Charlie Wilson, Bleachers, Jake Owen, Run the Jewels, and the best and worst of Summerfest on Day 2, Weekend 3
The last Friday of Summerfest 2021 had some of the most packed audiences of the festival's three-weekend run.
But how was the music? Here's what we heard.
Gap band founder and accomplished solo R&B musician Charlie Wilson gave a (mostly) middle-aged-and-older audience the night of their life Friday at Summerfest's BMO Harris Pavilion.
Before Wilson even took the stage, much of the crowd was up dancing to some old-school sounds from James Brown to Parliament. But when he did come out — wow.
Women in bedazzled suit coats danced him into the Gap Band hit “Party Train.” Wilson bathed himself in applause before “Early in the Morning,” his voice is crispy and satisfying as ever.
With some added choreography between him and his scantily clad dancers, Wilson wooed the the crowd with hits upon hits. He even got into some of his featured joints like Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful.” While everyone appreciates his solo work, people seemed to respond more to his Gap Band library. His band solos also seemed to get everyone amped up.
While Wilson's performance had all the trappings of a Las Vegas show, complete with dancers and clothing changes, nothing mattered but his voice. And his voice was as buttery as it was 50 years ago.
Kids, your grandparents are sleeping in tomorrow.
— Damon Joy, Special to the Journal Sentinel
The musical brainchild of songwriter- producer Jack Antonoff, Bleachers brought its infectious blend of '80s and '90s-inspired indie-pop to the Miller Lite Oasis Friday night.
Backed by a band that included two talented sax players and a keyboardist, Bleachers started its set, which showcased Antonoff's keyboard chops, with ballad "91," followed by upbeat love declaration "Let's Get Married" and some exuberant jams like "How Dare You Want More."
Gesturing wildly and bouncing around the stage, Antonoff transferred lots of energy to his large, youthful crowd. His band remained energetic and engaged throughout.
"SUMMERFEEEST! Tonight's the night!" Antonoff declared. Bobbing their heads up and down to the music, the crowd appeared to agree.
— Catherine Jozwik, Special to the Journal Sentinel
A few years back, during an opening set at the then-Marcus Amphitheater, it became clear that Jake Owen was destined for headlining success. Friday night at the UScellular Connection Stage, Owen continued to fulfill that promise in front of a large crowd that danced, screamed and sang along to a hit-filled set of breezy, beachy, feel-good country music.
Wearing a blue and pink Hawaiian shirt and strumming a low-slung, bright teal electric guitar, Owen was a gregarious party host — parts Buffett, Chesney and Hank Jr., all in one.
“We’re going to have a good time tonight, make some memories and sing some good country songs,” Owen exclaimed over a wailing steel guitar that gave way to the deep-voiced dusty dirt roads and beer-soaked dance floors of “Down to the Honky Tonk.” “Yew Haw” elicited those same hollers from the audience as Owen grinned and name-checked Milwaukee.
“Y’all have to keep the energy up,” Owen said — a statement that wasn’t necessary for this party-ready crew. “Days of Gold” rumbled in a frantic Southern rock thrash as Owen stepped down toward the crowd to sing the whip-crack chorus, while “Anywhere With You,” one of the finest pop country songs of the past decade, became a glorious singalong with Owen’s big grin beaming, knowing this is exactly where he was supposed to be.
— Erik Ernst, Special to the Journal Sentinel
Run the Jewels
Run The Jewels' fourth album, "RTJ4," was a much-needed bright spot for hip-hop fans in 2020, even though a blockbuster tour opening for Rage Against The Machine fell victim to the pandemic. Friday night's headlining slot at the Generac Power Stage was their second show back, and Milwaukee turned out.
Coming onstage to "We Are the Champions" was perhaps an obvious choice, yet it was the perfect entrance music. (Who couldn't use a reminder?) Killer Mike and El-P then busted into "Yankee and the Brave" from that latest album with the crowd already howling approval.
"I gotta say, as an Atlanta Hawks fan, goddamn," Mike declared following "Oh La La." He then proclaimed his undying love for Brett Favre, covering nearly all of the Wisconsin bases.
