Wednesday, June 24th – The First Day
Approaching the gates, I was reminded why I try to avoid the Big Gig. Flocks of already plastered concert goers are one of my least favorite things. My first stop upon entering was to make these individuals a little easier to deal with, so naturally I wound up at the Lakefront Brewery booth. This was my favorite location to imbibe on the grounds. I could pay $6 for a Lakefront IPA or $8 for a Miller Lite. Well played, Lakefront.
I then wandered to Milwaukee band the Sleepwalkers performance at the KNE Stage. Frontman Ian Olvera divulged to me that this was their unofficial last show. A long time staple in the Midwest rock scene, the guys did not disappoint. Guitarist Ryan McCrary’s guitar solos were pleasingly melodic and the band meshed well together. The Sleepwalkers win the award for weirdest stage banter, with Olvera saying things like “Give a big hand for Earth!” and “I promise we’ll be at Sheryl Crow. It won’t be a bunch of dogs stuffed in our skin.” There were a few mishaps, including Olvera’s guitar strap falling off multiple times, but the group handled it professionally and plowed through their set.
I took some time to venture into the gift shop with intentions of scoffing at prices and being generally uninterested in everything. Well, I was wrong. Not only was almost everything affordable ($20 t-shirts? alright!), but they had a variety of appealing items. Yeah, your run-of-the-mill Harley-affiliated Summerfest gear was there, but they also had a tee with the line-up on it in the same vein of fests like Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo. They even had cute, trendy Mason jar shot glasses. I will not dismiss them so quickly next year.
The last performance I went to that night was Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue. Raised by two saxophone players, I listed to a lot of horn bands growing up. Nothing I’ve witnessed can compare to this set. The sound guys at the Briggs & Stratton Stage were doing their jobs, and I understand that it can be tough handling so many people on stage. The horns balanced well with the guitar which balanced well with the bass which balanced well with the percussion. All solos were beautiful and properly amplified. The crowd varied greatly in age and everyone was polite and not obnoxiously intoxicated. I snapchatted my mom. It was the perfect end to night #1.
Walking back through the park, I purchased a small pack of donuts from Sil’s. The person putting my order together saw me taking a picture with my media pass and just HAPPENED to give me 3x the amount I ordered. Much love for Sil’s.
Saturday, June 27th – The Best Day
I strolled into the park around 2:30pm in hopes of getting a sunburn (task complete by 4). I had intentions of camping out and getting myself a good spot for the evening at the BMO Harris Pavilion. I regretfully missed the memo that in order to be in the first 50 rows after 7pm, you needed to obtain a special ticket the day of at noon. Oops.
Luckily, Motion City Soundtrack, the first band I wanted to see, started prior to the cut off mark. This performance was part of their 10th anniversary tour of their sophomore album, Commit This To Memory. They played the record in its entirety (even though the idiot behind me kept yelling for “Hangman,” the second-to-last song, throughout the entire set), then moved onto their newest single “TKO,” and finished up with fan faves from their other albums. Real talk: I have seen these guys at least five times before and this was the best show they have put on. I was third row, by myself, and entirely blissful. Everything was clean and well-rehearsed. Claudio Rivera, formerly of Saves The Day, has been drumming in place of Tony Thaxton and gave a flawless performance. Congrats, dudes.
After being asked to leave my prime seat, I carved out a spot in the closest seating area I could in preparation for Milwaukee-based Fatty Acids. When they took to the stage, it was a little disheartening: since security cleared out the closer reserved seats, there were few bodies up front but mass amounts of people behind the line. The band decided to address this dilemma by stating, “They said everyone can move up!” Following this, audience members stormed through to the stage leaving security guards swearing into their walkie-talkies. I asked guitarist Matt Pappas about the aftermath of the decision to which he replied, “At first I was a little worried about it but it made the show so much more comfortable.” Good call.
They proceeded to play the rest of their set, clad in brightly colored clothing courtesy of Value Village. Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne even exchanged a few words with the guys backstage: “We got confetti and you guys have like… sweatpants.” The music mirrored their outfit selection: energetic and fun. They played two of my favorites, “Airsick” and “Flamingo Graveyard,” off their latest release, Bolero. They even performed a cover of Weird Al’s “Amish Paradise,” who performed on the same stage a week later.
