25 Bands in 2 Days
As I stood barely sheltered from the chilling downpour by a humble beer stand, taking in the Raveonettes at the Verge Music Festival, I did a quick tally and realized that my weekend had become a numbers game—a game of how many bands I could witness over a two-day span. And make no mistake—while the Verge festival did a lot of things right this past weekend, not the least of which was existing in the first place, it was a question of quantity over quality. Still there were diamonds to be found, and shows to attend (including three non-Verge-related bills that I was determined to attend as well), and at some point I decided it would be hilarious to try to squeeze reviews of every single one of them into one solitary Cultural Zero post.
I arrived at the Verge festival a little before 5, entering in the designated “media pass” entry area and promptly getting lost on my way to photograph the giant green “V” at the main entrance, which made me giggle because I am 12 years old. I thought it was weird that the main gates didn’t open until 5 PM sharp, as that was coincidentally the start time for Red Knife Lottery. That’s gotta be weird; starting your set in front of no one at a huge festival on the main stage while kids run toward you for fear of missing the first note. The band didn’t look necessarily comfortable, but Ashley Chapman sang her head off and the band played hard. They’ve never really been my thing—for all their chops, I have yet to hear a memorable riff or song—but give it up to them for giving it their all in such a strange, fish-out-of-water scenario.
After a few songs I made my way over to the Wildbirds and reminisced about how the principals used to be Number One Fan and were totally emo, but now have beards and bust out riffs that sound (I swear) like the Black Crowes. But hey, I’ve never disliked the Black Crowes, so take that as you will. Then it was back to the main stage for Nico Vega, who did my weekend a favor by lowering the bar for what was to come so goddamn low that the Crash Kings seemed downright tolerable later in the day.
Let me break this down: Nico Vega = a drummer, a singer who ran around with some weird-ass pink shawl on while she worked the crowd, and a guitarist who threw down riffs that Blues Hammer would have rejected for being too inauthentic while wearing…I don’t know what, but it must have come from Kip Winger’s garage sale. A…vest…thing? With one button in the middle, and no shirt underneath, so he could show off his bitchin’ Dave Navarro abs? 1989 called on behalf of the Damn Yankees; they want you to keep wearing whatever that is because it makes them look tough by comparison. GYEAH. “We’re Nico Vega, and we’re from Los Angeles.” Of course you are.
Jesus, did I really tell myself I was gonna do this? And did I then tell other people I was gonna do this, forcing me to hold myself to it? Yep. Shit. Thank god the first truly (and truly unexpected) bright spot popped up in the form of the Championship, who finally won me over to their alt-country stylings (something which locally I tend to leave more than take) with some stellar songwriting and solid showmanship. The large Potawatomi—er, the Fringe stage—didn’t intimidate the Championship one bit, a fact that didn’t seem lost on the crowd, who genuinely seemed to take to their brand of Americana.
After catching a few songs of Chicago’s Loyal Divide, who came out of nowhere to impress with some fun, synth-flavored, vaguely angular post-punk, it was back to the main stage to catch the aforementioned Crash Kings and decide that, “eh, this isn’t terrible” while singer/pianist Tony Beliveau did his best piano-balladeer, but with distortion! schtick. When the cover of “War Pigs” started, I corrected myself—“oh, wait, now it’s terrible”—and it was on to a brief sampling of singer-songwriter Reni Lane, who was doing absolutely nothing to distinguish herself from every other solo singer-songwriter in existence. Oh, wait, she had a backing track accompanying her, so I guess there was that. Reni Lane: nondescript singer-songwriter, but with a pre-recorded backing band. That’s totally different.
I just now remembered that I actually saw part of Empires, so that should tell you all you need to know while I lament the lack of Josh Homme on drums during the Eagles of Death Metal set. Sure, it’s not like he does anything that isn’t capably handled by any session drummer in the Solar System, but, ya know, there’s that whole thing where EoDM is billed as his side project, even if it’s mostly Jesse Hughes’ band. But hey, Hughes was wildly entertaining all by his lonesome, running back and forth and drinking up the adoration in full Rawk God mode. “Man, they say Hollywood’s the rock and roll town. Fuck Hollywood! THIS is where it’s at!” (Cue wild applause and my friends and me giggling and asking “who the hell says Holywood’s a rock town?”)
