With mope kings such as Bon Iver and the National among its standout headliners of the past, Rock the Garden isn't exactly known as the feel-good music fest of summer.
What a perfect year for it to break that mold.
Returning from a full two-year hiatus — it was Minnesota's first big music festival to cancel in 2020 due to COVID-19, and one of the last holdouts in 2021 — the eight-hour, seven-band marathon outside Walker Art Center benefited from livelier, happier performances in 2022 as well as the general gaiety of finally being together at a big outdoor concert again. You've never seen Gen-X music lovers act so lovingly toward each other as during Saturday's festival.
Having Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats close out the day certainly buoyed the warm, jubilant vibe.
The Van Morrison-channeling Denver soul-rock big band could have made a tax-code seminar feel like a party with the high-energy, horns-blazing 75-minute set it offered Saturday. No-nonsense frontman Rateliff didn't even waste time walking off stage for the encore and instead rushed into the day's would-be anthem "Out on the Weekend."
"Send the children to bed and let the drinks come out," Rateliff sang. "We'll play favorite records and kiss on the mouth."
Angstier co-headliners Sleater-Kinney seemed dead set on having a good time, too.
When singer/guitarist Corin Tucker bellowed "Dig me out / Out of this mess" to wild cheers near the end of her influential punk band's tight hourlong set, her smile shot up as sharply as the beach balls being whacked around by many of the 12,000 or so attendees.
Sandwiched between the two main-stage headliners on the second stage in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Minnesota's own indie-rock influencers Low gave the most emotionally exuberant performance of the day.
A far cry from its previous appearance at Rock the Garden in 2013 — when it played a droning, improvisational one-song performance to much of the audience's dismay — the Duluth trio steadily, triumphantly hammered through five songs from its wildly inventive new record "Hey What," including the harmoniously apocalyptic "Days Like These."
Those were followed by something of an abbreviated Low greatest-hits set. The punchy closer "Canada" even drummed up synchronized hand claps in the overflow-sized audience like something out of a Bon Jovi video.
"Did you think we'd be up here all these years later leading a clap-along?" Low frontman Alan Sparhawk aptly cracked.
The rest of Saturday's lineup was as eclectic as any in RTG's 19-year history; or 24 if you count the years the fundraiser event was sporadically called off before 89.3 the Current signed on as a partner with the Walker in 2008.
Nigerien guitar groover Bombino kicked off the music Saturday, followed on the main stage by London pop-rocker Beabadoobee. More than a few attendees got those names mixed up on paper, but the artists certainly distinguished themselves on stage.
Bombino (aka guitarist/singer Omara Moctar) and his gusty band laid down a fascinating blend of desert blues, Afrobeat and reggae that spoke the universal language of funk. The crowd would've loved to hear more, but bassist Youba Dia confessed: "We have to catch a plane to Morocco."
Newcomer Beabadoobee (aka London-based Philippines native Beatrice Laus, 22) laid down a surprisingly rocking 45-minute set laced with gnarly guitar work over straight-up pop hooks. Her louder stage show belied her softer TikTok viral hits "Coffee" and "Sorry," both of which were still played with a stripped-down approach that made it easier to hear all the younger fans singing along in the crowd.
On the garden stage — whose other acts were "curated" by Low — Australia-based duo Divide & Dissolve played instrumental noise-rock augmented by clarinet and saxophone parts looped over guitars and drums. Lead looper Takiaya Reed (who's of Cherokee descent) set up their frayed and desolate sound between songs by alluding to various injustices, including those committed against the Dakota people whose land the sculpture garden sits on.
Also on the garden stage, California synth-funk wizard Dâm-Funk (aka Damon Riddick) paid homage to another Minnesota forebear, Prince, channeling his playful showiness throughout his set and then culminating with a jubilant take on "Controversy."
Of all the wildly different sets Saturday, Sleater-Kinney's should go down as the crown jewel of RTG '22.
The band that helped pioneer indie-rock's '90s riot-grrrl movement out of Olympia, Wash., went through a difficult lineup in 2019 with the exit of drummer Janet Weiss and addition of three new members. They sounded tighter and way more jelled on Saturday than at their Palace Theatre gig in 2019, though, and the new songs "Worry With You" and show-opener "High in the Grass" found them forging ahead with verve.
Of course, a lot else has happened since 2019 that may have sparked new energy in the band.
"All of us up here appreciate this cathartic experience of playing music again for you all," S-K singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein said before the fittingly chosen closing song, "Entertain."
"Cathartic" could have been printed on this year's Rock the Garden souvenir T-shirts.