I won't lie, it was an ordeal, navigating normal life in addition to this Milwaukee Psychology Festival (third annual), down at the ol' Cactus Club. I think we all learned a lot about ourselves.
Best pre-party: Tame Impala (Riverside Theater, Thursday)
I'm withholding judgment on these new songs until I hear them in the context of the album, but let's just say the new direction does float a specific boat of mine. As for the concert, there was precious little evolution for the old material ("Why Won't You Make Up Your Mind" was the only major rearrangement), and the integration of the new was perhaps not perfectly natural. Those songs, though. They're so good. And Kevin Parker's gotten better at singing them live. I'm no longer very much in touch with the person who got ambushed by Lonerism during a fragile point in life, but "Mind Mischief" and "Be Above It" and "Why Won't They Talk To Me?" and above all "Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control" will probably always reduce my mind to a puddle. Other songs, too. I'm very excited for the new album now.
I shouldn't gloss over Mini Mansions, either. A few of their tunes were unremarkable 88ninepop, but the majority of the set showcased compelling showmanship and an arsenal of jagged hooks, grooves and personality. They have kind of a Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr thing going on, and I dug it. And their cover of "Heart Of Glass" was better than the original. #thatsnotsayingmuch
Best DJ: Von Munz (Sunday)
DUH although I'm not sure if anybody was DJing on Thursday or Friday—but can't we get Tom Wanderer and/or the 5 & Dime guys to do this, too? Right in their respective wheelhouses, I would say. Although they probably wouldn't have played "John E. Smoke"…so Von Munz wins regardless.
Best set: Feck (Thursday)
No contest whatsoever. I missed quite a bit and who the hell knows, but for the second straight year, the first night headliner set the bar almost impossibly high. This set reminded me of seeing Lake Trout for the first time: Hey, you know how you like this style and this style and this style? Wouldn't it be bitchin if there was a band that combined all that shit into something unique and fucking incredible live? I heard Swans, Can, Fripp, Jimmy Page, Neurosis, Tortoise, My Bloody Valentine, and yes, Phish, all coagulating in this emotive, mostly instrumental barrage. Having no history with this band, I can only imagine what its actual impact has been on the Milwaukee scene at large, but I couldn't help feeling at times that Feck must've fed into the funnel that is Jon Mueller's consciousness and contributed ultimately to a lot of the music that has inspired me the most over the past decade or so. Thoughts were fleeting, though. I'd gotten little sleep, I'd just seen Tame Impala, I still had to write a review of that show and also be at work in Oak Creek at 8:30. All I knew while Feck was playing was that this was where I was meant to be, and that other shit would fall into place somehow.
Weird, but perhaps not in the way they think they are: Ttotals (Sunday)
The transitions were clunky. The electronics were unimaginative. There were stretches of tedium. There were also moments of real intensity, and at least a couple terrific guitar riffs, and a few extended moments of Earth-esque minimalist zen. The duo (whose guitarist, Brian Miles, also helped Bread Mothers out with some oil-and-water stuff) had a bizarre stage presence that was neither compelling nor repulsive, but maybe a bit distracting at times. The way the pieces of the performance were pasted together, it was tough to get into a groove or have much of an emotional response. It was memorable all the same, though.
Best individual song: "Orbis" by Calliope (Sunday)
No fair, I already knew this song. It was still the best, and it came off like an arena-caliber act barely contained by a sweaty rock club. There's way more potential in this band than I had any inkling of a year ago. I mean I liked 'em back then, but shit. I hereby nominate "Orbis" as the official anthem of Milwaukee Psych Fest. Voting will be next Tuesday.
Second best individual song: [the last two that The Paperhead played] (Saturday)
Holy shit, those were some jams! A full set of quirky, catchy, high-energy Who- and Kinks-worship, undeniable without being impertinent, and then the kind of weird, oscillating jams I was hoping for from Holydrug Couple but not getting, at all. Hands down the best non-Feck improv of the weekend that I caught.
