Flying V strapped around his neck, enthusiastically fronted the band for this historic first-ever RTG.
After a year off, the fledgling festival returned, with a killer lineup: Sonic Youth headlined, with Stereolab and Sunship Sextet opening. Walker senior performing arts curator Philip Bither’s recollection of the show: “Kim Gordon’s hair blowing in the wind, stoically beautiful in the midst of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo’s sonic squall storm force of Sonic Youth playing a blistering set.” Band members would return several times: Gordon gave a talk on Yoko Ono’s influence in 2001; Ranaldo performed in 2004 as part of the group playing a live score for Stan Brakhage’s films; and, in town to play the 2006 Minnesota State Fair, the entire band stopped by the galleries to check out a solo show by their friend, Cameron Jamie.
Medeski Martin & Wood got top billing in a year that saw Iffy (a side project of the late Run Westy Run co-founder Kirk Johnson) and Marc Ribot and Los Cubanos Postizos open the show. “Beloved—and missed—locals Iffy, along with Ribot’s ‘fake Cuban’ band, nearly stole the show from MMW,” recalls Performing Arts associate curator Doug Benidt.
Jazz trio The Bad Plus—featuring drummer Dave King—heated up the stage in a year when Andrew Broder, aka Fog, opened and Wilco, fresh off the release of their heralded album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (which earned a perfect-10 rating from Pitchfork), headlined. The array of bands, especially Wilco’s performance, is “perhaps my best musical memory of all Rock the Gardens,” says the Walker’s Bither.
David Byrne’s attire matched his RTG 2004 set, which Bither calls “masterful” and “elegantly thrilling.” The former Talking Heads frontman arrived for an afternoon soundcheck on a bike wearing knee socks and pinstriped overalls. Later, when he hit the stage, he wore white and brown saddle shoes and matching gray work pants and shirt, embroidered with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.—from King’s 1967 book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?—on the back. Byrne headlined, preceded by local opener Barb Cohen (co-founder of Brother Sun Sister Moon) and Brooklyn’s Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra.
Touring around the album Who Is This America? (Ropeadope), Antibalas’s horn-heavy brand of Afropop stirred crowds with numbers like “Pay Back Africa” and its sharp-edged commentary on American politics, “Indictment.” Remembers Benidt, “The Fela-riffic Antibalas groove really set the stage nicely for the globally eared David Byrne performance.”
Bither remembers Byrne, with full funk-adept rock band plus the New York–based Tosca String Quartet, “wailing into the setting sun his own very moving version of Verdi’s ‘Un Di, Felice, Eterea,’ and soon after kicking it with a blistering version of ‘Burning Down the House.’”
Four years before winning dual Grammy awards, Bon Iver opened Rock the Garden as the “local” act. Bither remembers the singer-songwriter “mesmerizing everyone within hearing distance.” After the set, Bither spent time hanging out with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon backstage, “discovering what a regular, sweet guy he was. We talked about everything, including basketball and Eau Claire, and he reminisced about the mind-opening shows he’d seen at the Walker as a young guy.” Vernon was in good company: on the bill with him were Cloud Cult, The New Pornographers, and Andrew Bird. 2008 also marked the first year of the Walker’s ongoing partnership with 89.3 The Current to copresent Rock the Garden.
When an epic squall appeared on the horizon—complete with lightning, no friend of the electricity-conducting stage and equipment—2008 Rock the Garden coordinator Ellie McKinney nervously signaled to Andrew Bird that she needed the microphone to announce a rain delay. “As soon as I finished, I looked out into the crowd for the first time and realized a man in the front row was screaming ‘NOOOO!’ in slow-mo. Then I heard the boos,” McKinney says. “I was being booed. Booed by 10,000 people. As I walked off that stage—my first and only time onstage in front of 10,000 people—Andrew said to me, ‘I forgot my shoes up there.’ And then came a call on the radio: ‘I think your fly was down.’”
Soon after, as Bither recalls, “The dramatic dark clouds broke open for a fantastic sunset behind the city skyline as Andrew returned to the stage.”
By reorienting the stage to face the Walker hillside for its 2009 edition, Rock the Garden’s capacity increased by around 3,000 fans. “Turning the stage toward the grassy amphitheater really made the event feel more natural and convivial,” says Benidt. The lineup: Solid Gold, Yeasayer, Calexico, and headliners The Decemberists.
Betsy Carpenter’s top Rock the Garden moment came in 2009 when The Decemberists performed Heart’s “Crazy on You.” “The female lead singers were wearing white business suits with peplum jackets and were belting out the lyrics while enacting the most bizarre stage moves,” the former Walker visual arts curator recalls. “The audience was going crazy with the requisite head-banging and hand gestures, and the band seemed to be having a blast. It was just so surprising and incongruous.”
OK GO hit the confetti cannon in 2010, a year that saw the LA-based foursome play in the biggest RTG lineup yet, along with Retribution Gospel Choir (featuring Low’s Alan Sparhawk), Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, and MGMT. “2010 was my favorite Rock the Garden to date,” says Benidt. “The blend of sounds and killer performances really made for a long and oh so beautiful day.”
In a sequined aquamarine dress with white fringe, Sharon Jones, along with her Dap-Kings, was a crowd-pleaser, especially so for one audience member. Minneapolis’s then-Mayor RT Rybak took to Twitter, punning: “Sharon Jones, former prison guard, has Rock the Garden crowd in custody. Love her sound!”
Rain—drenching, all-morning rain—nearly put the kibosh on this year’s concert. But the show went on, as the Walker hillside turned to mud as Tapes ‘N Tapes, Booker T. Jones, Neko Case, and My Morning Jacketwrested the stage away from the dreary weather.
