Best 15 Local Music Shows of 2015
Milwaukee’s music scene keeps getting better, as this list suggests.
By now we’re buried in best of the year lists for albums and concerts by national artists. But what about Milwaukee’s contribution to music? Here’s my Top 15 Local Shows of 2015. It’s followed by my Top 35 Local Releases of 2015. One caveat: I wasn’t able to attend every gig and listen to every release so I may have missed some good ones. (Feel free to add your own choices in the comments section.)
In an age where recorded music doesn’t pay artists well, live shows are often where the real money is made. If you don’t think a great live act is important, consider the notoriety New Age Narcissism has established this year and their strong presence on this list.
And Caveat II: I’m a hip-hop kid raised on rock ‘n’ roll who developed an affinity for indie/alternative, jazz, classical, soul, blues, folk, roots, reggae, and electronic somewhere along the way. My taste is expansive, but both of these lists are biased towards my taste.
(“ONS” = Other Notable Shows)
1. LORDE FREDD33 @ BREMEN CAFE [w/ Foreign Goods] JULY 9
The most powerful and enigmatic performer in the city. If you’ve experienced one of Lorde Fredd33’s shows you understand why this 23-year-old has been asked to start a cult. His Cocoon Room (RIP) show on a scalding June night has become legendary, but I wasn’t there. My runner up was a month later, a perfect storm of Foreign Goods public debut and the Underwear Bike Ride after party. It was a couple weeks after the Charleston church shooting and Fredd33 came out in a ripped Confederate Flag tank top, which was eventually thrown into the crowd and set ablaze. (ONS: Riverwest Public House pop-up EP release in March, Linneman’s opening for Rio Turbo in March aka #2 on this list.)
2. RIO TURBO @ LINNEMAN’S [w/ NO/NO, Lorde Fredd33, The Sounds of Time, The Fatty Acids] MARCH 27
Never have I ever been to a venue more jam-packed with bodies than when the “party god” Rio Turbo released his self-titled record back in March. “It was like one gigantic hug. At some point you just had to let go of your personal space and embrace the energy in the room,” said my girlfriend. (ONS: Linneman’s stacked bill with Soul Low, Jamaican Queens and Dream Attics in July, Bay View Bash in September, and High Dive in October, which was dancer Trilla’s farewell show.)
3. GROUP OF THE ALTOS @ VISTA KING (aka GOTA on a BOAT!) SEPTEMBER 16
I don’t know if there are other cities that combine their scenic waterways and music scene in such a cool way as Milwaukee does with the Vista King concert series. It was incredible to see Siren perform “Queen Medusa” on July 4th while eight different fireworks displays sparkled in the distance, but no boat show can top the time Group of the Altos got all their equipment on the Vista King, taking up at least half of the space on the back of the boat’s top level. The 16-member “surly high school orchestra” was in rare form and there was this one moment when we passed the breakwater that I’ll never forget. Klassik had just started rapping on “Fucks with Us,” the boat shook and singers/instrumentalists Amelinda Burich and Marielle Allschwang steadied themselves by grabbing the pole in front of my girlfriend and I, and everyone breathed a giddy sigh of relief. There’s really nothing quite like staring off into Lake Michigan’s abyss while GOTA crescendos. (ONS: Company Brewing record release in March, Lakefront Festival of the Arts in June, Just Arts opening for Jaill’s record release in June.)
4. NEW AGE NARCISSISM @ JAZZ GALLERY – JANUARY 30
New Age Narcissism had the most talked about year in Milwaukee music. They headlined Arte Para Todos, Locust Street, Summer Solstice, Company Brewing’s Halloween bash, two of their artists played Summerfest, and they appeared at Summer Set with WebsterX. An intimate all-ages showcase at Jazz Gallery was their first outing as a collective and magic was in the air. Fredd33 performed “MWME” with his baby in his arms, Lex Allen made us fall in “Puppy Love,” Siren inspired Q The Sun to pick up a guitar and belt out a ballad of his own, and WebsterX fought flu-like symptoms to make the crowd go wild during “Doomsday.” (ONS: Listed above.)
