Summerfest came to an end this weekend with a weeklong heat wave that crept near 100 degrees and kept overall attendance under the 1 million music fans expected to come through the turnstiles.
But before the gates shut and the workmen started cleaning up the Henry Maier Festival Grounds along Milwaukee’s lakefront, two big time acts from the previous decade took to separate stages to wrap up The Big Gig.
Cake trod the boards of the the Miller Lite Oasis stage as dusk fell over the park. One of the most unique and creative band of the previous decade, lead singer John McCrea led a 17 song set featuring an overview of the band’s eclectic history. Highlighted by McCrea’s mix of subtle country-inspired crooning and C.W. McCall-ish white man’s rap, Cake put its odd mix of guitar’s percussion, brass and electronica to work.
While more recent hits like “Sick of You” jazzed up the SRO crowd, their fans blew the overhang off of the Oasis stage when they closed out their show with “Never There” before rolling out “The Distance” for their encore.
Not too far away, the recently reunited hard rock act Bush closed out the performances on the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage.
When frontman Gavin Rossdale tried to call the band back together, last year only drummer Robin Goodridge answered the summons was game. Guitarist Nigel Pulsford and bass player Dave Parsons passed, reportedly deciding to spend time with their families rather than head out on the road.
Rossdale replaced both men with Chris Traynor and Corey Britz, respectively – and the new faces easily match the energy and reckless abandon of the original four man lineup. The lead singer is a bouncing maniac during most of the band’s performance – playing his guitar with body contortions worthy of Nigel Tufnel.
While the band’s post-reunion tunes appealed mostly to the group’s diehard fans, Bush didn’t disappoint the assembled throng, trotting out past hits like “Come Down” and a cover of The Beatles’ “Come Together.”
As night fell, the punk-inspired energy of Bush gave way to the quaffed classic stylings of Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famer Neil Diamond on the festival’s mainstage to close out the world’s largest free outdoor music festival.
It made for a bizarre mix, but that’s what Summerfest is all about – free music for everybody.
While searing, muggy heat continued to roast the city, fans still packed the grounds to catch Death Cab for Cutie at the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse and the Avett Brothers on the BMO Harris Pavilion stage.
Death Cab for Cute is an unusual fit for a big festival like Summerfest. If you can imagine the venue, the festival park is sprawling and loud – filled with foaming beer and wafting smells of roasting meat. It’s a big, jovial vibe. But Death Cab’s subtly mild, almost melancholy sound flows in the face of that energy.
With Ben Gebbard taking the lead on song’s like “I Will Follow You into the Dark,” Home Is a Fire” and “Crooked Teeth” highlighting the set, you might think such a downbeat set might turn off the festival crowd. But, fans were out in force for Death Cab’s organ and piano heavy, but guitar light sound. And it doesn’t hurt that – while most Summerfest folk choose booze and suds as their libation of choice – a bunch of Death Cab for Cutie fans sparked up a friendly herb to fully engage the mellow.
While Death Cab for Cutie rolled out their long 20 song set, they managed to transform their Harley stage into an intimate musical oasis set aside from the joyful madness of the surround fest.
As though some part of a downbeat musical conspiracy, I expected The Avett Brothers might play a similarly moody set over at the BMO stage. But, while the group had a minor art hit with the mournful “I and Love and You,” drove a powerful, energetic and crowd-pleasing show highlighted by “Laundry Room” and “I Killed Sally’s Lover.”
I found out from one the band’s more devoted fans in attendance that the group is a local favorite as Scott and Seth Avett play Milwaukee frequently in the last couple of years. So, Summerfest was a natural stop for the band as it promotes its upcoming album, “The Carpenter.” In fact, before they wrapped up their well-paced set, their fans were calling for the emerging band to conquer the festival’s mainstage next year.
Photo: Eric Gruneisen