The Big Gig is a messy, crowded hodgepodge of good and bad music, but this year’s experience has shown that it isn’t just the biggest; it’s also potentially one of the best, as long as you can ignore the elitist cynics who bitch about drunk people and music below their nose level. No other festival will give you Thievery Corporation, STS9, Umphrey’s McGee, Yes and Rush in the span of a week, and despite the lack of free-wristband lawn seats at the Marcus Amphitheater, you could’ve seen all of these artists and oodles more for under 20 bucks a day. It got exhausting at times, what with the getting up early on weekdays, but this year may have been my favorite overall Summerfest ever.
I kicked off the fest on its first Saturday with my first full-fledged Thievery show. One great thing about Summerfest is that most artists aren’t limited to truncated festival sets, so it felt like the full Thievery experience, except for one thing: co-leader Rob Garza was absent (reportedly due to his wife going into labor--what kind of excuse is that?). But with Eric Hilton as the lone DJ, it didn’t feel like anything was lacking; the bleachers buckled and bounced to the generally laid-back lefty dance party and everybody had a blast. It was encouraging to see a relatively young crowd getting down, even if the message was lost in a ganja haze. You can take the Corp’s boogie at face value and it loses none of its potency; these guys are the P-Funk for a new generation, not stylistically but in the sense that they keep the groove going as sweet as anybody while they subversively try to free your mind. They might wake you up, but they’ll never bring you down.
Next stop, Tuesday: we caught about half of Willy Porter’s set, which was an unusually countrified affair but still rocked at times. This was the first time I’d heard Carmen Nickerson on backing vocals; she performed admirably, and keyboardist Dave Adler was the firebrand as usual, but also on his best behavior, curbing his hammy tendencies and straight-up hammering the keys, an incredibly talented musician. Willy’s solo rendition of his bona fide modern folk classic, “How To Rob A Bank”, was a clear highlight, and Nickerson came through best on a rich cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”. A pretty mellow affair overall, but the only real point of contention was Dave Shoepke’s drums, which were mixed like Tommy Lee at his least subtle. Shoepke’s playing was fine, but the unnatural booming resonance was distracting.
We left early to secure a decent spot for Sound Tribe, essentially the band’s summer tour opener; I’m likin’ this trend. The perfect companion act to Thievery, STS9 drives the dance-athon to even greater heights of intensity but without all the messages and stuff. It’s officially safe to say that Tribe brings the heat to Summerfest. Last year they relied on their usual heavy hitters, but this year they went with a less accessible setlist and still bowled us over. Highlights included the recently revitalized "Wika Chikana" and "Grizzly", a tribute/remix of Grizzly Bear's "Two Weeks". My only complaint was that guitarist Hunter Brown took a pretty subdued role, and particularly during "Moonsocket", he seemed unable to keep the beat at times. For the most part, though, the band's rich wall of sound made Brown's lack of firepower a moot point. The Miller Lite Oasis was a jam-packed sea of revelers; don’t be surprised if the band graduates to the Marcus in the next year or two.
Got down to the fest on Wednesday in time to catch the end of The .357 String Band’s set, which was honestly a perfect choice to warm up an Umphrey’s crowd. Wish they could’ve played much longer, actually, but what you get with this band is a hyperspeed blast of bluegrass style and punk rock energy, which by nature can’t last long. No chance that .357 didn’t make some new fans with this set, punctuated by a cover of the Jerry Reed classic “East Bound And Down”.
Finally, 2010 gave Umphrey’s a headlining slot at Summerfest, and they made the most of it. Another explosive tour opener, although it wasn’t immediately so. One stage south of us was Puddle of Mudd (tied for third with every other nu-metal band in the Worst Band Of All Time sweepstakes), and I had to keep relocating north to get away from the ear-splitting drudgery. Umphrey’s played it safe for the most part in the first set; the band started off with a funkadelic launch out of “Resolution” but kept everything family-friendly. “Fool In The Rain” was the highlight, making me realize how overused the term “tribute” is. It was pure Umphrey’s, but guitarist Jake Cinninger set his pedals to pure Jimmy Page and crafted a loving embrace of the master’s technique while clearly showcasing his own talent, and frontman Brian Bayliss, while obviously no Robert Plant, hewed affectionately to Plant’s trademark vocal idiosyncrasies without ever mocking.
