The second weekend of Summerfest 2021 ended with perfect Big Gig weather — sunny and hot.
Did the music match the meteorology? Here’s some of the best and worst of what was heard on the grounds on the second Saturday of the world’s largest music festival.
Founding ZZ Top bassist and vocalist Dusty Hill’s death in July might have sidelined the band if it hadn’t been for his insistence that they carry on with longtime guitar tech Elwood Francis on bass.
Having spent 50 years perfecting that sound, he had nothing to worry about. Francis carried on admirably, the camaraderie between him and singer-guitarist Billy Gibbons undeniable on a balmy Milwaukee Saturday night at the UScellular Connection Stage.
Fans of filthy blues-rock guitar tone may as well have camped out at the UScellular stage this weekend. Between George Thorogood on Thursday and Gibbons Saturday, it doesn’t get much better.
Two lyrical alterations in the slow, swampy “Jesus Just Left Chicago” will stick out in attendees’ memories: ” … Then he got wise and came up here to Wisconsin,” and “You don’t have to worry ’cause Dusty Hill is still his man.”
More and more, rock concerts become tributes to fallen heroes. This one even included a prerecorded Hill vocal for the band’s “Tush” encore. It still stood tall (and loud) on its own merits.
— Cal Roach, Special to the Journal Sentinel
Late Saturday night at the BMO Harris Pavilion became later, then even later, until, 45 minutes after the time when electro-pop luminary Kesha was supposed to start, she materialized onstage, to roars of approval rather than brickbats of disdain.
So what were the consolations of the late start? Perhaps it made the contemplation of the giant inflatable cactus, rainbow and mushroom all the more poignant, especially when the woman herself appeared with two crawling, leashed dancers in various nylon and bondage items, and launched into “Cannibal.”
She did sing in solidly pop-bombastic form and, in a semi-tradition probably enshrined by Madonna, did show off most of her posterior. From there, it was into “We R Who We R,” and the packed-in crowd seemed to forgive all. Is there an apology exemption for pop stars?
— Jon M. Gilbertson, Special to the Journal Sentinel
311, the pop/rock/ska/hip-hop band, has 13 studio albums and has been performing together since 1990. I went into their performance at the Generac Power Stage knowing three songs and a possible fourth.
The moment lead singer Nick Hexum started belting out notes there was no doubt it was 311. His voice is so distinct it reeks of the ’90s. The same went for MC/rapper Doug “S.A.” Martinez, who feverishly hopped from turntable to microphone throughout the show.
The Generac audience was amped and bellowed out lyrics from their first album to last while posers like me eagerly awaited anything off “311” (also know as the band’s “blue album”). Perhaps the highlight was the energy. They were quite spry for guys in their 50s — jumping around the stage and occasionally doing the robot. Guitarist Tim Mahoney was especially animated while getting into riffs and solos.
311’s still got it 13 albums later, and the fans still love them. I’m just glad I got to hear “Down.” Thanks for the college flashback, fellas.
— Damon Joy, Special to the Journal Sentinel
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that Jim Watson played guitar with 311 Saturday night.
Singer Brett Eldredge embraces the softer side of modern country music. The blue-eyed Paris, Illinois, native prefers singing love songs to tunes about whiskey, fishing and honky-tonk bars.
At a relaxing show Saturday night at the Miller Lite Oasis, the handsome crooner began his show with the sincere “Where the Heart Is,” followed by romantic jams like “Gabrielle” and the pretty “Love Someone.”
Eldredge, joined by a modest band, maintained a low-key vibe throughout the show. He delivered his songs in a smooth, soulful baritone to a youthful audience, much of which appeared to be couples and young women. Eldredge genuinely seemed to connect with the crowd, pointing at them and putting his hand over his heart at times.
For many, it appeared that the singer’s concert was a perfect date night.
— Catherine Jozwik, Special to the Journal Sentinel
Tank and the Bangas
Anyone who’s seen “Summer of Soul” is liable to feel like the time is right for Tank and the Bangas. While the group taps into plenty of those classic grooves, there aren’t many tributaries of vintage R&B that the group didn’t incorporate into their Saturday night set at the Johnson Controls World Sound Stage.
