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Building The Verge Music Festival

Summerfest launches an alternative music festival, but is it here to stay?

May. 26, 2010
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By the end, RiverSplash was on life support. For two decades, the event had marked the unofficial start of Milwaukee’s festival season the first weekend of each June, but following years of bad weather and even worse press after a 2008 shooting, organizers announced in December that RiverSplash wouldn’t return this year.

That cancellation freed up a prime weekend for Summerfest officials to launch an event they’d long discussed: an alternative music festival at the Henry Maier Festival grounds.

“We had been talking about doing an event like this for a couple years,” Summerfest Entertainment Director Bob Babisch said of the new, two-day Verge Music Festival. “When RiverSplash announced its end, we saw a great chance to kick off the festival that weekend.”

Summerfest partnered with alternative-rock station FM 102.1 to book a lineup more overtly catered to younger rock fans than Summerfest’s flagship 11-day festival.

“Sometimes people complain that Summerfest doesn’t offer enough alternative music, so we wanted to create a festival that focused just on alternative and indie-leaning bands,” Babisch said.

“We wanted to start small, so it’s only on three stages, instead of the whole Summerfest grounds,” Babisch explained. “We also wanted to keep the ticket prices very low. Tickets are $25 in advance for one day, or $40 for two days, and included with each day’s admission is a free Summerfest ticket.”

Having initially considered a fall launch for the event before the first weekend of June suddenly opened up in RiverSplash’s wake, Verge organizers had only several months to secure the final lineup.

“That’s not a lot of time when you’re trying to develop a festival with no name, especially since there were other festivals competing to book the same acts that weekend, ” says FM 102.1 Program Director Jacent Jackson. “With so little time to plan for the event, it almost feels like a dress rehearsal.”

Verge’s Saturday, June 5 lineup pairs alternative radio staples Weezer and AFI with more independent-leaning bands like Rogue Wave and The Raveonettes, as well as bands that split the difference between the two sensibilities, like Cold War Kids and Manchester Orchestra.

The Friday, June 4 lineup is a little more lopsided, favoring heavier modern-rock bands. She & Him, the precious soft-pop duo of actress Zooey Deschanel and indie-folk musician M. Ward, sticks out considerably sandwiched on the bill between hard-rockers Three Days Grace and Eagles of Death Metal.

“I would have liked to have seen the lineup offer a little better balance between indie-rock and modern-rock,” Jackson concedes, but he notes that Verge still offers a better mix than similar festivals in other cities. For comparison, Chicago’s alternative station Q101 is sponsoring a daylong concert on June 5 dominated almost exclusively by the hardest and hairiest of radio-rock bands, like Seether, Papa Roach, Saliva and Puddle of Mudd. Zooey Deschanel won’t be going anywhere near that one.

And where similar festivals largely exclude local music, Verge will showcase a nice sampling of Milwaukee artists, including rock bands Red Knife Lottery, Revision Text, Jaill, Invade Rome and 1956; rootsier groups Juniper Tar, The Championship and The Wildbirds; and for good measure an accordionist (Pezzettino) and a hip-hop outfit (Figureheads).

“For a festival coming out of the gates in its first year, to my eyes the lineup looks OK,” Jackson said. “Whenever you do something like this for the first time, you learn very quickly where the traps are, so to speak, and it’s going to make you an awful lot better at putting the event together the next year. A festival like this can really provide some great talent at a value price, and I think next year’s will be even better.”

That begs the question, can the upstart festival make it to a second year? That will depend largely on this year’s attendance.

Babisch said that advance ticket sales have been “good, so far,” and that Summerfest hopes Verge will become an annual tradition.

“We’re excited to just keep building on it throughout the years,” he said.

Verge Music Festival Schedule

Friday, June 4

5 p.m. Red Knife Lottery
5:15 p.m. The Wildbirds
5:30 p.m. Kink Ador
6 p.m. Nico Vega
6:30 p.m. The Championship
6:45 p.m. Loyal Divide
7:15 p.m. Crash Kings
7:45 p.m. Reni Lane
8 p.m. Empires
8:30 p.m. Eagles of Death Metal
9 p.m. She & Him
9:15 p.m. 1956
10 p.m. Three Days Grace

Saturday, June 5

2 p.m. Locksley
2:45 p.m. Juniper Tar
3 p.m. Figureheads
3:30 p.m. Manchester Orchestra
4:15 p.m. Violetness
4:30 p.m. Geri X
5 p.m. The Raveonettes
5:45 p.m. Scarlet Grey
6 p.m. Invade Rome
6:30 p.m. Cold War Kids
7:15 p.m. Pezzettino
7:30 p.m. Jaill
8 p.m. AFI
9 p.m. Revision Text
9 p.m. Rogue Wave
10 p.m. Weezer


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