“Rylan, you should try to get some sun.”
So sang the National’s Matt Berninger as his band closed out Rock the Garden Saturday night. The titular character from one of the slow-burners on the festival headliners’ eighth album, I Am Easy to Find, would’ve gotten plenty of afternoon rays on the Walker Art Center hillside, where over 9,000 music fans packed in despite temperatures in the mid-90s.
The 17th running of the popular summer gathering, jointly organized by the Walker and 89.3 the Current, gave attendees plenty of reason to show up early. Eight acts spanned a wide range of genres—from first-wave Los Angeles punks X to Nashville goth-blues singer Aida Victoria—the day-long event unfolded like a carefully curated Current playlist, tying together seemingly dissimilar styles into a cohesive whole.
After a scorching opening set from St. Paul rapper deM atlaS, fellow local luminary Sean Tillmann (aka Har Mar Superstar) had the main stage masses dancing in the sweltering 4 p.m. heat. His current project, Heart Bones, a theatrical electro duo formed last year with A Giant Dog’s Sabrina Ellis, offered energetic originals like “This Time It’s Different” and an earnest cover of Eric Carmen’s Dirty Dancing smash “Hungry Eyes.”
Current favorites Bad Bad Hats, playing new single “Wide Right” and songs from last year’s excellent Lightning Round, rounded out the Minnesota-bred portion of the lineup as the final act on the smaller stage in the adjacent Sculpture Garden. Victoria, who dedicated “Heathen” to the struggle for women’s reproductive rights in Alabama, also performed there, as did New Zealand trio the Beths, who weren’t the only Oceania act on the bill.
Melbourne’s Courtney Barnett, who previously rocked the garden in 2015 and headlined her own show at Surly last summer, brought her lyrically well-observed, deadpan indie tunes back to a Twin Cities faithful that seems to grow with her every visit. The guitarist’s 12-song set gave equal time to last year’s Tell Me How You Really Feel and 2015’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, while also peppering in material from her earlier EPs. If the enthusiastic response to numbers like “Nameless, Faceless” and “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” is any indication, that upward trend will continue.
Barnett was a little-known Aussie musician the last time her touring partners in the National played the Twin Cities. Saturday marked her sixth Twin Cities show in the last four years, while the restrained Cincinnati-via-Brooklyn rockers hadn’t visited here since playing St. Paul’s Roy Wilkins Auditorium in 2013 (although they’ve headlined the dormant Eaux Claires festival twice in that span). Their set, loaded selections from I Am Easy to Find, was a triumph more than half a decade in the making.
The album-opening pair of “You Had Your Soul with You” and “Quiet Light” (which received its world debut at Eaux Claires 2018) were followed by a vicious take on “Hey Rosey.” A relatively subdued cut on the album, it was bursting at the seams live thanks to the beautifully dissonant tension conjured by the National’s musical twins Bryce and Aaron Dessner and its rhythm section brothers, bassist Scott and drummer Bryan Devendorf.
The quintet has been augmented live by trombonist Ben Lanz and trumpeter Kyle Resnick for over a decade, but the size of their band has swelled to double digits for the tour behind the new record, which is heavy on female guest vocalists and unorthodox musical arrangements. Both were on display during Easy to Find’s “Oblivions” and “Where Is Her Head,” when singers Zoe Randell and Pauline de Lassus shone brightest.
Berninger was in top form throughout the night, injecting all of the necessary existential angst into “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” and politely pausing while paramedics made their way to a festivalgoer who had fainted near the stage. As the band noodled around on the intro to “Light Years,” the 48-year-old brought some levity to a scary situation by joking about the close proximity of the several apartment buildings surrounding the Walker campus.
Partially because of that four-minute delay, the group was running behind on their setlist as the 10 p.m. noise curfew neared. Parading through the crowd as he normally does during early hit “Mr. November,” Berninger hurried his bandmates into the finale “Terrible Love” as the previous song reached its cacophonous culmination. “‘Terrible Love!’ We’ve got two minutes!” he instructed several times from a hundred feet away, still making his way through the hundreds of fans trying to pat him on the shoulder or take a selfie, as Bryce Dessner shook his head with a knowing smile. It’s a good thing the rest of the band acquiesced, as the opener from 2010’s High Violet made for a rousingly cathartic conclusion.
One more song, please! Even on a steamy summer day, that was this eclectic edition of Rock the Garden in a nutshell.
See our complete Rock the Garden photo gallery here.
Critic’s bias: The show-closing combo of “Mr. November” and “Terrible Love” was one of my favorite moments from the 24 National shows I’ve seen. Having gone in spoiler-free, “Hey Rosey” took me by surprise as an absolute monster. Thanks to poorly timed summer vacations, this was my first Rock the Garden at the Walker Art Center (the 2016 installment was held at Boom Island in Northeast Minneapolis) since 2014, and it was wonderful to be back, because it’s an incredible space to hold a music festival.
Overseen in the crowd: The Current’s Brian Oake graciously greeting several listeners while watching X; another National superfan and I losing our shit and screaming the lyrics to “Mr. November” at each other.