Summerfest, June 25-July 6, Maier Festival Park (summerfest.com)
Well, the Big Daddy of Milwaukee festivals is imminent. Starting Wednesday, Summerfest will inundate Milwaukee’s lakefront with 10 solid days of music on a myriad of stages, including the 23,000 seat Marcus Amphitheater. While everybody seems to weighing in with their picks for the biggest shows on this year’s schedule (a particularly impressive lineup), I’ve decided to take a different approach. The following is a list of my personal preferences on the schedule. None of them are performing in the Amphitheater; most of them are local acts. For while the “World’s Biggest Music Festival” boasts plenty of star power, it’s also a major showcase for the area’s musicians, and fan support is crucial for return invitations to play the Big Gig. You can get full schedule information at the link above, as well as links to all the individual acts on the lineup. The following is my personal shopping list (presented chronologically) for acts to see at Summerfest 2014 (Please Note: There are more acts I’d like to see, but unfortunately with the multiple venues, the inevitable conflicts arise). So many acts, so little time!
Tweed Funk, Paul Cebar & Tomorrow Sound, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, June 25, Johnson Controls World Sound Stage
Lots of great acts are vying for your attention of Opening Day, but for my money, this triple-header can’t be beat. It takes place in my favorite “side stage” in the park, the only one with a roof over the crowd. Things get started at 5 pm with the one-two punch of Milwaukee’s Tweed Funk and longtime favorite Paul Cebar (his only Summerfest 2014 appearance) setting the table for Nola great Troy Andrews (aka Trombone Shorty) and his red-hot band. No, the second line was never like this! I plan to drop anchor here for the entire evening!
Pentatonix, Buddy Rich Big Band featuring Gregg Potter and Cathy Rich, June 26, Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard
Again, there’s a bewildering array of choices on the 26th. Kenny Wayne Shepherd headlines the spiffy BMO Harris Pavilion Stage, and the World Sound Stage hosts an evening of Milwaukee 80’s band reunions, including Bon Ton Society, the Wigs, and Yipes! (One of Bon Ton’s original members is Summerfest honcho Jon Boler) But at 7:30, my attention will be directed to the Big Backyard for some Summerfest history. Back in the day, the Miller Jazz Oasis hosted giants like Maynard Ferguson, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Spyro Gyra, Stanley Clarke, Wynton Marsalis…and drum king Buddy Rich, whose appearances were an annual event. When the Buddy Rich Big Band (featuring Gregg Potter in “The Captain’s” chair and BR’s daughter Cathy on vocals) takes the stage, it will mark the first mainstream jazz act to play a major Summerfest stage in a primetime slot in nearly 25 years! And it will be like stepping into the time machine, because the band features the classic BR charts from back in the band’s glory days of the 60’s and 70’s (“Mercy Mercy Mercy,” “Norwegian Wood,” “West Side Story Medley,” “Channel One Suite”), so big band fans, be there or be square! And stay tuned for the night’s headliner, a cappella sensations Pentatonix! This group made its mark on NBC’s Sing-Off series, and now have wildly devoted fans (check out their Facebook fan page!). The group deftly mixes originals with brilliantly executed covers in a show that will blow you away!
The Whiskeybelles, Litmus Vinyl, Mike Benign Compulsion, Vic and Gab, June 27
June 27 is a great day to check out great local music. Leading off at 2 pm are the WAMI-award winning Whiskeybelles. This sassy Americana trio features originals and covers, but mostly brings a great time! And they’ll be holding court on the previously mentioned Pavilion stage too! Heading over to the Uline Warehouse (formerly the Rock Stage), Summerfest veterans Litmus Vinyl followed by the Mike Benign Compulsion get rolling at 5 pm. LV has made multiple fest appearances, and they’re a solid alt-rock band featuring mostly original songs and led by the impassioned vocals of Seamus Holloway. Mike Benign was the leader of the fondly remembered 90’s Milwaukee band Blue in the Face, and his distinctive vocal and songwriting talents continue to shine with the MBC. Then it’s over to the US Cellular Connection Stage for one of Milwaukee’s hottest acts, Vic & Gab. The WAMI-winning sister duo released a fabulous album in 2013 which has received lots of local airplay and national attention as well! Their great original songs are matched by a dynamic stage show. I can assure you they will be one of the highlights of Summerfest 2014.
