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Summerfest beats on, as does our music crew. Let’s dive into the best and worst of what our team saw Friday.
Paul Simon at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater
Paul Simon didn’t bring everything but the kitchen sink to his Summerfest show Friday.
But he did bring a washboard — and a grand piano, an organ, an accordion, a percussion section, three saxophones, eight exceptional musicians and 2 1/2 hours worth of material.
Even with the massive arsenal at his fingertips, the 75-year-old Simon’s show at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater was focused on the the details.
“The Cool, Cool River” flowed into a feverish classical piano crescendo. Jazz noir trumpet and guitar accented the end of “My Little Town,” and “Late in the Evening” was briefly reimagined as a Chicago roadhouse blues tune.
Yet Simon wasn’t so cerebral about the arrangements as to obstruct the ultimate goal.
“If you feel like dancing, I’m perfectly happy with that,” he said with sly deadpan, before busting into a little softshoe during zydeco swinger “That Was Your Mother.”
— Piet Levy,
Trombone Shorty at the Uline Warehouse
It would be impossible to review a performance by Troy Andrews, better known as Trombone Shorty, without noting the ever-present soul of his native New Orleans.
“Thank you music lovers,” Andrews exclaimed as he shook a tambourine and sang over the thumping electric stomp of “On Your Way Down” early in the set. From the Big Easy’s Tremé neighborhood to the shores of Lake Michigan, this party was a lively one.— Erik Ernst,
Jon Bellion at the Miller Lite Oasis
Judging from his pleasant-day-to-you manner of rapping and singing at the Miller Lite Oasis Friday night, Jon Bellion is what Zack de la Rocha might’ve sounded like if his infamous rap-rock band had been named Lean Gently Against the Machine.
That happens to be the theoretical charm of the Long Island native and, as he urged an overflow audience to cheer for, his official debut album, “The Human Condition,” which has recently gone gold. His own human condition was bearded (to look older, almost certainly), sporty and cheerful.
Full of motion through hits like “All Time Low,” which he more or less handed off to the fans to sing, and “Guillotine,” he “played” a sampler as if attempting exercises for the latissimus dorsi, easily stood out above the trebly unbalanced mix of the mostly live band and kept the pace from dragging. Pleasantness is not always a bad thing, especially in poppy hip-hop.
— Jon M. Gilbertson,
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Barns Courtney at the Miller Lite Oasis
Barns Courtney struck a cutting image as he marched onto the stage of the Miller Lite Oasis Friday evening amid the din of resonant feedback from his two bass- and drum-playing sidemen. His eyes shaded by mirrored glasses below a mop of brown hair, the 26-year-old British-born singer-songwriter barked out the deep “Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey!” refrain of the frantic opening rock of “Hobo Rocket.”
For an artist who hasn’t released a full-length disc, Courtney was a confident live presence, bouncing as he sang the falsetto desperation of “Never Let You Down.” Breaking from the brooding dirge of “Glitter and Gold,” he roused the audience to sing along with his own soaring chorus pleas, teasing every turn of emotion.
When his dancing channeled the spastic wriggling of Mick Jagger in a tremolo-fueled “Hands,” there was no sense of put-on emulation. That is just how rock ‘n’ roll makes a carefree soul move.
And now, onto the worst. One note of caution: sometimes it’s not the band’s fault. Read on and you’ll understand.
Fast Romantics at the Miller Lite Oasis
Festivals are incredible opportunities for bands to play for large crowds and find new fans. When that large crowd doesn’t give a damn, it can be incredibly devastating.
Such was the tragic fate of Toronto power pop band Fast Romantics on the Miller Lite Oasis stage Friday.
If the group had a slot on the smaller Johnson Controls World Sound Stage, it probably would have been a successful night.
Instead, it was the anonymous opening band for thousands of indifferent teens claiming their bench seats for rising pop star Jon Bellion that night. Who knew this crowd wouldn’t dig a band that sounds like early Springsteen? (OK, Summerfest’s booking team should have known).
These indifferent millennials looked depressed. I felt depressed watching a bunch of kids look depressed. The band was entitled to be most depressed of all, but it gamely went on with the show.— Piet Levy
Walker Hayes at the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage
Walker Hayes could be a big country artist — except he’s not a typical country artist.
Exhibit A at his U.S. Cellular Connection Stage show Friday: his shirt that read, “That’s not country.”
Then he started to sing, or really rap, dropping a Kim Kardashian reference and lines like, “My swag’s more ninja than the turtles,” on the breezy pop jam “Break The Internet.”
A couple songs later he was singing about his four-year-old boy eating Froot Loops butt naked on the sweet “Beckett.” Then came the country radio hopeful, “You Broke Up With Me,” with its smart and stinging kiss-off lyrics, Hayes’ husky voice, and some beat boxing and guitar twang loops.
The song, like Hayes’ songs released so far, are clever and instantly catchy. Sam Hunt’s success blending R&B with country pop could pave the way for Hayes’ own success. If country radio doesn’t cling to him, the songs are fresh enough to find a following on YouTube and Spotify.
But one thing he may want to work on is his sometimes off-putting stage persona. He may be trying to make fun of celebrity narcissism with his smart-aleck, self-involved banter, but at times, Hayes didn’t seem to be in on his own joke.
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