Set one played out as a jubilant groovefest response to STS9 the night before, but I was itching for UM to show PoM what real metal sounds like. The opening “Nothing Too Fancy” in set two birthed one of the best jams I’ve ever heard Umphrey’s play, from an angelically evil surge to a lazy-summer stroll, hazy but insistent, then building to a slo-mo “Harry Hood”-esque peak that rivals any such recent Phish climax. I’m not really a fan of “Partyin’ Peeps” or “The Fuzz”, but these frantic, ecstatic jams made me love ‘em tonight. The transition from “Fuzz” to “The Floor” was pure magic. The “In Bloom” cover was fierce, and Jake was outrageous during a “Voodoo Chile” jam in the middle of the “Ringo” encore. Okay, so there wasn’t really any metal--through and through, it may have been the strongest single UM set I’ve seen, triumphant jams galore and no filler.
We skipped a day, resting up for the big weekend. Despite my best intentions, only managed to catch one act at the Cascio Groove Stage on Friday, Group Of The Altos. I’ll try to refrain from judging after only one performance, but please tell me this one was subpar, somebody. I’m a fan of lots of meandering post-rock, but this was the kind that makes people not give the good kind a chance. The genre is long past oversaturated, so it takes something truly unique to pique my interest, and I heard no interesting melodies or dynamic development, just cacophonous slow-burn with no ensemble sensibility. There was promise in the overall atmosphere of the music, but some of the eleven members seemed more interested in making eye contact with friends in the audience and stifling giggles or fiddling with a cigarette than paying attention to what the rest of the band was doing. Improbably, they took an improvisational idiom and made it seem scripted, unless this was exactly how they planned for it to sound. I won’t discount the band, though; I can think of several of my favorite bands that were much worse when they started out.
I can hear the jeers from the skinny-jean patrol: “You didn’t like Altos, but you loved Yes???” Call me nostalgic, but as much as I tried in months past to develop a principled hatred of this band that deserted its iconic lead singer while he was recovering from surgery, I couldn’t achieve it. Chris Squire may be an asshole, but he’s the greatest rock bass player who ever lived, and he made the most of his spotlight tonight.
When tribute-band transplant Benoit David began singing “Tempus Fugit”, I admit I was creeped out: the guy sounds so much like Jon Anderson it’s a little weird, but in the end, I think that’s what was required. I could essentially ignore the guy and his vocals wouldn’t intrude on my enjoyment of the bass and guitar. Besides, let’s face it: he can hit notes Jon wouldn’t attempt these days. Likewise, Oliver Wakeman (Rick’s son) was barely a factor, almost blatantly taking a back seat to Squire and Steve Howe, until the grand finale of “Starship Trooper”, when he suddenly came alive and got cranked in the mix and played an outstanding solo. Where was this the rest of the show? Of course, Yes fans are there for the old geezers, but there’s no sense burying a talent like Wakeman when he’s standing right there.
After all these years, the band can still shock me: the jam out of “Perpetual Change” was monumental, probably very preplanned but it was still hot. The legendary Howe appeared not to have aged a day since he turned 80 (okay, he's actually only 63), but after a pretty shaky start (and some angry gestures to his guitar tech) he caught fire following the blissful intro to “And You And I”, and he even played a brief tribute to recently-deceased local hero Les Paul in between “Mood For A Day” and “The Clap”.
Sure, the tempos of some songs were practically halved; you get used to it. Sure, “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” is best forgotten, totally disrupts the flow of the set, is not what the fans are here for anyway. Sure, it’s nostalgia, pure and simple. But I’d pay fifteen bucks any day just to listen to Squire wail away on bass, as creative and powerful as ever. And even with fake Jon and no new material (possibly for the better), Yes is still better than most bands half its age.
