I think I mentioned in my preview of Summerfest how ridiculous the whole thing is. There’s more bands playing than one person could ever possibly need to see at one time, and they aren’t like little tiny bands you can walk into a random bar and see in any big city. These are names that you recognize, especially if you follow music like I do. Every genre is represented (except maybe classical-I don’t remember seeing any classical), often by a whole day of bands on a certain stage. This makes planning a bit difficult, but if you’re ok with winging it a little, there’s plenty to see.
My only real plan for the two days I was lucky enough to spend walking around the grounds was to see Yeah Yeah Yeahs on opening night at the Harley Davidson Roadhouse Stage. Other than that, I was perfectly fine wandering from stage to stage, checking out everything I could. There were a couple local Chicago bands that I wanted to see, but it wasn’t etched in stone or anything. Plus, because it is an outdoor fest, the weather can change your plans at any time. I rode the bus from Chicago to Milwaukee on Wednesday afternoon not knowing what was in store for me. I was excited about what I would see, but a little anxious because I was going alone and didn’t think I would be able to do the best reporting job acting as both observer and photographer. We’ll see if I did alright at the end of this piece.
I got off the bus at 4:30, went to my hotel to drop off my suitcase, and then took a taxi to the grounds. The area where the festival takes place feels no bigger than Grant Park in Chicago where Lollapalooza takes place. I got some heat right away from the guys at the gate because I guess I was going in the wrong entrance. I didn’t realize there was a separate one for Media, so I waited for the manager to come over and for someone to look inside my bag. Oddly, when the guy said that I had credentials the manager said “That’s fine then. As long as we can see the credentials.” But nobody checked to see if my ID matched the name or anything….I felt a little odd about that, but whatever. I got in and started making my way toward the stage where Yeah Yeah Yeahs would be headlining in about four hours.
There were tons of people already at the grounds. I think music started at 3:30 in the afternoon, so there were already plenty of drinks flowing and burgers being eaten. I walked around for a while, took some pictures of the crowd having fun. Listened to a DJ forcing the audience to do the harlem shake for the ten millionth time. Then I saw this:
So that’s world famous guitarist Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs waiting in line to get some Gelato from Peter Sciortino Bakery. I had been at the fest for about half an hour, and already I felt the whole thing was a wild success. I saw him a few more times walking around taking pictures, finally getting up the nerve to say hello about an hour later. He seemed like a nice guy. Not terribly chatty, but that’s not surprising when a random dude comes up and starts excitedly yelling in your face about how awesome you are. So that happened.
Post-Zinner I was feeling a bit peckish, so I decided to eat before Maximum Hedrum took the stage. There were about a million options to choose from, but I went with the tried and true pulled pork sandwich. Along with a bottle of water, this set me back $9.50, which I guess isn’t bad considering it’s a festival-no sides with the sandwich at that price, though? Come on! I sat down at one of the hundreds of picnic tables gathered around all the stages and ate alone while the older women next to me complained about the boys their daughters were seeing. I ate quickly.
While Maximum Hedrum was setting up I saw Zinner again. This time on stage talking to Derrick Green (the ebony half of MH). Here’s a little tidbit on info I was not privy to when I saw this show. Sam Spiegel (the ivory half) is Spike Jonze’s brother. Normally I would say that maybe there was some nepotism involved in getting these guys the opening slot for YYY’s, but no. Maximum Hedrum is too damn fun for me to make accusations like that.
Following in the very large footsteps of artists like Freestyle and Zapp & Roger, Maximum Hedrum is considered future funk, or as I call it “spank rock for robots.” With song titles like “Robosexual,” “Sext Lectures,” and “Girls With Other Lovers” you can probably guess what the majority of their content is about. It might be cliche if they weren’t so good at making it. The songs are very finely crafted-sometimes ranging from 80’s pop to metal screams in a matter of seconds. Earlier this year they put out their self-titled LP, and it’s a ton of fun.