5. SOUL LOW @ LINNEMAN’S [with The Fatty Acids, Whips, Jamaican Queens] – JANUARY 22
One of Milwaukee’s most tireless bands, which surely has something to do with their youth, these whippersnappers are going places, literally. Soul Low tours on the regular, but they still have time to make personalized Christmas cards for fans! They played a slew of memorable gigs this year, but none can match the first time I saw them, which was at a Linneman’s homecoming show (and happened to be the same day WebsterX’s game-changing “Doomsday” video premiered). Soul Low doesn’t always bust out their rowdy cover of Lil Jon’s “Get Low,” but that night they did. It was amazeballs. (ONS: Arte Para Todos in February, house show for their EP release in May, Cactus Club official EP release in May, Locust Street in June, Mad Planet stacked bill in July, Turner Hall opening for Lady Lamb in July.)
6. WEBSTERX @ FIRE ON WATER [w/ Lorde Fredd33, Siren, bliss & alice] MARCH 12
Bliss & alice is responsible for arguably the best local release of 2014, yet the reclusive poet laureate rarely performs, unless it’s in support of his friend WebsterX, the leader of New Age Narcissism and one of the brightest stars of the prolific 2015 Milwaukee hip-hop scene. WebsterX hosted a litany of amazing shows this year, but his SXSW send-off was my favorite. (ONS: Mad Planet in January, The Rave opening for Riff Raff in February, Turner Hall’s Milwaukee Day in April, Miramar Theatre opening for Bones and Xavier Wulf in June, Summerfest opening for Lupe Fiasco in July, Hotel Foster impromptu set at KidX release party in November.)
7. CHRISTOPHER GILBERT PRESENTS: ARTENDITY @ YIELD BAR [w/ Shoot the Moon, New Age Narcissism and friends] FEBRUARY 20
For a few years I tried to get rappers at my annual holiday hip-hop benefit show to do covers (with original verses) of classic tracks, but never had any luck. Chris G. (drummer, dancer extraordinaire, and member of New Age Narcissism) did just that for his birthday bash this year, which featured the likes of bliss & alice, BLAX, Lex Allen, Reggie Bonds, Klassik, D.Bridge, and more. In the summer of 2014 I saw OutKast live for the first time but was disappointed because they didn’t perform “SpottieOttieDopaliscious.” Chris G. and company made my year when they did their own version during this one-of-a-kind performance, which culminated in a short but raucous New Age Narcissism set.
8. LEX ALLEN @ SUMMERFEST – JUNE 26
There is a secret weapon in the New Age Narcissism family (who may also be a secret agent) and he goes by the name Lex Allen. His infectious soul-pop sound provided the perfect vehicle to showcase NAN’s talents at his Summerfest set. It included a full band, dancers, back-up singers and a burlesque beauty in the mix. Plus, Lorde Fredd33 and Siren each did a song and Queen Tut came out for “Shapeshifters.” (ONS: Arte Para Todos in February, Pridefest in June, Vista King concert cruise in July, Public House Holiday Hip-Hop Benefit Show in December.)
9. GGOOLLDD @ ARTE PARA TODOS [w/ D’Amato, Bo Triplex & His Beautiful Band, DJ Moses] FEBRUARY 28
GGOOLLDD made a big splash on the local music scene in 2014 with their catchy dream-pop and charismatic frontwoman, Margaret Butler. In 2015 they harnessed that hype and booked a handful of high-profile festival and out-of-town gigs. Their most hotly anticipated local show was at Company Brewing in February as part of Arte Para Todos. The line to get in snaked around the block and despite some sound issues (it was the first ever performance at Company after all), GGOOLLDD delivered a triumphant set. Catch them next Saturday night (January 9) headlining Turner Hall Ballroom with the aforementioned Rio Turbo and soon-to-be-mentioned Canopies. [ONS: Turner Hall for Pablove 6 in January, Lakefront Festival of Art in June, Pridefest in June, Summerfest in June, Cactus Club in April.]