As mush as I was enjoying EoDM’s set (especially when the bass finally found its way into the mix), I had to motor to Bayview for a pair of shows at Cactus Club and Club Garibaldi, but not before trying to catch a glimpse of She Who Married The Guy From Goddamn Death Cab & Him (which is a better band name than “She & Him,” a name which proves that we as a band-naming culture have run out of ideas). I lasted 20 seconds before thinking “wait. This sounds like Rilo Kiley or something. I hate Rilo Kiley. Whelp, time to head to Cactus!”
This part of my evening was quite the challenge, as I had planned simply to attend The New Loud’s CD release, but then discovered that friends from Chicago were playing across the street. Thus, I missed the second half of Ekko Galaxie and the Rings of Saturn’s super-tight 70s glam cover set (including a badass cover of “Tear me Down” by Hedwig & the Angry Inch) in order to see my pals The Columbines throw down their stomping, primal, Cramps-influenced thump-punk. The same routine applied as more friends of mine, Chicago’s Maybenauts, who turned out the best set I’ve seen from them yet as they rocked the Cactus stage with slightly glammy power-pop and the best hot pink dress I’ve seen onstage probably ever, gave way to Massachusetts’ Spouse, featuring vocalist Jose Ayerve, who’s worked as an engineer with bands as diverse as the Pernice Brothers and New Radiant Storm King. His band on this night included my Chicago friend Liz from Bully Pulpit and her bandmate, one Jim Valentin, also of Poster Children. Bonus! The music was guitar-driven indie-pop crossed with Rick Springfield-style vocals, a heck of a pleasant surprise given the day I’d had.
After chatting with Jose for a bit, it was back to Cactus for the most blistering New Loud performance I’ve ever seen. The band tore into songs from their new Measures Melt disc with the piss and vinegar of a hardcore punk band. “Heaven,” which is processed and produced to pristine sterility on record, sounded raw and fierce. When The New Loud lets themselves be a live band, no one can fuck with them. An exhilarating capper to a marathon Friday. Evening came, and morning followed—the first day.
Juniper Tar kicked off Saturday with a Championship-caliber (see what I did there?) set of “not normally my thing, but damn was that good” country-folk that the sparse early crowd ate up with vigor. The strength of Juniper Tar is their outstanding vocal harmonies, and they were on full display at Verge. At this point, Verge hit a real dead zone for me. I took in local hip-hoppers The Figureheads and eyed Manchester Orchestra with mild bemusement that lightweight screamo still has a fan base, before finally heading back to the “Edge” stage area to chat with Aaron from Juniper Tar, who I watched with mild horror as he ordered a Sparks Lemon Stinger from the nearby beer stand. You know those 5 cent fizzer candies that you catch at Fourth of July parades? It tasted kinda like that. Personally, if I’m going to drink something alcoholic that tastes like fruit juice imported from Chernobyl, I’ll drink Four Loko and at least get all the shit that Sparks used to have.
Anyway. The Raveonettes went on at 5 and despite all my efforts to write them off as Velvet Underground wannabees (right down to the drummer’s use of a floor tom, snare, cymbal, and nothing else), they actually kinda sorta blew me away. Sure, they really wanted to be the VU, but they mixed the 70s psychedelia with 80s shoegaze, Jesus & Mary Chain style, and every time Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo attacked their guitars by palming the highest frets and strumming like their axes were near orgasm, it was flat-out amazing. Best band of the festival, by far.
As the rain began to fall, I made my way to the shelter of the Fringe stage for locals Invade Rome and Jaill. Invade Rome don’t do anything fancy; they just play straightforward, balls-out riff-based hard rock, and they do it really well. Invade Rome played like they, well, were on a festival stage, working the crowd and slamming into their instruments with abandon. Drummer Justin Krol’s hi-hat stand was broken when bassist Brian Vos launched his bass into it. Awesome. Apparently I missed something similar later in the evening when Margaret “Pezzettino” Stutt smashed her accordion to pieces at the end of her rain-soaked Edge stage set. Dammit, why did I come to this festival clad in a t-shirt and shorts?
