People watching. Beautiful weather. Fair food fare. Great music.
This review is coming nearly two weeks late, but [shameless plug] I’ve been busy with producing and promoting my show for the 2009 MN Fringe Festival.
Touted as a zero wasted waste event (in partnership with Eureka Recycling), the 9th annual Rock the Garden 2009 was held in the beautiful Walker sculpture gardens on June 20th sponsored by 89.3 The Current and the Walker Art Center. As an MPR listener (and proud card-carrying member) I’d been hearing about RTG for months and was pretty excited when I saw the lineup of bands for the afternoon and evening.It pays to listen to public radio.
I was even more excited upon hearing that The Decemberists were headlining so posthaste I bought tickets for myself and three friends the very day they went on sale. I’m a huge fan so this rundown may be more a review of Hazards of Love (of which I’m also a huge fan) than the actual concert. I also wasn’t terribly familiar with the first three bands, so this was a sort of introduction to their music.
Crowd control was superb. The lines were kind of long getting in but moved fairly quickly, and everyone was in good spirits, including event staff and security. These people should be running the DMV. On the other hand food lines were pretty slow so if you wanted a burger you’d have had to wait about ten minutes, but if you were just getting beer (Summit Pale Ale and Scandia) it was a quick and relatively inexpensive trip ($5 a cup). My only critique is that apart from French fries there weren’t too many options for vegetarians, but I digress. Most were happy with the culinary offerings of the afternoon.
This year they reoriented the stage so that it was facing the wide lawn to the south of the Walker sculpture gardens instead of years past when it was oriented east towards Hennepin Avenue and people had to stand in the street, which made absolutely no sense whatsoever (unless you’re the Marquis de Sade). This was a joint effort on the part of the city of Minneapolis as well as the neighbourhood associations—the Calhoun and Loring Park residential areas. But as Current host Mark Wheat informed us, the residents were very supportive of making this happen.
The lawn directly in front of the stage was absolutely packed, but if you were trying to get to the front to join your friends, people were obliging enough. Most attendees were lounging up on the hill on blankets and lawn chairs, and there were even some taking in the concert on balconies across the street. Thankfully there wasn’t too much public inebriation, but there was a couple near me by late afternoon having a rough time dancing to Calexico.
First, I must say that every single band performing that day put on a fantastic show. No exceptions. As an acoustic musician I’m not terribly savvy about the technical aspects of their performances or the finer points of the sound mix or even their electric gear (which there was a lot of). The sound was a bit muddy in the mains as the music got louder and more intense, but the musicians themselves were spot on.
Solid Gold opened at 4:30pm, which was arguably a tough slot to fill since it was early in the afternoon. I confess that prior to this I was not familiar with the Minneapolis-based quintet, but they did quite well for themselves out there. Apparently they were largely performing music from their debut album Bodies of Water, and yes, they put on quite a show. As a songwriter I’m always pleased to hear intelligent writing from other bands, and songs like “Bible Thumper” and “Who You Gonna Run To” impressed me. The crowd seemed pleased, and that’s really what matters. According to their website they’re just back from Europe and a quick festivals tour through Sweden and the United Kingdom.
Brooklyn-based Yeasayer, back from a 2008 European tour with Beck and just recently at Bonnaroo, was next. Again, apart from what I’ve heard from them on The Current, I wasn’t too familiar with this band, but from a musical standpoint these guys absolutely blew me away. Frontman Chris Keating’s passionate vocals (and programming) along with guitarist Anand Wilder’s backing vocals and keyboardy bits and Ira Wolf Tuton’s (that name alone is awesome!) bass and soprano(?) vocals made for some truly fantastic music. They were travelling with two percussionists, one replacing drummer Luke Fasano, so I can’t say that this was a prototypical Yeasayer performance. It was a bit on the trancy side at some points, sort of a Middle Eastern psychedelic step-child of Radiohead, and less lively than what I have heard from the band. The sound mix also wasn’t the best, getting rather buzzy once the band got going. They ended strong though with “2080” which is probably one of their best and most memorable songs to date.
