Is this year’s Summerfest lineup any good?
Matt Wild: Hey Cal. In case the oodles of tiny flags littering the city and the faint smell of roasted nuts wafting through the air haven’t tipped you off, this Wednesday marks the beginning of Summerfest. The Big Gig, of course, is Milwaukee’s annual love-it-or-hate-it monster-sized summer festival, featuring 11 days of food, beer, people watching, and plenty of drunken picnic-table dancing. Oh, and music. A lot of music.
Which brings us to the time-honored Summerfest question: Is the lineup any good? I recently pored over the listings while divvying up assignments for our review coverage, and after glazing over the usual suspects—Tom Petty, Cake, Pre-Recorded Music—I came away feeling a bit disappointed. I know Summerfest has the unenviable task of being everything to everyone, but this year’s lineup seems designed (however unintentionally) to please no one in particular. The last few years have seen some terrific acts come through Henry Maier Festival Park—Kanye West, Bob Mould, Hall & Oates—but this year’s list of names seems strangely weak.
But maybe that’s just me. As one of the writers covering this year’s Big Gig for The A.V. Club, I’m interested to hear your take, Cal. Do you think this year’s lineup stacks up to previous years? Are you excited for anything in particular? Will you or won’t you be checking out Loverboy on the Uline Warehouse stage
Cal Roach: Well Matt, the lineup certainly boasts its share of usual suspects, and it’s true that Petty, Geddy Lee, and Gordon Gano aren’t getting any younger. And while recent years have boasted the occasional hipster-approved legend, I’d say there’s a lot to get excited about on the grounds stages this year, particularly when it comes to local artists.
But let’s look at the Marcus headliners for a minute. You can’t blame Summerfest for consistently asking Petty, Rush, and Violent Femmes back whenever possible; they may be old, but there’s a reason they haven’t been relegated to state fairs by now: they’re good live bands. Rush even put out a surprisingly solid album last year, and Petty continues to dig deep for rarities to keep fans guessing. The Femmes are a bit of an unknown quantity at this point after a court battle and lengthy hiatus, but at least fans of eclectic folk have The Avett Brothers and Edward Sharpe to fall back on that night. Besides, let’s face it: you and I will never know whether Jason Aldean, Pitbull, Category X, or Luke Bryan are any good live (or even who they are). For all we know, maybe Tim McGraw will whip out a 30-minute noise jam. Try not to focus on the irredeemable suckitude of Fun. and The Eagles, and keep an open mind!
After a quick perusal of the grounds stage lineup, I found at least one band every day that would be worth 15 bucks and a short cruise to the lakefront. I think the problem is that weekend destination festivals have become so loaded with buzz-worthy artists over the past decade, we forget that Summerfest has always been pretty lame; you don’t see caravans of young people clogging up our highways and hotels on that magical opening Wednesday, ever. It’s designed for local families and drunks, with a few bones thrown to discerning music-lovers. Folks who like dance beats and hip-hop are looking at a particularly stacked roster this year, with acts like Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Diplo, LL Cool J, DJ Z-Trip, P.O.S., Atmosphere, Femi Kuti, Matt And Kim, Yeasayer, Pretty Lights, Dessa, A-Trak, Umphrey's McGee, MGMT, K'Naan, and Nelly (yes, Nelly) leading the pack.
There’s the usual glut of modern country, teen-pop, and washed-up dinosaurs, but I don’t see much to hate on, relative to other years. Are you just lamenting the lack of any Mould-caliber, still-relevant indie heroes? What are you pining for that’s missing? (Please don’t say Flaming Lips.)
Matt: I know I’m going to sound crazy, but I suppose what I’m pining for is a little consistency. Last year around this time, I remember being bowled over by the grounds stage lineup: Bob Mould! Death Cab For Cutie! The Promise Ring! Ben Folds Five! The Hives! The Roots! And what did all those acts have in common? They were all big in the ’90s. (They were, as you say, still-relevant indie heroes.) It was then that I realized that, hey, like it or not, I had finally “aged into” Summerfest’s key demographic. Here I was, a 30-something with plenty of loose cash to blow on bands (and beer) I liked 15 years ago, and Summerfest was finally catering to me! (And yes, I know that for every Mould or Death Cab there were still four or five Steve Millers and Kool And The Gangs.) After a wave of age-inspired panic, denial, and self-loathing subsided, I began to accept my new lot in life as Summerfest’s Most Valued Customer, and prepared for years of unlikely ’90s reunions, maybe some Gin Blossoms, and a whole lot of ’90s bands playing their most popular albums front to back.
