28 June 2012
Summerfest Day One - Fruit Bats, The Fatty Acids & All These Runners
I went to see Fruit Bats, and I discovered The Fatty Acids and All These Runners.
In my book, that is an incredibly lucky day. But more on that shortly.
Though I have lived just outside of Milwaukee for nearly four years, today was my very first Summerfest experience. And it is an amazing experience though not without some aggravation.
Let me get the negatives out of the way so that you and I can just get past them.
There's only two -- and number one is the fest features too many cover bands. I am not sure if this is a reflection of the state of music in Wisconsin in general and Milwaukee specifically or a case of catering to the mentality of the people who attend this event. And yes I know it is day one and based on historical precedent regarding Taste Of Chicago (which I grew up attending) , the acts before the 4th of July midpoint are usually slightly weaker than after that midpoint.
Maybe it's just coincidence.
But, as I walked around the different stages for most of the afternoon shows, I saw a number of bands doing nothing but covers. As I have attended festivals all over the country where cover bands are not allowed or more of a once-in-awhile exception, this was a huge disappointment to me. Even the headliners for this evening, Kool & The Gang and the Steve Miller Band, are really glorified cover bands relegated to doing most of their back catalog to appease aging fans who are too far tied to their pasts. I can't imagine that Steve Miller's set is anything different than the ones from 1978. Same goes for Kool & The Gang - yes it's Ladies Night and the feeling's right, oh what a night.
Stop me if you've heard this one before.
That brings me to negative number two - two many legacy artists and not enough up and coming, break out artists. Again, this may be a reflection of the particular tastes of this region but I would personally like to see some newer acts. There are quite a few, don't get me wrong, but for a festival that bills itself as the World's Largest Music Festival I think there should be more. I am aware that a festival of all indies on a stage with such enormity as Summerfest just wouldn't be much of a success, so before you pistol-whip and hang me, I am not asking for a radical change, just less cover/tribute bands and more indies. That's all. I'll give you your Three Dog Nights, Kool & The Gangs and Steve Miller Bands if you'll give me more Heartless Bastards, Civil Twilights and Trampled By Turtles. Deal?
And one minor detail - some of the stages are too close together. Maybe eliminate one stage and spread them out or try to better stagger the acts.
Now that that's out of the way, we can focus on the greatness that is Milwaukee Summerfest. One, there is a metric ton of great food, the prices are relatively affordable and this being Wisconsin, the portions are, um, large, and there is plenty of shaded places to beat and cheat the heat. And the people watching? P H E N O M O N A L. Wisconsin is home to some of the most beautiful women in the world. I'll say no more. There are plenty of transportation options, a beautiful lakeside view that would put almost any other festival to shame and the staff at Summerfest is incredibly helpful and hospitable. In fact, based on day one alone, they may have the most courteous staff of any festival I have attended, right up there with the two kings of the hill, Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin, TX and Norman Music Fest in Norman, OK.
And setting aside my personal tastes for a second, truth be told there is an amazing amount of music to see. Summerfest Music spans so many styles and genres and almost all of it is included with one daily admission fee. Only the headliners at the Marcus Theater's Main Stage require a separate ticket purchase. All in all, it keeps your music cravings well-fed as there is never any dead time. When one band stops playing, you simply move on to the next stage.
The coolest thing I saw at Summerfest was the number of younger fans at the U.S. Cellular Emerging Artists Stage hosted by local radio station 102.1 WLUM-FM and at the Cascio Interstate Music Groove Stage hosted by WMSE and the Milwaukee School of Engineering. That bodes well for the future of music in Milwaukee and makes me quite happy. The crowds at both stages, which featured nothing but the best of Milwaukee original music bands and nationally known emerging artists, were typically in the 18-25 year-old range and the music was spectacular.
Fruit Bats - U.S. Cellular Emerging Artists Stage
The U.S. Cellular Emerging Artists Stage is where I caught Fruit Bats. Noted as an early entrant into the folk-rock boom of the early 2000s, the group has had many personnel changes but revolves around singer/songwriter Eric D. Johnson. Fruit Bats are from Chicago, though Johnson, who has also played with The Shins, originally hails from Kenosha, WI. The band is signed to Sub Pop Records.
