Summerfest 2023 Wrap-up

In which I tell you how very wrong I was about things in the post before this one

Mon Jul 10 2023

When I first saw the Summerfest lineup announcement for this year, I was dismayed. Slim pickins for someone with my sensibilities, it seemed. And truth be told, after that first weekend of the festival, which now seems like a year ago, I was still a bit salty. The following Monday I went to see Atheist and Cynic at X-Ray Arcade and it was way more fun than Summerfest. I was a little concerned I was becoming a typical jaded Milwaukeean. ‘Here’s this fun thing anyone who lives here can basically go to for free, but eww PEOPLE’, is that the basic refrain?

These past two weekends turned out great, though. I found that although there was plenty of crap music and the logistics remained in some ways a complete shitshow, it was pretty easy to find at least one good option at practically any moment I was there. I remembered some of the reasons why Summerfest IS kind of the best. And now you’re going to read about them.

First off, in that last post I did about Summerfest, I said something about it being a “wasteland” for local artists. This was probably the dumbest thing I wrote in an overall very dumb post. Even though I only arrived at the grounds before 5 a couple times, Milwaukee musicians provided a lot of my favorite moments. Mrs. Fun played a bunch of new stuff during their yearly stint in the sausage garden and it was all great; the best part was that Summerfest allowed them a good 45-minute window for each set before somebody came onstage at the U.S. Cellular stage to drown them out. Louie & The Flashbombs unveiled a bunch of songs from their yet-to-be-recorded next album opening for The Gufs and they sounded fantastic. Brett Newski of the rock and roll band Newski was tossing a football back and forth with the crowd, brought out a couple of guys in hot dog costumes for some crowd-surfing, and generally made his last-minute call filling in for the absent Andy Shauf unforgettable. I caught parts of great sets (or at least great parts of sets?) by Cullah, Carlos Adames, Gold Steps, and even the aforementioned Gufs. Why the hell did I used to hate this band back in the ‘90s? Just because that one song was so overplayed? That’s really not fair, is it? They played that song last on Thursday and I couldn’t locate any trace of hate in myself. It was great.

On the last night of the fest I even got to see some guy who called himself Bloody Marty playing an acoustic guitar and singing down by the goth rocks, a song I’m assuming was called “I’m Cheap”. It was a hoot. I assume he was a local; he actually reminded me of a young Newski cutting his teeth. (CORRECTION: I must’ve misheard him; his name is PARTY Marty and he’s from Janesville! Shout-out to loyal reader Doj for the info!) I was just happy that a random goth-rocks pop-up performance was still possible at Summerfest (BRING BACK THE REBEL STAGE YOU COWARDS). Aside from maybe that Willy Porter set the first Saturday, though, the local highlight for me was Gego y Nony. On July 1st the reggaeton duo were a late addition at the Briggs & Stratton stage opening for Sean Paul; they greeted a nonchalant crowd by first sending out a full band, then a six-piece dance troupe, then emerging triumphantly, decked out in full Unfinished Legacy regalia, and they got the audience up and dancing in about 30 seconds flat (a feat that Tito Puente, Jr. was unable to accomplish at all despite even BETTER dancers onstage and repeated pleading with a seated audience at this same stage—did he insult the crowd earlier in his set and I missed it??). It would’ve been damn near impossible not to have a good time during this set.

For whatever reason, enjoying Summerfest this year took a bit of re-integration and re-orientation. It’s less about discovering new things you haven’t heard of, more about giving things a chance that you otherwise never would’ve, and more times than not I was pleasantly surprised. I mentioned Vanilla Fudge the first weekend; there’s no other place on Earth I’ll ever find myself considering seeing that band. And they kicked ass. That goes double for Debbie Gibson, and I didn’t even get to stick around long enough to see her do “Only In My Dreams”; next time! Earth, Wind & Fire I’d passed up more times than I can count and they too put on an incredible show. I only know one song by Information Society; what I caught of their set was loud and fierce and infectious and they practically sounded like they could be a viable force today.

As a writer, I’m always HOPING to be impressed. So despite years of being told how great Jenny Lewis is and being disappointed every time I listen to her or Rilo Kiley’s albums, I felt obliged to catch her set last Thursday. Well, I still don’t understand what it is people like about a lot of her songs, but I can tell you I will be checking out her new album because “Puppy And A Truck” became my first favorite Jenny Lewis song when she played it at this show, and her band was great and there were at least a couple other really good songs in her set that I’d either never heard before or forgotten. I wish I could’ve had a similar reaction to Japanese Breakfast, the other most highly-anticipated set of the final weekend for the indie rock crowd. I’ve always been mystified as to the appeal of Michelle Zauner’s songs, and by and large I still am, even though the show seemed to go over well with her fans. On the other hand, I think I understand the appeal of The War On Drugs, and I still think they suck, but they did the thing that they do last Thursday and I would’ve been content to sit under that linden tree in the back of the Uline stage area all night listening to them get quiet and loud and quiet and loud to the same beat over and over again and go “WOOT” every once in a while.

