Summer Soulstice Was a Huge Success
My weekend of music also took in the Lakefront Festival of Art, which was pretty cool, too.
Maybe it’s the proximity to Lake Michigan, or the amount of commercial real estate around Summer Soulstice, but it’s not like other neighborhood street festivals. It felt more like a warm-up for Summerfest, which starts on Tuesday night. All the familiar smells and sounds were in the air: meat sizzling on grills, beer spilling in the streets, sweat dripping off bodies, instruments clanging, drums banging, crowds cheering.
Prior to Saturday’s celebration on East North Avenue I visited another festival just north of the Summerfest Grounds. Since 1963 the Lakefront Festival of Art outside the Milwaukee Art Museum has been a curated collection of artists selling paintings, ceramics, fiber, metalwork, jewelry, clothing and more. It has grown to include food, music and family-friendly activities. I stopped by Friday night primarily for the local bands. The 16-member Group of the Altos perform only so often, so I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. Before settling in for the music I perused the many artist displays under the tent.
I’ll be honest, most of the art didn’t speak to me, but there were a few notable exceptions. The photographs of Clifton Henri (Chicago) grabbed me. The mixed media assemblages of Gena Oliendieck (Iowa) transported me to a magical stop-motion children’s film. The mixed media images of Christine Echtner (Madison) were haunting and beautiful. The playful and desolate digital collages of Kate Harrold (Nashville) were my favorite.
Since filling the final pages of my latest diary I’ve been in the market for a nice new notebook. I can’t recall her name, but an artist from Colorado at the Lakefront Festival had high-quality leather-bound notebooks that you might find on the set of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, which were way out of my price range.
The next day on their Facebook page GGOOLLDD sent out the following message: “To the young lady at our show last night with the glasses and cute haircut, you know who you are. You are a huge inspiration to me and you are the reason I do this everyday. I love you and you are a badass.”
I, too, have a message I’d like to send out: To the middle-aged guy at the GGOOLLDD show on Friday night with the brightly-colored button-down shirt and fanny pack, you know who you are. You and your kind show up at every festival in town and are always ready to dance. You are an inspiration to me and you are one of the main reasons I look forward to festival season. Honest.
Group of the Altos managed to set up all of their equipment and sound check in time for their headlining slot, no small feat for a band with 16 members. It was my first time seeing a full Altos set and it was everything I had hoped for. One of the bandleaders, Daniel Spack, was charming and entertaining in his between-song banter. They mixed old and new material, including an unreleased track with new rhymes from rapper/saxophonist Klassik. Their driving, dramatic movements lingered in the cool night air. There was a particularly poetic moment during an especially epic part of an unreleased Altos song when a seagull majestically emerged from the lake and emitted some tell-tale droppings that slowly descended to the ground adjacent to the stage. It was the prettiest poop I’ve ever seen. With the Art Museum elegantly lit, sailboats swaying beyond the small stage, lots of art, plus well-priced drinks, it was an enjoyable evening.
The Summer Soulstice Music Festival may be in its 15th year, but Saturday was also my Grandma’s 89th birthday celebration, so I was late to the East Side block party. I arrived around 8pm, just in time for GGOOLLDD’s set on the East Stage. In front of a considerably livelier audience than the night before, their feel good electro-pop inspired the North Avenue crowd to let loose. A guest appearance by Joey Turbo (Rio Turbo) rapping over their single “Boyz” set the stage for the headlining act, hip-hop collective New Age Narcissism (NAN).
While NAN set up my friends and I made our way to the West Stage to catch the rock group Soul Low. The first thing I noticed was the superior light set-up compared to the East Stage. The ceiling on the West Stage was lower and made for a more intimate vibe. The glowing cross on the Unity Church of Christianity above the crowd added an interesting visual layer to the rowdy and slightly wicked scene. At one point bassist Sam Gehrke told the audience they were only allowed one devil horns hand signal. Soul Low delivered a blistering set and an expanded horn section added an extra layer of awesome to their already excellent song “Take Time.”
