Riverwest Fest 2012
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Multi-venue city festivals have taken off in recent years, most notably the sprawling hype-fest that is Austin’s South By Southwest. Madison put on its own attempt a few years ago (the woefully disorganized Forward Music Festival), and nowadays, Chicago festivals like Pitchfork and Lollapalooza splinter off into various pay-extra late-night shows after the parks close down. Riverwest Fest—which ran December 21-22—obviously doesn’t have the big names or high production values of the nationally known festivals, but in terms of local music, the lineup for the 2012 edition was top-notch, and things ran surprisingly smoothly. From a small bookstore cooperative and a makeshift art gallery to the basement of a Mexican restaurant and several of the neighborhood’s best-loved music clubs, if there was an all-encompassing theme to the event, it was this: Every band that was ever any good started out like this.
People’s Books, recently relocated to the heart of Center Street, drew about as large a crowd as it could handle both nights. Despite the proximity to Christmas, plenty of folks stuck around Milwaukee to take in the festival and even ventured out early, and these intimate, stripped-down performances were some of the very best of the weekend. Gnarrenschiff played a raucous set of Middle Eastern-tinged instrumental folk via fiddle, bodhrán, and electric saz on Friday night. This combo may be a bit less polished and more dangerous than Painted Caves, but a bill featuring the two acts would be sweet nevertheless. Next up was Hello Death, brainchild of Nathaniel Heuer who, together with four other co-members of Altos, played a somewhat morose yet strangely uplifting brand of chamber-folk. The addition of drummer Tom Duffey proved occasionally problematic for this barely-amplified set, but for the most part the music was gorgeous. Heuer, Marielle Allschwang, and Erin Wolf make some truly remarkable vocal harmonies together.
The other highlight from the bookstore came Saturday night with a set of American folk by Myles Coyne, augmented by his Rusty Nickel Band cohort Tim Stone brushing the drums. It’s easy to recognize a Dylan influence with Coyne’s generally roughshod, half-spoken delivery, but every once in a while he’ll nail you with some sonorous falsetto in perfect pitch just to make you wonder where the hell it came from. When Coyne had wrapped up, instrumental post-rockers Fjords played across the street at Jackpot Gallery, whose walls were coated in (mostly) homemade local show flyers from the past decade or so. These guys played the type of chiming, reverb-drenched swells made possible by Mogwai and The Edge, a fairly novel blend of unusual ideas (upbeat electro-jam grooves, math-y breakdowns) and repetitive lead guitar melodies that probably would’ve sounded better if the keyboards hadn’t been mostly drowned out. It was a promising set nevertheless.
One of the best aspects of this festival was the food. No, there was nothing officially sponsored, but every show was within easy walking distance of places like Nessun Dorma and Centro Café—hard-to-beat options for an affordable, high-quality, expeditious dinner. Plus, Rio West Cantina hosted shows in its basement both nights. The one set we caught there was a rare performance by Fahri, a solid half-hour or so of ’90s emo-ish indie rock. It’s not like Riverwest is hurting for music clubs, but this wide-open concrete dungeon seems ripe for hosting future shows.
As for the traditional 21-plus rooms, the best sets of the weekend that we were able to catch happened at The Uptowner and Stonefly Brewing Company. Just like a real festival, the scheduling conflicts were brutal this year, with a lot more overlapping performances than the event’s first two years, so we missed out on some surely fantastic stuff in favor of Absolutely and Catacombz at Club Timbuktu on Friday night. Both sets were mostly great: Absolutely has been dormant for a while, but emerged with a much more psychedelic, less hardcore sound, yet still intense and furious. But Catacombz were truly frustrating: The first 20 minutes or so were an increasingly intense mural of swirling beats and noisy melody, portentous and hypnotic. Then came an incredibly boring comedown song that ended after less than a half hour of total music. Whether this was some sort of curfew issue or due to the venue practically running out of booze, 25 minutes seemed ridiculous for a headlining set.
Fortunately, there was still greatness to be witnessed at the opposite end of Center Street. Chicago’s Scoundrel played some blistering, infectious, slightly mathematical punk with several ready-made shout-along choruses, an impressively tight set for a band that’s only been making noise for the past year or so. The final set of the night was by Sat. Nite Duets, and this was quite likely the best of the fest. It helps the overall experience that the band’s growing fan base is ready to scream along with many of the key lyrics, but the Duets played mostly new and lesser-known material at first, highly dynamic indie rock just catchy enough to avoid being prog, but not by much. Despite a markedly intoxicated atmosphere in The Uptowner, the band was extremely tight—at least until the sing-along finale of “All Nite Long” and “Peel Away” (which aren’t meant to be tight) brought everyone into a drunken swoon of shouting and oo-la-la-la’s. It was the rare example of an encore that wasn’t necessarily expected and a crowd that wouldn’t be denied.
Saturday featured a lot more on the heavy side of guitar rock. Highlights included the growling, progressive stoner metal of Space Collector at Quarters, and the blitzkrieg of thrash-tinged hardcore that Burning Sons belched forth at Riverwest Public House. But we ended the night at Stonefly, where Worrier gave Sat. Nite Duets a run for their money for the best set of the weekend. This band is seriously due for a new record—its excellent 2010 debut Source Errors Spells is an eclectic, hyper blast of spazz-rock that could easily be considered a precursor to the current prominence of bands like The Fatty Acids on the Milwaukee scene. Saturday night’s live set brought in powerful improvisational elements and post-rock crescendos along with intricate intertwining instrumental melodies. It was engrossing, weird rock music played by a single-minded ensemble, in sharp contrast to the ensuing headlining set by The Fatty Acids.
This band has seemed like a democracy in the past, but Saturday’s set gave the impression of a dictatorship ruled by the whim of frontman Josh Evert. The instrument-swapping and general frantic behavior has always been a hallmark of the Fattys’ performance style, but members seemed unsure of what to do at times, and Evert exuded a somewhat disgruntled temperament from the stage, inappropriate for such fun, danceable music. Happily, the well-crafted songs still shone through often enough—particularly the brand new “Unscreened”—but it must be said that Evert’s inability to hit his notes is becoming more pronounced lately. His screeching style can be endearing when the melodies are discernible, but he was nowhere near the mark for much of this performance. It certainly wasn’t enough to put a negative spin on the weekend, just an underwhelming ending to an overall superb smorgasbord of Milwaukee’s best available live music.