Verge Music Festival
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Opinion was divided about the Verge Music Festival before the two-day modern-rock and indie band extravaganza introduced itself to the Milwaukee summer festival season this weekend. Some hoped it would bring an element of youth and contemporary flavor to Summerfest’s otherwise boomer-centric offerings; others scoffed at a lineup that paled in comparison to other regional festivals like Pitchfork and Lollapalooza, or even the usual fare served up by the Pabst Foundation venues.
Now that the first (and hopefully not the last) installment of Verge is in the history books, it appears that the festival’s biggest non-fan was Mother Nature; while the rainy forecast for Friday thankfully didn’t come to fruition, the showers came Saturday right about the time that most people would’ve otherwise planned to show up to catch the weekend’s biggest headliners, Weezer and AFI. While the spotty weather was great for beer and bathroom lines, it likely will be significantly less great for attendance figures.
Still, when I visited Verge on Friday—I decided to skip Weezer’s mystifying teen-pop performance-art act after seeing it at The Rave/Eagles Ballroom six months ago—there seemed to be plenty of enthusiasm and goodwill for an event that was trying valiantly to bridge the increasingly precarious gap between indie-rock preciousness and modern-rock dude-ism. The not-quite-compatible mix of bands led to some fascinating juxtapositions: There were guys in Slayer T-shirts softly bobbing their heads to wispy singer-songwriter Reni Lane (who sounded even more slight backed only by a drum machine), and She & Him fans restlessly waiting out a set by forgettable L.A. dunderheads Crash Kings, who sounded like The Fray covering Night Ranger (except when they were covering Black Sabbath on a shamefully wussy version of “War Pigs”).
She & Him was obviously one of the magnet acts of the festival, and the sizeable audience gathered under the sweaty, greenhouse-style pavilion at the Fringe Stage was one of the largest assembled for Friday. Apparently, I’m one of the few people on this planet to have heard She & Him without being the least bit charmed. A lot of this has to do with Zooey Deschanel’s voice, which I don’t like because it happens to be terrible. But Deschanel’s “ain’t-I-a-cutie?” posturing also puts me off; she might sing with a warbly twang that’s intended to recall ballsy country belters like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, but her lack of grit and genuine soul makes it all ring so deadeningly hollow. But, again, I’m clearly alone on this one: While seeing Deschanel bop around the stage with a tambourine inspired the opposite of fawning, moon-eyed affection in my belly, just about every other dude in my radius was transfixed like it was the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Just remember what happened to the Nazis in that movie, guys.
If She & Him were as stimulating as a lukewarm can of Diet Coke, Eagles Of Death Metal surged with the power of uncut cocaine. On record, EoDM have been repeating themselves with diminishing returns since their stellar 2004 debut Peace Love Death Metal; live, they repeat every gloriously cheesy rock cliché you’ve ever rolled your eyes at, not the least of which is frontman Jesse Hughes’ epically bushy mustache, which makes him look like young Wilford Brimley on a meth bender. “Every night is ladies night with Eagles Of Death Metal,” Hughes declared after taking the stage 15 minutes late (of course), which was all the reason he needed to periodically give shout-outs to all the “lay-days!” in the audience. While Hughes had the winking rock doofus schtick down cold, he also seemed sincerely happy to be there, saying at one point that he felt “like a million dollars wrapped in a solid gold $100 bill.” High praise indeed.
Also happy to be at Verge this weekend were the wealth of Milwaukee bands on the bill, including Jaill, Juniper Tar, Red Knife Lottery, 1956, Invade Rome, and The Wildbirds. One of the better overall performances of the whole festival came from local act The Championship, whose evolution from a high and lonesome alt-country band to anthemic arena rockers suited Verge perfectly. Verge deserves props for mixing Milwaukee bands in with the national headliners, and The Championship justified this with a rampaging performance marked by squalling guitars and inspired earnestness.