Thursday night was earnest white guy night at Summerfest, but before I get to the part with the swooning teenage girls, let’s talk about swooning Gen-X punk rock dudes who grabbed the opportunity to get nostalgic with The Smoking Popes. They never tried to be the fastest, most aggressive band in the scene, leaving the obnoxious whiny vocals to Screeching Weasel in favor of clean, melodic singing and some of the catchiest pop music that could still be considered at all punk. Now approaching a decade into their reunion, the Popes still don’t sound much different than they did in 1994; maybe a bit slower but still punchy, and freed from the tired notion of “sellout,” they can mash up a “Do You Feel Like We Do” jam with Jawbreaker’s “Do You Still Hate Me” and not worry about repercussions.
The big surprise of the night was Madison’s El Valiente. The sun was just thinking about setting as this instrumental trio wowed the crowd with an eclectic mixture of post-rock (Tortoise was the most obvious touchstone), punk and frantic prog. Songs often contained haunting atmospheric passages and morphed into balls-out noise jams or upbeat disco-y grooves at the drop of a hat, and it all flowed seamlessly together. It is incredibly fun to watch a guitarist who is this in love with the sounds he’s making. Eric Caldera is a wizard, like a combination of Jimi Hendrix and Kevin Shields with the occasional Neil Youngish howling lead, all over the place as a technician but in terms of channeling emotion through the instrument he was incredible. The combination of Caldera’s wild mood swings on guitar, Kris Hansen’s driving bass and Joe Bernstein’s drums and glockenspiel (at the same time) is totally unique, and it’s tough to imagine anyone walking away from this performance and not being impressed.
Across the way at the U.S. Cellular Stage, the suddenly-successful Imagine Dragons drew a packed, rabid crowd with their super-catchy anthems to youthful spirit, never giving up, being in love and that sort of thing. The big screen would occasionally show video of girls singing along passionately with Dan Reynolds, but the guys in the audience were belting out the songs and pumping palms in the air with just as much enthusiasm. Reynolds is either an ace salesman or his gratitude and spirit is legit; it’s tough to argue with the kind of fevered devotion on display in this crowd to a band that just got its first big hit. Either Imagine Dragons are the next Nickelback, or they’re creating something meaningful here. Only the young can say.
Next up was the ultimate experiment for Milwaukee’s Altos: sound bleeding over from the Rock Stage threatened to overwhelm the delicate moments of the band’s set, and there were plenty of those. But if there’s one characteristic that defines this twelve-member collective, it is restraint; there are always chatty people at Altos shows, but the poise with which the musicians patiently craft their epic songs never seems to waver. Curiously, although their playing was barely audible at first unless you were within ten feet of the stage, many in the crowd endured the competing din from The Super Happy Fun Club from the benches. But most Altos songs reward the patient listener with a climax so grand and loud that everything else disappears. When they played Summerfest two years ago, they failed to overcome the distractions and win over the crowd. Tonight was the payoff in the larger arc that Altos capture in their songs: even if at first you can’t get people to pay attention, the strength of the songs and the players will win out in the end. It takes a very unique sort of creativity to play songs based largely on fear and wind up with nothing but smiling faces all around; maybe it’s catharsis, or maybe it’s just the giddy feeling of just having witnessed a performance that good.
The brand new BMO Harris Bank Pavilion on Summerfest’s southeast tip was a great idea on paper; everyone has experienced the frustration of trying to hear and see a band at the Miller Oasis that’s way too big to be playing the Miller Oasis. The BMO is a cool-looking structure, too; the theatric curtains that serve as backdrop to the stage are a little out of place, but otherwise this metal shed has definite visual atmosphere. It’s a pity that it wasn’t designed with, say, acoustics in mind. If the Avett Brothers show is any indicator, you might as well plan on paying the big bucks for reserved seating as close as possible to the stage if you want to hear what’s being played with any sort of clarity. The band was having a blast and probably putting on a good show, but from anywhere in the general-admission area it was a muddled, distorted mess. Sigh. This does not bode well for My Morning Jacket and Counting Crows…
En route to catch the end of Death Cab For Cutie’s set I heard a bit of Hunter Hayes. Or rather, I heard the anguished screams of girls from the general direction of the Briggs & Stratton stage. Presumably, nobody actually got hurt, and these girls were just in the throes of idol-worship. But holy crap, it sounded like Beatlemania over there.The more time goes on, the more it seems like Death Cab has to have run its course by now. It’s hard to believe that Ben Gibbard is still into this band. But judging by the last 45 minutes or so of Thursday’s performance, he’s very much into it, and so are the fans. The band isn’t afraid to stretch out, turning “We Looked Like Giants” into a marathon moody dance-a-thon, and while ending the main set with “Soul Meets Body” was a bit anticlimactic, the four-song encore more than made up for it. Plus, you could hear the music clearly. Lesson learned: skip the BMO if possible.