I’d never realized the zen potential of sitting under that tree before. That’s where I was for Yellowcard’s set on that middle Saturday, and while I didn’t enjoy the music much, the fan energy was so joyous I had a great time anyway. That’s also where I was for the absolute best moment of the entire festival: on the final night, Smokey Robinson played that stage. It was admittedly a few songs into his set before his voice seemed sufficiently warmed up. And then he did “Ooo Baby Baby.” Out of his many works of pure genius, this song wasn’t necessarily one I was dying to hear, and yet… you know that song by ABC, “When Smokey Sings”? My gut reaction to that song has always been ‘well…okay, sure, but…I mean…really?” After Smokey finished singing “Ooo Baby Baby” on Saturday I was like, “Ohhhhh.” I get it now. For about 30 seconds I was transported to a dimension I’d never visited before where my body was made of liquid, and when he stopped singing it felt like a car accident or something. I never got to see most of my favorite singers perform in the flesh; apparently I did get to see one of ‘em. And I had to leave early to review Fleet Foxes so I was already figuring on missing my favorite Smokey song; then miraculously (oops) he whipped it out in the middle of the set, “Tears Of A Clown”. Guh.

Another big discovery for me: The Mountain Goats. I’d seen John Darnielle do a solo acoustic set at Pitchfork Fest back in 2006 and it did not move the needle of my heart gauge even a little. I could be misremembering but I wanna say the rest of the band had canceled last minute; Darnielle didn’t seem to want to be there and I think he only played for like 20 minutes or maybe I wandered off to dig through records or something. It was so underwhelming I decided I didn’t need to know anything about this band. Years later it became a titillating internet fact that Darnielle was into black metal, because liking black metal was so shocking for an otherwise seemingly sensible person. This should’ve piqued my interest; still I resisted. And I’ve seen lots of tweets and such over the years from people whose opinions I trust telling me this or that Mountain Goats show was a knockout. But in this day and age, I NEED reasons to ignore bands, because I don’t need any more bands to keep tabs on. So I probably never would’ve seen The Mountain Goats if they hadn’t shown up at Summerfest this year. I never knew Darnielle gave off such distinct Zappa vibes as a frontman! This performance bore absolutely no resemblance to that Pitchfork set; it was manic and heartfelt and powerful. Darnielle even gushed, calling it “my favorite festival set I’ve ever played”. He gushed about his longtime love for Milwaukee. I’d missed like 20 minutes of the set recording one of those video recaps for the JOURNAL SENTINEL and still it was my favorite of the weekend.

And it was a stacked weekend; Dinosaur Jr absolutely killed it on Thursday, shortly after Smoking Popes once again proved that one of them had stolen my high school journal in the early ‘90s and used it as inspiration for all their songs. Built To Spill also played a killer set on Friday. And while I still don’t LIKE Fleet Foxes very much, they put on a perfectly impressive show to close the thing out on Saturday.

But I have to say that middle weekend still took the cake; between a surprisingly unorthodox Dave Matthews Band show, the feelgood uplift and jaw-dropping Verdine White bass driving that EWF set, and the continuing ascension of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (probably the premier jamband on planet Earth at this point), it was a hell of a time, and it also featured my actual favorite set of the fest: Thaikkudam Bridge, the only band from India that’s ever played Summerfest, who combined traditional regional sounds with various shades of rock, dance, metal, folk, and whatever else popped into their heads, cavorted around the stage teaching us various dance moves, praised the DMB show from the night before and generally threw a massive hourlong party onstage for a giddy and appreciative broad-daylight crowd. The breeze was blowing the fragrance from the blooming linden right at me and I don’t know how it could’ve been any more magical.

Yep, Summerfest remains the least adventurous, most mainstream, cheesiest music festival of them all, and no, if I weren’t being paid to be there, I probably would’nt go every day. But it would be my loss if I didn’t. There will probably always be tons of pop-country and christian rock and lame cover bands taking the place of more worthy acts. That’s how you end up with such a broad spectrum of fans flocking in every year. Most festivals cater to more discerning tastes, whatever genre(s) this may entail, and it’s true that crowds of suburbanites are sooooo not my comfort zone. What’s so great about comfort zones, anyway?

Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

  • All content © Copyright 2006-2018, Cal Roach. Do not reuse or repurpose without permission.