The 5 worst Milwaukee concerts of 2010
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When it comes to live music in Milwaukee, I’m an incredibly lucky guy, so much so that I occasionally feel guilty about it. If I weren’t already a degenerate merch-table whore, I’d feel inclined to make up for all the guestlist spots I’m offered throughout the year by buying a vinyl record or a T-shirt. (Instead, I buy that stuff because I really want it.) I also try to never lose sight of the fact that the performers on stage are talented, courageous people generously sharing their art with me—I appreciate that, even when the art doesn’t move me.
It's part of my job to check out bands and give an honest opinion about them. Sometimes, the music just isn’t up to snuff, and I have to try to figure out why. On balance, I liked more shows than I disliked in 2010, but if we’re going to count down the good, then we might as well count down the bad as well. Here are five gigs that let me down this year, in chronological order.
1. Girls, April 11, Pabst Theater
Sometimes I get frustrated by the knee-jerk contrarianism that’s deeply ingrained in the Milwaukee music community, because it occasionally holds the city back from embracing worthwhile touring bands that fall under the dreaded “music that Pitchfork likes” umbrella. Other times, however, I’m proud of Milwaukee’s bullshit detector, which went off before this sparsely attended Girls show from early spring. As A.V. Club reviewer Matt Wild noted, it “would have been better mounted in the close quarters of the Cactus Club instead of the massive elegance of the Pabst.” But even at Cactus, the heavily hyped Girls would’ve come off as wan indie-rockers with more promotional hooks—lead singer Christopher Owens grew up in a cult!—than pop hooks. The appeal of Owens’s callow songwriting and mealy-mouthed vocals eludes me, though Girls was well received by the small but committed gaggle of fans that turned out. As for me, I could’ve left after the thrilling and sexy opening set by the Dum Dum Girls, who had the advantage (along with better songs) of being actual, you know, girls.
2. Midlake, May 24, Turner Hall
I spilled a lot of ink before this show talking up Midlake’s underrated 2010 record, The Courage Of Others, in order to convince people to check out these Ren-Faire folkies when they came to town. So I felt especially disappointed when Midlake proved to be such a dispiritingly lethargic live band. On record, singer-songwriter Tim Smith affects an entrancing air of lonely-guy mystery that’s reminiscent of a dead man singing dire tales of past disasters from beyond the grave. Live, however, he just sounds miserable. Worse, Midlake’s precious adherence to English folk traditions seemed embarrassingly precious in the flesh. I know this is coming several months too late, but it must be said: Sorry I steered you wrong, guys.
3. MGMT, June 20, Riverside Theater
After releasing one of the most unanimously adored debut albums of recent years, MGMT bent over backward to alienate its audience with the coldly insular and vaguely hostile Congratulations. I appreciated Congratulations more than a lot of critics, but “appreciate” isn’t quite the same thing as “like,” and the push and pull of admiring MGMT’s ambition and yet yearning for grabbier songs really set in during this frequently frustrating concert from early summer. At that time of the year, you want pleasurable confections like “Electric Feel,” not the chilly head music of “It’s Working,” but MGMT’s commitment to the difficult Congratulations material steered the set away from the band’s most energetic hits. The audience remained patient, if not all that engaged, as it waited for the monster hit “Kids,” which MGMT finally delivered karaoke-style over a pre-recorded backing track. It was an appropriately perfunctory end to a wholly unsatisfying experience.
4. The Hold Steady, July 1, Summerfest
It pains me to say it, because I count The Hold Steady as one of my favorite rock groups of the last five years, but the Brooklyn band had a rough 2010, putting out the middling Heaven Is Whenever and—judging from this flat and shockingly rote performance at The Big Gig—struggling to find its on-stage identity in the wake of keyboardist Franz Nicolay’s departure. Craig Finn might be the most unabashedly happy singer in rock ’n’ roll, gesticulating wildly like a geeky fan that’s somehow been hired to front a grizzled arena-rock outfit. But his “there’s so much joy in what we do up here” act just felt really forced this time around, perhaps because Heaven sounds like the work of a band self-consciously trying to be “uplifting” when its previous records achieved transcendence without sweating so hard about it.
5. Farm Aid, Oct. 2, Miller Park
Day-long benefit concerts like Farm Aid are inherently hit-or-miss affairs, with plenty of good (Jeff Tweedy, Jamey Johnson, papa bear Willie Nelson) mixed with a whole lot of bad (Dave Matthews and his poor, strummed-the-shit-out-of guitar). Unfortunately, the hits at Farm Aid didn’t make nearly the impression that the misses did: While Band Of Horses turned in a fine set, it was no match for the awfulness of Jason Mraz, who slipped American farmers some Rohypnol and promised to grow them “a Garden Of Eden” in the criminally stupid “Frank D. Fixer.” It was nice to see heartland-signifier-for-life John Mellencamp bring some actual rock ’n’ roll to this otherwise staid, sternly unplugged affair, but he couldn’t make up for clueless beach bum Kenny Chesney, who preached environmental activism while casually mentioning that he was whisked in and out of Milwaukee via private jet. With “friends” like this, no wonder American farmers have suffered so much.