I stayed under the roof for the rest of the festival, lest I contract pneumonia or melt Wicked Witch-style. Somehow, this was my first time ever seeing Jaill. How the hell was that possible? A trio of teenage boys danced with their shirts off during Jaill’s bouncy, Radio Birdman-inspired set, much to the consternation of my friend Erin (not affiliated with this blog or TCD), who apparently has a thing about teenage boys with no shirts on (she says it’s hatred, but you know what they say about that thin line…). Most of the crowd (including me) seemed to be picking up what they were throwing down, but I couldn’t help but begrudgingly nod when a nearby girl remarked “all their songs kinda sound the same.” Not inaccurate.
My plan had been to bug out after Jaill and get ready for the Life & Times/Brief Candles/Gospel Gossip/Fahri show at Cactus, but the rain continued to pour, and my car (and apartment) were a 20-minute walk away. Erin offered to give me a ride home if I stuck it out for Rogue Wave, and so I camped out under the roof, shivering and cursing my poor planning, while I imagine AFI rocked the Hot Topic set. Meanwhile, those of us who didn’t wear angular haircuts waited 45 minutes before Rogue Wave hit the stage. I understand the desire to give AFI solo billing during their time slot, but I have a feeling that most of the people waiting for Rogue Wave wouldn’t have gone to watch AFI even if it hadn’t been pouring rain. Just a hunch. Anywho, Rogue Wave played a lovely set of lush, soaring indie-pop that I found myself enjoying even while telling myself that I’d normally never listen to this at home. Actually, scratch that—I just realized that their song “Eyes” is an original and NOT a cover of, I dunno, a Peter Gabriel song or something, like I thought (and no, I wasn’t thinking of “In Your Eyes”). There’s something to be said about a song that sounds like it should be a cover of someone else because it’s so much better than the rest of the band’s material (maybe that they’re a one-hit wonder? Whatever, it’s a hell of a song, even if it reminded me that Heroes used to be a good TV show. Damn you, Heroes).
Finally the rain let up, and we were able to walk to Erin’s car, at which point she dropped me off at my apartment so I could take a hot shower to scare away the swine flu and warm up to go to Cactus Club (what? DJ, you didn’t stay at Verge for Weezer? No I did not, because fuck Weezer). I made it to Cactus Club in time for Gospel Gossip to COMPLETELY KICK MY ASS with a wall of noise, feedback, delayed vocals, and VOLUME. Gospel Gossip are the LOUD kind of shoegaze band, straight out of the My Bloody Valentine/Mogwai “we will rape your ears with decibels” school of guitar fuckery…and I am in love.
While Brief Candles rocked it with their own shoegaze stylings, I finally hit the wall of exhaustion. Oh, god, was I going to make it through the Life & Times? Perhaps I should have ordered my recent invention, the combination of Liquid Ice Energy Drink (the drink allegedly created by Chuck Norris and apparently named after water, for fuck’s sake) and vodka that has gone through the names “Hard Chuck Norris” and “Delta Force,” but may have settled upon the “Vodka, Texas Ranger,” thanks to my buddy Slater. But no, I decided to catch about half of The Life and Times and head home. And what I caught of The Life and Times was stellar. Back in the 90s, when Allen Epley was still playing in his previous band Shiner, Kansas City was an epicenter of smart, driving post-punk delivered by the likes of Boy’s Life, Giants Chair, and Rocket Fuel is the Key. It’s good to see that the legacy of those bands endures with The Life and Times. But I’ll have to catch a full set next time, as exhaustion took over and I bailed for home. Evening came, and morning followed—the second day.
Sure, I was less than impressed by a lot of the bands at Verge and thought that overall, the locals took it to the nationals and more than held their own. However, I was impressed that the festival went off without a hitch, attracted some very passionate music fans, and showed lots of promise for the future. A lot of naysayers are saying that Verge only booked the locals because they were cheaper, and maybe they were—but so what? While I often want to punch promoters who stiff locals in favor of a chance for the always-nebulous “exposure,” Verge actually provided exposure as a tangible commodity. Milwaukee music fans who would never think to give local music a chance were more or less force-fed bands like Invade Rome and Jaill over the weekend (to be fair, the rain helped those two bands), and who knows? Maybe they gained some new fans. That’s reason alone for me to root for Verge to come back next year and do an even better job.
Still, all things considered, I’d rather catch a show at Cactus.