Walker Art Center

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Ten Summers of Rock
Memories and Moments from RTGs Past

Let Summer Begin!

Photo: Cameron Wittig

Launched in 1998, the Walker’s now-annual Rock the Garden festival has gone through plenty of changes—from an intermittent, on-the-street jam to its current incarnation, drawing more than 10,000 fans to the Walker’s hillside. The 2012 edition is the series’ tenth, prompting a look back at the varied and vibrant history of what’s traditionally been considered the launch of the Twin Cities’ summer concert season.

Rock the Garden 1998

Photo: Dan Dennehy

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.

Rock the Garden 2000

Photo: Dan Dennehy

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.”

Rock the Garden 2002

Photo: Dan Dennehy

Medeski Martin & Wood got top billing in a year that saw Iffy 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.

Rock the Garden 2003

Photo: Cameron Wittig

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, headlined. The trio, especially Wilco’s performance, is “perhaps my best musical memory of all Rock the Gardens,” says the Walker’s Bither.

Rock the Garden 2004

Photo: Gene Pittman

David Byrne‘s attire matched his 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. on the back. Byrne headlined, preceded by local opener Barb Cohen and Brooklyn’s Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra.

Rock the Garden 2004

Photo: Gene Pittman

Touring around the album Who Is This America? (Ropeadope), Antibalas‘ 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.”

Rock the Garden 2004

Photo: Cameron Wittig

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.’”

Rock the Garden 2008

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 hung 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, New Pornographers, and Andrew Bird.

Rock the Garden 2008

Photo: Gene Pittman

When an epic squall appeared on the horizon—complete with lightning, no friend of the electricity-conducting stage and equipment—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.”

Rock the Garden 2009

By reorienting the stage to face the Walker hillside for its 2009 edition, Rock the Garden’s capacity increased by around 3,000 fans—to more than 10,000. “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.

Rock the Garden 2009

Photo: Cameron Wittig

Walker Visual Arts curator Betsy Carpenter’s top Rock the Garden moment came in 2009 when headliners 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,” she remembers. “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.”

Rock the Garden 2010

Photo: Gene Pittman

OK GO hit the confetti cannon in 2010, a year that saw the LA-based foursome play in the biggest RTG lineup yet: Retribution Gospel Choir, OK GO, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, and MGMT. “2010 was my favorite Rock the Garden yet,” says Benidt. “The blend of sounds and killer performances really made for a long and oh so beautiful day.”

Rock the Garden 2010

Photo: Cameron Wittig

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 Mayor RT Rybak took to Twitter, punning: “Sharon Jones, former prison guard, has Rock the Garden crowd in custody. Love her sound!”

Rock the Garden 2011

Photo: Gene Pittman

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 and Tapes ‘N Tapes, Booker T. Jones, Neko Case, and My Morning Jacket wrested the stage away from the dreary weather.

Rock the Garden 2011

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.”

Rock the Garden 2012

Photo: Gene Pittman

1998, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 … and now 2012. With this year’s lineup —Howler, tUnE-yArDs, Doomtree, Trampled by Turtles, and The Hold Steady—that’s ten Rock the Gardens. The 2012 edition didn’t disappoint, with a nearly all-local festival. “It’s great to be home, and in such a beautiful part of our city,” THS 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.