At the end of their set, I sat down right where I was taking pics from (rookie mistake number 1) and started flipping through the photos so that I could delete the ones that were obviously bad. I had to do this because I only had one memory card with me (rookie mistake number 2). While I was seated a group of younger people (maybe 21) came and sat by me. A couple of them were freaking out about getting to see Karen O for the first time. I asked them if they’d seen Zinner walking around the grounds earlier. They seemed shocked that someone like that would just hang around, but I told them that he seemed nice enough and they couldn’t believe that I had talked to him. Since they kept mentioning that they wished they were closer to the stage, I decided to regale them with the tale of the first time I saw YYY’s play in Chicago way, way back in 2003 before Fever To Tell came out. I told them about how the distance between me and the stage was basically the same as the distance we were sitting apart. They were hanging on every word, which was nice since when I usually tell this story the listener says “yeah I know. You told me like five times.”
Like those kids, I also wish I had been closer to the YYY’s set. If I had been smart I would have taken that time between the two acts to move up a couple rows. As the crew was setting the stage, all the lights went down and there was a fireworks show. I’ve never been big on fireworks, so while everyone was turned around looking up at the sky, I was trying to plot a way to get up toward the band. No luck, though. By this time it was packed pretty tight and I was stuck where I was. Everyone was standing on top of the bleachers, and apparently I was in the land of the giants because everyone in front of me was at least a few inches above me. My line of sight for photos was compromised so I had to make due with what I could get.
I’ve been pretty down on YYY’s since the release of It’s Blitz. Their first record has been one of my favorites since it came out, and I really didn’t like the watered down, pop-centric direction they were talking with Show Your Bones, but it came to a head with Blitz. When Mosquito came out back in March, I was thrilled to find that they were reaching back to some of their earlier influences and putting more rock behind the songs. I haven’t seen the band live since that first show a decade ago, so I was hoping for the best. What I got was way better than I expected.
Common thought at a show is that the band is going to lean heavily on material from their latest release and throw in some hits from the others. Normally this is true. But festivals are different. Festival sets are made to keep the party going. So YYY’s only played a couple tunes off of Mosquito. That’s ok. They opened with “Sacrilege” and I immediately knew I was in for a good show. Karen seemed on top of it performance-wise, even if she didn’t know what day it was (literally she said “Thanks for coming out on this Tuesday night-wait. What day is it? WEDNESDAY!”). They blazed through an hour and fifteen minute set in what seemed like an instant.
They covered all three previous records, even playing a good amount from FTT. They did a great version of “Date With The Night,” “Cold Light,” “Pin,” and “Maps.” They also hit all the big numbers like “Zero,” “Runaway,” “Gold Lion,” and “Heads Will Roll.” The one really slowed down moment came when Karen sang “Despair” from the new album. The crowd was so quiet it was eerie. Brian Chase might have actually been the most impressive thing about the show. Musically I think he’s come the farthest since the early days. His drumming was just on point every step of the way.
One thing I could do without, and this may seem like blasphemy to die hards, is Karen’s gimmick where she puts the mic in her mouth. I mean, if you’re gonna do it, just do it once and be done with it. I think I counted five times where this happened. On the other hand, the swinging the mic around the head I don’t mind. Especially if it ends in smashing the mic on the ground at the end of the set, as it did at the end of the “Date With The Night” encore.
It was around 11:20 when I followed the large group of folks out to the grounds exit. Diplo was still going at the stage next to ours, but I was tired enough that I didn’t care to stay. Also, kind of hungry. Unfortunately the only thing within a mile of the hotel I was staying at was a Wendy’s and it was closed when I got back in the area. I flipped through some of the pictures from YYY’s set before bed, and I was really upset with how they came out. I ended up posting an album with about 40 pics, but some of those are stretches. I was pretty happy with a couple of them, though. For the angles that I had, anything that looked decent was a miracle.
