Milwaukee’s Turner Hall hosted an incredible lineup of music Thursday night, which Sharon Van Etten would describe best as a “dream bill” during her fantastic closing set. With Lollapalooza taking place in Chicago this weekend, nearby Milwaukee usually is a benefactor of the massive amount of musical talent coming to the region at once. Often a number of acts will stop over in Milwaukee before or after their Lollapalooza set, which was the case for Sharon Van Etten and Yellow Ostrich, both of whom are playing Friday afternoon at the renowned Chicago music festival. Tennis is not on the Lollapalooza bill this year, but they are playing the next best thing Friday night, a headlining show at the High Noon Saloon in Madison, before meeting back up with touring partner Van Etten in Minneapolis. So Milwaukee lucked out big time having all three bands converge under one roof for a one night only of sorts.
Yellow Ostrich kicked the night off at 8p.m. When I first approached the stage there were maybe twenty or so fans sitting on the floor, which is more of a music festival tactic, but maybe people who came at 7p.m. (when doors opened) were already a little tired. Either way Yellow Ostrich got the crowd on their feet. “Whale” and “Up In The Mountains” got things off to an enthusiastic start. It’s always interesting seeing a band for the first time. You’ve heard their music, seen some performances and interviews online, but nothing matches the perceptible live concert experience. You notice things like drummer Michael Tapper plays his modest, yet booming, drumset barefoot. Frontman Alex Schaaf is tall, wears his jeans skinny but comfortable, and while still getting used to crowd interactions, is quite funny. Between songs one fan yelled a reminder about Yellow Ostrich playing Lollapalooza. Schaaf responded with an obvious and playful “Yeah” and went on to jokingly inform the crowd, “This is Stage Banter 101.”
The Milwaukee show was a homecoming of sorts for Schaaf who grew up and went to college in Wisconsin. Midway through the set he acknowledged his parents were in the crowd, and Schaaf seemed excited to be playing amongst fans, family and friends alike. Stage banter aside, Schaaf and Yellow Ostrich appeared most comfortable on stage jamming away on their tunes including “Elephant King” and “Marathon Runner” off of their recent release Strange Land. It was cool seeing Schaaf set the loops on the beautiful “Mary” off of 2011’s The Mistress. I especially liked the live rendition of “I Got No Time For You,” in which Schaaf and his mates fell into every line and beat of the rousing, cathartic Strange Land gem. Yellow Ostrich packed a headlining punch into a first opener’s time slot, you could tell they were good and ready for their Friday Lollapalooza appearance.
I was excited next for Tennis, and you could tell the husband-and-wife duo had some devout fans in the crowd that night. This was my first time seeing Tennis live and I was looking forward to hearing some of their fun, upbeat tunes off of their debut Cape Dory and recent release Young and Old. From the very first song, lead singer and keyboardist Alaina Moore just filled the room with energy. Moore split time between singing behind the keyboard and taking the mic center stage. Husband Patrick Riley danced his guitar in between spots on stage. Moore handled the crowd interaction almost entirely, allowing Riley to fully commit to strumming the notes loose.
Upon first leaving the keyboard for center stage, Moore acknowledged, “We can dance a little bit now.” They then jumped in the lively “Petition.” Moore although petite in stature, has a powerful voice; its beautifully classic, draws you in, and commands attention. When away from the keyboard, she has room to dance and really show off her frontwoman chops on tracks like “My Better Self.” I also personally enjoyed hearing the softer, Cape Dory closer “Waterbirds.” During the set, a fan requested Tennis to play title track “Cape Dory.” Now we all know fan requests at concerts are rarely ever acknowledged let alone acted upon. However, Moore not only acknowledged the request she detailed how the track wasn’t on the setlist, but they might be able to fit it in. And sure enough they played it towards the end of their set. All around a fun, very talented band, I’m excited to hopefully see again soon.
The much-beloved singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten was set to close the wonderful night of music in Milwaukee. When Van Etten took the stage, her appearance was much different than when I saw her play a little over a year ago. Her almost trademark short cut has grown out past her shoulders. Later in the show, while talking about merchandise that featured her short cut look, she commented “My hair will never be that short again.” Van Etten also fashioned a stylish white tank top and rather flashy, striped pants that she later stated were designed by a friend. Round it out with some red lipstick and it was quite a colorful departure from her more grunge rock look she donned the last time she played Milwaukee.
The look may have changed, but the music was as beautiful and moving as ever. What is so amazing about Van Etten’s performance is that place she seems to go with each song she sings. It seems that the feelings that were present when first writing a song come back to her with each retelling of that tale. She gets lost in it, as if she’s still not fully immune to the raw emotion and vulnerability that much of her music captures so honestly. With this rather intense focus during her songs, you would think Van Etten would be a solemn performer, but she is the exact opposite. She loves to laugh, chit chat with the crowd, joke with bandmates between songs. She will touch on details and inspirations for songs that few performers reveal during a concert set. She stated “Leonard” was inspired by Leonard Cohen. “Serpents” was the first song she wrote on an electric guitar, adding she was angry at the time. Before singing “Give Out,” one of my favorite tracks off her wonderful 2012 release Tramp, Van Etten described the song as being about moving to New York and new love and, “Opening yourself up to all those vulnerabilities that are scary, but necessary.”
Van Etten closed out her set with another Tramp gem, “I’m Wrong” back to back with the beautiful Epic closer “Love More.” “Love More” was surprisingly done without the harmonium (which was on the stage) but it offered a fresh take on the track and was amazing nonetheless. “Ask” closed out the Sharon Van Etten encore, and I don’t think a single person in the crowd could have asked for more.
Yellow Ostrich, Tennis, and Sharon Van Etten would be a great week of music, let alone a night. Thank you Lollapalooza for the trickle down of all the great bands coming around this time of year. Even with Chicago’s biggest music event of the year happening this weekend, it’s nice to see Milwaukee can very much hold its own.