Festival Review: Rock The Green (Milwaukee, WI)

Third Eye Blind (San Francisco, CA), Metric (Toronto, Calgary), Switchfoot (San Diego, CA), Imagine Dragons (Las Vegas, NV), Atlas Genius (Adelaide, South Australia), Fever Marlene (Milwaukee, WI), I’m Not A Pilot (Milwaukee, WI), Ikarus Down (Milwaukee, WI), Crooked Keys (Milwaukee, WI), Evan Christian (Milwaukee, WI)
September 15th, 2012
Rock The Green in Milwaukee, WI

The trick to a successful outdoor music festival isn’t so much the band lineup, variety of food vendors or length of beer lines; it’s to schedule it for a gorgeous day of weather.  Obviously, that’s tough to do.  Especially in Wisconsin.  But if festival promoters could pick the weather, they would likely choose something similar to Saturday’s Rock The Green festival on Milwaukee’s lakefront: Sunny and 75 degrees with a pleasant lake breeze.  It was a picture perfect late summer/early fall day in Milwaukee.  Rock the Green lucked out, but the eco-friendly festival did deserve to catch a break this year.  The weather at last September’s inaugural Rock the Green was chilly with overcast skies.  It seemed to put a slight damper on things, but, as seen in last year’s coverage of Fitz and the Tantrums at Rock the Green, the spirit was not broken.

Music at Rock the Green this year was divided between two stages.  The national touring acts, including Third Eye Blind and Metric, all played on a main stage at the South end of the grounds.  The second stage, Koss Pedal Power Stage, was smaller and tented, and ended up providing a rather intimate setting for the local Milwaukee acts that played there.  I was initially surprised by just how small the Pedal Power Stage actually was compared to the main stage, but then I remembered the bicycles.  The entire stage was powered by about 10 or 12 stationary bicycles crewed by men and women from Milwaukee cycling teams.  So that definitely explained the more compact stage setup and bare-bones audio board.  Yet, the sound was never compromised.  The bands sounded great, and the sound for the festival as a whole was top-notch.

There was a humorous moment, however, when Milwaukee band Ikarus Down was on stage and The Bella Donnas cycling team was pedaling.  Between songs they noticed an amp was suddenly down, and someone in the band quipped, “You girls pedaling out there?”  The momentary glitch was resolved right away, and from my perspective, I didn’t see any other issues with the bicycle power.  It was such cool aspect of the festival.  I think everyone from the bands playing to the bicyclists pedaling had fun being part of the innovative, eco-friendly stage.

Upon arriving at Rock the Green, the first act I saw was Evan Christian, who played the festival last year as well.  With a background in flamenco, Christian got the festival off to a chill start, commanding the stage with his acoustic guitar.  From there he intermixed some talented beatboxing, creating one of the more unique sounds I’ve heard in a while.  At the end of his set, he really won the crowd over with a couple superb covers.  He began a lively acoustic cover of  Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” only to mash it up with some rapping, including some classic Snoop Dogg.  He closed with Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Under The Bridge,” appropriately changing the “City of Angles” lyric to “City of Milwaukee.”  An excellent start to the day.

Evan Christian

Rock the Green scheduled the set times so that no bands were competing against each other, and also so there would be no prolonged breaks in music.  So when one act ended, another was starting at the opposite stage.  Atlas Genius played next on the main stage.  I didn’t really know much about the three-piece band from Australia, but I did listen to a few of their songs the day prior, and their tune, “Trojans” is about as infectious as they come.  They remind me of Death Cab for Cutie but more upbeat and with a little more dance potential.  “Trojans” closed their afternoon set and played to an impressive amount of cheers for it being just two hours into the festival.

Crooked Keys

Back at the Pedal Power Stage, Crooked Keys brought some indie folk and twang to a festival heavily represented by guitar rock and indie pop.  I was really surprised I hadn’t heard of them prior to Rock the Green.  Lead vocalist and keyboardist Leah Kowalewski had probably the strongest voice at the festival.  It’s powerful, soulful and beautifully commanding.  Later into the night I ran into a few fans agreeing on their favorites acts—Imagine Dragons, Metric, and–Crooked Keys.  Needless to say they definitely crossed some genres and made some new fans at Rock the Green.

