Festival Review: Summerfest (Milwaukee, WI)

Lupe Fiasco (Chicago, Illinois), Elusive Parallelograms (Milwaukee, WI), The Walkmen (Washington, D.C.), Fun. (New York, NY), Death Cab For Cutie (Bellingham, WA), The Avett Brothers (Concord, North Carolina), Motion City Soundtrack (Minneapolis, MN), Young the Giant (Irvine, California), Altos (Milwaukee, WI)
June 27th-July 1st and July 3rd-8th, 2012
Summerfest in Milwaukee, WI

If you ask Summerfest concertgoers who their favorite acts were of 2012, you will, to say the least, get a variety of responses. Some will swear by a main stage, Marcus Amphitheater performer such as The Foo Fighters, Zac Brown Band, or Aerosmith. Others may have found favorites in the hundreds of side stage acts that performed over the 11-day festival, including Ben Folds Five, Fun., The Roots, The Avett Brothers, and Death Cab For Cutie. Still others will not be able to name a single band. And they may have even made it to two or three days of Summerfest this year, or possibly more. The music might be the headlining attraction for Summerfest, but it doesn’t always take the main stage for everyone. No, some concertgoers couldn’t tell you a single song or act, but they could tell you about many other things, like the cheese curds they loved, the camera they lost, the girl they met, text messages that didn’t go through, the clothes that were sweated through, the ex they successfully avoided, the bartender that poured a little bit above the 12-ounce line, and, of course, that guy that looked exactly like Hulk Hogan; or, the one that looked just like Kid Rock. At Summerfest the music in the background is almost as prominent as the music coming from your favorite band, playing a few feet in front of you. Since 1968, it has been a yearly summer destination for people of all ages, from all walks of life, traveling from states away or from just down the street. And at 45 years, Summerfest has shown no signs of letting up.

Now since covering Summerfest for a music blog this year, I couldn’t exactly go there and just bury myself in beer and mozzarella sticks. However, some of the days were hot, and I did get thirsty. And of course, even the savviest music journalists have to eat. So I did my best and tried to bridge together the whole festival experience.

Summerfest opened on a Wednesday and I made it down to the Milwaukee lakefront that evening to get in on some of the opening day festivities. In an ill-fated twist, I was coming off of a pretty bad summer cold/flu, so I didn’t quite get some of the early festival or beer coverage I had hoped for. Nonetheless, opening night I decided to catch Lupe Fiasco playing the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse stage. This Summerfest I didn’t have any plans to attend a Marcus Amphitheater headlining show, so my options for each night would fall on the remaining 10 stages of entertainment, which most nights, still included plenty of fantastic options.

Lupe Fiasco was a popular draw for the night and hosted a crowd including both dedicated fans and more casual listeners. I regrettably would have to group myself with the more casual fans as the only song I really knew of his by name was the mega-hit, “The Show Goes On.” I had hoped to hear it played in the first handful of songs, but going by the very title of the song, I figured it was destined for the encore. So taking my recovering health into account I decided to head home, and resolved that the opening night fireworks were my highlight of the night.

Elusive Parallelograms

I started feeling much better by Friday and was glad for it because there was a great lineup of music set for the evening. I decided to ride my bike down to the Summerfest grounds and got there just in time to catch local Milwaukee band, Elusive Parallelograms, taking the Cascio Interstate Music Groove Stage. I went to college with a few of the members and first saw them play in the cafeteria of O’Donnell Hall, our all-male freshman dorm. I remember back then they sounded pretty influenced by The Strokes, but in the years since, have really found a sound all their own. They played some new songs from their latest EP Spaces as well as rocking out on some older favorites including “Oscillator.” With a 6 p.m. start time they weren’t playing to a huge crowd, but it grew over the course of their set. Many people passing by the stage were drawn in by the energy of the guitar-driven rock and catchy hooks. Between the music, and the t-shirt and bracelet giveaways, I think it’s safe to say Elusive Parallelograms made a few new fans with that set, even if those fans will never know how to correctly spell their band name.

Next I was looking forward to catching The Walkmen play the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage at 8 p.m. I had some time before they went on so I thought I would catch a bite to eat from one of the wonderful Summerfest food vendors. Cheese curds, German sausages, nachos, gyros, egg rolls, regular fries, waffle fries— I never can decide, everything looked and smelled delicious. I just wanted to try everything, but for monetary reasons, I couldn’t. After doing a lap (or two) around a nearby food court, I finally decided on Buffalo wings from the Flannery’s hut. At $7, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was in store for, but was pleasantly surprised when I was handed a big basket of twelve wings smothered in Buffalo sauce.

