The return of Riverwest Fest: 49 bands, 8 venues, 2 days, 1 neighborhood
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It should come as no surprise that there are a lot more 1st-annual music festivals than there are 2nd-annual music festivals. Organizing such a large-scale event involves so many financial questions and logistical concerns that promoters are prone to burn out; but sometimes, in spite of all the headaches and hassles, a festival fills a void in such a way that not doing it again seems like a waste. Last year’s inaugural Riverwest Fest covered just such a gap, acting as a showcase for some of the city’s best and brightest underground bands, while at the same time celebrating one of Milwaukee’s most vibrant neighborhoods. This year’s installment, taking place December 16 and 17 at a variety of Riverwest venues, promises more of the same, except, well, even more.
“I think in some ways Riverwest has, not a bad reputation, but people can be a little nervous about the neighborhood,” says co-organizer of the festival Sean Heiser. “Something as simple as a two-day music festival that brings in a really diverse crowd and gets people walking around the area can bring a lot of good attention to the venues and the neighborhood.” With no location more than six blocks from any of the others, attendees are easily able to sample the entire spectrum of eclectic performance spaces that call the area home, including the lovably scuzzy Uptowner, the Cream City Collective, and Club Timbuktu, a venue not usually known for hosting rock acts.
But if the setting serves to highlight the neighborhood (it is Riverwest Fest after all), the sounds on display are much less beholden to geography, boasting 49 bands from all over Milwaukee. “I don’t really see Riverwest as owning this fest, because so many of these bands are from Bay View or the East Side,” says Heiser’s promoting partner Kelsey Kaufmann. “I just think it’s awesome that we’re able to collect everyone over on one side of town. Musically, both days are starting at Jackpot Gallery with acoustic shows, and from there they just kind of go off in different directions.”
“Different directions” would seem to be a key phrase here, since the festival incorporates local acts of every persuasion, including, to name just a few, the funky fusion of Fresh Cut Collective, the spacey sounds of Cyborg Fortress, and the heavy duty psych of Catacombz. The adventurous will have a lot to choose from, and shows are scheduled to give people options, but Kaufmann and Heiser were also savvy enough not to force fans of a particular genre to choose between their favorite groups by having their performances overlap. “We’re doing a show at the CCC with The Midnight Reruns—who’re kind of a ’70s-style punk band—with Burning Sons and Get Rad. Later that same night we’re having another show with Architects Of The Aftermath at Quarters, so they’re kind of linked by a similar sound,” says Kaufmann. “But if two shows are at the same time, if you want to see a band at Quarters and you want to see a band at Stonefly, it’s only two blocks, and if you have a wristband, you can jump back and forth.”
Just like last year, having a wristband is definitely advised; individual shows are $5, but spending $15 on a wristband grants you access to every gig at every venue, giving you the opportunity to stop and get to know bands you may not have otherwise made a point of seeing.
One thing that is different this year, however, is where the money spent actually goes. Last year’s festival was a fundraiser for an ambitious plan to transform part of the Jackpot Gallery into a legitimate, legal all-ages venue, something Milwaukee has a noticeable lack of. “All the money that was donated last year is still in its own account and has been saved for the idea of developing a space, but the overall cost to revamp that particular space into something we’d like was more than we hoped. So we’re still looking for other places and working to use those funds for that goal.” explains Heiser. “We were a little reluctant to go forward with the fest this year because of that,” adds Kaufmann. “Like, where’s the progress? But all these people kept contacting us and really encouraging us to just do an independent festival, so this year we’re not going with it as a benefit, but we’re still advocating for and working towards establishing a more all-ages musical community.”
Even though that lofty goal may, as of right now, remain unattained, there’s no doubt that the first Riverwest Fest was a rousing success when it came to bringing people together in the interest of celebrating Milwaukee music, the people who make it, and the places that support it. Happily, there’s no indication that things will be any different this time around, or, for that matter, the next.
(The full Riverwest Fest lineup can be found here.)