The banter, like the music, flowed with gratitude, anger, unity; Mike's stirring speech prior to "Lie, Cheat, Steal" cut as deeply as his lyrics. The show got dark as often as it got ecstatic and was rather raw in terms of technology; as rap concerts go, this one was a relatively analog thrill.
— Cal Roach, Special to the Journal Sentinel
Friday night at the Johnson Controls World Sound Stage, Future Islands’ evening set drew what might have been the biggest crowd the stage has seen all three weekends of Summerfest. The throngs packed into the covered venue were rightly treated to a dynamic romp of synth-pop revelry.
On the opening “For Sure,” frontman Samuel Herring bounded, flailed and twirled across a stage decorated with faux icebergs and vibrantly colored lights. As his three bandmates stoically created the bouncy soundtrack, Herring pumped his fist like a victorious prizefighter.
The syncopated “Beauty of the Road” plinked out of Gerrit Welmer’s keyboard as Herring’s unique, deep and impassioned vocals fluttered skyward like a gleeful calliope. On “Plastic Beach,” those vocals grew to a growl as the stage glowed red and the tempo increased.
As the band’s energy — and Herring’s joyous histrionics — swelled across the set, the crowd answered, soon climbing atop the benches in front of the stage to bop and howl at every pose from the frontman’s effervescence.
— Erik Ernst
Influential post-punk London band The Psychedelic Furs isn't just another band rehashing overplayed hit songs and touring to make a quick buck.
But the Furs' Friday night show at the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard got off to a late start (possibly due to technical problems), and some of the largely Gen-X crowd appeared to have lost interest by the time the band took the stage.
Touring for their 2020 album "Made of Rain," their first since 1991, the band preferred to stay in the present, rather than the past, playing recent songs like "The Boy That Invented Rock & Roll," the lush "The Ghost in You," and the angsty "No-One."
Applause, however, was lackluster.
The Furs did segue into their '80s hits "Pretty in Pink" and "Love My Way," which perked up the audience.
Frontman Richard Butler's heavily accented vocals are still distinct and dramatic. The band, which includes Butler's brother Tim on bass and saxophonist Mars Williams, sounded good but seemed to lack energy.
"Thank you for your patience," Butler said to the audience apologetically after one of the show's technical glitches.
— Catherine Jozwik
It’s easy to define The Struts by their influences. Shades of so many artists emerged during their bombastic — and bombastically loud — set at the Uline Warehouse Friday night.
On the opening Brit-pop bop of “Primadonna Like Me,” frontman Luke Spiller strutted and preened in front of the large, strobe-lit Union Jack backdrop, not unlike Mick Jagger. On “Body Talks,” the British band’s biggest mainstream hit to date, Gethin Davies’ drums thundered like AC/DC while Spiller’s voice ranged from a growl to a Freddie Mercury-esque howl. And, in the funky fuzz of “Kiss This,” there were essences of The Kinks over a bluesy electricity not unlike some of Led Zeppelin’s efforts.
But the comparisons are unfair to a four-piece band that has funneled its influences into an engagingly original sound and vivid performance that revived the spirit of classic rock ‘n’ roll and set it soaring over an adoring and appreciative crowd of revelers on this warm September night.
— Erik Ernst
Aside from the 11 official stages with music at Summerfest each year, there are several small unofficial stages where local musicians play for passing fest goers and tips.
Six years ago, Brookfield native Nora Collins played a whopping 18 sets across those stages, and swiftly moved up to the main stages herself each year, including at the UScellular Connection Stage early Friday night.
Few musicians in Milwaukee hustled as much as Collins, who started when she was a teenager. And that hard work and growing songwriting talent has paid off for the now 27-year-old, taking her to Nashville where she’s got a publishing deal and is working with top producers and songwriters on Music Row.
She demonstrated the payoff Friday with smart and smitten country originals like “Pink Lemonade” and “Who Knows Who.” Combined with a sweet voice that could be vulnerable at the drop of a hat, Collins has the chops to keep playing scores of stages, at Summerfest and far beyond, for years to come. There’s no question she’ll continue to work hard to show her worth.
— Piet Levy, email@example.com