John Hiatt and the Combo, the Yardbirds, Joe 2.0, June 28
Summerfest’s first Saturday offers another plethora of musical delights. And you better get here early or you’ll miss one of the best acts on the festival lineup. At 3 pm, John Hiatt and the Combo takes the Warehouse stage. Yes indeed, the veteran singer-songwriter will be playing a rare matinee gig that you can bring the little ones to see, although his songs won’t be confused with Raffi. His career spans the 70’s to today, and his song “Thing Called Love” was one of Bonnie Raitt’s biggest hits. I myself have a soft spot for “Perfectly Good Guitar.” Meanwhile, at 5 pm in the Pavilion, it’s another veteran act holding court with British blues-rock legends the Yardbirds. In this same slot last year, Summerfest brought in another British Invasion act, the Zombies (with original members Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone), and it was one of the highlights of the 2013 fest. Summerfest hopes lightning strikes twice this year with the Yardbirds. Although original members Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page will be nowhere to be found at this gig, the band has original vocalist Jim McCarty still holding down the fort. Their songbook (“For Your Love,” “Heart Full of Soul,” “Shapes of Things,” “Over Under Sideways Down”) is loaded, and the band continues to release new material as well, so keep your fingers crossed. Then it’s over to the World Sound Stage for Joe 2.0. Summerfest stage manager Joe Ketchum is also a faculty member at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, and also leads this fascinating band that will remind fans of Electric Light Orchestra. The string section features Joe and several fellow WCM faculty members, and lead vocals are handled by Xeno of Bad Boy fame. The band plays originals as well as Ketchum’s arrangements of Classic Rock favorites (“Touch Me,” “She’s A Rainbow,” “She’s Leaving Home,” “A Day in the Life,” “Space Oddity,” “Life on Mars?” to name a few). But just once, I wish they’d take a stab at “Do Ya”!
3rd Coast Blues, Nineteen Thirteen, Bonnie Raitt with the James Hunter Six, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, July 2
A bit of exercise is in the offing on July 2nd, just the way to work off all that Summerfest food! We get started in the Pavilion with a Happy Hour set from 3rd Coast Blues, featuring Milwaukee blues greats Stokes, Milwaukee Slim, and blues harp legend Jimmy Liban. Then it’s over to the Big Backyard for the truly unique sounds of the WAMI-winning Nineteen Thirteen, featuring cellist Janet Schiff and the dual percussion attack of former Violent Femme Victor DeLorenzo and Scott Johnson. Hey, any band that covers Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” and “The Model” amongst their original improvisations deserves an award! Then it’s back to the Pavilion for the evening’s stars, blues rock legend Bonnie Raitt (and that sweet slide guitar and loads of great songs!), and her opening act, the Britsoul of the James Hunter Six. The best way to describe him is say he’s Britain’s Paul Cebar (I understand the Brits refer to Paul as Milwaukee’s James Hunter!), and that none other than Van (the Man) Morrison is a big fan! For a nightcap, it’s up to the Warehouse for the legendary Joan Jett and the Blackhearts! She’s been at it since her days as an original member of the Runaways, and she’s still a girl who still loves Rock & Roll and has a “bad reputation.” If that weren’t enough, she’s an unabashed Packer Backer! So Packer Nation, you know where you need to be on the 2nd!!
Sigmund Snopek, Lorenzo Menzerschmidt, Steely Dane, July 5
The July 4th weekend rolls on with a varied musical menu that includes some great local acts. At 2 pm at the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse is the one musician who has performed at every Summerfest going back to the 60’s. Of course I’m referring to Milwaukee musical gadfly Sigmund Snopek III (aka “The Big Sig”). He’s sure to pull out many tunes from his massive songbook which allow him plenty of room to improvise on an incredible array of instruments (musical and otherwise!). His claims to fame include being a member of the Violent Femmes’ “Horns of Dilemma,” and composing the Milwaukee anthem “Thank God (This Isn’t Cleveland).” Meanwhile, at the Big Backyard, local blues band Lorenzo Menzerschmidt (featuring former Violent Femme Victor DeLorenzo (there he is again!), Jim Ohlschmidt, and Tony Menzer) will be jamming, followed by another Milwaukee musician with more than a few Summerfest appearances under his belt. Comedy rock icon Pat McCurdy (he’s also part of the Yipes! reunion) will be making his sole 2014 Summerfest appearance, breaking out singalong favorites including the Wisconsin anthem “Sex and Beer.” After recovering from that, it’s over to the World Sound Stage for Madison’s Steely Dane (from Dane County, eh?), performing in the perfect venue for this band. If you’re a Steely Dan fan, you MUST make sure to be on hand for this show! An army of musicians (most of whom play in other bands) rotate on and off stage in order to pull off the complex note-perfect renditions of the Dan classics. The band’s gigs (especially outside Madison) are few and far between, so don’t miss this rare opportunity…and thanks to Summerfest for booking them!!
The Orwells, Jake Bugg, Melissa Etheridge, July 6
The final day of Summerfest 2014 again has plenty on the musical menu, but the must-see shows include a double bill featuring Brit Jake Bugg and the Orwells, two of the hottest new acts on the rock music scene, playing back to back at 8 pm on the Connection Stage. And winding it all up will be music pioneer and breast cancer survivor Melissa Etheridge, who will be ringing down the curtain at the Miller Lite Oasis.
See you at Summerfest, where it’s (usually) cooler near the lake!