Speaking of Imagine Dragons—where did this band come from?  It seemed like the densest concentration of fans at the festival was during their half hour set, which started at 4:30 p.m. and was prior to Switchfoot.  They play uplifting, energetic indie rock that you just want to clap along with.  Lead Singer Dan Reynolds is a lively frontman and keeps the energy alive with a couple over-sized drum pieces set up at the center of the stage.  I’m still not sure I how feel about Imagine Dragons.  Third Eye Blind frontman Stephan Jenkins was a fan though.  Later in the night he gave props to the four-piece band from Las Vegas and even had Reynolds come out and guest vocal on an extended cut of the Third Eye Blind mega-hit, “Jumper.”

The next two local bands at the Power Pedal Stage, Icarus Down and I’m Not A Pilot, I’ve seen around town a few times before.  Both appeared to play to the largest crowds of the night at the side stage.  Icarus Down played songs off their recent album Friction while girls in the front of the stage hula hooped.  They closed with “Noose,” which was my favorite song of theirs for the night. The guitar work transitioned smoothly from delicate to heavy, creating an overall powerful and haunting tune.  I’m Not A Pilot was another change of pace on the side stage.  Peter Thomas’ electric cello adds some classic pop to the band’s anthem rock ballads.  It’s a unique sound and vocalist/keyboardist Mark Glatzel’s lyrics really resonated on their track “No Heart.”

I’m Not A Pilot

The only problem with back-to-back music on two stages, is the lack of down time.  With the festival running from 2-9p.m., it’s a pretty manageable time to maintain a somewhat constant stage hopping.  So in order to take in some of the other facets of the festival I cut out at parts of Switchfoot.  However I did hang around long enough to hear them peel off two old WB stitches from back in the day, “Meant To Live” and “Dare You To Move.” They also performed a cover of Beastie Boy’s “Sabotage” in honor of Adam “MCA” Yauch’s passing earlier this year.  Lead Singer Jon Foreman went on to comment how playing Milwaukee outdoors in September beats playing The Rave (a local club venue) in the winter (apparently when Switchfoot usually are in Milwaukee).  It was kind of a no brainer comment, but all the bands did seem to embrace the beautiful day with many of them (if not all of them?) commenting on the perfect weather during their sets.

The Bella Donnas at The Pedal Power Stage

Rock the Green sets itself apart from other fests by its commitment to creating a near-zero waste and eco-friendly music festival.  Along with a bicycle powered stage, Rock the Green also incorporated complimentary reusable water bottles, bio-diesel generators, and very committed recycling and composting procedures.  All recycling bin locations had a volunteer stationed nearby to properly divide up many items that would normally be just thrown away.  At one point I saw a concertgoer walk up to a recycling bin liaison with a piece of paper, honestly, no bigger than a crumpled up straw wrapper.   The volunteer politely opened the corresponding bin, and that was that.  And for the most part it seemed everyone was pretty much on board with doing their part to support the festival’s mission.

Rock the Green did a great job of covering almost all festival necessities.  The water refill station never had a wait.  There were plenty of beer stands spread about the grounds, and they were well crewed, with lines consistently short, if at all.  Beer was reasonably priced for a festival with Miller Lite at $5 for a 16-ounce draft and $6 for either a Leinenkugel’s Lemon Berry Shandy or a Henry Weinhard’s Woodland Pass IPA.  It wasn’t a ton of choices but enough for everyone to find something to be content with.  I’ve been on an IPA kick for about the last year so I stuck with the Weinhard’s and was not disappointed.  Porta-Potties were plentiful, and there was hardly ever a wait.  The facilities were also some of the most “state of the art” I’ve seen at a music festival.  Each contained two corner shelves (one with a cup holder indentation), a hand sanitizer dispenser, and a mirror on the door.  Future looks bright for music festival bathrooms.

Probably the only major qualm at Rock the Green would be the lines for food, which were long at times.  Now almost all music festivals run into busy peaks for food, but Rock the Green could have maybe used a few more vendors or just deeper staffs with the current ones.  It did however seem to be a good assortment of food types (including vegetarian and vegan options) amongst both tented restaurants and food trucks.  There was a chicken wing truck that did catch my eye, but the wings were priced at $1 a piece.   A pretty steep climb from the dozen wings for $7 at the Flannery’s hut, experienced at Summerfest a few month back.  Not wanting to be away from the music too long, I held out on the food this festival go-round and returned back to the stages.

Metric

Metric played to a more scattered, but enthusiastic crowd at the main stage. They definitely added the glam tothe Rock the Green lineup.  Frontwoman Emily Haines charismatically bounced about the stage while leading the Canadian synth-pop rockers through a 45 minute set.  I really enjoyed the live cut of their radio hit “Help I’m Alive.” However, my favorite songs of the set were two offerings off their latest release, title song “Synthetica” and “Speed the Collapse.” During the set, Haines took a moment to give a special shout out to the festival’s choice of reusable water bottles.  Holding up one on stage she applauded, “Amazing idea, much respect, love this!”