Yeti boots: check. Scarf: check. Cape: check. In proper rock star attire, My Morning Jacket front man Jim James “put the ‘rock’ into Rock the Garden,” as Bither put it, “in both great and ridiculous ways.”
With 2012’s nearly all-local lineup—Howler, tUnE-yArDs, Doomtree, Trampled by Turtles, and The Hold Steady—the tenth edition of Rock the Garden didn’t disappoint. “It’s great to be home, and in such a beautiful part of our city,” THS’s Minnesota-raised front man Craig Finn told the crowd of more than 10,000. At the 2011 concert, he was in the audience, but this year he was on stage: “Thanks for making another of my dreams come true,” he said.
Right out of the gate, Rock the Garden 2013 was met with bad weather, but we made the most of it, and spectacularly so. Facing a rain- (and lightning-) delay, opening act Dan Deacon had a suggestion, “I can play in the garage.” As Benidt later wrote, “What ensued in the depths of the parking garage is one of the most spontaneously joyous performance moments I have witnessed. Electro Pied Piper Dan Deacon led an ecstatic dance party with thousands of wet and ponchoed people—all dancing, drinking, and feeling the relief of being dry just for a moment.”
Yet, Deacon’s buzzed-about underground rave wasn’t the only landmark moment of 2013’s concert. Back outside after the weather cleared, the Duluth trio Low used its entire 27-minute set to play one song, a drone version of 1996’s single “Do You Know How to Waltz?” Front man Alan Sparhawk concluded the set with three now-infamous words: “Drone, not drones.” More than a few angry fans immediately went online to share their reactions. Afterwards, an unapologetic Bither took to the Walker blog to compare the set to Stravinsky’s riot-inducing premiere of The Rite of Spring in 1913, noting that the annual concert event “grew out of a 50-year old Performing Arts program at the Walker dedicated to new sounds, new movements, and new forms of theater and interdisciplinary art, where traits like innovation and audacity rank high.”
RTG 2013 also marked a homecoming for Bob Mould, who co-founded the punk band Hüsker Dü here in 1979. His rousing set included classics from both his 1990s band Sugar and his solo work, including the new song, “The Descent.” Blazing through their sets, Silversun Pickups and alt-rockers Metric wrapped up the 2013 festival in memorable fashion.
In 2014, Rock the Garden expanded into a two-day festival, kicking off on Saturday with sets by Lizzo (whose single “Batches and Cookies” became the festival’s unofficial anthem), Jeremy Messersmith, Best Coast, Matt and Kim, and, headlining, hip-hop pioneers De La Soul
Memphis-based Valerie June opened up Sunday’s concert, bringing her distinct brand of “organic moonshine roots music.” Following her were Kurt Vile and The Violators, Doomtree emcee Dessa, the ever-prolific Guided by Voices, and Spoon.
Local favorite Lizzo said that being a part of Rock the Garden made her feel like a “gift-wrapped package with glitter coming out of the top.” May we suggest a cherry on top as well? With Spoonbridge and Cherryjust across the street in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, it’s only fitting that the 2014 edition concluded with headliner Spoon.
Again presented as a two-day festival, RTG15 saw a momentous first day: the reunion of 1990s Minneapolis punk trio Babes in Toyland , as well as showstoppers by young St. Paul phenoms thestand4rd, followed by Lucius, Courtney Barnett, and Conor Oberst. All the way from Glasgow, headliners Belle and Sebastian regaled audiences with tales of their trip to Minneapolis—including a dip in Cedar Lake—and wrapped the night with an on-stage dance party/singalong to their classic, “The Boy With The Arab Strap.”
Before taking the stage at Rock the Garden 2015, the members of Lucius took a private tour of the Walker’s International Pop exhibition, stopping to spend a bit of extra time with a particularly inspiring work, Evelyne Axell’s Ice Cream (1964), which graces the cover of the band’s 2014 album Wildewoman.
The final day of RTG15 aimed for diversity of styles and geographies: New York’s The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger (with Sean Lennon), Oklahoma roots rocker JD McPherson, Lagos-based Seun Kuti & Egypt 80(the son of, and band that backed up, Afrobeat sensation Fela Kuti), seminal punk band Babes in Toyland, and Washington State indie band Modest Mouse.
With the Walker campus under construction, 14,000 people converged on Boom Island in downtown Minneapolis for a sold-out Rock the Garden 2016. LA’s Plague Vendor kicked off the festivities with a blistering set on a sweltering afternoon. Alternating between two stages came local hip-hop supergroup GRRRL PRTY (Lizzo, Sophia Eris, Manchita, DJ Shannon Blowtorch, and Quinn Wilson), Missouri’s Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Hippo Campus, M. Ward, Poliça, and Chance the Rapper.
Under a full moon and against a backdrop of an illuminated downtown skyline, The Flaming Lips brought an unforgettable finale to RTG16, complete with an appearance by Chewbacca, a gigantic mylar “Fuck Yeah Minneapolis” balloon, a giant sun being (an inflatable suit worn by Walker design fellow Gabriela Baka), and front man Wayne Coyne manning the confetti cannon. A high point: after dedicating a song to Prince, Coyne entered his trademark human hamster ball for a stirring rendition of the late great David Bowie’s “Space Odyssey.”
Returning to the newly renovated Minneapolis Sculpture Garden this July, Rock the Garden 2017 welcomes eight bands—from Prince-style legendary funk to all-women punk, Bandcamp’s best to underground hip hop—on two stages. Headlined by Bon Iver, the full lineup features The Revolution, Benjamin Booker, Car Seat Headrest, Dead Man Winter,Bruise Violet, and Dwynell Roland.