Thursday was pretty wide open for me. I got up around ten or so, walked over to Wendy’s at 11:30 for lunch, and then started getting ready to head out. I got to the park at about 2:30 or 3 and there were some ominous clouds hanging over. It was so humid that I felt like I was walking through little droplets of water in the air. I went in to a different entry this time, and the people weren’t as cool as the ones the day before. They told me I needed to go in Gate 6. Just keep walking and you’ll see it they said. So I started walking. And Walking. And walking. Eventually I came to a service entrance/parking lot that had a small Gate 6 sign on it. I walked in and there was no one to check my credentials, look in my bag, search me for weapons, or anything like that. I could have been hiding anything in my bag, but no one seemed to care. When I got up to where the actual festival starts, the rain was coming down.
I pulled out my umbrella and made my way toward the one place I knew was covered-the Johnson Controls World Stage. The rain lasted about an hour or so, and I just hung out in the safety under the roof. The band on stage was The Mali Blues Band (based out of Milwaukee). They were pretty good, but at a certain point every song sounded the same. Like they were the Malian Dave Matthews Band. People were digging it pretty well. Lots of people dancing and grooving on what they were laying down. After a while I couldn’t wait to get out of there, but I needed to talk to the stage manager about getting my photo pass for Amadou & Mariam’s set later that night. So I hung out and once they were done jamming I got my pass and moved on.
I wanted to see Aktar Aktar over at the US Cellular Stage, but they were playing during the rain and I didn’t feel like standing out in the downpour (sorry guys). Another Chicago band was playing at 5:30, so I headed over to that stage and took a seat in the middle of the audience. Blood Red Boots have a new album coming out in a week or so, and I really enjoyed their set. I saw them open for Molehill here in Chicago last year and thought they were really good. Since then they’ve had a song played in a CW show, and got some other nice buzz going. Their live performances are a good time and audiences seem to dig them.
There was about an hour before the next band I wanted to check out on the same stage, so I took the opportunity to find something to eat. I grabbed a taco from one of the many vendors, and it wasn’t a very good taco. In fact, it was a bad taco. The steak was squishy and the ratio of squishy meat to lettuce was not ideal. I ate it all because I was hungry, but I knew I would have to find something else later.
Capital Cities was the next band to check out. They were playing the opening slot for Atlas Genius, but I wasn’t sure how many people knew them so I didn’t think it would be tough to get a good spot. As it turns out, every single person at Summerfest decided to check out this set. Somehow I managed to get a fairly decent spot by going all the way around to the far side of the crowd and then squeezing my way around people (not easy with a giant camera bag). I got right behind the first row of bleachers, and then got even luckier when a guy and his girlfriend decided to leave because she was too drunk to stand up on her own. I jumped up in their place and got my camera ready for some pics.
I’d only heard one or two songs by Capital Cities, but I really liked their performance. They did four covers, one of which was Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” as the opener. Like Maximum Hedrum, they mix these great beats with often hilarious lyrics and just have fun with it. The crowd was much more familiar with the music than I was. At one point the girls in front of me started crying (like, seriously crying) when they played the song “Safe And Sound.” It sounds a bit like Passion Pit with a trumpet thrown in to make it different. Still a good song. Their album In A Tidal Wave Of Mystery came out earlier this year, and it’s actually a pretty good record. I would highly recommend seeing these guys live. Had a great time watching them, and they seem to enjoy interacting with the crowd. During their last song they left the stage and went into the photo pit. Jumping up and down and high-fiving people in the audience the whole time.
After Capital Cities I decided that I really wanted a funnel cake. I had seen someone with one earlier in the day, and it looked so delicious that I had to have one. There was about an hour before the next thing for me to see, so I decided to take a walk to the other side of the grounds, which I hadn’t been to yet. The really big acts play on stages that are a little different than the others. The BMO Harris Bank Pavillion and Marcus Ampitheater are next to each other on the far end of the grounds, and this is where you’ll find your Tom Petty’s or Luke Bryan’s. On this night the band you would find over there was fun. As I was walking I realized that there was a line forming, but we were far, far away from where fun. was playing. Certainly this couldn’t be the line.
