Your average outdoor music festivals has little appeal for those of us who attend live music events on a regular basis. A ton of people cram together in a confined space for an extended period of time, and a lot of the time they’re doing so for reasons which have nothing to do with hearing the music. Sure, some have turned out to see bands they know and love, but plenty of others see a music fest as an excuse to party in public and channel that archetypal festival punk — yeah, that guy — we’ve all seen in countless incarnations online.
I’ve been to scores of concerts over the last 18 years, and at this point I know what to expect when I go to an outdoor festival — very little.
I say this to explain why, even though Rock The Garden is now in its 11th iteration, this past Saturday was my first venture to the popular annual collaboration between the Walker Art Center and Minnesota Public Radio’s “new music” station, The Current. In addition to my aforementioned reasons for skipping outdoor festivals, the artists playing Rock The Garden in the last few years either didn’t appeal to me and/or regularly play other venues that offer better atmosphere in which to actually hear them. But hey — I’m getting deep into the second half of my 30s. The line-up was pretty good this time around, and I figured: If I’m ever going to check out this other great Minnesota get-together, this year’s as good a time as any.
The gates opened at 3, but between a forecast calling for heavy rain and first billing for Dan Deacon, I was in no rush to get there. I’ve seen Deacon a few times and while I can appreciate his ability to engage the audience, I find his music incredibly forgettable. It sounds like glitchy pop/dance music for people who don’t really like electronic music. That said, Deacon’s ability to move an audience really came in handy, as inclement weather soon forced the audience indoors. He put on a huge dance party in the Walker’s underground parking garage and by all accounts played a really memorable set.
When Duluth’s Low was announced on the bill for Rock the Garden, to be honest, I was worried the venue would turn out to be all wrong for them. Ten albums and 20 years into their careers, Low is an institution. (Seriously, if you live in Minnesota and haven’t seen or heard them yet, what the hell are you doing?) This band has crafted a library of subtly beautiful pop songs; you listen, and the music leaves you feeling hopeless and triumphant in equal measure. But the music requires careful attention as it builds to those transcendent moments. Two of the best shows I’ve seen in my life were Low performances at Orchestra Hall, in part because the space provided a perfect canvas for Low’s spacious pop creations. Similarly subdued concert spaces have also served them well. You need a stretch of calm for your ear to hear the moment when Alan Sparkhawk drowns out the room with his hypnotic guitar playing and Parker joins him, subtly drumming, then coming in with that angelic voice in perfect unison, their sounds swelling together.
Just give these a listen: “Witches,” “When I Go Deaf,” “Dragonfly,” “Silver Rider,” “Amethyst,” “Shame,” “Sunflowers,” “Two-Step,” “Lion-Lamb,” “Time is the Diamond“…You get the point. It’s worth paying a little attention to catch the subtleties of what they do best. And what they do best is, I think, pretty awesome: This is a band that deserves to be in the same category as the Beach Boys, My Bloody Valentine and Neil Young. Reservations aside, Low’s recent output tends more toward straight-ahead shoegazer pop, and I figured that would be a better fit than their usual stuff for the rock festival atmosphere.
The thing is: What they provided on Saturday was something completely different. After the rain passed, as the festival crowd came back outside to set their blankets down on the Walker’s soaking open field, Low pummeled them with an extended 27-minute drone version of their song “Do You Know How To Waltz?”
The guy in front of me stood with his hand up and thumb facing down as Low crafted a hypnotically beautiful piece that matched the changing weather patterns . One crowd member went as far to create a twitter account, @FU_Low, unsurprisingly and primarily to say:
Fuck you @lowtheband such assholes u made me make an account to give you a big fuck you!!!!!
Low’s Alan Sparhawk ended the set with three barely-audible words: “Drone, not drones.” The band even retweeted the disgruntled comment quoted above. In an event sponsored by one of the premier modern art museums in the world, Low took the opportunity to challenge their audience and to engage them in a much needed public discourse about music and the state of the world, even if they didn’t intend quite that. Sparhawk was quoted in an interview with the Star-Tribune as saying that they just “decided to try to do something beautiful.”
You know what? They absolutely did. As I sit here writing, one night later, I can’t wait to see Low play again after that. I want to support artists brave enough to buck expectations, who play music with something to bold to say. The world is full of watered-down bands who say far too little of consequence when given such a platform.
Like Low, you should also know Bob Mould if you’re a consumer of quality music. The Minnesota-bred Mould has created ungodly loud, catchy guitar-driven pop/rock under his own name and with the bands Hüsker Dü and Sugar for over 30 years now, and he shows no signs of stopping. Incidentally, his performance at First Avenue this past September featured a perfect mix of career highlights and was one of my all-time favorite shows of 2012. In fact, it was his presence on the billing, the chance to hear him again with his current support, that clinched my decision to finally buy that ticket to Rock the Garden this year.
And Mould didn’t disappoint. He started out with Side A of the Sugar’s unstoppable Copper Blue album, then moved at a breakneck pace through his new solo material. After that, he blazing on to play sunny-day appropriate Husker Du jams “Celebrated Summer” and “Charted Trips,” finishing the whole set off with his infectious alternative hit “If I Can’t Change Your Mind.” Mould paused just long enough between songs to introduce Narducy and Wurster, his incredible rhythm section, and to comment on the newly passed gay marriage law. About that, he declared simply that gay marriage “is good for the economy” and then went right back to work making my ears bleed, moving around the stage like a man half his age.
Going in to Rock the Garden this year, I went with the idea that I wouldn’t stay any longer than necessary: I’d go, check out the scene and then get out while the gettin’ was good. So, I took in the sights, had some ice cream and spent a fair amount of time avoiding the many picnic blankets that covered the Open Field. But about two or three songs into the Silversun Pickups’ set, I headed for the gates. Their warmed over Smashing Pumpkins-meets-’90s Brit pop does nothing for me, and I wasn’t particularly keen to see Metric after the bits and pieces of their playing I’d heard prior to the festival.
I didn’t like everything on stage, but I left with a positive feeling about my Rock the Garden experience, nonetheless. I mean, the main attraction of an event like this is the chance to enjoy a grab bag of live music performances outdoors with a group of “like-minded” individuals. Sadly, this year, some of my fellow festival-goers didn’t look at it that way. A number of them went online to snark in various comments sections to broadcast their displeasure, admonishing both Low and the Current for failing to deliver the expected product. They wrote: “This was not music or art.”
So, let me offer this final word: I hope the Walker and the Current continue to embrace what Low brought to this festival. I hope they ignore those with such very narrow notions of what constitutes “real” music and art. Institutions like these, that pride themselves on being at the forefront of both music and art, shouldn’t be intimidated by a little blowback. There are scores of crowdpleasing festivals which are cancelled all the time. I don’t expect to like every band at a festival or every piece of art in a museum — no one should. The things outside our comfort zone create a space for conversation and dialogue. And you can’t deny: there’s been a lot of dialogue since the festival. In the span of 48 hours post-Rock the Garden I’ve participated in and read numerous conversations about Low’s set. I wish more art got us talking like this afterward. And I hope future Rock the Garden iterations again engage in both crowdpleasing moments and serious discourse. Why shouldn’t we want both?
Tom Loftus is founder and owner of the Modern Radio record label, a creative/music event planner, social media consultant, DJ, mini-golf enthusiast and a college career adviser. He has been deeply involved in the Twin Cities music community since the mid-1990s and has attended over 2000 shows across the world in basements, bars, ballrooms and beyond. While not immersed in the world of music, he loves word games, traveling, and his two cats adopted from Pizza Farm.