This, of course, didn’t happen—at least not this year. Instead of a strong showing from more ’90s holdovers, the Summerfest lineup is once again all over the map. There's lots of reliable, boomer-friendly acts (Petty, Rush), a smattering of modern country (Jason Aldean is country, right?), and Rick Springfield. Sure, there’s stuff like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and, um, Cracker, but there just isn’t enough of it. I won’t pretend to know the ins and outs of booking an event like Summerfest, though I certainly understand a lot depends on who’s touring, when they’re touring, and when they’re available. But would it kill the Summerfest brass to cater a bit more to a specific demographic? (Goodness knows some of that brass is paid enough.) Here I am, Summerfest! Entertain me!
But, as you said, the Big Gig will never be a Bonnaroo, a Coachella, or a Lollapalooza—and that’s probably a good thing. Maybe I was spoiled after a few good years, and forgot that the point of Summerfest is to be a big, random mishmash of background music for enjoying quality Miller products next to the lake.
So let’s move on and talk about local bands at Summerfest, another subject that gets people talking every year. Who are you looking forward to seeing?
Cal: I see your point; this year’s ’90s rock hit-makers skew pretty lame (Spin Doctors! Blues Traveler! Barenaked Ladies! 311! Drowning Pool??), but until a larger percentage of baby boomers are too decrepit to handle a festival, the Generation X versions of classic rock will still take a back seat to the Foreigners and REO Speedwagons. Of course, relevance is relative; looking at this year’s lineup in local terms, the ’90s heroes (Femmes, Willy Porter, Little Vito And The Torpedoes) aren’t exactly cranking out albums any more. Luckily, there are more quality acts than ever from the current Brew City scene to keep our attention.
I’m always recommending that anyone who has no solid leads on a great show at any given time should head to the Cascio Interstate Music Stage (this year co-sponsored by K-Nation), which is all local (well, aside from a few Chicago bands), all day. It’s your best bet to discover a new lesser-known Milwaukee favorite at any time of day, and it boasts some of the city’s most reliably great live bands (Worrier, Elusive Parallelograms, Midnight Reruns, The Invaders, and The Championship, to name a few essentials). One thing that’s cool about this year, though, is how many hometown heroes are getting well-deserved featured spots on bigger stages: Field Report, obviously, but also Midwest Death Rattle, Whiskey Of The Damned, Hugh Bob And The Hustle, Into Arcadia, Klassik, and Phox, among others. Plus, who doesn’t love that mid-afternoon, half-sloshed Sigmund Snopek show? Or the early-evening, fully sloshed Pat McCurdy sing-a-long party? (You might not remember it, but you’ll enjoy it!)
That list of artists is, as you suggested, pretty scattered, and it’s certainly missing a lot of the biggest crowd-pleasing names from the city’s dominant folk-rock and eclectic-indie-pop scenes. That might be a good opportunity for new, relatively untested acts like Twin Brother, Body Futures, and Calliope to step up and generate some fresh buzz, but only if we all choose to forego yet another rendition of “Rock ‘N’ Roll Lifestyle.”
Matt: I couldn’t agree more with your idea of camping out at the local stage during most of the day, and I agree that it’s nice to see so many Milwaukee groups (once again) getting big-stage exposure. It is curious that some of the city’s most beloved groups aren’t playing the Big Gig in any capacity (this may be the only 11-day stretch of the year that The Fatty Acids aren’t playing a show), but I’m looking forward to giving the new names a shot.
And isn’t that what Summerfest is all about: wandering around in the stifling heat, wondering why smoking overpriced cigars is still a thing, and chancing on some pleasant, summer-worthy music? I suppose I come to this same conclusion every year, but it seems to me that the Summerfest lineup is secondary to the whole glorious (and sometimes messy) Summerfest experience. “The World’s Largest Musical Festival” may be a bit misleading, but it’s hard to sum up what makes this thing truly unique in five words.
Oh, and you never answered my question: Will you or won’t you be at the Loverboy show?
Cal: Yeah, no matter how unhip Summerfest is, good luck finding clean toilets, an “Ethnic Garden” of local food vendors, five-dollar local craft beers, or a Skyglider at Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza! Not to mention day passes that anybody can afford. Even on days when the lineup looks iffy, I always find that it’s worth the gamble. Why, just looking at the past two years, I managed to catch “Keep On Loving You” and “The Lumberjack” without having to suffer through more than one other REO or Jackyl song, so you can bet I’ll try to sneak in “Turn Me Loose” somehow this year.