Summerfest (Milwaukee Wisconsin), Harley-Davidson Roadhouse, July 3, 2008

It’s been a long time since I attended Summerfest. There are a lot of people close to my advanced age who whine about the crowds and the excessive drinking or the price of beer, but I generally enjoy festivals and music — humanity and all. I guess I’ve just had other things going on the past ten years or so.

Locally, most people seem to equate Summerfest with just the big headliners playing the Marcus Amphitheater each night. I prefer to see as much music as possible on the smaller stages. Looking at the lineups this year, July 3 stood out as the one day I would really want to go. All in all, it was a great time.

We paid $8 each for admission online plus $15 to park, and we sampled jambalaya, catfish, sweet potato fries, and gator sausage from Crawdaddy’s, a mandatory Imperial Egg Roll from Wong’s Wok, fish and chips from Major Goolsby’s, and a couple of curry dishes from The King and I. Entrees were generally about $6 for smallish portions. Beer was $4.50 or $5, and a bottle of water went for $3. The weather, under blue skies, was about one degree cool of absolute perfection.

Most of the acts we wanted to see were booked on the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse stage, beginning at 3:00 with Drive-By Truckers. They’re one of the most authentic and fertile American rock and roll bands to emerge in years, but I have only enjoyed them peripherally, and I had never seen them perform.

Drive-By Truckers: Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley at Summerfest (Milwaukee Wisconsin), July 3, 2008

Their nearly two-hour show arced from rebellion to exuberance, with founding guitarists Patterson Hood (above, left) and Mike Cooley (above, right) taking turns on vocals.

Mike Cooley’s classic country voice and phrasing, in the plain-spoken tradition of Merle Haggard, perfectly complement his driving, no-nonsense guitar work and his cigarette-dangling, Jack Daniel’s-swilling demeanor, in the working-man tradition of Keith Richards. His matter-of-fact lyrics in songs such as “Women Without Whiskey” and (my favorite) “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” cut like a countrified Jack Webb in the garage using a table saw on clear pine.

Patterson Hood, on the other hand, is a lovable, bearded bear of a man bellowing with all the bitter pain and blissful ecstasy that everyday living can bring. He expels political rage in “Puttin’ People on the Moon,” then turns around and, in the tradition of Bruce Springsteen, introduces “The Sands of Iwo Jima” with a moving, patriotic profile of his great uncle who fought there. Hood interweaves another song with the heartbreaking and hilarious tale of his mother running off with a trucker (Peterbilt, Peterbilt!) and getting married at Dollywood, almost levitating with joy as he relates the latest triumphant turn. Three days later, I am still singing the refrain from “18 Wheels of Love” as I type this.

Romantica at Summerfest (Milwaukee Wisconsin), July 3, 2008

Just a short walk from the Harley stage, we were also able to catch about 30 minutes of Romantica, an emotive and intricate Minneapolis band fronted by Northern Ireland’s Ben Kyle. Their music is a wistful, low-volume harmonic stew that would sound great at 3 a.m. on a train crossing southern Indiana. Check out the samples on Romantica’s MySpace page.

As the afternoon wound down, we listened to a little of Paul Thorn‘s set, but it just didn’t click with us. Maybe it was a little too preachy.

After a food break, we took in a few songs from Alabama 3, best known for “Woke Up This Morning,” which was used as the theme song for The Sopranos. This was the most repellent act I have seen in some time. They’re all in wacky costumes, and they stand onstage urging audience participation while pre-recorded audio plays. They chant repulsive lyrics over a subwoofer beat that has Milwaukee moms and kids raising their fists in a salute to Chairman Mao. Okay, the girl singer (Devlin Love) is cute, but despite my earplugs, the bass is so intense that I have to leave for fear of heart commotion.

Alejandro Escovedo at Summerfest (Milwaukee Wisconsin), July 3, 2008

At 7:30, Alejandro Escovado takes the Harley stage, presiding over a master class in versatility and musicianship. I have never seen him perform before. He is an unlikely rock star — a middle-aged man of Mexican descent dressed with understated elegance and accompanied by a violin and a cello in addition to drums and bass and guitar. His songs are dynamic and surprising, combining unexpected and frank lyrics with power riffs that shift and morph through punk and metal and classical and Latin moods, one minute delicate, the next furious. His violinist, Wauwatosa native Susan Voelz of Poi Dog Pondering, shreds her strings like a banshee genius, and David Pulkingham switches from classical guitar to slide electric blues as effortlessly as changing sunglasses.The set is tight, and before we know it, it’s wrapping up with a “Beast of Burden” encore.

Lucinda Williams at Summerfest (Milwaukee Wisconsin), July 3, 2008
After an extended break and Milwaukee’s lakefront fireworks, Lucinda Williams is on last at 10:00. She’s one of my very favorite singer-songwriters, and I have seen her perform before. Tonight she opens with a solo “Passionate Kisses,” looking to gradually incorporate more of her band, perhaps creating a poignant set that builds and eases over time.

Unfortunately, Ms. Williams and her fans are screwed from the get-go by the volume of Thievery Corporation, just up the walk to the north at the Miller Lite Oasis. The sound from that show is so loud and obtrusive that Williams has to stop several times, questioning whether she can even continue. “I’m starting to feel like a real fool up here,” she grumbles, then settles on pushing back with one loud song after another, employing the extended technical wizardry of guitarist Doug Pettibone in long solos and rocking riffs to fill out her allotted time. Lucinda can rock as hard as anyone, and so she does, on songs like “Changed the Locks” and “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings.” This is all very awesome, but the woman is obviously in a power chord prison and not very happy about it, making for an uneasy experience.

Summerfest management completely dropped the ball here. Lucinda Williams is one of the greatest songwriters in America, and her performance was severely frustrated because they either don’t have the foresight to schedule adjacent acts appropriately, or they don’t have the courage to enforce volume limits. What’s the point of hosting “The World’s Largest Music Festival” if you’re forced to hear two or three acts all at once?

The crowds, initially pleasant and orderly, strayed and staggered quite a bit by night’s end, with occasional whorls of impending violence here and there. Still, it was no worse than I remember it from my youth. It took us about 45 minutes to get out of the parking lot and into Milwaukee’s streets, which was slightly better than I had expected.

Overall, it was a long, music-packed day for a very reasonable price.

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