Milwaukee Psych Fest 2017

Posted 05/15/2017 by cal

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You knew this thing would eventually outgrow Cactus Club. As sick as music writers have got to be of typing the word ‘psych’, still it persists as a catch-all tag for reverb, drone, and general weirdness in music, and its popularity shows no signs of fading despite the hiatus of Levitation (formerly Austin Psych Fest, the mother of all psych fests). The plus side of its omnipresence is that a psych festival can encompass virtually all genres nowadays, and this year’s Milwaukee edition boasted by far the most eclectic lineup to date. I caught most of the Friday and Saturday performances, and I wrote little bits about 'em.

FRIDAY | CACTUS CLUB

 

Moss Folk: Tonight’s highlight by far. The room was stuffed and grooving to the massive sonic waves. The addition of flute to the band brought to mind the heyday of Lake Trout, which is one of the highest compliments I can think of. The best part of the set had to be when the three Waukesha-looking meatheads muscled their way into the thick of the already-at-capacity throng, dragging their dates behind them. I doubt they were on acid, but clearly psychedelic music is no longer just for freaks and burnouts. I hope they all enjoyed themselves. Anyway, I think I said this last year, too, but: Moss Folk get better every time I see them.

 

Al Lover: I wasn’t completely taken in by this set, but it was good; unusually thick electronic stuff that never settled on a beat or theme for long. If the goal was to cloud our minds and confuse our ears, mission accomplished.

 

Mr. Elevator: Killer set of throwback, organ-driven ‘60s-style garage-psych. Not very L.A. at all considering the band members moved a lot and made various facial expressions. Not the most original style, but energetic and tight, particularly in the drumming department. The main riff of their last song was almost a note-for-note ripoff of The Cramps’ “Nest Of The Cuckoo Bird”, but I wasn’t complaining.

 

L.A. Witch: No discernible change from the band’s 2015 appearance here, except they have a new drummer, Ellie English. She’s got the perfect sense of dynamic for this band, although her occasional lack of rhythmic precision made her finesse seem almost accidental, even though it could've just been that she was reacting to the natural sway of the loping, jangly tunes. If you liked the sweet sounds of classic west-coast psych guitar and bass, you were in the right place.

 

Holy Wave: Another returning act from 2015, and one I’ve never been able to get into on record or live, and I was very tired, so I skipped ‘em.

 

Little Havana food truck: The yucca fries. Sweet jeebus.

 

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SATURDAY | COMPANY BREWING

 

Mark Waldoch: The best set I have seen him play in a long, long time. He is in truly peak voice this spring thus far, and the sunny afternoon outdoor stage suited his bombastic electric attack much better than the confines of Lux during Arte Para Todos a couple weeks ago, I must say. He brought out Ben Hinz of Dwarfcraft Devices, the first of several key special guests of the day, for a noisy, sprawling cover of Low's "Nothing But Heart" to end the set in beastly fashion.

 

Bill Mackay: The soft-spoken fingerstyle/slide maestro is someone you want to focus intently on as he plays, rather than, say, have herky-jerky projections of colored oil jiggling in the background as an obnoxious distraction. (Yes, I admit, I hate this crap no matter what, but in this instance in particular, it was so inappropriate.) So I did my best to keep my eyes closed. And it was a magnificent set.

 

All-Seeing Eyes: This set didn’t do much for me. 

 

Foreign Goods: Their soundcheck jam was quite honestly more interesting than what was going on outside. It was a stripped-down set featuring about half the usual lineup, which put keyboardist Quinten Farr on de facto bass duties as well as giving him more of an opportunity to take the lead. Jay Anderson eschewed any psychedelic sax effects, and Kyndal J took a few opportunities to showcase her ever-improving scatting skills. The result was a more strictly jazzy overall set than a typical Foreign Goods show, all business, but if you didn’t know what was missing, you didn’t suspect anything was.

Drugs DragonsIt had been ages since I'd seen these guysback then, they, like, had music available to listen to on the internet and shit. The special appearance of Jon Liedtke on theremin seems like a no-brainer now that I've witnessed it, giving the Dragons' noisy sleaze rock a more cosmic attitude. If Waldoch's sonic barrage hadn't woken up every third-shift neighbor, this set surely did.
 
Calliope: I assume these guys are preparing to retake Milwaukee by storm. They just dropped a wicked-looking seven-incher, wrapped up a quick Midwest tour, and their new album should be coming before long, considering WMSE has been.playing it since last fall. They treated us to debut performances of two new songs that should further cement them as the city's premier prog-psych merchants.
 
