My Whirlwind Weekend at Arte Para Todos
Inaugural Milwaukee music festival was three days of great music, cool clubs and fun crowds.
I can’t remember a Monday in recent memory when it was as hard to get out of bed as it was yesterday. Not even my standard post-work 15-minute power nap could allay the fatigue from running around Milwaukee over the weekend for the inaugural Arte Para Todos benefit festival. As mentioned in my interview with organizer Josh Evert, I’ve spent the last half-year acquainting myself with the local music scene. My girlfriend and I go to at least one show a weekend and try to see something new as often as possible. I think the most gigs we’ve attended in a weekend was three. But Arte would be a much different story.
Friday – Bay View
We planned on starting the night at Highbury Pub to see Yo DOT, a celebrated rapper from my old neighborhood, but dinner ran a little late. (His new album, Burleigh Bodega, is coming soon, so expect to see more of him in the next few months.) Instead we met some friends at Tonic Tavern, which was already more busy than I’ve ever seen it. Kiings, who just released their debut album WWYDF and have a release show Thursday night at Hotel Foster, were DJing. I chatted with organizer Chuck Watson about the local music infrastructure before making my way to the Gloss Records merch table where co-founder Joey Peterson (Rio Turbo, Platinum Boys) was hawking their latest goods.
As a big fan of GGOOLLDD, the dream-pop group that exploded on the scene in 2014, I bought their new cassette tape then and there, suspecting it would be in demand at Saturday night’s release show. Joey informed me of Rio Turbo’s own release show on March 28 and encouraged me to check out another artist on their label, NO/NO, who was performing in a few minutes. In the bar room where the band (made up of ex-Delphines members and Rio Turbo’s Cat Ries) was playing it was impossible to get a drink so I just staked some real estate and got into their 80s synth vibe.
From Tonic we headed south down Kinnickinnic to Frank’s Power Plant to see a new group, Nightgown, that includes members of arguably Milwaukee’s most acclaimed band/collective, Altos (formerly Group of the Altos, who play a record release show on March 14 at Company Brewing). Nightgown features Arte organizer (and Altos member) Amelinda Burich, Altos leader Daniel Spack and singer Gina Barrington.
Over Valentine’s weekend my girl and I had visited Minneapolis to sample their scene (which I knew well back in college) and discovered a side project from Shakin’ Babies singer Jess Oleson called Choral Reefr. Her sexy electronica was fresh and inspiring but something was missing. A backing band, perhaps? Well, that’s exactly what Nightgown adds to the mix, and it totally works.
The night picked up steam when we got to the Cactus Club – Club Garibaldi sector of Bay View. Aside from GGOOLLDD, who my girl has seen so many times she felt the need to take a couple months off, our favorite acts in the city are the rock band Whips and the hip-hop luminary WebsterX. It just so happened that they were put on the same bill at Club Garibaldi. When we arrived Kia Rap Princess (backed by Moses on the turntables) was stalking the stage, slanging cocky rhymes that impressed festival goers, who slowly filled the room.
My girl held our spot in the front at Garibaldi while I ran across the street to check out another one of my favorites, The Fatty Acids, with wordsmith WC Tank. The two acts performed together as part of Milwaukee Record’s Local Coverage show in January and felt so good about it they decided to run it back. My friends and I could barely get past the bar into the showroom it was so crammed. I’d never seen WC and he lived up to Josh’s description as a rapper with the vocabulary of Shakespeare and the flow of Ol’ Dirty Bastard. As much as I wanted to see a Fatty Acids set, it was an exciting collaboration and the bouncing crowd was with them all the way.
I made it back to Garibaldi just in time to hear Whips guitarist Christian Hanson’s first chords. My favorite moment of the first night may have been when Hanson saw and smiled at his mustache twin, Soul Low bassist Sam Gehrke. (Gehrke would be a staple at most of the shows I attended.) Whips ran through the bulk of their blistering debut full-length Turn it On, minus the sweet songs. (Oh, how I wish they would play the sweet songs!) The first couple times I saw Whips lead singer Ashley Smith was timid, but Friday night she broke out and commanded the stage like a possessed rock goddess.