Fever Marlene

The final Milwaukee band of the night was Fever Marlene.  In what seemed to initially be a headlining role at the Power Pedal Stage, the time slot ended up proving to be slightly ill-fated with many concertgoers already settling to get in position at the main stage, awaiting Third Eye Blind.  However, there was still a healthy crowd present to listen to the guys rock through some new tunes, including “Easy Eyes” and “Medicated Friends.” I’ve seen Fever Marlene play a few times before but this was the first time I saw the talented two-piece flushed out with an additional guitarist and bassist.  The band sounded good with the added musical depth.

Midway through the set, guitarist/lead vocalist Scott Starr and Drummer/vocalist Kevin Dunphy delivered some humorous stage banter surrounding Starr having to run off stage to grab something.  He returned a minute later with a lyrics sheet to Metric’s “Synthetica,” as the guys had planned to do the cover specifically for Rock the Green.  “Normally sung by a woman, but Scott’s pretty close,” Dunphy playfully introduced the song, still giving his bandmate a hard time for forgetting a key piece of their set.  The band made up for the lost time by really delivering on the cover.  It would have been nice if some of the later bands on the Pedal Power Stage could have had longer set times, but when the festival is only seven total hours long, the uniformed half hour sets were perfectly understandable–especially considering they were powered by bicyclists.

Having attended junior high in the late nineties, I can recall when Third Eye Blind was an incredibly popular band.  I will always remember my seventh grade teacher admitting to the class that she, in fact, also liked “Jumper.” In the decade or so since their height in popularity, The San Francisco band has avoided being lost forever in the abyss of nostalgic bands of our youth.  Sure, some will forever hold them synonymous with Eastpak backback-entangled make-out sessions, but that’s not where the Third Eye Blind train ended.  2009’s Ursa Major was a very solid, long-awaited fourth album that revitalized the band’s place in today’s rock music.  And with the fifth album currently in the works, Stephen Jenkins and the boys show no signs of slowing down.

Third Eye Blind

Third Eye Blind’s Rock the Green appearance was not a tour stop for the band, but instead an exclusive trip to Milwaukee.  Jenkins reminded the crowd that the band came out specifically for the festival and they were committed to making this a special performance. “We really want to feel this gig deep down in our hearts,” he exclaimed.

Jenkins fist emerged on stage with the band around 8:30 (playing till roughly past 9:30), and for the first few songs, he kept things low key with his face partially hidden under the hood of his sweatshirt.  From there though, he came out of his shell, and chitchatted regularly the rest of the night.  Early songs included “Anything,” “Never Let You Go,” and the superb “Wounded” all off of their underrated, second album Blue.  The band then went into a new song.  On it, Jenkins sings of yearnings for a lost love, “I keep hoping you will find me,” and “It’s always been you.”  I really enjoyed the first listen to the tune.  It was very much in the same vein of classic Third Eye Blind–reminiscent of conflicted-love ballads “Deep Inside Of You” and “How’s It Going To Be.”  A promising glimpse of what’s to come on album five.

Things got a little bit grand for the band’s “Jumper” performance.  Not only was Imagine Dragon’s Reynolds taking a turn at the mic, but also Jenkins paused and left the stage before completing the last refrain of the hit. The stage was turned over to longtime drummer Brad Hargreaves, who dropped a pretty epic solo before Jenkins came back, and rather humorously, picked up the song from where he left off.  It was a pretty cool highlight to the set, but I think I might have preferred to hear another song or two in lieu of the extended performance.

The set closed with fan favorites “Slow Motion” and “Motorcycle Drive By,” as well as Ursa Major highlight “Monotov’s Private Opera.”  The encore consisted of their debut album’s “Good for You” and the eternal, crowd-pleasing sing-along, “Semi-Charmed Life.”  Even though the set surprisingly didn’t include a single song off of 2003’s Out of the Vein, it was an enthusiastic, festival-closing performance.

In just two short years of existence, Rock the Green has put together a fun, well-organized music festival that promotes a great eco-friendly mission.  And if the ambition is there, I think they have potential to expand the festival to a longer day, or even two days.  Either way, Rock the Green is great for local bands, the environment, the city, and music fans.  Hopefully it can grace the beautiful days of Milwaukee’s Septembers for years to come.

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