Snoozy Moon: Hey, more theremin! Sweet. This was a promisingly weird set, only I was too hungry to keep watching.
 
Kabob Hub: I used to swear by their Mediterranean wrap, but this was like the third straight time I've been seriously disappointed with my food here. Sigh. I think I'm done with this place. Yes, I probably should've just eaten something at Company, but everything on their limited festy menu seemed either too greasy or too healthy. Shut up.
 
Def Harmonic: Evidently, they canceled. Damn. Go listen to their music anyway.
 
Chatham Rise: I couldn't come up with anything to say about this band, so I'll defer to the opinion of fellow attendee Damian Strigens, who said it reminded him of early Verve. Cool? 
 
Plastic Crimewave SyndicateThe perennial MKE Psych mainstay had never bowled me over before, but that changed as of Saturday. Sure, they sort of cheated by bringing in Madison saxophonist Taralie Peterson, who shifted effortlessly between avant skronk and dazzling melodic runs, but mainly I think I finally got bandleader Steve Krakow's vision; he's kind of like a psych-rock Zappa up there, an impassioned mastermind/conductor as well as guitarist/frontman, holding it all together via willpower and wizardry and charisma. This set was one of my favorites of the weekend.
 
FloorianThey seemed to be having some technical difficulties, but I'll admit that while it was cool to have at least something slightly metal at the fest, their particular brand of stonerish spacerock was lacking in energy and didn't strike me as particularly original. Oh well.
 
Nest Egg: I think I had my hopes up a bit too high for this set due to some friends' evident anticipation. So it goes sometimes. Not a bad set by any means but stylistically along similar lines to a lot of other psych-tagged stuff and thus not very memorable for me.
 
Magas: Things get a little fuzzy at this point, no pun intended, partially because the set times were way off by this point, and even the indoor/outdoor designations were at least somewhat flip-flopped, but mainly because when you spend an entire weekend with feedback and fuzzed-out guitars and echo-drenched everything, at some point things tend to run together. Did I actually see this band? Probably not, because it seems the Magas is actually just one dude, which I do not recall seeing. Okay, is it actually Flavor Crystals I'm thinking of? Who was playing while I was engrossed in that deep conversation at the bar? Shit, it's a good thing nobody's paying me for this review.
 
Doug Tuttle: Have you ever heard of Wildildlife? (No, that's not a typo.) Truly an incredible weirdo experimental metal band. I'm not sure if they're still around or not, but this set by their guitar player was one that makes you go 'really, this is the kind of shit you actually want to be playing?' I don't begrudge anyone the urge to mess around with different styles, but this was pretty bland, happy retro guitar pop with I guess a hint of psychedelia to it if you insist. Rrrrreally a head-scratcher for me.
 
Ancient RiverNow this I enjoyed, even though it was pretty mellow and I could feel my faculties starting to demand sleeeeeeeep. Dreamy, a little groovy, a little surfy, I could've used something a little more upbeat at that point, but that's not a fair criticism. Although I was feeling a tad anxious due to the hour getting quite late and if this is cutting into headliner time...well I'll probably never know, will I.
 
Kikagaku Moyo: I was practically dead on my feet by the time our headliners came onstage. Fatigue has ruined shows for me in the past; clearly I should've taken a nap at some point! Well, tonight, it mattered little. As soon as the band started playing I felt energy surge back into my body like magic. I am a big fan of last year's House In The Tall Grass album, so I knew I was gonna enjoy this show. What I didn't realize was that these guys have insane psychic powers of improvisation. To end the set, they took the opening track from the aforementioned album, "Green Sugar", on an epic ride through multiple thematic developments and radical tempo changes to the point where you could easily forget what the hell song this used to be. For some music fans, that's a phenomenon we are always searching for in live music and rarely finding. It made me wonder how much of the songs I didn't know was improv as well. These guys have it all: ingenious melodies, exotic textures, powerful dronescapes, heavy, abrasive edges, and the sound was dialed in about as perfectly as I've ever experienced at Company. You've got to hand it to festival organizer Andrew Shelp: Every single year he brings in at least one band that will positively blow your freaking mind, and this might've been the best performance I have ever seen at Milwaukee Psych Fest. It was ambitious, maybe even a little cluttered, but once again, the event was a triumph.

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