The New Orleans ensemble came off somewhat like Galactic (a Summerfest headliner on Sept. 18), though less dynamic and malleable, as focused as the performance was on vocalist Tarriona “Tank” Ball. A singer, rapper, and straight-up ranter, Ball commanded the stage for every moment she was on it.
The 2020 best new artist Grammy nominees do have a long way to go to grow into their ambition. Hopefully, a sharp rise in their stock hasn’t stunted their growth into a more original sound. They had one of the Johnson Controls stage’s biggest crowds yet swaying feverishly all the same. Ball herself was so versatile and committed to her chosen theatrics that there’s nowhere she couldn’t take this act.
— Cal Roach
The Weather Station
Although the Weather Station finished its set by about 9 p.m. Saturday night at the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard, from the start it created the after-midnight ambience of a band playing what and how it wanted to play.
That didn’t necessarily isolate the band from the audience, in large part because Tamara Lindeman, the Toronto band’s undisputed but not domineering leader, had a way of making people lean toward her performance. With a voice as strong as that of Tori Amos but as direct as that of Bobbie Gentry, she wrapped introspection in allure.
Lindeman’s five-person backing band helped her find an onstage expression of “Ignorance,” the Weather Station’s startlingly mature fifth album. Pop and jazz flowered from country and folk stems, and noise from the surrounding festival never fully drowned this soft, private, nocturnal garden.
— Jon M. Gilbertson
Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid would like to apologize for saying “YOLO.”
“That was unconscionable,” Reid said meekly from the Uline Warehouse stage early Saturday night after muttering a term that went out of fashion in 2014.
But that’s where any obsolescence about Living Colour ended. Sure, the hard rockers’ greatest relevance was in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but the themes of their songs are as relevant as ever. And live, they were just as vibrant as frontman Corey Glover’s neon orange dreadlocks.
Playing ’93 track “Ignorance Is Bliss,” Reid and drummer Will Calhoun wildly went off the rails, the anarchic energy symbolizing the terrible pain and suffering in our world we often choose to ignore. And with his head leaning away from the mic, his tongue throbbing as he soulfully wailed, Glover lent potency to a simmering “Open Letter (to a Landlord),” standing up for the impoverished and oppressed, forced out of their homes because of callousness and greed.
Considering the social implications of their songs, it’s no surprise that the native New Yorkers called for a moving moment of silence to recognize the attacks on Sept. 11 on the 20th anniversary.
“I want you to think about the people that ran toward the fire, that ran into danger, that ran against their own interests,” Reid said. “Take a quick moment for everything that we’ve lost since then.”
— Piet Levy, firstname.lastname@example.org
Toad The Wet Sprocket
So this is what those 4 p.m. headliner shows are supposed to feel like.
In scaling back the festival days from 11 to nine, Summerfest tripled-down on its daytime headliner bookings, hoping to entice more people to get to the grounds earlier. And with attendance noticeably picking up for Week 2, there were a whole lot of people at the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard to see Toad The Wet Sprocket on a sunny and warm Saturday afternoon.
Every inch of bench space and every picnic table was taken, but there was still plenty of space on the periphery to social-distance and clearly see the show.
I can’t say if anyone was deeply engaged with a Toad The Wet Sprocket concert on this September afternoon in 2021, nor was the band especially passionate. But they cast a pleasant soundtrack for a peaceful summer day. Kids chilled under a tree and played with bouncy balls. A guy looked like Muhammad Ali trying to duck and swat at an actual bee. Frontman and guitarist Glen Phillips was barefoot, and encouraged fans to get some lemonade.
But if anyone was actually listening closely to Toad The Wet Sprocket, they could have taken away an epiphany, from a new song no less, the title track to last month’s “Starting Now” album.
“Starting with the next breath/I’ll dig a little deeper,” Phillips sang. “Live a little kinder/and love a little sweeter.”
— Piet Levy
Note: Earlier versions of this report gave an incorrect touring-start year and guitarist for 311.