10. KLASSIK @ LINNEMAN’S [w/ Siren, New Boyz Club, B-Free and DJ Tarik Moody] NOVEMBER 28
Once known as a solo rapper/producer, the celebrated multi-instrumentalist branched out this year as the latest addition to Group of the Altos and as a founding member of the Foreign Goods supergroup. His two-hour set at the Iron Horse Hotel last New Year’s Eve was incredible, as was his Naked Ballet performance with Three. Stacks. Eliot. and the Milwaukee Ballet at the Grain Exchange, but last month at Linneman’s was the best of the bunch, as he was backed by the current Foreign Goods lineup and accompanied by B-Free on vocals. [ONS: PBR Fest at Burnheart’s in June, others mentioned above.]
11. DREAM ATTICS @ MAD PLANET [w/ Sun/Decrease, Terror Pigeon] MAY 2
The indie-pop duo (sometimes trio) Dream Attics managed to play a “live debut” and “going away” show all in a matter of months. Their move to Austin, Texas might be a bummer for the local scene, but their debut show, opening for the incomparable Terror Pigeon, was an unforgettable experience. It included an elaborate Video Villains stage display that featured smoke machines, projected images and synchronized lamps. [ONS: Mad Planet stacked bill in July, Brady Street Fest in July, 88Nine Microfest in July, Linneman’s going away show opening for Gosh Pith in August.)
12. CANOPIES @ MITTEN FEST [w/ Sin Bad, Towers, Greatest Lakes and DJ Chris Shulist] FEBRUARY 7
Burnheart’s in Bay View has been hosting a great summer block party (PBR Fest) outside their bar along Potter Avenue for almost a decade, and a few years back they got the idea to do it again in winter. Considering the impressive turnouts for the first three editions of Mittens Fest, it’s surprising another outdoor winter street festival hasn’t popped up. After a few bourbon barrel aged old fashioneds I made my way to the front row for Canopies headlining set. The psych-pop rockers put out one of my Top 5 Milwaukee records of 2014 and this paltry 34 degree night was my first time seeing them live. It was a fantastic set, but DJ Chris Schulist almost stole the show in his brief post-headlining set that included Katy Perry’s “Fireworks,” which sent the crowd into a frenzy. (ONS: Summerfest grounds in September, Linneman’s in October.)
13. FESTIVAL FATALE @ FIRE ON WATER – MAY 22
Hip-hop emerged as the preeminent Milwaukee music genre in 2015, though it tends to be male dominated, especially if you consider the Shepherd Express cover story from May. Yet that same week an all-female lineup ignited Fire on Water. It was the first time I saw Fivy, Pleasure Thief, and Queen Tut, plus Zed Kenzo, Siren, and DJ Annalog turned in excellent sets. This packed show, with many male rappers from the Shepherd story in attendance, proved that quality music is all that matters and that Milwaukee’s female emcees/singers are on the rise. Most of the performers from Festival Fatale will be at Jazale’s Studio tomorrow for an evening of art and music.
14. JONES UNCOVERED @ ALVERNO COLLEGE – APRIL 11
Reinterpreting a music icon’s body of work can be a difficult task, which is why Alverno Presents doesn’t leave it up to just one person. In the case of their Quincy Jones show, they enlisted 88Nine’s Program Director Jordan Lee to produce and he assembled an army of talent to execute the tribute. It included audio clips of Jones reading his autobiography, which established an informative context in between songs. The show itself represented a passing of the torch to the newest generation, which featured collaborations between Klassik, Phantom Channel, Colin Plant, Mike Regal, B-Free, Painted Caves, Lex Allen, Jay Anderson, Dave Wake, Q The Sun, and more. [ONS: Prince Uncovered curated by Hello Death in October.]