Their set started at 4:15 which is just an awful start time for a weekday, especially the opening of Summerfest, where most visitors do not make their grand entrances until near dusk, but the crowd was better than I expected for that time slot and really into the performance. The band covered their more popular songs, including Ruminant Band, My Unusual Friend, Being On Our Own and Tangie & Ray and their performance was spot on. Johnson's vocals carried the band, but honestly, the performance was absolutely flawless, and in fact, almost too perfect, as most of the performances mirrored their studio versions. Not that that's a bad thing -- Fruit Bats are a great studio band and they have a killer sound -- and it was nice to see that studio wizardry and technical boosts are not part of the recorded equation. Fruit Bats are just pure talent.
If you haven't heard Fruit Bats, there sound is quite comparable to The Shins especially that band's latest release. Johnson's time with the band has seemingly had a lasting effect.
The Fatty Acids - U.S. Cellular Emerging Artists Stage
The Fatty Acids hail from Milwaukee and followed Fruit Bats. I had never heard them before and decided to check them out. Certainly they drew a large crowd, though I am not sure if that was due to widespread notoriety or simply a large following of friends. Most in attendance were well within the same age group as the band, early twenties or thereabouts.
At first I was ready to leave upon their entrance, which was a little too rockstar inspired for my tastes as each band member entered the stage holding a can of Leinenkugel Beer. Maybe it was an inside joke or maybe they have a sponsorship, but I just felt that was a bit overbearingly cliched. Still, I gave them a mulligan because they managed to captivate an audience of 400-500 right from the get go.
Their first four songs were legitimately good songs, not classic by any means, but certainly well worth sticking around for and a great follow up to the Fruit Bats set. Their sound is big and buzzy, leaning on fuzzy, distorted soundscapes and big clashing guitars, much like Silversun Pickups for instance, or maybe a less psychedelic version Flaming Lips. The lead vocalist hit his high register with ease, and most certainly, he resided in that area vocally for much of the set. The sextet produces a big sound that combines harmonic, keyboard ambiance with a lot of unbridled, furious noise and when the band is on and borderline destructive (in the good way), they are pretty amazing.
Their set leveled off a bit after the first four mashers before an absolutely killer finish that was at once loud and proud. Like I said, I'll give them a mulligan on the cheesy entrance and I'll delve into their studio stuff after the two-week festival. Check them out if you have an opportunity. They've got a chance to be the next big thing out of Milwaukee.
All These Runners - Cascio Interstate Music Groove Stage
One of the coolest things about music festivals is discovering new music and finding new bands that you had never heard before. What a treat to stumble upon Milwaukee's own, All These Runners. I was getting ready to leave Summerfest for the day and was enjoying my customary end-of-festival adult libation at one of the Miller Oasis Taps right between the Cascio Interstate Music Grove Stage and the Summerfest Rock Stage. The two stages are very close together and I was having a difficult time trying to handle two bands playing at once. To give myself a break I decided to drift closer to one stage so I didn't have to hear the bleeding music from the other, allowing me to finish my beer in relative peace.
At the Summerfest Rock Stage there was some massive moshing going on and I just didn't have the strength, wherewithal and intestinal fortitude to handle hundreds of fired up young adults mauling each other. Or me. So I chose the Cascio Stage. How fortuitous for me.
Though I only caught their last three songs, All These Runners floored me, particularly their last song, entitled The Kill, which has yet to have been released. To me, All These Runners are about as far under the radar as any band could be, and to be honest, it was the highlight of my day catching the end of their set. Though it was only three songs, the close of their set was the best music I had seen all day.
After their set ended, I was able to get a few words in with lead singer Tony Hunt and keyboardist John Kim. All These Runners' sound can best be described as post-punk art-pop, the kind of music that you might hear if you dig on Bahamas, Destroyer or Washed Out for example. It's really New Romanticism for lack of a better description, with musical hooks that are just as strong, if not stronger, than the lyrical hooks they are built around. More importantly, All These Runners have a very polished sound -- and though that may seem like an unremarkable declaration -- it speaks volumes as to the flawlessness of their performance.
Someone once said that if you know nothing about diamonds they are just shiny rocks. The same could be said of All These Runners. You can go to their Facebook or Bandcamp page for a taste of their music if you like, there are two songs for download and they're worth getting. Their recorded music is very good, no doubt. But you'd be better served to catch them in a live setting where their music will absolutely engulf and swallow you and then you can formulate a more honest opinion of the band. Discovering music is a great thing. All These Runners is a great, great find.