The weather for a chilly, stormy Summerfest week finally turned into, well, summer. Skies were clear for Thursday night’s fireworks and the clear skies and warm weather largely stayed in town throughout the rest of the extended holiday weekend.
Among the bands to usher in the celebratory weekend was The Hold Steady. The Brooklyn-by-way-of-Minneapolis’ band’s exuberant rock ‘n’ roll struck a perfect chord with the fireworks lighting up the lakefront during the show.
The band set the tone for the night by starting its set with “Positive Jam,” the first song off its 2004 debut album, Almost Killed Me. Singer Craig Finn bounced around the stage, engaging with the crowd at every opportunity as the band stormed through 10 years and six albums of shout-along barroom rock.
It was the band’s first Wisconsin performance touring in support of new album Teeth Dreams, and the night had a very hometown vibe as family members of guitarist -- and Janesville native -- Tad Kubler were in attendance, and Milwaukee’s Trapper Schoepp and the Shades played the 8 p.m. slot.
The Hold Steady is among my favorite bands, and one I’ve seen in a wide variety of venues. It’s not always desirable for a personal favorite to land on the Summerfest lineup, especially when the a Pabst/Turner/Riverside gig could be a more appropriate option. But The Hold Steady and Summerfest are a perfect match -- even more so with fireworks going off -- and this was easily my favorite show of the festival.
Food interlude: There may not be anything more quintessentially Summerfest than Saz’s sampler platter (sour cream and chive fries, white cheddar cheese curds, mozzarella sticks). It never fails as exactly the kind of deep-fried deliciousness you hope to find at such a festival. The first two days I spent at Summerfest, the first thing I did was go straight to Saz’s and order a sampler.
Saturday brought a wide range of side-stage headliners, and the biggest crowds showed up at the BMO Harris Pavilion for Thompson Square with Chasin’ Mason, at the Harley Davidson Roadhouse for Matisyahu, and the U.S. Cellular Stage for Phantogram. I doubt anything other than Summerfest could bring those three acts into the same sentence.
Without one obvious big name to go see on Saturday, it was the perfect opportunity to take in a little bit of everything.
Kane Place Record Club headlined the KNE New Music Stage at 9 p.m. The local band seems to make an appearance at just about every Milwaukee gathering, and a sizable crowd was there to see them at the Big Gig. And though it’s abundantly obvious that Kane Place has considerable musical talents -- the drummer and bassist, especially -- it feels a bit like headlining this particular Summerfest stage might be the band’s ceiling.
There was a huge crowd for Thompson Square or Chasin’ Mason - or possibly both. I’m not going to pretend to know much about country music, so offering a critical take here would be pointless. However, country’s popularity cannot be overstated and the genre spawns some of the most passionate fans in all of music. There’s something to be said for that.
Across the grounds and through several different spheres of reality, a dazzling light show accompanied Phantogram’s 10 p.m. show. Singer Sara Barthel’s vocals soared and the group’s rhythm section was on point. Phantogram’s sound is difficult to categorize -- chilled-out but upbeat, loud but subdued, simple but expansive. The group’s contradictions work to its advantage, and this was my favorite show of the night.
Food interlude: My friend and I didn’t plan on going the unconventional route with our dinner choice, but that’s where we landed. I had a delicious order of crispy squid from The King and I, and my friend had two Scotch eggs on a stick from John Hawk’s Pub.
Crystal Method headlined the Miller Oasis on Saturday night, and there was barely anyone there. A huge portion of the bleachers -- not the tables, the bleachers -- were left empty and I’d be hard-pressed to remember a more sparsely attended Miller Oasis show. It being on a Saturday night during some of the nicest weather of the week just made it all the more strange.
Next door at the Harley Davidson Roadhouse, however, was the biggest and youngest crowd of the night, there to see Matisyahu. The no-longer-bearded reggae rapper evidently had some sound issues leading to a late start, and he took to Twitter to complain about it. And while his new music didn’t exactly sound great to my ears, it’s hard to deny how much people love a reggae-influenced live show. Nearly 10 years after his hit single “King Without a Crown” was released, Matisyahu is still pulling enormous festival crowds. Reggae is (apparently) a powerful thing.
Beer interlude: People love to complain about the beer prices and options at Summerfest, but I don’t see how they’re much of a problem. The prices are comparable to most any big event, and there are plenty of reasonable options no matter what you prefer (well, as long as it’s beer). My favorites were the Leinie’s Summer Festeweizen, Water Street Brewery’s Oktoberfest and, of course, Lakefront’s Riverwest Stein. No complaints here.
Sunday’s lineup again was without a must-see side-stage act, which made for another good opportunity to engage in the great Summerfest tradition of wandering aimlessly.
Led Zeppelin cover band No Quarter had a huge crowd at the BMO Harris Pavilion, which is either a) a testament to the awesome power of Led Zeppelin’s 30-plus year old material, b) proof that more could be done to improve the 8 p.m. time slots, or c) pretty sad that a cover band is one of the night’s biggest draws.
The Orwells were another band to draw a big crowd at the 8 p.m. time slot, and was one of the more energetic sets of the night. Though singer Mario Cuomo was kind of trolling the audience by wearing a Vikings jersey, he brought some good old fashioned unhinged wildness to his performance. The band’s cover of Iggy Pop’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog” was solid and fit with the show’s attitude.
Melissa Etheridge played another underattended Miller Oasis show beginning at 9:30 p.m., and by 9:45, the crowd was left running for cover as a 20-minute storm interrupted many of the night’s headlining sets. Nevertheless, Etheridge -- whose voice sounds as good as ever -- performed as a true professional, never stopping during the storm. Random concertgoers belted out the chorus to “I Wanna Come Over” while heading in the direction of the covered shopping area.
Over at the Harley stage, salsa singer Ismael Miranda and his huge accompanying band played through the storm as well, while also serving as a reminder to me that salsa music is pretty great and I should probably look into expanding my musical horizons more often.
The brief storm sent many toward the exits, and those who remained had to navigate puddles so big they were almost ponds.
Much of the festival’s remaining energy was then zapped, but Cheap Trick must not have noticed at the covered BMO Harris Pavilion and was by far the loudest and most energetic band at the Summerfest grounds Sunday night -- the show could be heard from the Harley stage. A product of the Big Loud Show era, Cheap Trick -- still touring with three of four original members -- delivered just that with drum solos, guitar solos, singers sharing the mic on choruses, and the crowd was on its feet singing along at every turn.
By 11 p.m., when most of the festival’s sets had finished, the band launched into “Surrender.” Robin Zander led the crowd in extended chants of “We’re all alright!” which served as an almost poetic bookend to the festival. Summerfest always just seems a little weird (and maybe even a bit worn out), but that’s part of what makes it so great. Until next year.
Note: The festival won’t be releasing any attendance figures until next week, but the number to remember is 840,356 – the total attendance at last year’s festival, which was an increase from the 805,437 who attended in 2012.
Image courtesy of The Hold Steady.