Best excuse for cutting your set short by two songs: Broken guitar string, by L.A. Witch (Saturday)
It was going so well up to that point! Although musicians from LA never smile, they do bring good psych-rock to Milwaukee sometimes (I'll never forget The Warlocks' set from the inaugural fest). L.A. Witch brought a much-needed dose of psychobilly/surf flavor, and they started up this speedy tribal groove and then just stopped, inquiring whether anyone could loan them a guitar. Seriously?? I'm not a musician but is it acceptable to just end your set because you broke a guitar string? I don't see much future in a band so easily sidelined, but what do I know. It was a great performance while it lasted.
Best band with "Holy" in its name: The Holy Wave (Sunday)
It's too bad Holy Mary Motor Club couldn't have been on this bill, because they might've mopped up in this category. See, what I love about Milwaukee rock singers is they tend to write lyrics, a lot of times even really good lyrics, and they generally like for you to be able to understand them. It's a weird thing about Milwaukee, and maybe it's why there is no significant psych scene here. Milwaukee artists, no matter how sheltered or sequestered they may be, have something to say. They're not just looking to zonk you out.
You might've been able to catch the occasional phrase from either Holydrug Couple or Holy Wave (or Plastic Crimewave Syndicate or LA Witch or Verma or Vats), but who's to say you'd be better off? Best to just surrender to the flow, to borrow a tired idiom, which isn't by any means a bad thing. The problem was that Holydrug Couple acted like we were interested in more singing. Did anyone see them at the first MKE Psych Fest and think 'y'know what this band needs—more singing!'? No. That wasn't some revelatory show, but at least at certain moments, it was crazy-good. This Holydrug Quartet thing ain't the same band at all. I wish them well on whatever sort of endeavor this is that they're on now.
Holy Wave benefited from low expectations, I suppose. I'd heard of them, but hadn't listened to more than a couple tracks. They came out and they had personalities and they had an obvious synergy amongst the members, a single-mindedness that produced swells of energy that went beyond the manipulation of electronic devices. And they had songs, some terrific songs and some songs that were, if nothing else, breeding grounds for buoyant noisemaking. They would've been blown off the stage by last year's fest-finishers, The Blind Shake, justsayin, but they put on a great rock show all the same.
Overall MVP of the fest: Bread Mothers (all nights)
Tame Impala's visual attack was obnoxious. It was more about blinding you than being a part of the show. Bread Mothers create the complete opposite of this. They aim to integrate with the music, and it's miraculous how well they accomplish it. There were times when it seemed like there could be a narrative at work in the shifting visual motifs on the wall behind the bands, taking attendees on a journey that went much further beyond the music than any other light show you're likely to see at a big rock concert. I'll admit there were a few moments when the visuals got so busy it was more pleasant to close my eyes, particularly when the mad scientists behind the gadgets strayed into the purely digital. It's the integration of the liquid elements and the movement of objects and images by human hands that makes the experience so unique and engaging.
Best aftershow: Feck (Uptowner, Monday)
People whose opinions I trust—even people not in the band—tell me these reunion shows went off almost as if there'd been no time off. That knowledge could make me fiercely lament having missed the countless opportunities I'd passed on in the 90s to see Feck, or it could give me a distinct satisfaction about getting this rarest of second chances. It actually did basically nothing to me; the past had no bearing on Feck's impact on me. At one point, as the Uptowner floorboards shuddered underneath me and the aftershocks filled up my being, I realized I was being physically healed through the sharing of tangible vibrations in the fabric of all that there is, and that's in addition to whatever fantastical nonsense my brain might dream up, so clearly I need fear nothing. A death-blues moment, if you will. A moment which is slightly more understandable than usual as the only eternal moment, at which the illusions of time and relative existence become translucent. These are the moments I'll return to when the rest start to blur together. These are the reasons I do what I do.