An oral history of Rock the Garden

Categories: Rock the Garden
Erik Hess
Rock the Garden 2012.
As we assembled this week's cover story, 89.3 the Current: An oral history, we quickly realized that one key piece of the radio station had a life of its own: Rock the Garden. The annual summer music festival started out in 1998 as a membership driver for the Walker Art Center, a kind of musical incentive to get people in the museum's sculpture garden. During the Walker's expansion in 2004, the festival went on hiatus until, four years later, the Current signed on as a co-sponsor and the two organizations brought Rock the Garden back.

In the five years since, the partnership has produced one of the key moments of summer in the Cities, and has brought a mix of indie rock and musical experiments to the museum's backyard.

Today in extras from the oral history, we have another set of stories. Here are memories of Rock the Gardens 2008 to today, from the people who make the music festival happen.

See Also:
Radio Heads: The oral history of 89.3 the Current
Oral History of 89.3 the Current: Minnesota music community says thanks

Philip Bither, Walker Art Center's senior curator of performing arts: We started it on the street. That first year, there wasn't really a lot of thought. It was like, "Maybe we can get the Jayhawks." When it went so well, we decided to start planning it earlier, and find some fantastic bands we think are beyond what we could host in our own theater. Some of those concerts were fantastic. The year we had Sonic Youth and Stereolab, and the year we had Wilco, and the year of David Byrne and Antibalas. We had a lot of interesting mixes of multiple bands.

[Rock the Garden stopped in 2004] because we were entering into our construction phase. It wasn't an institutional pull-back, it was just to take a year or two off to construct this huge building.
Dan Corrigan
The old Rock the Garden stage configuration
Ali Lozoff, marketing director for the Current, now for MPR: The Current looked at what a signature rock series would look like for us, and they are really intensive and difficult. Meanwhile, the Walker took time off because of the expansion, so I approached Philip Bither and Doug Benidt to see what the plan was to bring Rock the Garden back.

Bither: Doug Benidt, who used to be on the First Avenue staff and has been with the Walker for almost 20 years, is a critical part of the team. He has a big role in programming each year.

Lozoff: So we met, and it was just like, "This seems like a really smart partnership."

Bither: We were talking, and they were thinking about, as I remember, maybe producing their own big rock show somewhere. And we thought, "Hey, what if we did this together." And rather than just be a promotional partner, we really did a lot of work around what would it mean to be full-fledged partners.

Lozoff: It was unprecedented for both organizations to enter into a one to one partnership of that level.

Bither: There was an immediate broader base of excitement from within the rock community. Before then, I don't remember as much, "When are they gonna announce?" and "Who's gonna be in the lineup?"

Lozoff: Every year I'm standing backstage when senior performing arts curator Philip Bither walks on stage and he gets the most amazing ovation. And I don't think it's fake! How often do you get 12,000 people losing their minds at a performing arts curator?

Bither: We did well, but those early years [before the Current's involvement], we never sold out. It was never a situation where we sold out in the first few hours.

Lozoff: It went from sold out in a couple weeks, to sold out in a couple of days, to sold out in a couple hours, to sold out in a couple minutes. So now we're trying to stanch that insanity a little bit.

In 2008, Andrew Bird, the New Pornographers, Cloud Cult, and Bon Iver played.

Matt Perkins, marketing manager for the Current: The first one that the Current was involved in, there was this excitement that I felt, that everyone felt, for that entire lineup. Bon Iver's timing on that bill and about to hit critical mass -- people were clamoring to get in. It was a packed house for that first set.

Bither: Between the time we got his booking agent to say, "Oh yeah, that sounds good," to the time the concert happened, he went from what would've been opening local act to maybe second from headline. It was an immediate rise in popularity and critical claim. We hit that timing really well.

Bill DeVille, DJ and host of United States of Americana: Some people missed it. We didn't have the whole Rock the Garden thing figured out totally, so a few people missed it 'cause they were standing on line waiting to get in. But I remember it being pretty fabulous. I got to sit down with Justin [Vernon]. That was a pretty good moment, and what a swell guy he is.

Dan Corrigan
Bon Iver's Justin Vernon at Rock the Garden 2008
Perkins: The rest of the night was just kind of magical, from the thunderstorm that came halfway through Andrew Bird's set, and it was kind of paused for a second, and then he came back on. The sky was just like this mystical -- it was really incredible.

Bither: We had to stop his show five songs in, and it's just so stressful not being sure if the headliner's going to be able to finish his show. And then the clouds broke back open 15 minutes later, and they got back on stage, and the skyline was there, and you felt like you'd been through some kind of experience together. Andrew put on a beautiful show.

For the next year, construction at the Walker allowed the stage to rotate,opening up attendance from about 6,500 people to more than 10,000. In 2009, the Decemberists headlined, followed by MGMT in 2010, and My Morning Jacket and Neko Case in 2011. 2012 featured the Hold Steady, Trampled by Turtles, Doomtree, Tune-Yards, and Howler.

Bither: When we first knew that the Guthrie was gonna end up going away, it didn't even dawn on us that we'd have this beautiful natural amphitheater here. We still did it on the street again after this new landscape opened up. One of us said, "What about if we turn the stage, people could see a little better!" That was a dramatic turn for Rock the Garden. Suddenly the capacity increased and the quality of the experience increased.

Lozoff: It's just completely transformed the event.

Mary Lucia, weekday afternoon DJ: They make us do intros from backstage, voice of God, so we're not seen, we're just on the mic. I remember there was a lost child one year, and they made me go up there and say, "Ben, your parents are in the vodka tent." And it was like, "Okay, so you go find your parents, who are in the vodka tent."

Jill Riley, DJ and co-host of The Morning Show: There was the year My Morning Jacket was at Rock the Garden. We went to Nye's after, and I go up to the piano bar and I told the dude to play "Stand By Your Man," and I started singing it. All of a sudden I heard this super high voice harmonizing with me, and I'm like, I wonder who that is? And I look, and he [Jim James, lead vocalist and songwriter for My Morning Jacket] has got his arm around me and we're singing. We had this great moment where a few people in the place knew what was going on, like, "Is that the guy from My Morning Jacket singing at the piano bar right now?"

Lozoff: It really rained, drizzled, rained, drizzled all day. But [My Morning Jacket] came on, and there was this sunset with some mist in the air, and it just felt like, this is a rock show! And then they killed it.

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