From Lizzo to Lonely Island, here's the best and worst of Summerfest 2019 in Milwaukee so far
It was quite the roller-coaster ride for Summerfest's 52nd year in its first half, from claims of bigotry from a major star, to a huge storm, and to a surprise on-stage appearance from a baseball giant (figuratively and literally).
Here's what's stood out at the world's largest music festival in Milwaukee so far, both good and bad.
Most memorable set
Naturally, a lot of focus on the Lonely Island's rare live show was on the guest appearances by Jose Canseco and T-Pain.
But Island's show would have been a tremendous success even if those celeb cameos had never happened. Comedy is incredibly hard in an environment like Summerfest, and to make matters more challenging, Andy Samberg's comedy rap trio drew one of the largest crowds we've ever seen on a side stage, including folks there largely to catch a star from TV.
And despite those challenges, there were big laughs from an enthusiastic crowd, for dumb fun songs like "I Just Had Sex," to a smart takedown of male white privilege and cultural appropriation, "Ras Trent." Jorma Taccone did an intentionally terrible rap as Brett Favre, while Samberg meekly performed a few bars of Travis Scott's "Sicko Mode" as his nervous introvert Shy Ronnie.
And a simultaneously stupid and brilliant montage of dramatic shooting deaths in cinema history — from "Of Mice and Men," "Pulp Fiction" and more — with guns replaced by cats shooting lasers from their eyes made me cry from laughing so hard.
Fun as the Lonely Island's show was, musical talent had little to do with that. In terms of a best performance, based on musicianship, that'd have to be Alison Krauss. She's not the most decorated woman in Grammy history for nothing, with sweet fiddle skills, an angelic voice as adept at inspiration as it is at heartbreak, and a sharp bluegrass band to match. What an incredible shame her performance, at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater for the Outlaw Music Festival, was at 3:15 p.m. on a Thursday in front of a lot of empty seats.
Our reviewers' favorites (so far)
Cal Roach loved Lizzo, like everyone who packed the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse to see her. "To hear her voice is to be caught up in her indomitable spirit," he wrote, adding that Lizzo "becomes a more impressive singer each time she passes through."
Before Thursday's rainstorm ended the fun early, Catherine Jozwik was impressed by Steve Earle & the Dukes. The bad weather also affected Brandy Clark's set; she went on an hour later than planned Thursday, but one of country music's finest songwriters was also one of Summerfest's best performers, said Erik Ernst.
Indie-rock stalwarts Guided by Voices brought "consistent tunefulness" and "dynamic instrumentation" to a matinee set, wrote Jon M. Gilbertson. And Damon Joy was not only impressed with T-Pain's handling of his hits, but also his finesse, likening the rapper and singer to a gazelle. (Mr. Pain also danced when he performed with the Lonely Island, making his exit stage left via pirouette.)
The storm wasn't all bad for Summerfest performers. Zed Kenzo, one of the most exciting rappers in the city's thriving hip-hop scene, was blessed to perform at the sheltered Johnson Controls World Sound Stage Thursday.
"After an hour's weather delay and crowd chants of 'Let Zed Play,' … (she) put on an absolutely triumphant set, surely winning over lots of random folks who'd just ducked in seeking shelter from the storm," Roach said.
Most disappointing performances (so far)
The National is not known for putting on poor performances, but their Summerfest appearances was one of their rare duds. The band generally did the material justice, mustering up some extra energy for final songs like "Mr. November" and "Terrible Love," but too often, frontman Matt Berninger was checked out, even confessing at one point that he was really excited to get back to his family tomorrow following this final night of a long tour.
Also underwhelming: Counting Crows' Adam Duritz was overwrought during the band's set at the Outlaw Music Festival, and didn't fit very well with the mood of the day. And a terrible sound mix marred Carly Pearce's opening set for Jason Aldean and Kane Brown at the amphitheater, according to Ernst. But she still put on a good performance, given the circumstances.
Most depressing development
Lizzo loved her Summerfest performance, too, calling it the "best show ever," but what should have been a triumphant night was tarnished by an alleged incident between security and members of Lizzo's team, with the fast-rising star accusing a security guard of using hurtful language, calling him a "racist bigot," and saying he "slapped and manhandled my hair stylist and stylist." Summerfest vowed an investigation, and hopefully we'll find out what happened, so any potential steps needed to prevent something like this from happening again can take place.
Would you believe oft-precious Wisconsin folkies Bon Iver? During the deafening "10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄," a woman next to me stuck her fingers deep in her ears while a guy behind me clenched his teeth and grimaced in pain. I'm blessed with high-end earbuds, and my ears were still ringing from the visceral squall of sound.
Most committed performer
Weathers' Cameron Boyer didn't let a busted ankle keep him from taking the Uline Warehouse stage — or enthusiastically jumping around and kicking his bum leg, crutch in hand.
Most positive beer shout-out
New Glarus Brewing's Spotted Cow beer was mentioned and sipped not once, not twice, but thrice during Thomas Rhett's sold-out Summerfest kickoff concert at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater, by Rhett and each of his openers, Dustin Lynch and Russell Dickerson. Not bad considering the scores of other brands supporting the festival actually have to pony up for the exposure.
Most negative beer shout-out
"Miller Lite is run by extraterrestrials," the National's Matt Berninger yelled at one point from the Miller Lite Oasis. "Don't drink it, don't trust it." Bet the sponsors were really thrilled to hear that.
Wildest musical whiplash
As the most musically diverse festival on the planet, you're bound to hear some interesting juxtapositions roaming the grounds. But walking out of Alison Krauss gently singing the spiritual "It Is Well With My Soul," only to be hit with a cover band ripping into Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," even by Summerfest standards, was really something.
Willie Nelson has been known to toss out several red bandanas at his shows, but he was in especially high spirits Thursday, tossing his actual cowboy hat like a Frisbee into the crowd.
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Contact Piet at (414) 223-5162 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @pietlevy or Facebook at facebook.com/PietLevyMJS.
Piet also talks concerts, local music and more on "TAP'd In" with Jordan Lee. Hear it at 8 a.m. Thursdays on WYMS-FM (88.9), or wherever you get your podcasts.