Believe it or not, I didn’t first have Buffalo wings until I was 21 years old, and accordingly, the meal feels strange if not accompanied by a brew. So on my way to a picnic spot, I stopped and grabbed a Miller Lite. I don’t usually favor the light beers, but it was convenient, and on a warm day anything cold will do. And this was when I realized why maybe the wings were such a great value in a festival setting: it’s a difficult fest food. You can’t sip a beer and work on a basket of wings all while standing in the corner, nodding your head to an opener band you barely know. You really need to hunker down at a full picnic table with a pile of napkins and go at for 15 minutes. Luckily I had time to spare before The Walkmen set to enjoy the wings, and they were delicious.

I got to the U.S. Cellular stage minutes before The Walkmen went on. For those unfamiliar, a note about Summerfest: many of the stages have benches lined directly in front of the stages. Over the years I’ve had mix feelings on this set-up, but if crowd concentration isn’t too dense, it can work to the advantage of a late concertgoer trying to get a prime viewing spot. As the concert gets close to starting, everyone who was sitting on the benches will begin to stand. When this occurs, it creates pockets of space between the actual benches and sometimes, between the front bench and the stage barricade. This is what occurred for The Walkmen show, and I was able to hopscotch into the second row to a standing position behind a shorter person. And the best part was the row behind me was people standing on the first bleacher, so I wasn’t blocking anyone’s view. At 6 feet 2 inches tall, this is sometimes a concern of mine, but either way, it usually subsides when the music starts.

When The Walkmen took the stage, the band looked incredibly relaxed. They jumped right into “Blue as Your Blood,” a wonderful set opener off of 2010’s Lisbon. From there, they rolled out a few songs from their brand new, beautifully composed album, Heaven, including “Heaven,” “Love is Luck,” and “Heartbreaker .” The guys seemed to really enjoy playing the new songs and the crowd was receptive to them as well, considering the album had only been out about a month. Before going into “The Witch,” one of my personal favorites off of Heaven, lead singer Hamilton Leithauser quipped the song was about his wife. I’ve seen The Walkmen play maybe three or four times before this show, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen Leithauser chit chat as much as he did at Summerfest. At one point he recalled the last time they were in Milwaukee (July 2009, I believe) and how after the show they did shot skis at a bar (likely at The Old German Beer Hall). Leithauser remarked how it was a good time, and having done shot skis myself once before, I would have to agree.

The Walkmen

The set also included live favorites “All Hands and the Cook” and “The Rat.” But the standout for me, and I feel like the same goes for the majority of hardcore Walkmen fans in the crowd, was when they played Heaven opener, “We Can’t Be Beat.” It was simply stunning. The way Leithauser started out crooning the candid lyrics with an acoustic guitar, and how the band joined in on the second half, it sounded amazing. Hopefully it’s a staple of their live shows for years to come.

While still coming off of my Walkmen high, I started making my way over to the Miller Lite Oasis stage, where Fun. was going on at 10 p.m. I knew there would be a lot of people there, but I was surprised at what I walked into. Still a half hour before the show, I could feel the body heat as I closed in on just the outskirts of the Miller Lite Oasis. I think it was the most people I’ve ever seen at the Oasis, which is one of the Summerfest stages equipped for larger scale crowds. After Fun. took the stage, even frontman, Nate Ruess, commented on the massive gathering of people, “This might be the biggest crowd we have ever played for.”

The Walkmen

I saw most of the set from a less congested spot on the far left of the stage. The crowd was diverse, including a number of families, and everyone from younger children to older adults. I overheard one mother with her children say to a friend, “yeah, we’re going after they play it.”It of course referring to the Fun. monster-hit “We Are Young.” Needless to say, they did play it, along with an intermixing of energetic offerings from Some Nights and 2009’s Aim and Ignite. I especially enjoyed the upbeat sing-along “At Least I’m Not As Sad (As I Used To Be).” During the show, I was curious of where Fun. would put “We Are Young” in the set. It did come towards the end of the show, but it wasn’t the last song before the encore. So how to you follow up one of the biggest hits of the year? With a Rolling Stones cover, of course. Ruess and company went into a rendition of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” It came as a little bit of a surprise, but I love that song, so I enjoyed every second, and the crowd responded warmly to it as well. And honestly, most of the crowd did stick around after “We Are Young” and on through the entire encore. It was great to see because Fun. really did put on a fantastic, jam-packed show from start to finish.

fun.

