Activities Records has earned its right to the coveted title of Beloved Riverwest Institution in the course of its short but well-publicized existence, so where better to hold a festival in its honor than Linneman’s? The first bar I ever drank in has a decidedly different feel than it did in the old days, but now it’s a real live venue with the quintessential Milwaukee beer selection and the same friendly faces running the show as always. It’s sort of a laid-back cousin of the Cactus Club, but this weekend’s music didn’t feature much acoustic guitar; it was a vibrant injection of noise into the Brew City’s uniquely integrated neighborhood. Results were musically mixed, but the event itself couldn’t be judged anything but a success.
Night one’s opening set from Elusive Parallelograms proved to be the evening’s best. Valiantly caustic but unafraid to unabashedly rock, they were kinda like the Queers but with a little ambition. All that punk rock timbre, but with goals. Stubbornly clunky bass guitar combined with two other ridiculously different guitar players, all interested in the same din somehow. The dominant bass sound lent it all a viscous punk momentum that grounded any esoteric tendencies that might crop up. The set got steadily more intense, leading up to a stunning tribute to the recently-deceased Richard Wright, “Interstellar Overdrive,” sounding very 2008 all the same. That intensity carried for three tunes, then let up just a bit, but overall it was a blast. A very LOUD blast.
Fahri is decidedly more overtly pop, solid and charismatic but not enthralling, lacking in the sharp hooks it seems to be striving for. The most promising aspect of the group is its core commitment to song-based grunge, which needn’t have gone out with the unbuttoned flannel craze, people. Let’s hope that this is only the beginning. Nobody demands genius from a band that hasn’t even released a full album yet—just the potential for future genius.
The Candliers are one of Activities’s centerpiece bands, and they bust out weirdness juxtaposed with pure pop, so when they return to the weirdness it’s all the more icky. At first I felt this reaction in a positive way, but things began to unravel slowly as the set progressed; it began to smack of Flaming-Lips-go-folk-rock. Singer Riles Walsh started to seem disingenuous, the banjo reeked of irony, the trumpet and upright bass seemed just for show, and the mishmash of bluegrass/New Orleans brass/indie pop became cumulatively contrived. The Yardbirds’ “Heart Full Of Soul” sank under unrehearsed vocal harmony and a pronounced lack of soul, and the group finally veered off the precarious staying-in-tune track it had been clinging to all night. Still, in the aftermath of this set, I began to feel like the Candliers may be the embodiment of Riverwest in musical form: a messy, risky cultural stew that makes life in Milwaukee’s little Bohemia so intriguing. Maybe if they had managed to pull off a better performance, if they could have projected exactly how they intended to, the payoff would have been amazing in light of the potential for disaster. There’s enough promise in the music to make me give this group another shot.
The Trusty Knife, whose split 7” with the Candliers was the first Activities release, brought the party to a close. Initially we got average, somewhat awkward nerd rock, then some improvement via straight-up, almost Joe Jackson-style street pop. And suddenly a definitive identity emerged, like the Police if they’d tended toward rockabilly instead of reggae, a vibrant, Stray Cats-meets-Devo blend of rebellious U.S.A. rock. The effect was belligerently old-school but only marginally nostalgic, and occasionally infectious. It was almost like a raucous wedding reception dance party, except with pretty good music you’ve never heard—the crowd began to thin out until only the close friends and die-hard partiers remained, and while momentum diminished by the end of the set, it was all charming enough to be worth staying for. The band has some distance to go to really tighten up its sound, but it’s on the right track.
Night two of Activities Fest began with Pigs On Ice, who I was uniquely excited to see because I had some friends in high school who’d played in a short-lived band called Cunts On Ice; surely there was some conceptual continuity at work here? POI delivered the heaviest set of the night, comparable to the roar of the Parallelograms the night before. This was post-hardcore noise with some strangely primitive effects that made me wonder if the guitar and bass overdrive would sound remotely similar the next time I see the band. Vocalist Joseph Peterson kept the spirit of Darby Crash alive (as fed through a sort of Bobcat Goldthwait visage). There were some undeniable creepy hooks amidst the maelstrom, though, and genuine roughshod craftsmanship. Good fun down to the ugly striptease at the end.
Next was supposed to be Nurses, but it ended up being Freight, who had played an opening set as well that I’d missed. The group’s delivery was somewhat comparable to POI with the tuneless vocals and general loudness, but the rhythms were less interesting, and the guitar wasn’t nearly as heavy; it was more angular and squirrely, with some downright groovy bass to boot. However, I just wasn’t moved at all by frontman Brian Rogers’s voice or antics, and either equipment problems or ineptitude hampered guitarist Jacob Feiring incessantly. It was sometimes hard to tell for sure if he was playing the chords or notes he intended to play. Ultimately, what they lacked in musicality they didn’t quite make up for in style or personality.
Already twice this year, I’d unfortunately missed John The Savage warming up crowds at really good shows, and all the while I kept hearing about how great the band is live. These reports proved true. Putting the psycho firmly in psychobilly (where is Milwaukee’s ‘billy contingent, anyway??), even with some early equipment issues, all that delicious reverb was making me very happy. Singer/guitarist Mike Skorcz’s vocals were reminiscent of Koefte deVille crossed with Honus Honus, and obviously a heavy dose of Tom Waits. The band ultimately skewed more toward a loose jazz designation, running the gamut through neo-swing and R&B, but the supple, heavy guitar really made the whole performance rich and cinematic, and the band only got tighter as it played. It was like a spooky update of various archaic American styles, all modernized and freaked out; even the softest melodic passages maintained a neurotic edge. There was just no way to achieve boredom during this set. Every musician made an impression, particularly the spot-on trumpet work of Mike Henderson, and even the between-song ambience completely captured the room. JTS truly stole the show.
Why, Stephen Malkmus? Why did you have to pave the way for willfully awful singers who feel that their lyrics can carry a “tune?” The two vocalists for the weekend’s most-hyped band, Farms In Trouble, seemed to actually believe that they were harmonizing at times, but that was only actually the case by chance, for a fleeting moment here and there. This issue could almost be forgiven if the singing weren’t such a deliberate focal point. Musically, there were some decent pop songs hidden behind the grating vocal glaze, but no real excitement. The most frustrating issue was having seen Zack Pieper singing competently the evening prior with The Trusty Knife; such a shame that angsty whining is so prized in the indie rock world. I had pretty much given up hope when suddenly, there was this fantastic song featuring a trumpet and a driving Beefheart beat and a disjointed guitar riff that put everything before it to shame. The band gelled and the vocals fit and they created something original and memorable. Then, the Candliers’ Emily Morrow came onstage and the group was back to unremarkable, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah territory. There was one more really good song, right after all guests left the stage, that started with another earsplitting harmonic failure but turned into a propulsive, frenetic closer that almost saved the set. Still, it seemed that FIT headlined only because they were releasing a CD (Gas Station Soundtrack). I felt a little bad about the lack of crowd fanfare when it was over, but honestly, Farms In Trouble hadn’t quite earned it.