Soul Asylum, Fishbone, The Church and Cheap Drinks Brought the Crowds Out For Summerfest's Throwback Thursday
Here’s a question nobody wants to ask for fear of
sounding old, but why doesn’t Summerfest start some of its headliners earlier? Every night, the festival’s main draws all take the stage around 10 p.m., after what could generously be described as a lot of filler (some gems do
work their way into earlier hours of the schedule, of course, but they’re usually
buried under heaps of no-namers, cover bands and pre-recorded music). Wouldn’t it be
nice if the festival spotlighted some of its name headliners a little earlier from
time to time? It’d give attendees an incentive to get to the grounds a little
earlier, and could even help thin out the crush of people that can make traversing
the grounds after dark such a nightmare.
It's unclear whether it was a one-off promotion or a trial balloon for future lineups (probably the former), but yesterday the festival experimented with actually bookings bands that people have actually heard of during the day, as part of a promotion billed Throwback Thursday. And sure enough, people responded. They turned out in droves, though a generous admission promotion and half-off drink specials until 6 p.m. may have played a bigger role in that than the bands themselves. By the time I arrived around 4 p.m., before most workers in the surrounding downtown buildings had even punched out for the day, the grounds were already packed with Gen-Xers, many at least a drink or two in.
While Foghat and Slaughter wailed away on neighboring stages—I'm not familiar with either act, but they both seem like bands that The Onion’s imagining of Joe Biden would be way into—I headed to the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard, where Fishbone were entertaining a crowd of middle-aged rude boys, parents and their children, and festivalgoers who just wanted to get away from Slaughter. Fishbone’s punchy horns and whimsical tempos make the band something of a Joe Camel, a deceptively child-friendly presentation of a very adult product, and even though frontman Angelo Moore acknowledged the kids in the crowd, he didn’t tame his more subversive impulses any. At exactly 4:33 p.m., he launched into the longest, most profane tirade I’ve ever heard at Summerfest, dedicating a song to “that lying-ass Trump bitch,” a “sack of shit,” “orange Hitler mother fucker” who “can kiss my black ass.” A few songs later he sang about condoms and a woman “giving up her pussy in a parking lot.” My guess is next time Fishbone play Summerfest it’ll be later in the day.
Over at the Uline Warehouse, the cult Australian psychedelic rock band The Church kicked off their typically lush set. “We played our first Summerfest in 1990,” frontman Steve Kilbey recalled. Then he introduced a song from that year, the shimmery “Metropolis,” a moderate alt-rock hit that turned out to be one of their last. In the decades since that song and their signature 1988 hit “Under the Milky Way,” the band has continued to put out consistently solid, sometimes even wonderful, records, to a diminishing audience of diehards. They deserve to be rediscovered by a younger audience, but it’s hard to imagine that happening anytime soon. As rewarding as they are, they don’t square with any contemporary notion of cool.
Meanwhile, the Miller Lite Oasis hosted a better known group that also deserves a critical reappraisal: Soul Asylum. For a time Soul Asylum weren’t just a big band, they were an important band, thanks to their breakout hit “Runaway Train,” a public service announcement of a song now indelibly associated with missing teens. It’s hard not to think of the band as anything other than buzzkills because of that song, but Soul Asylum were always a lot more fun than their reputation would have you believe. During their prime they were making some of the Midwest’s most impassioned alternative records and a quarter century after their peak frontman Dave Priner has lost little of that conviction. He still performs like a man on a ledge, twitching, convulsing, emoting and perspiring—he was drenched by set’s end.
So even if the rest of the world views Soul Asylum as a ’90s nostalgia act, he’s still putting his heart into it. He ripped through half-forgotten hits like “Somebody to Shove” and “Black Gold” as if trying to make a case for their legacy. It was only during “Runaway Train” that his default grimace turned to a smile and his posture finally relaxed a bit. He looked at his bandmates knowingly, as if to say, “Remember when this was one of the biggest songs in the world? That was weird.” It was the one song in the set he didn’t see the need to sell.