Summerfest's final weekend: Silversun Pickups, Devo, Modest Mouse, a little vomit, and America
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As I sat on a picnic table near Summerfest’s Miller Lite Oasis stage on Saturday night, waiting for Long Beach, California’s Avi Buffalo to begin what would prove to be a lovely, delightful, and thoroughly unappreciated set, a woman next to me was rattling off her favorite live shows. “Def Leppard, Poison, Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe,” she recited cheerfully. “Oh, and Kiss.” Reflecting on the twee, decidedly non-umlaut music that lay in store for us, it was all I could do to keep from saying, “Lady, you’re sitting on the wrong set of picnic tables.”
But before I get to Avi Buffalo, let me back up. After catching some flak for having only a so-so time at last Thursday’s Hold Steady show, and for describing Summerfest as nothing more than a sweaty pit of unwashed, yelping Morlocks, I decided to lighten the fuck up. (Are you happy now, Mom?) So, as I entered the gates of the Henry Maier Festival Grounds on Saturday afternoon—a warm, cloudless, perfect afternoon—I made a promise to stay positive and get in the spirit of things, and not to dwell on the fact that the entire place smelled like a deep-fried toilet covered in roasted nuts and B.O. I pledged to focus on all the good things the Big Gig had to offer, and not on the teeth-impaired buffoons across from me who accidentally poured beer on their three-week-old baby. I swore to seek out only what was pure and true in the fest, and not write about the dude wearing an Ed Hardy shirt who felt up his girlfriend’s tits for 10 minutes. While she gave him a hand-job through the front pocket of his shorts. During the fireworks. In front of a family of six.
Nope, I would leave all those fun details—and so much more!—wholly unremarked, a decision made all the more easy by a wonderfully incongruous set from Avi Buffalo. From the get-go, it was apparent that this was a band that had no business playing the Miller Lite Oasis at 8 p.m. on a Saturday. A stage usually reserved for the hip, cutting-edge sounds of 311 and Gavin Rossdale, the Oasis lies smack-dab in the middle of the Summerfest grounds. Erratic picnic table dancing, ill-advised cleavage, and every other awful—er, I mean awesome—Summerfest cliché is par for the course there, making a group like Avi Buffalo seem especially out of place.
The band is awfully young—not one of its members can legally drink. But instead of succumbing to those weaknesses, the group seemed to relish in them. Lead singer Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg refused to dial down his band’s self-described “soft, wussy music,” and peppered the hour-long set with adorable “Rawr!” monster noises. In the end, the four members of Avi Buffalo came off like a group of frazzled Muppet Babies, lost in the big city and constantly giving each other a series of noogies.
Starting off with “Truth Sets In”—the leadoff track from its self-titled 2010 Sub Pop debut—Avi Buffalo immediately faced an uphill battle. Greeted with virtually no applause from the sun burnt, beer-addled masses, the group soldiered on, taking the frequent crowd screams of “Slayer!” in stride. (“We’re sorry Slayer couldn’t make it,” Zahner-Isenberg deadpanned.) Though the group displayed musical chops well beyond its young years, its stage demeanor remained adorably amateurish. Following the excellent, “What’s In It For?” Zahner-Isenberg even apologized to the restless crowd for counting his songs off too fast, adding, “We have a 75-minute set to fill. That’s a little more than we’re used to.”
One of the group’s signature tunes, “Summer Cum” soon followed, garnering a respectable response. “I’ve waited for your love/I got lost in your summer cum/Leave all your stains with me.” Far from off-putting, the song’s frank reportage of clumsy, youthful, blissed-out sexuality was refreshing, even if the crowd was unaware of just how perfectly matched it was to the surrounding Summerfest proceedings. Better yet was the trilogy of “Can’t I Know?” “Where’s Your Dirty Mind?” and “We’re Getting Too Old For This,” three songs that exemplified the group’s accomplished musicianship. Set closer “Remember Last Time,” on the other hand, unfortunately ran aground. Zahner-Isenberg stopped the song cold after only 10 seconds—again with the adorable amateurishness!—complaining of tuning problems. After finally finishing up the song, the band was rewarded with only tepid applause from the rank-and-file Summerfest crowd, as well as a few more “Slayer!” catcalls.
Giving up my choice seating before the influx of Modest Mouse fans snatched it out from under me anyway, I headed to the lakefront for the fireworks. Normally, I’m a big fan of The Big Bang, but I’d be lying if I said this year’s show was a rousing success. Weak, spotty, and poorly timed (more than once did long minutes of dead air bookend the explosions), the display was sadly underwhelming. Oh, and there was that dude getting a reacharound from his girlfriend. (Did someone say, “Sounds like my wedding night!” Thank you, I’ll be here all week!)