WebsterX closed out the first night of the festival with his first set at Club Garibaldi. One of the goals of Arte was to try and bridge the gap between Riverwest and Bay View. WebsterX resides and thrives in Riverwest, so for many BV folks it was their first taste of his exhilarating, inspiring performance. I noticed movement towards the center/front of the stage when Q.The.Sun (keyboardist and “silent leader,” my girl’s term, of the New Age Narcissism or NAN collective, who closed the festival Saturday) started playing WebsterX’s latest single, “doomsday (feat. siren).” The gripping, cinematic video for “doomsday” premiered on a popular international blog in January and has since gathered 26K views, raising his profile considerably. Apparently, the word has spread to Bay View.
When Lex Allen joined WebsterX onstage for their song “Renaissance,” it felt like they were describing the Milwaukee music scene at this moment. They were going to save his signature track, “Desperate Youth,” off the 2013 debut of the same name, for Saturday night, but couldn’t resist. Q.The.Sun actually played the full track with vocals so that he, WebsterX and drum machine player/dancer extraordinaire Christopher Gilbert could vibe out with the rest of their crew, leaving Garibaldi with a healthy serving of NAN magic. The full meal would have to wait for the next night on NAN’s home turf.
Saturday – Riverwest
Going into this festival many people have been wondering who and what is New Age Narcissism. Some describe it as simply the new Fresh Cut Collective, because it features their leader Q.The.Sun (Kiran Vee). But it’s bigger than that. It’s a collection of like-minded artists and friends including Q.The.Sun, WebsterX, rapper Lorde Fredd33 and singers Lex Allen and Siren. Various musicians support NAN, Christopher Gilbert most often. We started our Saturday at Linneman’s for Lex’s solo set, accompanied by Q.The.Sun on acoustic guitar. My cousin came down from Madison for the festival and I told him to pay attention to the stripped down version of Lex’s single “Puppy Love,” since he would later hear the rock version at Mad Planet during the NAN closing set. Knowing that I had a lot of standing, dancing, walking, running, jumping, crouching and thrashing ahead of me, I sat “criss-cross applesauce” during Lex’s sparsely attended, yet endearing opening set. By the time he finished and I stood up the back of the room had filled out.
One of my girl’s friends was hot on a Chicago rapper named Apoc who was playing Quarters Rock & Roll Palace, one of the only Riverwest venues I’ve yet to experience, so we made that our second stop. I immediately became a fan of the small space with exposed brick. But the main attraction was the odd, passionate rapper onstage with handmade illuminated boxes. I was transfixed by his performance and moved to chat with him after his set. Apoc said he’s been based in small-town Colorado the last couple years but is currently finishing a new project in the woods of Michigan. Whatever comes next from this guy, I’ll be sure to check out.
The third stop of the night was Bremen Cafe for Lorde Fredd33’s solo set, backed by Q.The.Sun and Christopher Gilbert. Fredd33’s profile is not yet on the same level of WebsterX, but his stage presence is just as strong, if not more so. His style is raw and unhinged, with an effortless charm and humor that is intoxicating. At the first official NAN show, an incredible, intimate, all-ages affair at The Jazz Gallery about a month ago, Fredd33 reined it in a bit while performing “MWME” with his almost one-year old son in his arms. He was also shirtless, as he tends to be. Saturday he performed the same song with a Tombz shirt on and an American flag bandana that he whipped around, wiped his sweat with and eventually stomped on. Bremen may be small, but at that point I hadn’t seen anyone at the festival hold the crowd in their hand quite like Fredd33 did during that set. His new EP drops on his son’s birthday, March 15.
As soon as Fredd33 walked off to rowdy applause and congratulations we were off to the soft opening of Company Brewing, formerly Stonefly, to see GGOOLLDD. When we arrived D’Amato was nearing the end of his set and the place was packed. Chuck was working the door and informed us that they were at capacity. He speculated that a lot of neighborhood people unfamiliar with the festival had come just to see the renovations. We were welcome to check out one of the many other shows or form a line. We opted for the latter and were actually the first to do so. It didn’t take long for the 1-in-1-out system to grant us entry, but from what we heard the line eventually wrapped around the block. After D’Amato finished we made our way to the front.
