The Hold Steady and The Roots at Summerfest
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Taking in a show at Summerfest is a lot like dry humping: sweaty, frustrating, more than a little bit embarrassing, and something better left to pimply, disagreeable teens. It’s an activity whose appeal continues to mystify me on a yearly basis. Between the clueless suburban boobs and the flip-flop-wearing nincompoops, I find precious little enjoyment in seeing live music at Summerfest. Of all my years attending The Big Gig, only two shows in recent memory stand out as enjoyable: They Might Be Giants, where I was clearly the only fan old enough to vote; and The Zombies, where I was the only person within a 20 bleacher radius not sporting a graying ponytail and a pair of BluBlockers. Aside from these two anomalies, my Summerfest experiences have been nothing less than long, sweaty nightmares of ugly crowds and hopelessly awful cover bands. Oh, and never-ending afternoon sets from Dread Zeppelin.
But what of The Hold Steady, a band whose “townies gettin’ high in the ’90s” shtick seems custom-built for Summerfest? Actually, it’s this very thing that bugs me about the band, along with its gimmicky, self-conscious “We’re having a great time and so are you!” vibe. It’s a problem I have with other self-appointed “party” bands as well (Andrew W.K., et al.): Have we really reached the point where we need permission to have fun at a rock show?
But you know what? Fuck all that, because after four beers, I was having fun at a rock show. Taking to the U.S. Cellular/Leinenkugel’s/FM 102.1/Honey Bunches Of Oats stage promptly at 10 p.m., The Hold Steady looked for all the world like doughy IT dudes on a three-day bender. “Hi, Summerfest. Let’s build something!” exclaimed lead singer Craig Finn before launching into—what else?—“Constructive Summer.” (Even four beers couldn’t keep me from rolling my eyes at that groaner.) The band sounded great, however, and songs like “Chips Ahoy!,” “Hot Soft Light,” and the new “Hurricane J” came off incredibly well in a live setting. The crowd loved it, and against my better judgment, I found myself caught up in the whole positive, communal, “building something this summer” atmosphere. Visions of tree houses and home-made Slip ‘n Slides danced through my head.
Following the undeniable monster hit, “Sequestered In Memphis,” I decided to split and check out The Roots. Braving the crushing crowds, the mystery goop raining down from the SkyGlider, and a cover band doing a horrible rendition of The Offspring’s “Gotta Get Away,” I arrived at the other end of the grounds. The crowd for The Roots was absolutely huge, seemingly stretching all to way to Lake Michigan. I managed to weasel my way onto a picnic table near the beer tent just in time for a 15 minute-long ?uestlove drum solo. “?uestlove! Maintaining pace on drums!” shouted lead MC Black Thought, much to the delight of the massive—and shockingly young—crowd. Even the sight of “Tuba Gooding Jr.” running frantically from one end of the stage to the other couldn’t keep my feelings of claustrophobia at bay. I headed back the way I came, passing the awful Offspring cover band once more before realizing that yes, dear God, it really was The Offspring.
Back at The Hold Steady, it was amazing just how threadbare the crowd was compared to The Roots. I arrived in time for Finn’s farewell: “Stay positive, Milwaukee! We’re The Hold Steady!” After staying positive for two minutes, we were treated to a three-song encore: the excellent “Hornets! Hornets!” “Stay Positive” (natch), and “How A Resurrection Really Feels.” There was something strangely anticlimactic about the whole thing, though, and as the lights turned on at 11:40 p.m., I couldn’t help but feel slightly let down. The crowd around me began to politely file out. The show was over. Nothing more to see.
I left Summerfest deflated and depressed. On my way out, however, I saw something that raised my spirits: Two drunken, flip-flop-wearing nincompoops stumbled past one of the fest’s many surly guitar buskers, calling out the familiar “Play some Skynyrd!” Incredibly, the busker obliged, and began to strum the opening chords to “Free Bird.” The Axe-smelling pair squealed in delight, high on their victory, and moved on. But before they got too far, they stopped, turned to each other, and nodded. Pulling out their wallets, they pushed their way back upstream through the exiting Summerfest crowd, back in the direction of the awaiting busker. Score one for the townies.