Day 11 of 11 Retrospective
Milwaukee’s Summerfest bills itself as the “World’s Largest Music Festival.” In several ways, this is true: the grounds are expansive, the music is diverse, and (being truly Wisconsin) the people ranged from calm to obscene, and petite to obese.
What truly sets Summerfest apart, however, is that this is not just a music festival for the 18-34 year olds. Generally, festivals stack the bill with hot-at-the-moment acts and genres, and one enduring band for good measure.
Summerfest is quite different: the seven main stages are tailored to a specific type of music, ranging from hard rock to world music. The marquee band is behind an additional cost, but has the advantage of being a truly huge act: in this instance, the Eagles.
This has the benefit of drawing people of all ages, colors, and musical tastes. Musical pretension is largely abandoned when you see a large contingent of middle-aged men who have gathered to see the 1980s’ one-hit wonder band Loverboy. They don’t know who Trampled by Turtles are, nor do they care. This is further accentuated by the groups of excited teens getting ready to watch famous Latin bandleader Tony Vega, and entirely different from the leather-clad young men bound for Bad Religion. This distinct flavor helps mold Summerfest into something that most festivals can only dream of being: fun for nearly anyone.
This is the tale of the final day of Summerfest, as seen by two Seeds writers, who picked and chose their day by whim, hunger, and the desire to never be bored.
Part 1: Ascension
As with any music festival, larger acts play in the evening, leaving the early hours for smaller acts. Local act Autumn Underground was given the (somewhat dubious) honor of a 3pm slot on the largest publically accessible stage. It is lucky, then, that the band filled the stage so well. The seven piece band, complete with a three member horn section, played an excellent set of funk- and jazz-inspired music. Their matching black suits and orange ties, though a bit odd at first, fit in well with their musical motif. A rousing cover of Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning” entertained the diverse crowd and started the day off well.
One of the most enduring traits of Summerfest is their perpetual appeal everyone. Nothing says ‘recaptured youth’ quite like the Sky Glider. It carries its passengers across the festival grounds, giving a birds eye view on the sights and smells of the festival. So fun we did it twice.
Part II: In Which We Rented a Paddleboat
In addition to the large stages, several smaller side-stages pepper the grounds. Most of these, admittedly, are there to fulfill a certain niche: One features drummers who play from open til close, another is situated underneath some trees next to the hippie tents and always seems to smell suspiciously like some illicit substance.
However, this is no reason to dismiss these acts. Jesse Smith and the Holy Ghost played a compelling, if a bit jarring, set in front of a decently sized audience. The three piece band played like a solid mixture of classic post punk, and even more classic hard rock. The frontman, for whom the band is named, has some decent vocal range and even better guitar skills. The most fascinating thing, however, was the drummer’s hair. He would occasionally disappear behind it, looking more like a bug than a human as his sunglasses stuck out. It was moderately distressing.
Nothing subsequently caught our eye (or ear) to lead us to the seemingly logical conclusion of renting a paddleboat. Much of the festival sits right next to Lake Michigan, and the price was certainly right. An untold advantage of this, however, was the opportunity for plunder. Nearby, you could pay a few dollars to attempt to hit a special golf ball to a small island. The golf balls that would miss the target would then, theoretically, float back to the shore where they could be picked up and reused.
After much hard work, in which we collected every available color of golf ball, a few dirty looks from the operators, and a set of souvenirs I have no idea what to do with. Success.
Possibly the most compelling set of the day started shortly after, when Crobot, a band I had never before heard of, took the stage. From the very first note, however, you could tell that they were just really damn excited to be here. A combination of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, and (maybe) Pantera, Crobot was simply a southern rock force. It’s quite a sight to see the long-haired frontman (wearing what appeared to be a women’s blouse) writhe on his back while singing a song entitled “The Legend of the Spacebourn Killers.” They are highly recommended.
An enduring trait of Summerfest is its desire to showcase local flavor. Food of every Wisconsin type is available, especially if you don’t mind deep fried food and/or food likely to cause diabetes. Since I do not, please let me implore you to try the beer-fried cheese curds, mini powdered doughnuts, and deep fried eggplant.
Part III: What We Actually Came There to See
This is a tale of two Chicago-based bands. They both have their roots in a now-disbanded group from the same, and now they are trying to make their own way. This is a tale of one tremendous success, and one spectacular failure.
AM Taxi, a punk/pop group, was given perfect opportunity to open for the headliner of their stage, and they did not disappoint: their songs are, quite simply put, fun. Their sound recalls the melodies of the Clash and the Ramones, but influenced by the ska-punk group that frontman Adam Krier used to play in. Though the crowd was small, AM Taxi made it feel like they were playing to thousands.
The same cannot be said for Super Happy Fun Club. Their very name makes them sound like a twee-pop joke, but that is only partly true. Their sound is much more like an even more generic Daughtry. But they certainly are a joke. Of the six people on stage, none seemed capable of playing a lead role in the band. It was a generic pile of mush: the singer in particular seemed to be performing to no one. They were undoubtedly the worst band at Summerfest. However, between their songs, you could hear snippets of the Eagles. Essentially, what I’m saying is that best thing Super Happy Fun Club could have done was to stop playing.
The highlight of the side-stage headliners of the evening was, inarguably, Jimmy Eat World. Quite apart from holding a special place in my heart, they were featured in the brilliant BMO Harris Pavillion, which is possibly the most well-designed festival stage ever created. Even the person standing in the back can see the front of the stage.
Riding high off their latest album, they played a tight show with a good mix of new and old music. The setlist was constructed well: every new song was led into by a fan favorite, which reduced crowd restlessness. A good amount of songs from their masterpiece, Futures (2004),’led into similarly styled songs from newer records. Bleed American largely introduced the crowd to the band in 2001. Their two best songs from the album were given star treatment. “Sweetness” is, undoubtedly, the greatest shout-along song the band has ever written, and one of the best songs in their genre ever written. “Hear You Me” had the crowd swaying and reaching for their lighters to (semi-ironically) hold above their head.
However, the highlight of the set was, perhaps, an unexpected cover. I don’t know what possessed the band to think that playing Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” was a good idea, but it certainly was. They took an abysmal example of overproduced drivel and turned it into a classic Jimmy Eat World breakup song. It’s hard to ask for much more than that.
This was a description of one experience from one of the 11 days of Summerfest. This is not a festival of musical elitism; it is a mutual celebration of music itself. Milwaukee may not seem to be a festival mecca, but even one day at Summerfest can show you why it may be.