From there, other work obligations kept me from returning in full force to Summerfest for a number of days. The sweltering heat also moved in during this time, which made the outdoor festival environment uncomfortable at times. However, I felt Summerfest did a great job of accommodating fans during the hot temperatures. The grounds include a number of shaded areas and covered pavilions, and one never seems too far from a water fountain, or, as it’s called around here, bubbler.

I did return to Summerfest on Thursday, July 5th to a mess of conflicting set times of bands that my friend and I wanted to see. Death Cab For Cutie, Motion City Soundtrack, The Avett Brothers, and Young the Giant all started within 15 minutes of each other. Also Milwaukee band, Altos, was playing shortly before this time crunch. Altos came recommend from Mezzic editor, John, so we decided to catch the beginning of their performance. Unfortunately, the first few minutes of their set was marred by sound bleeding from an adjacent stage, but when they got jamming, they really got the crowd into it. Many of the massive 12-piece band sipped on beers until it was time for their instrument to join the song. It was really an unique musical experience and the horns and strings were outstanding. I definitely need to check them out again soon.

From there we hurried across the festival grounds to catch The Avett Brothers, who were playing at the brand new BMO Harris Pavilion. This might not have been the best venue pairing for them because Scott and Seth Avett were using their banjo and an acoustic guitar to tear the roof off the stage. They were rocking early and often. It started with lively set numbers, “I Killed Sally’s Lover” and “Will You Return.” I’ve heard countless stories of how great they are live and I could see what everyone meant. I almost wanted to stay the rest of the night with The Avett Brothers but we decided to see how the other acts were fairing across the fest.

Heading due north, we met up with Death Cab playing the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse. Approaching the stage, I actually wasn’t sure what I was hoping to hear them play. They had been a favorite band of mine for years, but it really has been years since I’ve given them a good listen. We appeared to have caught them playing some new songs off of their latest release, Codes and Keys. Or were the songs off of 2008’s Narrow Stairs? Either way, I liked what I heard and vowed to give further listens to their more recent albums.

Continuing on across the festival, I came to Young the Giant playing the U.S. Cellular stage. And to be honest, I just briefly caught a glimpse of them. My friend really wanted to catch the end of the Motion City Soundtrack set, so there wasn’t much time to spare. But the set seemed fun, festive, and the crowd was happier for it.

Finally, we reached Motion City Soundtrack on the Summerfest Rock Stage, at the very north end of the festival. They were playing to a smaller but, nonetheless, passionate and energetic crowd. And we made it just in time for old favorites, “L.G. Fuad” and “Everything is Alright.” We also heard “True Romance,” off the band’s brand new album, Go. It had a catchy melody, and I loved the bridge of the song. It’s great to see the hardworking, Midwest band now on their fifth album. And yes, that does makes me feel old.

For the most part, Thursday night ended my Summerfest 2012 coverage. I did make it down to the grounds one last time on Sunday afternoon, mostly because it was a beautiful day and all patrons that arrived before 3p.m. were admitted free. That is just another perk of Summerfest, the affordability. General Admission tickets are only $16 ($9 before 4p.m. on weekdays). And that’s only half of it. There are so many daily admittance promotions and free ticket offers floating around town, that if you play it smart, you can see as much music as you like for practically nothing. Nowadays, music festivals are all the rage, popping up in cities all over the world. Many of the festivals though admit concertgoers through passes that spike into the hundreds of dollars, or require day passes that are proportionally as expensive. Summerfest actually had an 11-day General Admission pass this year. It was $45.

The yearly Milwaukee festival really is from a different mold, one that goes back decades. And part of it is the festival’s continued focus, one that seems to go above and beyond just the musical acts. Over the years, Summerfest has become nothing short of synonymous with summers in Milwaukee. It’s more than anything a reminder for friends and family to come together and hangout, eat food, drink beer, hear some great tunes, and enjoy a beautiful lakefront. It’s a moment to stop, and take in the season; one that always seems to disappear too soon.

Milwaukee Skyline

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