15. OSYS HOUSE I @ SUPREME CLIENTELE – JUNE 5
Nothing says hip-hop like a good house party, and IshDARR hosted a rager that kicked off summer, in a family-owned barbershop no less. This party happened to be a few blocks from my old apartment on Historic Mitchell Street, and while rumors of the police showing up hung over the affair, it didn’t stop guests Von Alexander, Pizzle, Klassik and WebsterX from enjoying themselves and their friends. The host only rocked a few tracks but it was more than enough to delight the crowd, who never lost the vibe. [ONS: Arte Para Todos in February.]
TOP 5 LOCAL SHOWS THAT I MISSED IN 2015
Most writers don’t make Top Show lists because you can’t go to all of the shows, which makes it hard to compare. Damn right. With that in mind I made a list of the Top 5 Local Shows I Missed in 2015.
1. LORDE FREDD33 @ COCOON ROOM – (See the #1 Local Show entry.)
2. THE FATTY ACIDS @ SUMMERFEST – I’ve seens these “fucking weirdos” (Wayne Coyne’s words) on so many different lineups yet still haven’t caught a headlining set. Their opening gig for The Flaming Lips at Summerfest would have been my best chance to immerse myself in the Fattys and friends, but I was next door watching Stevie Wonder. I’ll get to try again early on New Year’s Day when they close-out a stacked NYE bill at Company Brewing.
3. ISHDARR @ THE RAVE – The first OSYS House party was dope, but IshDARR only played a few songs. This show was not only his homecoming from a world tour that took him around Canada, Europe and the US, but it was also my birthday. (I was out of town.)
4. HELLO DEATH @ COMPANY BREWING – The first time I saw Hello Death they were without keyboardist/singer Erin Wolf. Foolishly, I missed my chance to see the doom folk band release their latest collection of beautifully haunting songs. This show featured an opening set from New Boyz Club, one of the most exciting young bands in the city.
5. SOUL LOW @ VISTA KING – I’ve seen Soul Low at a bunch of different venues, but not on a boat. My new year’s resolution is to go on more concert cruises next summer. It elevates the live music experience and is totally worth the cost.
TOP 35 LOCAL RELEASES OF 2015
This list includes any cohesive project released within the calendar year by artists who call Milwaukee home. The fact that it’s so long speaks to the strength of our scene. (There were more I like that didn’t make the cut.) Milwaukee hip-hop had a great year, but there was a grip of glorious sounds from all over the spectrum, even a soundtrack or two, that cracked this list.
- milo – so the flies don’t come
- WebsterX & Q the Sun – KidX
- Group of the Altos – R U Person or Not
- Soul Low – Sweet Pea EP
- GGOOLLDD – Boyz (Deluxe Edition)
- Three. Stacks. Eliot – The Message Is Real
- GGOOLLDD – For The Night
- Lorde Fredd33 – 33: The Education
- Adoptahighway – A Fault
- Ishdarr – Old Soul, Young Spirit
- Kiings – WWYDF
- Lex Allen – Social Me Duh
- Scallops Hotel – Plain Speaking
- Rio Turbo – Rio Turbo
- Pharaoh Mac & DMT – Symbols
- Klassik – Seasons
- NO/NO – S/T
- Von Alexander – V O N (EP)
- Dana Coppafeel & SPEAK Easy – #RapLords
- Platinum Boys – Future Hits
- Queen Tut – Psychedelic Traphouse
- Twin Brother – Live at Club Garibaldi
- D’Amato – Counterfeit Paradise
- Hello Death – Remnants
- Vonny Del Fresco – Memoirs
- Piles – Planet Skin
- Platinum Boys – Junior Varsity
- Airo Kwil – Dark Cinema, A Study in Paradox
- Mic Kellogg – Breakfast
- Josh Evert – Not Uninhabited
- Mike Regal – Intuitions
- No No Yeah Okay – Dual
- Jaill – Braincream
- Marielle Allschwang – Dead Not Gone
- Dogs in Ecstasy – Welcome 2 Hell