Since its inception 15 years ago Summer Soulstice has yet to feature a hip-hop act as their headliner. That changed on Saturday night. Two of the event’s main organizers, Chuck Watson and Aron Smith (MC Oneself), were once members of the local hip-hop group the Rusty Pelicans (who will celebrate their 20th anniversary later this year), so it was a goal of theirs to book a hip-hop act at Soulstice. During NAN’s 414 Live session at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee bandleader Q the Sun spoke on the significance of the Soulstice booking.
“I’ve been playing live hip-hop music like this for a long time and it’s the first seeing a hip-hop headlining slot on the East Side stage by Whole Foods and Hotel Foster, so this is a momentous occasion in that regard and we’re coming with full force.” When 88Nine’s Ken Sumka asked NAN which acts they were excited to see at Soulstice they were hard-pressed to offer a response. Though they eventually mentioned Canopies, Soul Low and Aluar Pearls, Q the Sun admitted, “To be honest, we’re just so focused on putting on the best possible performances we can, so that’s all we have in our minds right now.”
True to Q’s words, NAN delivered the best performance of the day and perhaps their best performance to date. I’ve been following the collective since their breakout appearance at the 88Nine Radio Milwaukee Awards back in December, and the Soulstice show was a fantastic representation of their talents. In a nod to the historic hip-hop booking, their set opened with appearances by Dana Coppafeel & SPEAK Easy, as well as Klassik. Then the New Age Narcissism experience began.
Summer Soulstice was NAN’s s second week in a row holding headlining duties. The first was at Locust Street Festival and the strict 8 p.m. curfew almost deprived the throbbing crowd at the Riverwest Public House Stage of NAN’s most popular song, “Doomsday Feat. Siren” by WebsterX. Before finishing their set at Locust Street they ran through a shortened version of “doomsday” while their friends and family danced with them onstage.
The backing band consisted of Tim Russell on drums (a first), Bo Triplex on bass, D’Amato on vocals, Chris G. on drum pad and Q the Sun on keys. At Paddy’s Pub after the show my friend commented that each NAN performer “did a hockey shift, two minutes and they’re out.” It was more like two songs and they’re out. Siren has incited sing-a-longs for her unreleased anthem “Queen Medusa,” but Saturday saw the first time the chorus of her unreleased song “Paper Dolls” was shouted back at her en masse. A veil- and silk-shirt-adorned Lex Allen delivered his most confident and fun version of “Puppy Love.” Lorde Fredd33 fiercely sprayed the crowd with water before parting the audience and rapping “Amen” among them, while accompanied by the sultry Abby Jeanne. NAN closed the night with WebsterX’s “Desperate Youth,” their rallying cry that has become a sort of tribal ritual at this point in which their whole crew mobs the stage, everyone (crowd included) gets low for the slow parts, then goes wild when the beat drops.
The official Soulstice after party was at Yield Bar and by the time my friends and I made it over the only option for entry was to hop the wooden barrier behind the windows in front of the stage. I wasn’t in the mood to be hassled by Yield management again, so I went home. The eager crowd waiting to get in plus the pictures attest to NAN’s ability to carry and spread the energy and enthusiasm from their headlining set.
NAN is a culture, a movement, it is bigger than hip-hop and bound for glory. As Aron Smith exclaimed at the end of their Soulstice set, “This is homegrown Milwaukee hip-hop for the world!” If Soulstice was a warm-up for Summerfest, the NAN performance was a warm-up for Lex Allen’s June 26 gig at the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard and WebsterX’s July 3 opening slot for Lupe Fiasco at the Miller Lite Oasis. No doubt you’ll find both of them in my Summerfest Guide tomorrow.
New Age Narcissism Set List
- Doomsday – WebsterX
- Paper Dolls – Siren
- Puppy Love – Lex Allen
- Taps for Likes – Lex Allen
- Heavy Metal – Lorde Fredd33 ft. Siren
- Tupacalypse – Lorde Fredd33
- Queen Medusa – Siren
- Lately – WebsterX
- Bango – Lorde Fredd33
- Amen – Lorde Fredd33 ft. Abby Jeanne
- This is Our Year – Lex Allen ft. Lorde Fredd33
- Desperate Youth – WebsterX