Who's afraid of Summerfest? Not local music clubs
Once upon a time, the city of Milwaukee virtually shut down during the run of Summerfest. Local venues stood dark as the Big Gig drew hundreds of thousands of people to Milwaukee’s lakefront. Who would bother to stand up against the all-encompassing power and reach of Summerfest? Well, this year at least, there are a surprisingly high number of bookers willing to gamble on Summerfest counter-programming. The number of standout club shows by touring bands would be high even for a normal week; during Summerfest, it’s sort of mind-blowing.
Music lovers that decide to ditch the opening days of Summerfest will have the option of checking out indie-folk outfit Crooked Fingers at Club Garibaldi or drone-addled psych-rock band Woven Bones at Frank's Power Plant on Thursday, thunderously loud hard-rockers Sleepy Sun at Cactus Club on Friday, funk-jazz combo The Wood Brothers at Shank Hall or charming indie-pop group The Daredevil Christopher Wright at Cactus on Saturday, and agro-rapper Cage at Vnuk’s on Sunday. As if all that wasn’t enough, there’s also the fifth-anniversary party for Dusty Medical Records Friday and Saturday at Club Garibaldi. The Milwaukee label is responsible for releasing some of the best rock ’n’ roll records in this town in the past several years, including the new Midwest Beat album and the upcoming release by Call Me Lightning.
Dusty Medical label head Kevin Meyer says it’s a coincidence that the anniversary shows were booked the opening weekend of Summerfest, but he’s not discouraged by the competition. (He also booked the Woven Bones concert at Frank’s.) While the Dusty Medical shows also take place the same days as Tom Petty’s headlining gigs at Marcus Amphitheater—probably the only Marcus performer that intersects with Meyer’s audience—the notion of local bars going dark during the Big Gig “seems bizarre to me,” particularly when it comes to bands that appeal to a younger or slightly left-of-the-mainstream audience, Meyer tells A.V. Club Milwaukee.
“It’s not like Pitchfork is coming to town. You don’t not book Woven Bones because Pat McCurdy is playing,” Meyer said, referring to one of Summerfest’s side-stage staples. “I think it’s important to have an alternative to Summerfest because there’s a lot of people that have no interest in going there.”
It’s hard to argue against Meyer’s point, even if Summerfest has done a better job this year with booking more contemporary talent at Marcus and the side stages. For local blogger and booker Ryan Matteson, who’s doing the Crooked Fingers and Daredevil Christopher Wright shows, booking clubs during Summerfest has more to do with seizing enticing concert opportunities when they’re available than providing an alternative Milwaukee’s biggest annual music festival.
“With Crooked Fingers, it was more a matter of, ‘I really want this band to play this city, and I don’t know when I’ll get the chance again,’” Matteson says. “I’m sure there will be great bands at Summerfest on both nights. It’s just a testament that a lot of bands want to come to Milwaukee now.”
Even with all the impressive club options this weekend, nobody is under any illusions that it will cut significantly into Summerfest’s audience. It’s likely many people will check out both Summerfest and one of the club shows this weekend. The biggest winner here is clearly the local music consumer, who won’t be hurting for choices for the next several days.