As I continued my journey to find a funnel cake, it became clear that this was, in fact, the line to see fun. I kept walking, finally arriving at the end of the park without seeing any funnel cakes. I turned around and headed back toward the main area and got myself a burger and tater tots. The tots were great, the burger not so much. I brought these into the safe confines of the Johnson Controls World Stage where I could eat without worrying about the rain that had been coming off and on throughout the day. Also because Amadou & Mariam would seen be up on stage, and I didn’t want to be late.
I got up into the photo pit where there was one other shooter, an older gentleman who definitely wasn’t attending his first rodeo. I was nervous and fidgety, but he was cool as a cucumber. I kept checking my settings, trying to decide which lens to use first, he just chilled texting on his phone. Or maybe he was trying to figure out how to work his phone-a reality I would be much more happy with. He looked a bit like Larry Charles, but I’m sure it wasn’t him (or was it?).
Looking out into the crowd, I was a bit disheartened to see that the place wasn’t half full. Lots of other attractions at the festival, I know, but these two have been making great music since before most of the acts were born. I really love their last two albums, as they cross generations with guest singers like Santigold, Jake Shears from Scissor Sisters, Theophilius London, and K’naan. Welcome To Mali is one of my favorites of the past decade, and I urge everyone to give it a listen.
Their band sounded great, and Amadou was playing with the zeal of a man a quarter his age, but with the skill of a master. After three songs, Mariam left the stage for a while and Amadou was left to jam with the guys backing them up. They really turned up the heat at this point and the crowd was going nuts, dancing and screaming from the bleachers. It was shortly after this point that I decided it was probably time for me to leave and see if I could get a decent spot to catch some of Talib Kweli’s set. Not that I didn’t want to see Amadou & Mariam, but the fans were a little “too” into it for me.
I took the back way over to the Harley Davidson Roadhouse Stage and ended up about halfway back in the crowd. Worst case scenario I can’t see and I just leave and head to the hotel for an extra hour of sleep before I have to get up to make my 6am bus back to Chicago. I decided to make a grand attempt and head toward the front on the side. Sure enough there was a gap in the very front off to stage left. I pulled out my camera and tried to get some shots. They weren’t great, but it was better than nothing.
I just saw Kweli at Double Door back in April, and I really enjoy his live style. He had a full band when I saw him before, but for Summerfest it was just him and a DJ. That was fine with me because it allowed him to perform a bit more freely. He’s the master of the “Yo! Stop the track!” move, and he pulled it out numerous times while I was watching. He likes to talk to the crowd a lot, and he really gets people into the show. He also tends to do songs from one album consecutively, so he’ll say “Who knows Beautiful Struggle?” And then the crowd erupts and he says, “Alright! Then you’re gonna love this. Let’s go!” So he’ll do two or three songs off that album. It’s a smart way to go about it I think.
Kweli also does a lot of medleys. He’ll start on a song and go into something else after a verse or so. The songs he did at Summerfest covered a good chunk of his discography, including his take on Kanye’s “I Am A God.” He asked the people where the afterparty was gonna be and when no one responded he said “I guess I’ll start the afterparty right now.” Then he launched into a nine minute mashup.
I took off before his set ended, but I was satisfied with what I saw. Looking at my phone I knew I would be a wreck at work the next morning if I stayed any later. As I walked past the Miller Lite Stage on my way out I caught the last part of Dropkick Murphy’s set, which seemed to be very well-attended. I went through the gates for the last time and snapped some photos of the crowd leaving, all happy with the great time they just shared.
Two days was nowhere near long enough to enjoy everything Summerfest has to offer, but it was definitely enough for me to know it’s a great time for anyone who enjoys music. If you’re interested in seeing full albums of pics from each of the bands I mentioned, check out our Facebook page.