Monday, July 5, 2010

Summerfest concert(s) review

So, Summerfest is over for another year and this time around I made my way to a few more shows than usual. I know, I know, I'm a little late to the party as usual and you've already read reviews of the shows or heard how "amazing" they were from your friends, but I am going to review them anyway.

The Hold Steady - US Cellular Stage 7/1

The Hold Steady are one of indie rock's biggest names, but the size of the crowd did not show this. Out of all the headliners I saw, this was the most sparsely attended. Thankfully, this did not dissuade lead singer Craig Finn and his band from having a great time. Bespectacled and decked out in Old Navy's finest plaid button-down shirt, Finn sing-spoke, danced, and gesticulated wildly through the entire set.

"Let's build something, Milwaukee!" he said as the band kicked into all-too-appropriate opener "Constructive Summer" from 2008's Stay Positive. The Hold Steady mostly didn't let up for all of 1 hour and 40 minutes. However, I was struck by the crowd's lack of participation. I'm not sure if it was because The Hold Steady attracts the arms-folded serious indie crowd or because people were just curious because of the hype. This was not for lack of effort on THS's part; their music is particularly fitting for a summer festival, full of hooks and singalong choruses. It took until near the end of the set during "Massive Nights" for the biggest reaction thus far -- the 'Whoa-oh-oh-oh!" refrain -- but from then on the crowd was completely engaged.

They played a nice selection of songs from all of their albums: "Chips Ahoy!" from their breakout Boys and Girls in America, "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" from Separation Sunday and "Hurricane J" from their latest record Heaven is Whenever. Overall, the band sounded great. Finn's enjoyment in particular came across rather well -- "This is awesome!" he said, three songs in -- and The Hold Steady's first Summerfest performance as a whole was a success. Here's to many more.

Favorite songs: "Hot Soft Night," "Chips Ahoy!," and "Stay Positive."
Could've played but didn't: "Girls Like Status"

New Politics - US Cellular Stage 7/3

Because I am an idiot, I wrongfully assumed Modest Mouse was playing at the US Cellular stage so my girlfriend and I staked out spots to see them while these guys were playing. Fortunately, they weren't all that bad.

Steph said the lead singer was a spaz, and that wasn't far off. He breakdanced and did headstands and otherwise just freaked out for the entire 40 minute set. The lead singer split time between singing and spitting out rhymes sort of like Zach de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine. (In sound only; the lyrics weren't nearly as incendiary.) New Politics hail from Brooklyn by way of Denmark, but their 80's-influenced pop rock managed to cross those borders. The crowd seemed pretty into it, particularly for radio single "Yeah Yeah Yeah"

Though I was not familiar at all with the band beforehand, I think I will be checking out their debut CD, due out July 13.

Favorite songs: "Yeah Yeah Yeah"
Could've played but didn't: N/A

Modest Mouse - Miller Lite Oasis 7/3

We made our way to the Oasis only to find an overflow crowd for indie superstars Modest Mouse. I was surprised by the distinct lack of hipsters, at least from my vantage point. Instead of the expected people decked out in Goodwill's finest, I saw plenty of girls all gussied up in sundresses and heels, and bros with t-shirts and backwards hats.

Sometimes spacey (opener "Dramamine"), sometimes hooky (smash hit "Float On"), and sometimes WTF? (sort of gothy Americana "Bury Me With It"), Modest Mouse has a sound all their own, but it is a sound that doesn't come across all that well in an outdoor festival setting. Singer/Guitarist Isaac Brock was sometimes lost in the din of the overpowering band, complete with two drummers. Admittedly, though it was pretty awesome to hear banjo, violin, and clarinet (oboe? other woodwind?) during the course of the set, the whole thing just kind of ran together.

I noted the lack of hipsters, but the people were into Modest Mouse beyond "Float On" which was a surprise. There were plenty of people dancing and enjoying the twisted tunes. To put an exclamation on my befuddlement, there was a small mosh pit formed in front of me for encore closer "The View." You read me right, a mosh pit at a Modest Mouse show. Truth is stranger than fiction.

I've been to two Modest Mouse shows now, and my impression of them live is that they are just okay. Maybe it's because they have such a wealth of material that I just don't get/am not familiar with some of their songs, but I much prefer listening to them at home with my headphones. Or maybe I just don't like people, I don't know.

Favorite songs: "Dramamine," "Float On," "The View."
Could've played but didn't: "Good Times are Killing Me," "Black Cadillacs," "Talking Shit About A Pretty Sunset."

Against Me! - US Cellular stage 7/4

I will admit that I arrived very late for Against Me!'s set. For all the talk from indie tastemakers and the punk rock Powers That Be about how much Against Me! sold out, the Summerfest crowd was having none of it. The place was packed to the hilt.

I only heard a few songs, but what I heard was great. Set-closer "Sink Florida Sink" and lone encore song "Baby, I'm an Anarchist" went over well, as was evidenced by the mosh pit and crowd surfing going on by the right side of the stage.

I'd very much like to see these guys headline a show at the Rave or a similar venue.

Could've played (but probably did because I suck and got there late): "Pints of Guinness Make You Strong," "Thrash Unreal."

Silversun Pickups - US Cellular Stage 7/4

An apt metaphor occured before LA's Silversun Pickups took the stage: A couple of inflatable blue balls with the Milwaukee's Alternative 102.1 logo were let loose and bounced around before the set. I say this because Silversun Pickups are experts at building and building a song... thankfully they also pull off the release full of guitar squall and hammering drums just as well.

I figured SP to be among the most likely of bands to have a mosh pit, but no such luck. No matter, though, as their fuzzed-out guitar atmospherics went over well with the crowd who bobbed their heads and danced along with the songs.

The lead singer/guitarist Brain Aubert and bassist Nikki Monninger appeared to be having a good time onstage, but the drummer Chris Guanlo was easily the most striking, bashing away at the kit without abandon.

They made their way through a set that comprised of songs from their two albums, and the standout from their debut EP Pikul, "Kissing Families," and it was good. I feel like this is a band that can move on to greater things, and their set only furthered that notion.

Favorite songs: "Well Thought Out Twinkles," "Little Lover's So Polite," "Future Foe Scenarios," "Lazy Eye"
Should've played but didn't: None, surprisingly.

Stray notes:

Maybe I have a shitty taste in music, or I wasn't in the right place, but the crowds seemed restrained. Where was all the dancing that Summerfest is supposed to be famous for? I am admittedly self-conscious, but I found something within myself to rock out to the bands I liked.

The sound overall was better than I've heard in a long time. Kudos to you, sound guys.

I was only carded once in about twenty attempts to buy beer, and it was on the last time I tried. I don't know whether to feel terrified or awesome that I'm finally a grown-up.

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