An Idiosyncratic Guide to Summerfest
More than 800 bands will play. Here’s my admittedly subjective pick of the best shows.
There are over 800 bands at Summerfest and I am but one writer, so this is an admittedly biased and far-from-complete guide to the World’s Largest Music Festival. For example, I don’t like country. I’m over classic rock (though I would have seen The Rolling Stones for a decent price). I’m a hip-hop kid. Since college, however, my musical horizons have expanded to include all sorts of roots, rock, reggae, electronic, experimental, punk, pop, surf, ska, soul, R&B, blues and jazz. But like I said, no country.
Summerfest is not regarded as one of the “hip” major festivals, but its allure can’t be denied. Walking along the rocks on Lake Michigan, taking a ride on the Sky Glider, scarfing some greasy food, consuming overpriced drinks, gazing at ear-popping fireworks, trying to ignore dueling acoustics and eventually wading through sloppy crowds, what’s not to love? Okay, Summerfest isn’t perfect. But it’s the biggest kid on the block and we all have a lot of memories.
I’ll never forget seeing Biz Markie DJ at the old KISS FM stage, or The Black Eyed Peas (pre-Fergie, when they were good) close their set with a 15-minute break-dancing cypher, or sneaking booze in fake binoculars into Weezer’s Marcus Amphitheater show, or being in an Amphitheater bathroom sing-along to “Otherside” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or witnessing one of only three Kanye West performances after the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or Cage the Elephant stealing the show from Florence & The Machine and The Black Keys, or dancing on a metal bench, arm-in-arm with my little brother while Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs twirled on stage, then stopped and dramatically spewed water into the air, or running into a hoodie, hat and sunglasses wearing Halle Berry by the arcade games (during her Eric Benét years).
After a weak 2014 line-up, or at least weak enough for me not to regret missing it in its entirety, Summerfest came back swinging in 2015. My number one request this year was to see Kendrick Lamar live. I was ready to travel to Sasquatch in Washington or Way Home in Ontario, but Babisch’s crew came through.
Stevie Wonder’s “Part-Time Lover” is one of my favorite songs of all-time. I know Stevie’s a legend, but it wasn’t until a bartending shift at the Uptowner a couple months ago when I threw on his Original Musiquarium I vinyl that I realized his Amphitheater show is a no-brainer. Those are the only two “mainstage” shows I highly recommend. Neil Young is also very cool. Ed Sheeran seems like a nice guy. And I’m sure Kings of Leon will rock really hard.
TOP 5 DAYS
There are acts worth checking out each day at Summerfest, but I’ll start with the best.
FRIDAY JULY 3
WebsterX (8pm, Miller Lite Oasis). Simply put, Sam Ahmed is one of the finest people in the city. His sound is complex and anthemic, his energy is infectious, and he leads the most inspired and exciting music movement in Milwaukee, New Age Narcissism. He will be joined by his family of creatives for their most ambitious show yet.
Sylvan Esso (10pm, Johnson Controls). Last summer this indie pop duo was playing the PBR Burnhearts Festival in Bay View. This year they’re playing festivals all over the world. They are currently based in Durham, NC but legend has it Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn (who used to live in Bay View) met at the Cactus Club. If their sold-out Pabst Theater show last Fall is any indication, this will be a special “homecoming.”
Lupe Fiasco (10pm, Miller Lite Oasis). Stick around after the New Age Narcissism experience for one of hip-hop’s premier poet laureate’s, Lupe Fiasco. The Chicago-native emerged as a certified genius after the release of his debut Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor and has continued to put out layered, hypnotic, thought-provoking material. The new album, Tetsuo & Youth, is his strongest since Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool.
The Isley Brothers (9:45pm, BMO Pavilion) & The Doobie Brothers (9:45pm, Harley Roadhouse). A pair of brothers for the oldies, if it’s your thing. People complain about all the nostalgia peddling at Summerfest, but hey, if it keeps you running.
Cowboy Mouth (10pm, Briggs & Stratton). I know nothing about their music, but my dad apparently loves them, and I heard something about throwing red plastic spoons onstage that is intriguing.
FRIDAY JUNE 26
Santigold (10:15pm, Miller Lite Oasis). If I had to make a list of the artists I’ve loved the most this last decade and have yet to see live, Santigold would be in the top three. Santi White has had her hand in the music business for years but didn’t hit big until her solo debut Santogold. Her follow-up, Master of My Make-Believe, which features Karen O on the opening song, is equally awesome.
Lex Allen (8pm, Briggs & Stratton). This young man is a constant inspiration. His new single, “Taps for Likes,” is an anthem in the making, a mirror to the social media obsessed, a plea to find your techno-balance. He will be joined by his New Age Narcissism family, dancers, and the ghosts of Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson for his biggest hometown show yet.
GGOOLLDD (6:45pm, U.S. Cellular). Months before I discovered that this band called Milwaukee home, I Shazamed their signature single “Gold” while hearing it on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee. I’ve seen the “SSIILLVVEERR” version (an especially loose Halloween set) and the polished 24-karat version. There’s a reason this band played seven shows in six days at SXSW.
The Kooks (10pm, U.S. Cellular). I was sitting in a Port-A-Potty at the Osheaga Music Festival in Montreal last summer and recognized a song. It was The Kooks. And it was really good. I left that portable bathroom with haste and caught the end of their set. I’m glad I did because come June 26 at 10pm I’ll be at Santigold, but you might enjoy The Kooks even more.
Streetlife (8pm, Uline Warehouse). I would be remiss not to mention the greatest Milwaukee Bucks house band, who don’t gig that much since being relieved of their Bradley Center duties.
SATURDAY JUNE 27
Stevie Wonder (7:30pm, Marcus Amphitheatre). Aforementioned legend.
The Fatty Acids (8pm, BMO Pavilion). A consummate Milwaukee band, the Fatty’s ran a hilarious and touching social media campaign to open for Weird Al, but ended up with an even crazier slot. They will open for The Flaming Lips and perform after Motion City Soundtrack. No big deal.
The Flaming Lips (9:45pm, BMO Pavilion). After the Fatty’s surprise a couple thousand people with their homegrown brand of psychedelic rock, Oklahoma’s own The Flaming Lips will put their decades of experience delighting audiences with experimental and spacey sounds on display.
Buddy Guy (9:45pm, Harley Roadhouse). Stevie’s not the only legend performing Saturday night. A disciple of Muddy Waters, this blues icon is still considered one of the greatest guitar players of all-time.
PBR Burnhearts Festival (12pm, Bay View). Take a break from the Summerfest crowds and visit this beloved Bay View block party. It kicks off early with Soul Low, keeps rocking with Platinum Boys, gets a hip-hop/soul swing when Klassik performs with Three.Stacks.Eliot, then closes with the Afro-Cuban/Latin Jazz grooves of De La Buena (who also play the closing night of Summerfest).
WEDNESDAY JULY 1
Kendrick Lamar (7:30pm, Marcus Amphitheatre). Only a handful of rappers have worn the crown outright in any given era. Biggie, Tupac, Eminem, Jay-Z and Kanye are among their ranks. Kendrick is the latest undisputed king of hip-hop. Another young talent from the West Coast and member of the Black Hippy supergroup, Schoolboy Q, will open the show.
Aloe Blacc (9:45pm, BMO Pavilion). Summerfest has a problem in that it doesn’t book many hip-hop acts, but when it does, it books two of its best performers at the same time. Get it together Babisch!
THURSDAY JUNE 25
Canopies (9pm, KNE Stage). Back in February I gleefully danced in front of a freezing stage at Mitten Fest outside Burnhearts in Bay View for Canopies headlining set. This excellent local electro-rock outfit will surely sound better in the warm summer air.
Public Enemy (10pm, Miller Lite Oasis). PE has been on a strange journey since I first saw them at the Rave in the early 2000s. Their politically conscious brand of hip-hop is still respected across the globe and their message is more relevant than ever.
Rusty P’s (8pm, Miller Lite Oasis). The most iconic Milwaukee hip-hop group will celebrate their 20th Anniversary at the end of the year, but before that you can expect a lively Summerfest performance featuring notable guests like Mike Regal.
Gary Clarke Jr. (10pm Harley Roadhouse). Gary Clark Jr. plays the kind of old school bluesy rock that some might see as too prominent at Summerfest, but this 31-year-old Austin-native draws on many musical influences to create a raw, gritty, modern sound.
THE BEST OF THE REST
There is lots of great music to see on the other six days of Summerfest.
WEDNESDAY JUNE 24
Bastille (10pm, Miller Lite Oasis). Fun British pop rock. Caught them at the Milwaukee Theatre back in October.
Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue (10pm, Briggs & Stratton). Like Gary Clark Jr., this old soul with a young spirit is one of the best in the world at his craft and brings a variety of influences to classic New Orleans big band music.
Twin Brother (4:15pm, U.S. Cellular). My local pick for opening day, this indie rock outfit’s haunting tunes will be sweeter in the fresh air than when I saw them in February at Turner Hall Ballroom.
Jill Scott Tribute (8pm, Johnson Controls). The incredible songstress Jill Scott took a break from music to pursue an acting career, so it’s no surprise someone would want to continue spreading her music. If this Tribute act can even begin to approach the 2005 Jill Scott performance at the Chicago Theater that brought my friend and I to tears, it will be worth checking out. (Also worth noting that the real Jill Scott just announced the release date of her first album in four years, July 24, and she will play Chicago on July 11.)
SUNDAY JUNE 28
Field Report (8pm, Miller Lite Oasis). We’re only 121 days away from the one-year anniversary of Field Report Day, as proclaimed by Mayor Tom Barrett. Their Marigolden album is still one of the best local releases of the past year and this show should build on the intimate Pabst Lower performance back on October 22, 2014.
Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 (8pm, Johnson Control). I’m a huge fan of Fela Kuti, the King of Afrobeat, and his youngest son Seun is keeping his legacy alive. About three-quarters of the modern Egypt 80 band played with Fela, so if you want to see African music royalty, this is the show.
Charles Bradley (10pm, Johnson Control). The face of the funk/soul revivalist movement. Oldies and hipsters alike can’t get enough of Bradley.
Kid Cut Up (9pm, Harley Roadhouse). The revered once local DJ makes sure to visit home regularly and this will be his biggest Milwaukee show of the year.
Paris Hilton (10pm, Harley Roadhouse). Gimmick, vanity project, protest-worthy, guilty pleasure, no matter how you feel about this rich girl, her DJ set will be a spectacle. You could forget about all the labels and controversy and just dance.
TUESDAY JUNE 30
Whips (7:15pm, KNE Stage). One of the tightest local bands in years, Whips straight-forward rock is blistering and cathartic.
Gogol Bordello (9:45pm, BMO Pavilion). When I was having a drink at Riverwest Pizza Co. a few weeks ago for my happy hour column I met a friendly old man named John who swears by this Gypsy punk band.
Christopher’s Project – A Tribute to Stevie Wonder (6pm, Harley Roadhouse). If you didn’t get tickets for the real deal.
THURSDAY JULY 2
Atmosphere (10pm, Harley Roadhouse). For the past few years Summerfest has given an entire stage to the Rhymesayers hip-hop family. The Minnesota-based label’s flagship artist headlines a day that also includes Dilated Peoples, Aesop Rock with Rob Sonic, and DJ duties held down by the Get Cryphy crew all day.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (9:45pm, BMO Pavilion). This band always puts on a great show. “Home” is still one of the best songs of the last decade. I saw them a few years back at the U.S. Cellular Stage and their big hippie ensemble will benefit from a larger stage.
OK Go (10pm, Uline Warehouse). I’ve heard that their music videos are better than their live show. Not really fair to compare the two, but you be the judge.
Brett Newski (9pm, KNE Stage). I’m not that familiar with this local singer/songwriter but I heard him on 88Nine the other day mentioning Soul Low as one of his favorite Milwaukee acts, describing them as “a band with a real sack.” I agree, and for that reason he deserves to be included.
SATURDAY JULY 4
“Weird Al” Yankovic (9:45pm, BMO Pavilion). As Derek from the aforementioned Fatty Acids says about Weird Al, “He’s a great performer, he has perfect pitch, he’s incredibly athletic, he’s vegan, he’s more than 50 years old, so that’s all very, very impressive.”
Kiings (6:45pm, U.S. Cellular). Two of the best producers in town, expect to see them joined by some of the guest vocalists from their excellent new album WWYDF.
Robert DeLong (10pm U.S. Cellular). My dad won free tickets to this one-man-band’s show at the Rave a couple months ago so I joined him. DeLong’s high-energy electronic music is sure to get the crowd jumping.
Gabriel Sanchez and the Prince Experience (10pm, Johnson Controls). Prince would have been an awesome get for Summerfest. But hey, we can pretend.
SUNDAY JULY 5
Neil Young & Promise of the Real (7:30pm, Marcus Amphitheatre). One of the legends playing the Big Gig, he’ll be backed by the LA-based alt rock band in support of his new album The Monsanto Years.
Bright Kind (3:45pm, KNE Stage). It always brings me joy when this local synth pop group’s single “Seams” comes on the radio.
De La Buena (7pm, Harley Roadhouse). The local Afro-Cuban/Latin Jazz 10-piece led by David Wake is a festival favorite and masters of spicy grooves.
Also, don’t forget the following beloved Summerfest staples that can be seen on various days: Comedy Sportz, Milwaukee Bucks Rim Rockers, Division BMX Stunt Team and David Seebach’s Wonders of Magic.
There you have it. Go once, go twice, or go every day like my friends and I used to back in middle-school. There’s still something for everyone at Summerfest. Love it or hate it, it’s Milwaukee’s biggest party.
Milwaukee Summer 2015 Mix
Get to know some of the Milwaukee bands playing Summerfest in this audio mix by contributor Joey Grihalva. Featuring a mini-interview with each artist before their song. The acts included in the mix that you can see at Summerfest are Twin Brother, Canopies, Dana Coppa, Mike Regal, Siren, Lex Allen, New Age Narcissism, Lorde Fredd33, WebsterX, Whips, The Fatty Acids, GGOOLLDD and Kiings.