There ended up being a lot to feel thankful for on this first day of July, but around 10 a.m., I watched someone accidentally drive a skidsteer over a young tree, and I was exceptionally thankful that I wasn’t that guy or that tree. (Trust me, this is mainly a Summerfest review. I just had to mention the tree.)
It seems I get to Summerfest less and less each year, and July 1st is going to be it for ‘09. A weird, motley lineup that appeals to my love of randomness, I guess, but a lot to be excited about. My goal was to get to the grounds by 2:30 to catch Soulive, but I was about ten minutes late. I walked in during “Play That Funky Music”…hold on, this cannot be Soulive. I’d never seen Soulive before, but there’s no way their Galactic-esque studio stuff translates into horrible hokey covers live. The imposters were a band whose name I didn’t stick around to catch, but more power to ‘em for filling in for who-knew-how-long while we waited for Soulive to show up. Actually a blessing, though, as I got to check out The Delta Routine at the Cascio stage, easily the most stacked stage of the festival, talent-wise. I discovered I was the only hipster who hadn’t realized I could be hiding my pale legs back inside jeans for the day. Thankfully, I didn’t notice anybody pointing at me and laughing.
The Delta Routine turned out to be one of the highlights of the whole day, intensely melodic and soulful garage pop that borrows a lot of attitude from the White Stripes but reins in the extravagance in favor of razor-sharp hooks and a lot more funk. The band closed with its next single (to be released in September), a heart-on-sleeve punk-pop gem. I’m expecting great things from this group, as was the “capacity” crowd, one of the biggest all day at this local music showcase, and deservedly.
I could’ve sworn the sign said “Live * Local * Original” music, but the second act of the day, The Black Saints, proved that just because you’re not playing covers doesn’t mean you’re original. The look was authentic late-80’s sleaze metal, and inept frontman Reverend Drew Herdegen did his best Axl screech while everybody else competently played what sounded like cutting-room-floor GN’R. How can someone honestly waste that much time and effort, writing and performing such meritless drivel, all in service of irony? Or if it's not irony, then...bummer. I assume that if you saw me leaving, you thought, “that guy just doesn’t know how to have fun, man”; you go ahead and think that, but there had to be a more deserving creative force in town who could’ve filled in for the delinquent Year Of The Gun.
It was the perfect time for me to grab a Wheat Monkey from Lakefront and some lasagna sticks (oh yeah) from Edwardo’s. The Monkey will do on a long festival day, but it has no real spark. The lasagna sticks were stolen from God’s cookbook. By 4:30, still no Soulive; apparently, they were soundchecking, and this had gone on for at least an hour. Maybe they were still waiting for somebody at that point, but this was intolerable. I know it’s presumptuous of me to say, but taking a long-ass soundcheck when you’re two hours late as it is just smacks of apathy; you oughtta just come out and rip it up, tune by the seat of your pants, if only out of respect to the lesser-known acts you’re robbing of stage time. I did catch a couple songs after they finally went on over two hours late, but they were honestly boring the crap out of me, and I was annoyed with them anyway. I mean, if I blow a tire on the way to a job interview, it’s not my fault, but I’m still not getting that job.
I should’ve just stayed for 1956’s whole set; such a reliable live act, and maybe Milwaukee’s best straight-up rock bassist in Troy Butero. But I thought I’d catch a bit of Soulive en route to The Scarring Party, oh well. Naturally, all the way North to the Potawatomi Rock Stage (for Scarring Party???), only to discover they were running at least a half hour late, no SP for me.
Fortune smiled on me again, as I managed to get back to the Cascio in time to catch the raucous Barrettes set, which was way proggier than the group’s punk press image suggested, yet retained the riotous edge and snotty attitude inherent in the best punk rock. There is real songcraft going on with this band, and as thrilling as this prototype is in all its sloppy glory, it could be even more amazing once the instrumental skill catches up with the ambition, look out. “Walk Like An Egyptian”, complete with one of many melodica solos, was great but the band’s originals were by far the highlights. I couldn’t walk away, had to miss the beginning of Dead Confederate.
Based on DC’s debut album from last year, I assumed it would be amazing live, but certainly not this evening. What was crafted on tape as mournful grunge-soul came out all muddled and plodding in the live setting, the songs all running together without a studio wizard to tweak them. It wasn’t horrible, just a letdown.
The energy picked up considerably with the next act at Cascio, Disguised As Birds. A superlative name amongst the Milwaukee math-rock contingent, this band was much poppier than I expected, but very tight, and able to growl when necessary. A solid set.
We stuck around for most of Blueheels, Madison’s answer to The Championship. I’m consistently pretty impressed with this band’s songs and performance, except it’s sometimes hard to get past Robby Schiller’s oppressively nasal vocals. He’s got soul in those chords, just too much nose as well. But towards the end of the set, we had to nab a spot for Sound Tribe Sector 9.
So, Summerfest…family-friendly fluff, right? A toss-off, especially for a band about to destroy Rothbury, right? Who’s gonna take this seriously? STS9, that’s who. Even though the marquee said 10 p.m., they came out just after 9:30 (progam time), the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse was packed to the gills, and we were thrust into a two-hour-plus powerhouse set, all kinds of heavy-hitters and non-stop energy. This was the show that will finally make me start to remember the names of the songs (thanks, youphoric); “Rent” has always been a favorite, and I didn’t even recognize it at first, but it was a rip-roaring version, and I could easily handle “The Rabble” at every show, so dirty and grinding, the benches were twisting and shaking to the beat of many thousands of hypnotized feet. And isn’t it kind of unfair to the rest of the songs for Tribe to have a song called “Dance”? Totally amazing. So in essence, what I expected to be an easygoing warm-up show to give me blue balls and make me insanely jealous of all the kids heading over the sea to Rothbury turned out to be a blistering blow-out to end a great day. So good to have my best friends gathered together on a Wednesday night, seeing Jeff and Tate for the first time in months…July 2009 could scarcely have started off any better.
Summerfest provides at least one great memory every year. It’s really time for me to quit scoffing and taking it for granted. With the increasing stature of the local scene thanks to the Cascio stage, not to mention the best beer selection and prices of any music festival anywhere, I guess I’d have to say that fifteen bucks (or, if you sniff around town a little or take advantage of the many promo specials, free) is a hell of a bargain for eight hours of music. Thank you, Big Gig!