Summerfest Day 1: Violent Femmes, Avett Brothers, Edward Sharpe, and the K-Nation/Cascio stage
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Throughout the history Summerfest, there have been many memorable opening day performances that got the world’s largest music festival off to a strong start. But few (if any) have held as much meaning to the city and had as stacked (and intriguing) a bill as Wednesday night’s Marcus Amphitheater show. Not only did it feature several of today’s most exciting and active bands in the The Avett Brothers and Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros, but the Violent Femmes made their triumphant return to their hometown for their first show here in years.
“Hello, we’re the Violent Femmes,” Victor DeLorenzo told the crowd as the band fearlessly kicked off with “Blister In The Sun.” DeLorenzo, as always, was an animated drummer, thrusting his drumsticks in the air with glee during “Kiss Off.” Gordon Gano and Brian Ritchie weren’t as active, but were still clearly excited. Vocally, Gano hasn’t lost a step. As he began singing the first verse of “Add It Up” by himself, his vocals were clear and crisp, and filled with emotion. Ritchie’s playing was great as well, especially when he hopped over the xylophone for “Gone Daddy Gone.”
One of the pleasant surprises of the show was the support the band got from many of their contemporaries. In the middle of “Confessions,” as Gano sang about being lonely, the Horns Of Dilemma and other local musicians like Jeff Hamilton and John Sparrow joined group. Sigmund Snopek III played alphorn on “Black Girls,” and former BoDeans singer Sam Llanas joined on backup vocals for “Good Feeling.”
Near the end of the set, Ritchie explained that the word “encore” is Italian for again, prompting the band to return to run a victory lap with “Blister In the Sun.” Whether Milwaukee sees the Femmes again is uncertain, but there was certainly plenty of good feelings at Wednesday’s show.
Like the Violent Femmes, The Avett Brothers and Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros know a few things about being underdogs and achieving success through hard work and a little luck. Over the past few years, both bands have played Milwaukee a few times, giving the city a front row seat to their growth in popularity.
Last year, The Avett Brothers found success at the nearby BMO Harris Pavilion. This year was no different, and the band delivered their finest show to date. The Americana-folk tinged group played many songs from last year’s excellent The Carpenter—like “Live And Die”—as well as songs from various other albums. One of the highlights of the set was when Scott and Seth Avett and bass player Bob Crawford huddled in the center of the stage for “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” a traditional folk song that had gospel-like qualities. As their set ended, the Summerfest fireworks began, prompting Scott to tell the crowd that “the fireworks are messing with my rhythm, or helping.” The band ended with “I And Love And You,” and the fireworks seemed perfectly timed to the song’s climax.
While it seemed strange that the 10-member Edward Sharpe group were relegated to openers, they made the most of their opportunity. Their set was a mix of their first two albums, including songs like “40 Day Dream” and “Man On Fire.” During the latter, frontman Alex Ebert came into the crowd and walked about halfway up, enjoying the company of fans. Another highlight was “Fiya Wata,” which featured Jade Castrinos taking over vocals. “I see so many Led Zeppelin shirts,” Castrinos said. “It makes me so happy.” [Joshua Miller]
The Cascio Interstate Music stage has been the festival’s Milwaukee-music haven since 2007, but its future was looking grim until K-Nation offered to swoop in and help finance things this year. The tradeoff, as it turns out, is that lots of those “TBA’s” on the schedule got magically filled by K-Nation-managed artists from around the world. We’re pretty sure there are lots of local bands who would have appreciated the chance to play Summerfest (particularly considering Liverpool’s Familiar Looking Strangers were apparently a no-show for the 4 p.m. slot), but somebody’s got to pay the bills to keep this scrappy lil’ stage running.
The local bands that did play got to be guinea pigs for the upgraded P.A. system, and the sound was certainly less than ideal for Greatest Lakes, whose summery Americana was a great choice on paper, but the slow tempos didn’t generate a whole lot of excitement in the crowd. Worrier was also hampered by numerous technical difficulties for the first half of its set, but eventually the issues seemed to be mostly ironed out. The band’s hyper, trebly blend of post-punk and post-rock made for a dazzling and highly danceable performance, although you’d never have known it from the folks sitting and gabbing on the benches through the whole thing. This was the best set of music we caught all night. Faux Fir played the final Cascio stage slot, but the reliably enjoyable band drew the short straw of competing with (and getting virtually drowned out by) Parmalee on the nearby Uline Warehouse stage.
Elsewhere, local artists on the folkie/jam-band tip attracted sizeable crowds at the unlisted Tiki Hut stage, right on the lakefront in the middle of the grounds. Dan Rodriguez showcased his strong vocal presence and regaled the audience with tales of Roaring Dan Seavey—the only person ever charged with piracy on Lake Michigan—while the Twin Cities’ Love Out Loud got folks dancing with the electronic/jam mixture that’s popular with the kids these days. But the most bizarre performance of the night had to be by Columbus pop duo twenty one pilots, who started their set with their faces hidden behind skull hoods and played to a clearly devoted young crowd of believers. There’s got to be a maximum age to take this band seriously, as its music and demeanor is borderline-Lonely Island, except none of its fans are in on the joke. If we didn’t know better, we’d think frontman Nick Thomas wrote each of his songs the night before in about five minutes and improvised the rest of the cloying tunes on the spot, but they’re certainly catchy if utterly ridiculous. Then again, if his shtick is genuine, he might actually be a force for good. But seriously, no way. [Cal Roach]