Summerfest Day 4: The Zombies, Yeasayer, Meat Puppets, and a swarm of humanity
- MONDO LUCHA! celebrates fifth anniversary in high-flying style at Turner Hall
- David Sedaris goes off book, shines at Pabst Theater
- Brian Wilson and Jeff Beck offer glimpses of greatness at Riverside Theater
- John Hodgman, Kristen Schaal, Eugene Mirman give Pabst Theater three shows for price of one
- Top 5 musical moments from Kenosha’s 2013 Ride of the Living Dead
As the sun remained stubbornly visible and the threat of rain seemed distant, the prospects of a Saturday at Summerfest didn’t exactly brighten; the more tolerable the temperatures, the more people are likely to show up, and eventually even the most stalwart festival-lovers can easily get bogged down in the barely navigable crowds. Around 4 p.m., though, the BMO Harris Pavilion was somewhat sparsely populated for a quasi-headlining performance by what’s left of The Zombies. Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone are both in their late 60s, but you wouldn’t know it from Blunstone’s still-powerful wail; he has lost the understated pathos that characterized the band’s British Invasion hits, so he now belts the songs out with a somewhat inappropriate gusto that’s nevertheless impressive. The band broke the cardinal dino-rock rule of saving its biggest hit for the end, so we missed out on “Time Of The Season,” but the consolation prizes were a halfway decent jam on Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up” and a nice rendition of “She’s Not There,” followed by a couple of obscure relics for the encore.
It seemed a little crazy that a band as well-known as Yeasayer was slotted to play at 5 p.m., but the group made the most of its daylight performance at the Harley stage and managed to avoid playing any of the Journey or Guns ’N Roses covers we’re accustomed to at this time of day. It was somewhat of a greatest-hits set, although Yeasayer doesn’t exactly have “hits” so much as “videos.” The Brooklyn dance-rockers did a great job of changing things up within the tunes, speeding up the tempo considerably for the uplifting “Ambling Alp” and bringing a more electronic feel to “Sunrise” and “Wait For The Summer” (from 2007’s All Hour Cymbals). The tracks from last year’s overly complicated Fragrant World benefited from slightly stripped-down arrangements, and the sizable crowd, although mostly hesitant to actually dance on the shaky aluminum benches, seemed enthralled.
Biding our time before Elusive Paralellograms, we had to seek out some food. There may not be as many deep-fried options at Summerfest as at State Fair, but few can resist the allure of something called lasagna sticks, especially if there are no reuben rolls nearby. However, these junk food mainstays got us thinking: At Lollapalooza in Chicago, rows of local vendors set up shop and serve passable facsimiles of their regular cuisine, while the pervading attitude at most Summerest food stalls seems to be “No, we can’t put lettuce on that. It would take too long and make the other vendors look bad.” Granted, for $30 you can snag a full deep-dish pizza at Angelo’s, and the brats at Mader’s are brats at Mader’s, but a spoonful of ground beef in a tortilla is not a burrito, and while we don’t expect Milwaukee’s best eateries to turn out gourmet meals here, the quality seems to be going downhill and almost every edible purchase is a ripoff.
The K-Nation/Cascio stage was as packed as we’d seen it for the Parallelograms’ set, which started out a bit shaky and poorly mixed, but the band and sound tent got things dialed in pretty quickly. It occurred to us at this point that the EPs are the closest thing Milwaukee has to a Meat Puppets: although there’s none of the country influence, there’s a similar proggy, psychedelic, circuitously catchy pop aesthetic, with hooks that almost seem accidental and the ability to really crank the intensity when called for. It’s also worth noting that frontman Andrew Foys is no slouch of a singer. In the world of underground rock, we’ve gotten used to overlooking the inability to hold a proper note, but Foys’ range and pitch were always spot-on, and his loud-and-clear vocals reminded us of how lacking this element is in so much psychedelic and indie rock these days. The band won over some new fans for sure, and not just because they gave away a bunch of t-shirts.
As fate would have it, Meat Puppets played next at the adjacent U.S. Cellular stage, and fearless leader Curt Kirkwood once again led the band through most of the predictable setlist choices into somewhat unpredictable realms of guitar improv. Kirkwood seems to fancy himself a Neil Young/Jorma Kaukonen-type figure these days, alternating between clanging, disjointed shreddery and fuzzed-out waves of chords, and while it certainly makes for some interesting music at times, we’re not buying his guitar-hero status—he’s really too sloppy to warrant that many closeups of his fingers. Still, the band’s enlivened renditions of old classics “Plateau” and “Comin’ Down” were instant highlights, pointed rather than aimless, and the band really stretched out on a version of “Lake Of Fire” that must have been pushing 20 minutes without ever getting boring. The weirdo cover of ”Sloop John B” was fascinating; closing with the line “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on” was perfect, and the set ended with the band’s signature grunge hit “Backwater,” sounding as beefy and vital as ever.
It was at this point that Summerfest threatened to become intolerable. The swarm of humanity in the center of the grounds for Imagine Dragons and Pretty Lights was absolutely absurd, although we were eventually able to find a spot where the sound and visibility (at least for the latter artist) weren’t too bad. Pretty Lights certainly kept the young crowd moving, and the light show was (duh) entertaining, but in terms of music, it wasn’t the most interesting selection of sounds, and we got the distinct impression that Derek Smith is aware of how little effort he needs to exert in order to placate his fans. He fared best with the slower grooves, but while the tempo never got hasty, the faster-paced beats were repetitive and featured very little meaningful development. Smith would generally switch things up with little thought concerning transitions or just let the music peter out, and his banter (as with most modern DJs) was beyond pointless. It was a perfectly fine medicated dance party to close out a Saturday night, but it was one of the least imaginative DJ sets we’ve seen in a while.