Summerfest thoughts

Mon Jun 26 2023

With weekend one finished, here’s a quick batch of random thoughts for those considering going over the next couple weeks (and beyond):

-I usually bike to Summerfest, but the one night we drove (Friday night), we got there around 7 and the process seemed to run very smoothly.

-Don’t count on bringing in even empty water bottles. One night they let us, one night they didn’t. Incredibly stupid and lame.

-There are no porta-potties at all any more, not even by that area where the people do tricks on their bikes.

-Whoever has been in charge of sound at the BMO Harris Pavilion should be fired immediately, even if that includes dozens of people working for dozens of individual artists.

-As mentioned by Piet at the JOURNAL SENTINEL (, you can’t even sit down under the lone covered stage area (formerly the Johnson Controls World Stage, now the perpetually empty Sound Wave Stage) any more.

-In a rare instance of me predicting something correctly, it’s a wasteland for local artists now that the “World Stage” is gone. Whereas the fest used to fill in TBAs with up-and-coming local artists and give others primo slots under the covered stage, no such luck this year. There are a handful of marquee local bookings (NilexNile and Browns Crew both had respectable primetime showings on Saturday, and Kia Rap Princess will take the stage at the Amphitheater this coming Saturday, to name a few), but mostly we’re talking noon time slots and tiny crowds for the burgeoning local scene. Put in another 30 years or so, Diet Lite, and maybe you too can open for some dinosaur indie rock band in the evening.

-I was pleased to discover that the overall lineup probably isn’t as bad as I had thought, due to the fact that I’m getting old and out of touch and artists I’d never heard of like Adam Melchor and Noah Kahan and Santa Fe Klan actually drew massive crowds. It’s merely bad for gen-xers like me! They keep on catering to boomers way more than any festival should, but clearly they know more about what young people like than I do. (To wit, I heard nothing but glowing reviews of SOFI TUKKER and I hope to check ‘em out next time they pop in, my only instance of FOMO so far.)

-No shade on boomers though, as it was a surprising treat seeing Vanilla Fudge, a band I’d always considered a glorified cover band. It was an unfair appraisal. Astonishingly, three-fourths of the founding 1967 lineup continues to tour with youngster Pete Bremy (aged 70) having stepped in on bass twenty years ago. Yes, it WAS all covers, but several didn’t dawn on me until five minutes or so in, and at the risk of redundancy, for a bunch of dudes in their mid-to-late 70s (especially legendarily grouchy drummer Carmine Appice) to pull this off, I can only salute them and feel honored to have been able to catch ‘em. They were scrappy and sludgy and absolutely killed an encore performance of “Dazed And Confused” (with a portion of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” sandwiched inside!).

-By contrast, what I caught of Wishbone Ash, a band whose live shows numerous people have raved about to me, was polished and professional yet boring. Probably better suited for a theater setting, but they did nothing for me. (In other boomer news, the crowd for Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was the biggest I saw at the Briggs stage all weekend! This should’ve been what it looked like for Tegan & Sara; pathetic showing there, Milwaukee.)

-A highlight of Saturday was seeing NilexNile bring Wave Chappelle onto the Generac Stage and watching them trade lines. The set overall felt frustratingly short and insubstantial, maybe just because I know Nile has so much more great material. This is just how a lot of rap shows are structured, though, and I should probably get used to it.

-The food, suuuucks. And is too expensive. There are options that will taste good to some people. But there is barely anything in the park a vegan (which I am not) would be interested in and nothing of nutritional value whatsoever. I won’t even point out old favorites that are gone. Oh crap, I almost forgot, is that hot dog place with the veggie dogs still there this year??? I need to check this weekend, sorry! I’m looking at the Summerfest guide that they hand out right now and it…doesn’t…even…mention a single food vendor. That makes a ton of sense.

-Finally, a sub-batch of thoughts about Saturday’s Willy Porter set, by far the best show I saw this first weekend:

-I’ve been seeing Willy live almost as long as I’ve been seeing live music at all. There’ve been times over the years when I’ve thought he had lost the spark or was kinda coasting. There was no trace of any such notion Saturday.
-He has a new album coming out at some point called THE RAVINE, and the title track is a sprawling prog epic the likes of which we have never before heard from Porter. He closed the show with it. There were some kinks to be worked out; that one fade-in after the piano solo comes to mind. Overall, though, stunning.
-During this set, I saw a couple of teenagers squeezing EVERY LAST DROP of vodka out of a covert plastic pouch and into a can of Red Bull, and I thought to myself, yes the beer here is expensive, but not as expensive as it is at the Rave, and if you want to catch a buzz on the cheap you simply have to APPLY yourself.
-I don’t think I’ve ever seen Porter rock out as electrically as he and his band did at this show. There were acoustic-based interludes and Willy has not lost any fingerpicking prowess as far as I could tell; he just seemed more interested in being loud and funky, reminding me at times of Marc Ribot even.
-Speaking of quieter moments, it occurred to me during “Watercolor” that it is so much better than any song The Eagles ever wrote it’s not even funny. Not that it sounds like The Eagles, I’m just saying, there’s no justice in the world.
-“Vitamin D” Adler on the keys, with playing both rousing and poignant, possibly my favorite performance I’ve ever seen out of him with any group. -Had not heard of Carmen Nickerson before and her voice provided some surprising highlights as well. Glad to have her on my radar.
-Rhythm section: it was my first time seeing or hearing of bassist Eric Madunic, and everyone already knows that drummer Dave Schoepke is essentially the backbone of his whole generation of Milwaukee bands, right? They worked unassumingly great together, the band was dynamic and powerful, and they kinda blew away headliners Lyle Lovett & his Large Band, who were pretty great all the same. Super stoked to see this iteration of Willy and his regular-sized band again asap.

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.

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