Rock the Garden is rollicking if not rocking

Saturday night’s sight, of nearly 10,000 hip folks filling the hillside behind the Walker Art Center, where the Guthrie Theater used to be, was an inspiring one for anyone concerned that Minnesota Public Radio or the Walker would struggle to find the youth vote. It was the largest crowd yet for Rock the Garden, a concert and membership drive for both institutions–and a group that seemed to thoroughly enjoy itself, despite not having a really rocking group among the four bands.

MPR’s The Current is among the best radio stations in the country for tapping the indie-rock zeitgeist, and the Walker, of course, has unfailingly helped set the agenda for contemporary art–both lead, and the crowds have followed well enough. The Walker’s current major exhibition, The Quick and the Dead, is among its most ambitious ever, a survey of conceptual art that extends beyond the galleries into the sculpture garden, where chimes hung in the trees play a John Cage tune, in sync, every Thursday at 7 p.m. with an organ performance of the work at the nearby Basilica of St. Mary.

But when the musical zeitgeist, in recent years, has shifted toward downbeat folk-rock, intimate and full of careful wordplay, it can be an awkward translation to a big concert in the sun. Solid Gold, the local pop-rockers, opened with the most danceable set of the day and the most talked-about, at least until all the Decemberists fans stood at avid attention for the headliners’ quirkily absorbing rock opera. The Decemberists, whose smart, reflective music may in fact be best appreciated during a winter snow-in, headlined but might have been better used to warm up a group that would really get folks on their feet. Most people remained on their blankets, drowsing in the heat, or absorbed in conversation, turning the concert essentially into background music for what’s become the social event of the year for the hipster set.

It’s all fine and good to put a finger on the pulse, but when there’s no pulse to be found, you’ve got a problem–and it’s not the organizers’, it’s rock music’s. Or rather, what’s passing for rock music these days; what contemporary band might have gotten these butts shaking? Green Day? How about a band not formed in the 1980s? Then again, now that the concert has moved off the street into the pleasant green bowl of the Walker’s future sculpture garden addition, this arrangement might be just about perfect–on a summer day, a little music, a little place to spread out, and 10,000 of your coolest friends arrayed in solidarity to good taste is enough to remind us why we support these institutions–because they know best.

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