Top 5 Summerfest Shows
Bonnie Raitt, Hold Steady and Phantogram lead the list.
The second half of Summerfest is when, if you want entertainment that isn’t right by Lake Michigan, well, you might try a movie, a good book or leaving town for a few days. As for everyone else, this is when Summerfest attracts droves of revelers, many of whom actually come for the music. In which case, they might consider these acts:
Top Show: Bonnie Raitt with James Hunter Six at BMO Harris Pavilion, Wednesday, July 2
Greil Marcus has written that Bonnie Raitt is “in her honest, dedicated way as false a singer as Michael Bolton,” which begs the question of how someone honest could be false. Presumably—it was an observation he made en passant—he meant she was adult-contemporary music personified.
Marcus neither pierced the bull’s-eye nor missed the target. Raitt was playing folk and blues clubs around Boston when Janis Joplin was bringing down many houses, yet on her self-titled 1971 debut she had as much in common with Carole King as with the, by then, late Joplin.
For the rest of the 1970s, Raitt was a steady performer and an increasingly talented songwriter. By the 1980s, she had addiction problems Joplin might have understood and hadn’t found a wider audience. She sobered, though, and then along came producer Don Was.
She took both her stardom and its slow fade with good grace. That’s probably why, in the mid-2000s, she easily disappeared from public view while she dealt with the deaths of her mother, her father (Broadway singer John Raitt), her brother and a dear friend.
Two years ago, Raitt returned with Slipstream, an LP that would probably not force Marcus to reconsider his position. However, four tracks with producer John Henry—including two of Henry’s songs and two of Dylan’s—were among the proofs that she had settled into a mode of relaxed “authenticity”: a bluesy woman rather than a blueswoman.
With the older hit “I Can’t Make You Love Me” now of renewed interest thanks to a cover by Katy Perry and Kacey Musgraves, Raitt might draw a younger crowd to a show at which she’s unlikely to falsify herself.
A sample of recent quality:
Thursday, July 3: The Hold Steady at U.S. Cellular Connection Stage
Ten years ago, the Hold Steady’s Almost Killed Me sounded less like the auspicious beginning of a new band than the one-off finale of musicians lunging for one last moment of beer-soaked, noise-saturated bliss before getting day jobs. Lead singer/speaker Craig Finn had the most to unload before selling his mic.
Now on its sixth album, this year’s Teeth Dreams, the Hold Steady sounds older and more professional while staying in thrall to classic rockers like Springsteen and punk rockers like the Replacements. And Finn still has plenty to discharge while measuring out the portions with more care.
Raucous maturity is evidently something that can be pulled off:
Friday, July 4: Bear Hands at U.S. Cellular Connection Stage
Because every week appears to bring a new release from some crazy youngsters in Brooklyn, I am running out of jokes to make about that particular hipster borough. I must therefore devote an entire paragraph to the actual music of Bear Hands.
An electro-pop group not entirely unlike MGMT and more like Passion Pit, Bear Hands might have outdone each of them on its second LP, 2014’s Distraction. The middle-class white-boy emoting and 1980s-synth-pop callbacks are more convincing, or less irritating, thanks to basic tunefulness and variety.
Until the next Brooklyn band comes along:
Saturday, July 5: Paramore at Marcus Amphitheater
Paramore used to feel like the punk-pop answer to Evanescence, that rap and sometimes metal band nobody would’ve tilted an ear toward more than once without the undeniably commanding voice of Amy Lee. Paramore’s Amy Lee just happened to be Hayley Williams.
Last year, though, Williams and everyone else standing after brothers Josh and Zac Ferro messily departed in 2010 reassembled pieces from the semi-breakup into Paramore, a fourth studio album sporting a broad-minded catchiness that makes the previous three albums seem cramped.
Fall Out Boy’s co-headlining, but let’s get real here:
Saturday, July 5: Phantogram at U.S. Cellular Connection Stage
One thing I always say: anyone who collaborates with both the Flaming Lips and Outkast’s Big Boi can’t be all bad. Actually, I have never said that, but maybe I should have. Anyway, it applies to Phantogram.
This duo of Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel makes electronic pop that leans gently toward experimentalism (hence the Lips) and incorporates hip-hop elements (hence Big Boi). A second full-length, Voices, came out earlier this year and expanded Phantogram’s music into modernity.
Though I still wonder how or if this goodness will work at the Big Gig: