Joey Grihalva

A Week (Nearly) of Summerfest

The music, the crowd, the politicians, the beer. But mostly it was about the music.

By - Jun 30th, 2015 05:37 pm
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Lex Allen. Photo by Joey Grihalva.

Lex Allen. Photo by Joey Grihalva.

Summerfest always comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. Or is that March? It’s hard to think straight with visions of Paris Hilton dancing in my head. I wasn’t even among the throngs of people at her show on Sunday night, but I saw pictures online and they continue to haunt me. Were there really more people waiting to see a spoiled, barely-talented product of reality TV than an onslaught of hard-working, gifted musicians? What does that say about us?

Let’s not think too hard on the Paris paradox. So much else happened at Summerfest this past week that’s worth talking about.

Opening Day, June 24

I had big plans to be there at noon when the gates first opened, but stuff came up. I made more coffee and sipped it on my roof, looking out on the city skyline, Lake Michigan, the Hoan Bridge, and wondered what the fortnight would bring.

I finally mounted my bicycle and pedaled northeast to the Henry Maier Festival Grounds in time to catch Twin Brother’s set at the U.S. Cellular Stage. It was not an ideal situation for the local folk rock group. The KNE Stage is situated in direct speaker line of the U.S. Cellular Stage and some bratty pop rock band called “Green Screen Kid” (all wearing chroma key green t-shirts) were wailing in the direction of Twin Brother’s brooding ballads. Despite the acoustic interference, Twin Brother’s lead singer Sean Raasch stepped in front of the microphone to belt out the chorus of their fantastic and perilous closing number, “If Heart Was Enough,” which generated spirited applause and a “We love you!”

From there I walked south to the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard where a large choir was finishing their sound check. The musicians exited the stage and all that was left was County Executive Chris Abele stage right talking with his hands to some guy in a suit and Don Smiley, Summerfest CEO. All the top Summerfest brass were then seated onstage alongside city officials. A jarring single firework signaled the start of the Opening Ceremonies and was followed by a disembodied voice over the speakers indicating that $300K worth of free tickets (the “before 4pm weekday” brand) were being handed out by Summerfest staff at that moment.

Smiley spoke first. Then the greatest Milwaukee Bucks band of all-time, Streetlife, were joined by Warren Wiegratz and the aforementioned large choir (Milwaukee Gospel Choir) for “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” They followed the Motown standard with the modern classic “Rolling in the Deep,” accompanied by a guest vocalist and an inspired guitar solo. Then it was Mayor Tom Barrett’s chance to emcee. “It’s all for you!” Barrett assured the audience. “We’re going to meet new friends, we’re going to see old friends, and we’re going to come together as a community and have fun.”

How could you take umbrage with that prophecy? If you needed reassurance, County Exec Abele was willing and ready to flash his “rock on” hands. “If you see people arguing on TV,” which could refer to anything, but at that moment in time was most likely pointed at the Charleston shooting aftermath, “this is the answer,” Abele preached. “Spend a lot of money, drink beer responsibly, and tell your friends who aren’t already here.”

Police Chief Ed Flynn spoke in pseudo-haiku, “Have fun. Be good. Be careful. And if you see a police officer, be nice, they need it.” Local enforcement agencies are going through the same shame as the Catholic Church these days. Sorry about our mess, they both say, but please be kind. Sure. Smiley touted Summerfest’s philanthropic efforts and showed love to the organizers of all the ethnic fests that occupy Henry Maier Festival grounds when Summerfest is off. The most entertaining non-musical part of the Opening Ceremonies had to be when Bob Babisch, providing all the flair, and another guy listed off all the corporate sponsors and media partners. Afterwards grounds staff handed out free 12oz cans of Miller Lite to people in the audience and onstage and there was a big cheers.

For some reason I thought there was going to be fresh, quality food on the Summerfest grounds this year, but my post-Twin Brother search yielded no such delights. As such, I indulged in a Saz’s fried feast. Then I stepped outside the bounds of the Big Gig to drink on the cheap at nearby Club Charlies. I returned to the Fest with an extra pep in my step.

Back in December 2005 Jill Scott brought me to my emotional knees at the Chicago Theater. Both me and my date that night, an accomplished musician in her own right, were compelled to open our flip phones and dial our significant others to tell them how much we loved them after the show. Scott’s performance approximated a Broadway Musical, full of beautiful between song storytelling and musical grandeur. The backing band was like nothing I’d ever seen. So much so that I couldn’t resist the Jill Scott Tribute at the Johnson Controls stage on Opening Night of Summerfest 2015.

But before any musicians took the stage, a kid in the audience dancing on a table caught my attention, wearing an Oscar Mayer cardboard bacon hat, which reminded me of an arrow through the head prop. Then the first of three Jill Scott tribute musicians (“Dread Scott,” no pun intended) stepped to the mic. But there was no elaborate introduction and pre-show story. I resigned myself to the fact that the night would not hold a candle to Chicago Theater 2005. That being said, the band was supremely talented, and “Afro Scott” was the best of the singers.

I returned to the KNE-U.S. Cellular corner for the Midnight Reruns headlining set at KNE. In protest of that stage’s audio intrusion of Twin Brother’s set, or maybe just for a break, I sat on a picnic table behind the stage for the band’s first few songs. I stared out onto the lake beyond the crowd sitting in Lakeshore State Park waiting for the fireworks. Surprisingly, some dude successfully jumped the tall metal fence after huffing and puffing at the top for a while and managed to enter Summerfest grounds without security noticing. I was impressed. I was also studying a spider crawling on the same fence.

When the Midnight Reruns started their second cover song I decided to check the local rock band out in earnest. As soon as I got a glance of the foursome I wondered if their bassist was Myles Coyne, a very busy local musician. A closer look indicated that it wasn’t, but as soon as I scanned the crowd I spotted Coyne, the Breadfest organizer. While the Reruns reran “Dancing in the Moonlight” the Opening Night fireworks were sparked and a squirrel scurried past the concrete in front of me, a rare and wild sight.

From the KNE stage I ventured back to the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard for Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue’s headlining set. It was a bombastic display of horn-driven musical mayhem. They married Limp Bizkit’s “Rollin” with Big Tymers’ “Get Your Roll On,” and played blues, rock, and funk in between. The titular Shorty is better suited to blow his Trombone, but his mic skills kept the crowd moving. Tenor sax player BK Jackson’s dance break almost stole the show.

I took a break from the Shorty experience to catch a couple of Bastille’s songs at the Miller Lite Oasis, including a taste of the new record, lead singer Dan Smith’s “favorite song off the record, a track called ‘Snakes.’” Not bad, but it couldn’t compare to their smash hit “Pompeii,” which preceded it. On my way back to Shorty’s set I noticed the pulsing crowd and exploding confetti at Kaskade’s DJ set at the Harley Roadhouse. The Orleans Band couldn’t leave without a traditional New Orleans jam, which morphed into “When The Saints Go Marching In,” included Mardi Gras beads being thrown out, and ended in an epic drum solo that incorporated all of the members of the band.

It took way too long to get my bicycle out from under freeway, but it was a night worth spending among the crazed masses.

Thursday June 25

A while back I decided to skip Summerfest on June 25 for a different live music experience, one on the opposite venue spectrum as the “World’s Biggest Music Festival.” This was an invitation only house party for a new local supergroup, called Foreign Goods, comprised of Jay Anderson (Aluar Pearls, The Remedy, tons of other supporting work), Kiran Vee (Q the Sun, bandleader of New Age Narcissism), Sam Gehrke (Soul Low), Tim Russell (The Remedy), and Klassik (Group of the Altos) It was a special night. Their public debut is next week July 9 at Bremen Cafe with Lorde Fredd33.

Friday June 26

Lorde Fredd33 was a featured performer at Lex Allen’s show at the Briggs and Stratton Big Backyard. Before zoning in on that extravaganza, let me pay respect to GGOOLLDD’s U.S. Cellular Stage performance, which may have convinced some of the eager fans of The Kooks, who packed the benches hours before their headlining set, to check out their infectious local dream pop sound. GGOOLLDD’s cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” has never sounded better.

Allen is a part of the New Age Narcissism local collective, which I’ve been following for some time now. Their live shows are carefully crafted, yet always with an element of surprise. The NAN experience is guided by an ethos of being free to be yourself and celebrating that. They create a welcoming atmosphere that makes you feel like you’re with family. For Lex’s performance, that family expanded ever more than usual.

Lex Allen was joined by Q the Sun (keys), Chris G. (drum pad), Bo Triplex (bass), Tim Russell (drums), Jay Anderson (sax), and Eden Mckinnie (vocals) for his opening number, the funky “Puppy Love.” Then his “teacher” Toyota Corona came out to scold him and introduce her “girls,” four dancers whose choreographed moves elevated “Taps for Likes.” The opening pair of songs set the tone for a scorching set that really turned the heat up when the burlesque dancer Zara Estelle performed during Allen’s cover of “Earned It” by The Weeknd.

New Age Narcissism members Siren and Lorde Fredd33 each performed a song during Allen’s set. Siren’s “Queen Medusa” was magnetic, surely worming its way into the heads, hearts and souls of all within earshot. “Bango” by Fredd33 was animated, rowdy and featured drum breaks that hit harder than ever. WebsterX even had to drag Fredd33 off the stage. Allen reemerged in a stylish new outfit for the wrenching ballad “The One,” before an equally chic Queen Tut came out for their new song “Shapeshifter.” Each band member was introduced during “Vogue (In Yah Underwear)” and performed a solo. Chris G., who choreographed the dancers, put on a display of his own moves. The audience showered the stage with love and Allen appeared overcome with joy as his show came to a close.

After the NAN experience I met up with some friends and waited for Santigold, which involved more time than the hour before her set. I’ve been waiting to see Santi White since her first album was released in 2008. The anticipation was heavy and I’m sad to report her performance was a let down. She was without a live band and the digital sounds coming from her DJ’s computer were flat while her vocals were too high. Two dancers joined her onstage but barely added to the act. It doesn’t help that her set was juxtaposed against the array of talent at Lex Allen. The apex of Santigold’s set came when she invited 20 or so fans onstage to dance during “Creator,” realizing the power in numbers that Lex Allen’s show exemplified. Not even free donuts for the crowd could gloss over her set’s shortcomings, though the news of a new album on the way was welcomed.

Saturday June 27

Before stepping foot on the Summerfest grounds on Saturday I took in a bunch of live music at the Burnhearts PBR Fest in Bay View. Though there weren’t many people around for Soul Low’s opening set, the word around the block party was that they were one of the best band’s of the day and probably should have played later. Platinum Boys, Light Music and Klassik (with Three.Stacks.Eliot) kept the crowd entertained throughout the day. Thankfully, I spent most of that time under shade and kept my drinking to a minimum, but still found myself a bit worn out as I biked home for a short nap before Summerfest.

Saturday brought a real dilemma. One of my favorite local bands, The Fatty Acids, were scheduled to play the BMO Harris Pavilion at 8pm, after Motion City Soundtrack and before the Flaming Lips. It was the biggest show of their careers. On the other hand, one of the biggest musical treasures on Earth, Stevie Wonder, was playing the Amphitheatre at the same time. Witness a legend or support local legends? I put my faith in The Fatty Acids ability to remain and thrive. I’ll see them again on a big stage. For now, it’s time to Wonder.

The lawn section at the Amphitheatre may be the farthest from the stage but it offers the best price and most charm. The view of the lake or the bridge while the sun sets is terrific. The sound carried well and the screens provided a good view of Stevie. He kicked off his set with a cover of “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).” Then he launched into his own hits, “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” and “Higher Ground.” Indeed, from the grass seats down to the pit, we were all on a higher plane when Stevie and his band jammed.

Early in his set Stevie addressed the tragedy that overshadowed his last performance at Summerfest, the death of his friend Michael Jackson just three days prior. While on the subject he paid tribute to another fallen hero, Blues icon B.B. King. Stevie wowed the crowd with his harpejji (like a lap steel guitar) skills during a cover of “The Thrill is Gone.” In the middle of the set Stevie aimed his message of love and respect at the South Carolina massacre and the kind of hate mongering that fuels such an atrocity. After this moment of pained sincerity he brought our spirits back up with “I Just Called To Say I Love You.”

During “My Cherie Amour” Stevie hit a high register that made me think of Soul Low lead singer Jake Balistreiri, which made me think of another musician I’d seen earlier that day, Platinum Boys guitarist Matt Pappas, who was performing at that moment next door at the Pavilion with The Fatty Acids. For a moment I was torn, but when Stevie played “Superstition,” “As,” and “Another Star” I set aside all possible regret and enjoyed the world-class concert in front of me. Stevie’s band was incredible, his singers were electric (especially during their battles with Stevie after “Knocks Me Off My Feet”), his harmonica playing was superb and his singing lessons with the crowd were fun. The closing tribute to Michael Jackson was touching, joyous and included a dancing Mayor Barrett to whom Stevie pitched a benefit concert idea. If they follow through on it those who missed this magical night may get a chance to see Stevie Wonder again soon.

Due to their elaborate stage set up, the Flaming Lips were only two songs in when we arrived at the Pavilion after Stevie Wonder. Bandleader Wayne Coyne was swinging a light rope around while his band’s psychedelic rock echoed in the night air. A friend reported that despite not opening for Weird Al, the Fatty Acids made good on their promise to cover “Amish Paradise.” Also, the first thing Coyne said to the crowd was, “Who were those freaks before us?” High praise from one of the music industry’s most beloved weirdos.

The Flaming Lips set featured an inflatable rainbow, sun, frog, fish, mushrooms, butterflies, Santa Claus, confetti guns, hundreds of hanging LED lights, and a giant plastic ball that Coyne walked out into the crowd in. During “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” I was tuned into the vibrations in the empty aluminum can I was holding, which was pretty trippy, on top of all the other trippy elements to the Lips excellent show. It was the cherry on top of another fantastic day of live music.

Sunday June 28

I took another day off Summerfest on Sunday, but not from live music. Accomplished local indie rockers Jaill released their fourth album today, Brain Cream (Burger Records), and celebrated Sunday afternoon with a parking lot show in Walker’s Point. They were joined by Head on Electric, Group of the Altos and Sugar Stems. I chatted with Jaill’s drummer Josh Evert, also the lead singer of The Fatty Acids, who said their Summerfest show was the height of his musical career. Fatty’s bassist Derek told me it was a decade long dream to open for the Flaming Lips. Jaill ran through the new album and closed with a few old favorites. It was a good show and it was nice to get home early and rest, but Paris Hilton would soon haunt my dreams. Go figure.

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