Closing the set with “Hiroshima,” the band tried to rectify their security debacle by asking people to return to their specified seating. Pappas stated, “The stage manager told me that we were the first band to get away with doing that in the three years that it has been operational.” As a local musician myself, it warms my heart to see a local group be so fully embraced by a bunch of concert goers who may or may not have ever heard of them before. If you wanna check out what these guys are all about (please do), they’re going on tour and you can get details on Facebook.
My dining option for the evening was a massive bratwurst on a pretzel bun from Saz’s. Despite all of the hype for their appetizer combo platter, I opted for the more lactose intolerant-friendly option. No regrets, 10/10 would eat again.
For what happened next I was not prepared. Perhaps the only person entirely sober in the whole crowd, I can still attest to the stunning light show and trippy antics that are associated with a Flaming Lips performance. Giant bursts of confetti started off the show after Coyne apologized for the delay due to technical difficulties. However, the confetti was about the tamest special effect. There were huge balloons that were passed all over the crowd, an assortment of rope lights hanging above the stage, a massive chrome-looking balloon that read “Fuck Yeah Summerfest,” rubber ducks on the shoulders of Coyne’s jacket, inflatable costumes (one of which deflated, and Coyne would not let the show go on until it was fixed) including a rainbow, some giant frogs, and a Santa Claus, and obviously the giant orb thing. You know. The hamster ball-looking thing in which Coyne goes out into the audience. That happened, despite having rows of seats that one might assume would have some sort of hindrance on the event.
They played the hits, such as “She Don’t Use Jelly,” “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt 1,” and “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” before closing with “A Spoonful Weighs A Ton.” The encore was none other than “Do You Realize??” in all of its melancholic glory. I preemptively bought a shirt that said “I saw the Flaming Lips and it made me a better person,” and I’m pretty pleased with my purchase. Easily the best performance I’ve ever seen at Summerfest.
Sunday, June 28th – The Drunkest Day
I had plans to see some really great Milwaukee music this day (mainly Field Report). However, my friends had plans to get fairly intoxicated before even reaching the gates. To put the gravity of the situation into perspective, my beer-snob-self consumed a massive can of Redd’s. Yeesh.
These kinds of precautions were necessary to go to our first performance on the night. Yes, I am referring to Paris Hilton. I didn’t need to drink to enjoy her set, but I did need to drink to put up with the kids surrounding me. It was a step above a high school dance–maybe half of the people could legally buy alcohol, but everyone had something to drink. Everyone was yelling and wearing neon clothing. It was not my scene. And I really don’t like EDM or whatever genre you’d consider what was going on.
On the other hand, I have mad respect for Paris Hilton. She’s a businesswoman. She’s not the idiot she plays on TV (or at least not entirely). She knows how to make money, even if it’s all a huge gimmick. I can’t say whether or not she was actually doing anything live with her music but if you sent me to a Deadmau5 (or whatever the kids listen to these days) concert, I’d have the same reaction. For what it was, it was fine. I was in the same vicinity as Paris Hilton. I didn’t stay for that long, but it wasn’t bad.
I ambled over to see the New Pornographers for about half an hour. The stage was frighteningly under-attended and I was able to get to the second row without batting an eye. They played two of my favorite tunes, “Your Hands (Together)” and “The Laws Have Changed” flawlessly and left me with a smile on my face. Kathryn Calder’s vocals make me feel all warm and fuzzy, and hearing her in person was no exception. I, uh, still haven’t listened to their latest release but their renditions of the newer songs left me thinking I should probably hit up Spotify when I got home.
I was then dragged away to go see Charles Bradley. Initially, this was displeasing because I wanted to catch some more New Pornographers, but this fell to the wayside as soon as Bradley begun. I had no knowledge of this man or his band prior to the performance started but I was blown away. This is a man decked out in an all-white suit, in his sixties who got his start as a James Brown impersonator, but who is just now making his way into the limelight. He makes exactly the kind of music I love to listen to, and I am definitely a fan. Did I somehow drink half a 375ml of bourbon before his set? Yes. Was I maybe too intoxicated to fully appreciate what I was witnessing? Perhaps. Did I have to call into work the next day because I was entirely too hungover? Duh (and my supervisor called me out on it). Will I shell out some cash to see him in a more preferable setting (read: not bleachers) if he makes his way around to Milwaukee again? Absolutely. I can only hope that I have the same amount of energy at 10:30pm when I’m in my sixties.