Pushing my way through throngs of grumbling fireworks enthusiasts, I returned to the Miller Lite Oasis just in time for Modest Mouse. Bathed in searing lights and bursting flash-pots that rivaled the still-sputtering light show over the lake, the group sounded terrific. “Float On” came early in the set, leading to dozens of amazed “Hey, I love this song!” exclamations from the crowd. Unfortunately, this very same crowd was positively massive and unruly, and after getting elbowed in the neck for the 19th time, I decided to cut out.
Over at the Potawatomi Bingo Casino Stage & Pavilion, things were a little more manageable. The great Levon Helm—he of The Band fame—was holding court there, his drum kit flanked by a joyous, riotous 12-piece group. A healthy crowd of both graying retirees and beer-hoisting college students danced along to Helm and Co., unashamed and unembarrassed. Before long, around the inevitable sing-along staple "The Weight," even I found myself wrapped up in the group’s infectious spirit. (Matt Wild)
Just before Gainesville, Fla.’s Against Me! hit the U.S. Cellular Connection stage, a woman—clearly a radio personality of some sort—came onstage and played up the band’s left political leanings. “What better way to celebrate the Fourth than with a little anarchy?” She must have really stirred the crowd up, because vocalist-guitarist Tom Gabel was dodging some seriously anarchistic beach ball tossing during galloping rocker “Thrash Unreal.” Viva la Summerfest!
While Gabel’s head-rattling howl definitely made an impression, the MVP of Against Me!’s set was ex-Hold Steady member Franz Nicolay, a recent addition to the band’s line-up. Whether he was hammering away at his keys on “I Was A Teenage Anarchist” or picking up an accordion for “Pints Of Guinness Make You Strong,” Nicolay’s big, Papa Smurf grin added a bit of fun to the band’s somewhat joyless performance. Offering no stage banter, Gabel led Against Me! through its set quickly, before encoring with crowd favorite “Baby I’m An Anarchist.”
Before heading over to the Miller Lite Oasis stage for the mighty Devo, I was distracted by an unusual scene at an arcade tent. On one side, about six security guards had a petite young woman—who must’ve been on some combination of steroids and PCP to merit the attention of six guards—forcefully pinned to the ground. Like the radio lady said, what better way to celebrate the Fourth, right?
If anyone was worried, Devo’s newer silver suits leave them just as equipped to deal with radioactive waste as the old uniforms. As the band ripped through set-opener “Don’t Shoot (I’m A Man)” from this year’s underrated Something For Everybody, synth wizards Bob and Gerald Casale danced all over the rhythmic backbone constructed by drummer Josh Freese. Bespectacled vocalist Mark Mothersbaugh’s signature staccato howl sounded plenty anxious as he repeatedly yelped, “Don’t taze me, bro!” The 40-something standing behind me, wearing Devo’s signature red “energy dome” hat and a full waste-handling suit, seemed to wiggle with approval during the infectious guitar hooks of “Fresh,” as I was entranced by the plethora of fruits and vegetables that flashed on the massive screen behind the band.
It was tough to peel myself away from Devo’s infectious nerdiness, but I did jump over to the Silversun Pickups’ set for a few songs. As I watched the sleepy pop-rock of “Little Lover’s So Polite,” I couldn’t help but think back to that Against Me! set and wonder if this was why Gabel seemed so annoyed. His strongly political rock band, complete with mini-sermons printed on its amp cabinets, has to endure a whole tour with these innocuous balladeers. The feather-touch vocals of vocalist-guitarist Brian Aubert give the band a sound similar to Placebo undergoing a Muzak enema, which is probably how the Pickups earned the biggest draw of the night. After a couple more songs that sounded virtually identical in their melodramatic, synth-laden soppiness, I had back over to Devo, only to find Mothersbaugh taking his pants off and throwing them into the crowd.
The diversity of Devo’s audience was pretty remarkable. There were old school ex-new wavers in business casual attire dancing next to crusty punks shouting along to “Gates Of Steel.” I also saw a fat skinhead (wearing a T-shirt of some hatecore band), two-stepping on a picnic table. Who says Devo’s social commentary can’t be enjoyed by the far right?
After the band ripped through the classic “Freedom Of Choice,” Gerald Casale warned that “you’ve gotta use that freedom of choice or you’re going to lose it. It seems to be going fast in this here land. While this holiday is about blowing stuff up, arms off of bodies, we want to do something beautiful.” With that, Mothersbaugh returned to the stage as Booji Boy—a costume built from an oversized hockey jersey and a creepy mask of a human face—and the band blasted into the brutally sarcastic set-closer “Beautiful World.” As Booji Boy, Mothersbaugh ripped through the song in a piercing falsetto voice and told some awesome bullshit story about hanging out with Michael Jackson, going to the Neverland Ranch, and petting his llamas. From there, I walked back to the flyer bus and hoped I wouldn’t step in the same pile of vomit I’d found earlier. (Joel Shanahan)