In case you don’t follow them religiously like I do, the Portland-based indie folk rock band The Decemberists are currently touring with their latest album, The Hazards of Love, an ambitious 17-song folk-rock opera about who-knows-what…
… well, no, I do know what and it still confuses the hell out of me.
I’ve been following them closely since about 2003, from their debut album Castaways and Cutouts to their present project which was inspired by English folk singer Anne Briggs’s 1966 EP of the same title. Meloy set out to write a title song for that album, which became an attempt at writing a musical theatre piece and ultimately led to the creation of this album.
Hazards draws largely from English folk music traditions and mythology—a woman named Margaret (Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark) and her shape-shifting lover William (Colin Meloy), the jealous and possessive queen of the forest (if you follow Shakespeare at all, similar to the Titania in Midsummer Night’s Dream—only psychotic) voiced by an electrifying and sensual Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond), and a villainous rake (also Colin Meloy). Even after listening to the album several dozen times and pouring over the plot it still confuses me. But that aside, the music is sheer brilliance, the best Meloy has produced thus far.
I’ll admit, I was skeptical about how this would transfer from studio to stage. It’s a prog-folk-rock concept album, with multiple characters and a complex plot elements that will be lost on most listeners (especially in a live setting, without liner notes)—and after all, how do they top their last release, The Crane Wife (though I still think that their best straight-up album prior to this was and is Picaresque)? This is something you sit down with, glass of scotch in hand as you pour over the lyrics and play each song over and over trying to figure out what the hell is going on. And Meloy himself even said that it started off as a musical theatre piece that just wasn’t stagable. So now they were taking it on tour??
I needn’t have worried.
Forgive me, Colin, for ever having doubted you.
Despite my anxiety, the live experience here was incredible, from Conlee’s melodramatic organ prelude that signals that we’re about to hear a tragedy, to Shara Worden’s badass silver glam rock pants. But there was no doubt about it: Colin Meloy held the stage the entire time, from a sappy sentimental make-out ballade, to some fun guitar shredding, to his horrifying account of infanticide in “Rake’s Song.”
Multi-instrumentalists Jenny Conlee (keyboards, organ, accordion, drums, vocals and screaming), Chris Funk (guitars, vocals, drums and screaming), Nate Query (upright and electric bass) and John Moen (the drums and vocals) were solid. I did catch an obvious flub early on from Conlee, evidenced by grins from both her and Nate Query. Anyone who has played live knows and has made that face. Becky Stark gave a sweet performance as the virtuous Margaret, though her gyrations in opening number on “Won’t Want for Love” were fun and sexual. And as much of a stage master as Meloy is, the highlight of the night was Shara Worden as she danced, strutted and worked up the crowd on both “Repaid” and the fist-pumping heavy metal “Queen’s Rebuke.”
And that was just the first half of the show!
After a short break, the band came back for second half of their set. Colin finally addressed the crowd and showed what a consummate showman he is. They then launched into songs drawn from each of their previous albums: “Leslie Anne Levine” (Castaways and Cutouts), “Engine Driver” (Picaresque), and “Billy Liar” (Her Majesty the Decemberists) which ended with a sing-along. That was followed by a surprise performance of “Dracula’s Daughter” which Meloy claims is the worst song he ever wrote (and it really is awful). That segued right into one of my favourites, “O Valencia” (Crane Wife) with a brief reprise of “Dracula’s Daughter.” They rounded off the evening with a cover of Heart’s “Crazy on You” which brought back Worden and Stark to strut their stuff again and trade off some blistering vocals.
My advice, apart from checking out the four above-mentioned bands, is to get your tickets early for next year because this show sold out fast. MPR does a great job promoting the event, and the member discount applies (both MPR and the Walker), but you have to act quickly. There were scalpers and some event staff selling rush tickets outside, but it’s best to secure your place in advance.
Also, we’d all appreciate if it you don’t get drunk and have a love-in on other concert-goers.
Rock the Garden was an absolute blast and a great start to the summer!