Wednesday, July 1st – The Coldest Day
At this point, Summerfest was not so fun anymore. After recovering from my 2-day hangover, working my 9-5, and attempting to move across town, my lack of sleep and need for calories was apparent. It was below 60 degrees and I was shivering. I tried to take this into account while walking up to the Miller Lite Oasis Stage for Brand New’s set.
The crowd was a healthy size, highly attentive, and moderately intoxicated (shout out to the fist-pumping bro in the camo hat in front of me who looked like he belonged at Zac Brown Band but knew all of the words to “Millstone”). As usual, I appreciate their minimalistic stage lighting which draws more attention to the music than the special effects. There were colorful assortments of fake flowers wrapped around all the mic stands. The VIP balcony area was packed. The band skipped between-song banter in lieu of packing in as many tunes as possible. These were the positives.
Disclaimer: Brand New is one of my all-time favorite bands, and Deja Entendu and Your Favorite Weapon are two of my favorite albums. That being said, I left 45 minutes into their set.
I understand that frontman Jesse Lacey’s vocals are not meant to be pristine and polished, but there are certain melodic lines I have come to expect. These were disregarded for the most part. Maybe their monitors weren’t loud enough, maybe they were too drunk, I don’t know. Tempo often fluctuated and verse-to-chorus transitions got sloppy. I’m all for the artistic license of playing around on stage, but I was unable to sing along. Sometimes I didn’t even know what was going on. I was excited to hear “Mix Tape” and the string of “Sic Transit Gloria… Glory Fades,” “I Will Play My Game Beneath The Spin Light,” and “Okay, I Believe You But My Tommy Gun Don’t,” but it was careless to the utmost degree. I can’t speak to how the rest of the set went, but what I witnessed was disappointing.
Friday, July 3rd – The Milwaukee Day
If I thought Summerfest had worn me down prior to the 3rd, I was sadly mistaken. I didn’t even have the energy to get feisty with people who were rudely pushing past me to get further into an already packed crowd. I wasn’t even upset at the beer lines anymore (and honestly, I still wasn’t drinking after my Sunday bourbon debacle). Idiots were being idiots and I didn’t care.
Again rolling in later than I expected, I arrived halfway through WebsterX’s set. If somehow you haven’t heard of him already, I would venture to say that WebsterX (also known as Sam Ahmed) is Milwaukee’s biggest rapper. New Age Narcissism (NAN), the local collective created by him and other prominent figures in the hip hop community, was largely represented on the stage. Also worth noting is that this slot was opening for Lupe Fiasco. Like the Fatty Acids, it was great to see a noteworthy local act opening for a prominent national artist.
The comforting aspect of having all of their closest musical buddies with them was apparent. When you have that much supportive energy up on one stage in front of so many people, the passion shines through. Closing song “Doomsday” may be WebsterX’s most popular song to date, boasting an intense amount of views for its video on YouTube. The effortless flow Ahmed exudes in this song is rightfully paired with the dreamy vocals of other NAN member, Siren. It is safe to say that the collective is the driving force to putting Milwaukee’s hip hop scene on the map.
Next stop was Hugh Bob & the Hustle at the KNE Stage. Frontman Hugh Masterson moved from Milwaukee to Nashville within the past year, and a Summerfest performance was the perfect homecoming. The band has been featured on CMT and it’s obvious as to why. Clean and polished, these guys fit the bill. They’re a little more alternative and a little less pop, which is how I prefer my country music. The stage was well attended despite the fact that the set had to compete with the annual fireworks show (which lasted an hour).
After the aforementioned fireworks show, I speedily dodged through the masses of drunks to get to the Johnson Controls World Stage where local (and national) favorites Sylvan Esso were headlining. Nick Sanborn, who contributes the electronic stylings, reins from Milwaukee and reportedly met singer Amelia Meath while she was on tour at the Cactus Club. The group is currently based out of North Carolina, but us Wisconsin natives support our kind (I dare you to try to get any of us to shut up about Bon Iver or Violent Femmes). All that said, the duo was a textbook example of a crowd pleaser. It was the most people I’ve seen at the World Stage and almost everyone in attendance was dancing. They played their biggest single, “Coffee” surprisingly early in the set, and everyone went as nuts as you can go given the genre. Their particular brand of chill electro pop resonates well with me, even though it’s usually something that bores me before a select song is even over. I’m glad I was in attendance.
