The Best of Rock the Garden 2019

Headliners Courtney Barnett and the National rocked, but only after a day of standout performances by lesser-known locals

Balancing on one leg with an overflowing red Solo cup in his outstretched hand, the National’s lead singer Matthew Berninger posed for photographers (“You get that?” he asked) while the nearly 10,000 in attendance at this year’s Rock the Garden music festival applauded. Berninger spent much of the show multitasking music and mischief, jumping up onto speakers, redirecting stage lights to point into the crowd, wandering into the crowd.

Rock the Garden is co-sponsored by the Walker Art Center and 89.3 the Current, the radio station whose cult of dedicated followers can be attributed to the breadth and depth of their coverage and the particular attention they pay to indie—as well as local—artists. It’s the kind of station that makes you feel like you know those artists.

So when you see your artists that your radio station is always playing, it means something. Berninger didn’t need to put in the level of effort he did to get applause—the National, a rock band from Cincinnati, Ohio, was the headliner, after all, hot off the release of their eighth studio album, I Am Easy to Find, and killing it musically—but he went the extra mile to connect with the crowd anyway.

The second-billed rising indie rock star Courtney Barnett put on a great show, too. None in attendance could resist her hardcore persona or witty lyrics, delivered in an Australian accent. When Barnett casually asked the audience what they wanted to hear next, ear-splitting shouts of song titles. When Barnett jammed out with her guitar in the air, raucous applause. When Barnett was doing nothing at all, raucous applause.

It’s no surprise they nailed their sets. I’m more interested in the less widely known local artists, the ones the Current has introduced to us dutiful listeners. So let’s take a deeper look at two of the day’s best performances, with the biggest personalities.

Best of the Main Stage: Heart Bones

Har Mar Superstar and Sabrina Ellis, the singers of Heart Bones, perform at Rock the Garden. They're both wearing short athletic shorts and bright primary colors.
Sean Tilllman and Sabrina Ellis, the singers of Heart Bones, perform at Rock the Garden.

Meghan Joyce

Heart Bones, a collaboration that started last year between Sean Tillman (a.k.a. hometown music hero Har Mar Superstar) and Sabrina Ellis (from Austin, Texas, of the bands A Giant Dog and Sweet Spirit), was the second act up on Rock the Garden’s Main Stage. As for the outfits they were wearing, I’ll let the picture above speak for me.

There was an excessive heat warning in effect, with a heat index over 100 degrees, and the sun beat down relentlessly. But the electro-pop duets of Heart Bones demand dance, and they didn’t let the heat slow them down. Their deliciously cheesy choreography could have been stolen directly from a jazzercise video, their campy showmanship often saw them reaching up in the air and out to each other, they dramatically sank to the ground more than once.

Heart Bones was clearly having fun. They leaned into the performance with big smiles, and their stage banter ranged from the subject of what the correct term is for wearing only a shirt (Donald Ducking or Porky Pigging?) to unprovoked, joking threats of violence out of the blue (“I’m going to drain your blood in your sleep,” Ellis said cheerily. “She tells me that every night,” Tillman responded, although he seemed surprised to hear it).

They treated the audience to a heavily autotuned cover of “Hungry Eyes,” from Dirty Dancing. (In 2018, the duo did an entire tour covering music from the movie.) In covers and originals alike, Heart Bones plays music like you haven’t heard on the radio since the ‘80s, though it feels somehow suited to the present day. Seeing them perform it with such commitment to embodying retro flair felt like a nostalgic fever dream in the best way.

Rock the Garden was the only Minnesota stop on the Heart Bones’ nationwide tour.

Best of the Garden Stage: Bad Bad Hats

Bad Bad Hats performs at Rock the Garden.
Bad Bad Hats performs at Rock the Garden.

Meghan Joyce

In the narrow window between performances by Courtney Barnett and the National on the Main Stage, Bad Bad Hats closed out the Garden Stage. Never neglect the Garden Stage, folks.

If you were too busy saving yourself a good spot for the National, you missed the first of what will hopefully be a long line of Rock the Garden performances by this indie rock band.

If Heart Bones delivered an over-the-top performance, Bad Bad Hats performed with refreshing simplicity. No one in the band really danced or moved; they matter-of-factly played without making a big production out of it.

Bad Bad Hats exemplified Rock the Garden’s commitment to connecting artists and admirers. Lead singer Kerry Alexander shared long, funny stories, in her sweet little high-pitched voice, about the various sources of inspiration that went into her songwriting. She’d probably make an alright stand-up comedian.

Before “Wide Right,” a song that has nothing to do with football and everything to do with missing out on love, Alexander explained in wonderfully unnecessary detail the unsuccessful history of New York’s Buffalo Bills football team and the moment they came closest to glory only to fail again. Before “Nothing Gets Me High,” she explained her thoughts on the myriad songs that compare love and drugs, given her never having tried drugs. After both tales, she said, “See? It’s a metaphor.”

And song after song, story after story, they blew the crowd away. Bad Bad Hats gets a good deal of well-deserved air time on the Current, but you have to see the live renditions of their songs—stripped down to their raw, acoustic, unedited cores—to fully appreciate them.

You can catch the next Bad Bad Hats concert in Minnesota August 2 at Brewer’s Garage in Duluth.

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