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Best of Summerfest 2013
Our music writers break down their favorite parts of Summerfest this year.

Photo by Andrea Hudson

Tyler Maas

Favorite show – P.O.S at Harley-Davidson Roadhouse, June 28

Photo by Tyler Maas
While I’m far from a hip-hop authority, I’ve wanted to see Minneapolis emcee Stefon Alexander – better known as P.O.S – for some time. In 2010, he skipped a Doomtree (a hip-hop collective he founded) tour stop at Turner Hall to witness the birth of his child. Last November, he canceled another Turner appearance to undergo a kidney transplant. Fortunately, the sometimes-punk frontman, always off-kilter and affable rapper managed to make his long-awaited Milwaukee appearance in support of Rhymesayers Entertainment labelmates Brother Ali and Atmosphere at the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse.

Alexander wasted no time lifting the mercury in the vicinity of the stage during his enthusiastic and energetic hour on the muggy and overcast Friday, as he opened with a rousing version of “Bumper” from his latest album, We Don’t Even Live Here, that saw him (still recovering from major surgery, mind you) running from one end of the stage to the other as he belted out lyrical witticisms. Of course, festival policy didn’t permit him to say every lyric – most evident in anti-materialism anthem “F--k Your Stuff,” which he asked the audience to insert the vulgarities. The well-intentioned tactic didn’t last long, though, as P.O.S simply opted to curse all he wanted by set’s end. Between songs, Alexander asked fans for a Brewers cap (prompting a bunch to fly toward the stage, before he ultimately chose a Badgers hat instead) and to whisper “rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb” in a low tone because it sounded like “some weird muttering.”

As he delved into the dour title track from Never Better, Mother Nature seemed to take the cue and drench the crowd for the remainder of the set with a torrential downpour. Few if any seemed to mind, as P.O.S delivered a memorable and fun performance that served was a highlight to a rainy Friday night and to my Summerfest experience as a whole.

Honorable mention – PHOX at U.S. Cellular Connection Stage, June 28
Before the skies opened partway through P.O.S.’s set, Madison (by way of Baraboo) up-and-comers PHOX beamed its sunny brand of indie rock with an hour worth of lush vocals, airy instrumentation and upbeat between-song banter. Though I’d been aware of the band for roughly a third of its astonishing mere year and a half of existence, I’d never seen them before. The solid mid-afternoon showing help assure me that the band was worth every kind word and early accolade lobbed its way so far.

Favorite non-music Summerfest moment 
Between almost being swallowed up by an uncontrollable (though maybe taking any measure to try managing 10,000 people might’ve worked) hoard of Imagine Dragons fans and watching a drunk guy climb a “Cold Beer” sign affixed to the Miller Lite Oasis, it’s hard to settle on just one favorite Summerfest moment. I’d have to say either trying my first (and, likely, last) Pizza Cone or seeing a dude in an Eddie George Tennessee Titans jersey suck face with a young lady as Nelly performed that “Shake Ya Tailfeather” song from Bad Boys II in the background probably top my list.

Joe Guszkowski

Favorite Show – Neon Trees at The U.S. Cellular Stage, July 6
One of the best parts about Summerfest is watching the audience. Seeing five guys on stage playing songs you like is always cool, but seeing (and hearing) thousands of people erupt with joy over it is a rush all its own. That said, with so much going on around you (couples grinding, drunk guys fighting, etc.), it’s easy to get distracted from what’s happening on stage. That’s why the best bands are usually the ones who work at keeping an audience engaged. And for me this year, that band was Neon Trees. 

From the moment they took the stage, the band had the audience in the palm of its hand. Tyler Glenn began with a story about the band’s first time at Summerfest, when he phoned his “mother with tears streaming down my face” because – and here his voice escalates into an ecstatic yell – “the feeling was so hiiiiighhhhh.” By the second song, he had the microphone cable wrapped around his neck. And when the encore came around, after an exhilarating set, the band outdid itself again, returning to the stage outfitted in cheeseheads. Now that’s the way to an audience’s heart. 

Honorable Mention – The Championship at K-Nation/Cascio Interstate Music Stage, July 6
I only heard a few songs from The Championship’s set Saturday at the K-Nation/Cascio Interstate stage, but what I saw reminded me, once again, of the depth of local talent in this town. I know I just finished touting the crowd-pleasing gimmicks of Neon Trees, but it was refreshing to catch a set at a smaller stage, where the focus was just on the songs. The Championship’s had the intimacy of hymns – which is to be expected if you’ve heard last year’s depressed alt-country offering High Feather – but they also sounded much heavier than on record, ending the set not with a whimper, but a big, triumphant bang.

Favorite non-music Summerfest moment
Few of my non-music-related Summerfest moments came anything close to “good,” but catching the last shuttle back to the East Side felt like a minor miracle at the time. I never thought I’d be so happy to be going back to Hooligan’s.

Abby Callard

Favorite Show – Guster at The Briggs and Stratton, July 4
Guster and I have a long history. I first saw the band a decade ago in Chicago following the incredible success of radio hit “Amsterdam” and the album Keep It Together. The band has outlasted relationships, trips abroad, jobs and so many other things. Like I said, we have a history.

But the band still manages to put on a great show, more than two decades after first getting together. And I certainly wasn’t the only one to think so. To a surprisingly packed stage, Guster played a 90-minute set that hit all the right notes.

The only real surprise came at the very end of the set when drummer Brian Rosenworcel  sang “Firework” by Katy Perry. It was not good, but it was hilarious, which was, of course, the point. Unfortunately, not everyone understood that. Leaving after the set, I heard one girl remark, “He was not good.” She clearly missed the joke.

Honorable Mention – Kiings at the Uline Warehouse Stage, June 30
The Uline stage seems to be the wildcard of the Summerfest free stages. In between bands I actually want to see, I generally wander over there and am always pleasantly surprised by what I find.  

Last year, I caught the majority of the incredible Hives set (which was my favorite last year) after escaping the death trap that was the fun. set. This year, I was impressed with the energy of Kiings, an electronic duo from Milwaukee. The late afternoon set attracted such a diverse audience: suburban moms to CEOs of multimillion dollar companies (who I’ll let remain anonymous) and drunk college kids to the Harley-Davidson set. I’d love to see them in the dark next year.

Favorite non-music Summerfest moment
I’m a sucker for the BMX tricks at Summerfest. The danger, the flatland rider with his gymnastics-on-bike performance and the tiny 12-year-old rider didn’t fail me this year. I would be remiss not to mention John Mayer’s shoutout to Katy Perry during his July 6 set.

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