Sunday, July 5th – The Last Day
Thank whatever deity you believe in that this was the last day. I don’t want to be in public again for, like, two months. Idiot overload. Not enough sleep. I’ve walked to the festival every day from Brady Street and the blisters on my heels are still cringe-worthy. I don’t want to see another bleacher until football season starts.
I started my last day later than I wanted to (common theme here?), and missed a lot of great bands on the KNE Stage (check out Mutts please). I decided to keep my Milwaukee-kick going and catch De La Buena at the Harley Davidson Stage. Like Trombone Shorty, this is a band where I was constantly snapchatting my mom. They are technically solid musicians whose talent speaks for itself. While a majority (err, almost all) of the lyrics were in Spanish, the musicality of the group transcended any language barrier. The majority of attendees were dancing. Percussionist Julio Pabon did a backflip on stage. They did a Latin-infused cover of “War Pigs.” I’m embarrassed I hadn’t seen them before.
After chowing down on a burger and sweet potato tots that tasted like donuts from Major Goolsby’s, I found myself once again at the KNE Stage for The Championship. They are yet another big Milwaukee band that I had yet to see live. They reminded me a lot of Hugh Bob, but a little more low-key with lower vocals. With a fair mesh of country, rock ‘n’ roll, and that distinct Midwest influence, the Championship was easy to sit and listen to after a week and a half of abusing my ears in front of loud speakers.
And then I saw it. Shrek ears. It was only a matter of time before there were blatant signs of concertgoers already ecstatic for Smash Mouth’s headlining appearance at the Miller Lite Oasis Stage. I ran into Connor La Mue and Ryan McCrary of the Midwestern Charm who drunkenly yelled about trying to get backstage as “bread security.” I decided to make my way over to secure a halfway decent spot for the nostalgia I was about to embrace.
Approaching the stage, I thought that this might be the most people Smash Mouth has ever played for. It wasn’t as packed as it was for Brand New or Lupe Fiasco, but there were a huge amount of people (especially taking into consideration that they probably only knew 3 songs). A huge group of people towards the front of the crowd were all wearing those god-awful Shrek ears and donned quite a bit of green body paint. They even had a large inflatable Shrek. I can only assume they were part of Madison’s annual Shrekfest. I think I even heard a “Shrek is love” chant at one point.
Now, I can’t speak for the whole set because I only stayed for about five songs. As a band I really don’t care about, they actually sounded pretty decent. I guess that’s what happens when you’ve been together since before Shrek came out. Their keyboard/synth player was going wild and was the most fun to watch. Their drummer remained very professional throughout what I believe was the worst sound of the festival; no need to mic the bass drums and turn them up to eleven, sound guy. I hope the situation was rectified at some point, especially since I saw the drummer mouth that it was too loud. They opened with their popular cover of “Can’t Get Enough Of You, Baby,” which was met with much enthusiasm. They played a handful of songs I have never heard before, and everyone around me just stood there impatiently waiting for another hit (with the exception of some dude in his early twenties with a ponytail and Hawaiian shirt who was actually rockin’ out to everything). The last song I stayed for was “Everyday Superhero,” which sounded vaguely familiar and was actually pretty catchy. At this point, my boyfriend pleaded, “They’re not going to play All Star until the end and I want to go to bed,” so I reluctantly relinquished our spots to a few people who were way more into being there than we were.
All in all, I enjoyed my time at Summerfest. I am still physically and emotionally drained, and my stomach is still struggling from that one hangover and all of the greasy food. Whatever, it was worth it.
For photos from the fest check me out on Instagram @mcgaggles.
For more on these Midwestern acts check out the links below:
The Sleepwalkers | The Fatty Acids | Field Report | WebsterX | Siren | Hugh Bob & the Hustle | Sylvan Esso | Mutts | De La Buena | The Championship | The Midwestern Charm