We were determined to make a full day of it, five-dollar beers be damned! Actually, you couldn’t ask for better prices for anything at a festival this size, and for the second year in a row, Lakefront rolled out a brand new beer. This time it was Fixed Gear, a hoppy red, quickly one of my faves from the brewery. But the big one-dollar cups of ice water and plenty of fountains throughout the grounds is something Summerfest has over virtually every other festival, ever.
Free shuttle from Hooligan’s got us to the grounds around 2:30, so we were able to catch most of The Blueheels’ set. They played quite a bit of new material, seemingly drifting away from country toward jammier rock and roll territory. It’s probably a common theme in reviews of this band, but Robby Schiller’s voice can take some getting past; it’s very nasal, but it’s also expressive, and while it probably wouldn’t work in many other contexts, it works here, and blends well with bassist Landon Arkens for vocal harmonies that could be even more effective if there were more of them. Top notch musicianship across the board, slightly raucous, perfect Saturday afternoon warm-up.
Time flies at Summerfest. Seemed like we’d gotten there early but we only caught one more set before Rush, but it was a must: The Danglers. Frontman Jason Loveall went through an unfortunate “guitar phase” in the early aughts, but thankfully, he’s back to wailing on the violin (hey, Andrew Bird, take note!). This afternoon’s set hearkened back to the group’s late-90s heyday as if the band was no worse for wear, proggy violin/drum/upright bass jams that make you puzzle over who is the most amazing musician of the trio. Drummer John Sparrow is grounded in a free jazz style, but he can slash his way through borderline thrash metal beats with ease, and there were times watching bassist Dave Gelting when I couldn’t help thinking ‘that’s gotta hurt’; I’ll just assume he’s got calluses an inch thick. It’s a mistake to discount Loveall’s lyrics as well; some may be a bit unwieldy, but the message rings loud and clear. If you like heavy music sans guitar and chaotic edge-of-your-seat improv, you can’t go wrong with this band.
Rush. At the Marcus. Again. Seems every two years like clockwork, the quintessential prog-rock power trio comes around; this is the first time I recall having to pay monies above Summerfest admission, though. You’d expect diminishing returns with a band whose members are all approaching 60, but you’d be wrong. Throughout the 00s, very little was consistent about the band; Geddy Lee’s voice was slowly deteriorating but his bass playing never wavered. Alex Lifeson seemed inspired on some nights, autopiloted on others. Lee must have undergone some sort of intense therapy three or four years ago, though, as his voice sounded more confident in 2008 than it had since the 90s, and he hit notes I didn’t think he’d ever hit again. But shockingly, it was Neil Peart’s drumming that suffered on that tour; he was sloppier and slower than I’d ever seen him.
I feared the worst, but I needn’t have. Neil was on fire all night, throwing in creative fills and never missing a beat, and his solo was more compact than usual but spookier and more imaginative in the middle section, despite the prearranged elements. Perhaps it’s something about Moving Pictures, which the band played straight through in the second set. I definitely had forgotten how amazing lesser-known songs like “The Camera Eye” and “Witch Hunt” are, how perfect the album is as a whole. We probably could’ve done without three selections from the band’s latest (and one of its weakest) studio album, though; the two new unreleased songs the band played ("BU2B" and "Caravan") blew away anything on Snakes & Arrows.
Otherwise, the song selection was stellar, as Rush continues to dig deep for each successive tour, pulling out “Presto” (not played on any previous tour) and letting Lifeson run wild on an amazing version of “Marathon” (not played since 1990’s Presto tour). The band also got weird with some of its classics, inserting an odd rhythmic change in the middle of “Closer To The Heart”, a polka intro to a subsequently mind-blowing “La Villa Strangiato”, and a reggae first verse and chorus of “Working Man”. The band’s sense of humor always permeates a Rush show, but these were actually musically interesting, not just oddball Canadian tomfoolery.
Admittedly, Geddy’s voice was shaky tonight; only the third show of the tour, so he may not have been quite warmed up. I’m resigned to the idea that I may never get a full show with every member in perfect form again. But aside from the vocals, this was the best Rush show I’ve seen since 1994. For years, I kept thinking every tour would be my last, but this year I’m dead set on seeing ‘em again…in two years or so.