It took a fury of work to get Company Brewing in shape for Saturday night but considering the attractive new digs, it was worth the effort. There were no tables anywhere near the stage, which opened up the space quite a bit. The beer may be pricey for Riverwest, but the full menu won’t be available until their real opening in April. As GGOOLLDD was setting up an old man offered them gold spray-painted rocks. Their first video (for their latest single “Boyz”) has clearly attracted a range of new fans. A couple next to us mentioned they saw them for the first time the night before at the Radio Milwaukee studios and had to see them again. It was definitely the most buzzed about show of the festival.
Since GGOOLLDD started late we had to run to Riverwest Public House to catch the heavy pop trio known as Soul Low. Another rapper friend from high school, MC Mikal (who played before Soul Low), was outside smoking a cigarette when I pulled up with my girl riding piggyback (only for the last block, I’m no Hercules). “They just started, you’re good,” he assured us. Inside the youngsters were jamming their unique blend of punk, surfer rock and pop with a hip-hop sensibility (they do an amazing cover of Lil Jon’s “Get Low”). At their Linneman’s homecoming show in January after a tour in support of their latest EP WebsterX was next to us at the front of the stage. It was the same day that his video for “doomsday” dropped and I was sure he would join them for their track “Heard It All Before,” but it wasn’t meant to be. Saturday they made the magic happen and even FOX 6’s Ted Perry was in the house to witness it (and later Tweet his approval).
Saturday night came to a fiery finish at Mad Planet for the New Age Narcissism set with a full band. I won’t say too much about it, but just know that Fredd33 saved his best for last, WebsterX debuted new material, and the crew plus the crowd went nuts for “Desperate Youth.” Before NAN lit up the stage one of their friends and one of the most talented lyricists in Milwaukee, Bliss & Alice, made a rare appearance. Bliss is the tortured genius type. His mellow, earnest, heart-on-the-sleeve songs were a nice counterbalance to the emphatic, empowering, and occasionally euphoric NAN set. There’s a reason why my girl refers to their shows (and good concerts in general) as church. Plus, everyone is welcome at a NAN show.
Sunday – East Side
Sunday was a wash, mainly because of how much fun we had on Saturday night, but also because I had to bartend from 4-9pm at the Uptowner. As soon as my shift ended I sped over to Hotel Foster to catch the last few songs from Pharaoh Mac & DMT. Their high-energy set, complete with a pair of strings and a drummer, was like drinking a strong bloody mary on a hangover. I couldn’t believe when DMT told me they didn’t have a full rehearsal with the band. I just hope they’re with them at their opening set for Tech N9ne on May 9 at the Rave.
A pair of hip-hop kids, Safari Al and Milo, respectively, closed out the festival. They both performed solo with laptops and drum machines, though Safari joined Milo for a track during the final set. It was a much different vibe than NAN or Pharaoh Mac & DMT, but it felt right, sort of a comedown. It was my first time seeing either of them and I dug their minimal brand of “art rap.” Milo’s rhymes reminded me of early Atmosphere, but backed by more interesting beats. I can see why he’s a sought after emcee and featured on a track with Field Report’s Christopher Porterfield (who headlined Linneman’s on Saturday with a solo set) on the new Kiings album.
Just a reminder, the Kiings release show happens Thursday night at Hotel Foster and features performances by WebsterX, Christopher Porterfield, Milo, Siren, Bliss & Alice, among others. If this recap peaked your interest in the Milwaukee music scene at all, that show might be a smart place to start. And if you’re wondering whether or not the festival was a success, they raised $20,000 for three Milwaukee schools arts programs. But last weekend was about so much more than the money. It’s like I texted Josh on Saturday night, “Sometimes it takes a festival to raise a scene.”
For video clips of Arte follow @kristinarolander on Instagram.