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A First-Timer's Impressions of the Locust Street Festival

Jun. 12, 2017
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Zed Kenzo

When I pulled up to Locust Street Festival of Music and Art early Sunday afternoon I had no idea what to expect. I wasn’t meeting up with any friends and I wasn’t familiar with most of the lineup, so curiosity beat out excitement as my dominant emotion. I’d been on the grounds for less than a minute when I overheard the tail-end of an encouraging sentence, though: “...people everywhere saying hi and eating nachos,” someone said. And this sentence spoke volumes about the event, which in some ways felt more like a backyard barbeque than a big festival. The street is partly residential, so neighbors were able to enjoy the festival from the comfort of their own homes; every porch was packed. And though I was by myself in unfamiliar surroundings, Locust Street Fest had a community feel that immediately had me feeling at home too.

My day got off to a good start right away when I passed the party band Brewtown Beat playing a sick cover of No Doubt’s “Spiderwebs” at the Vets Stage on my way to find these nachos I’d heard about. Food in hand, I settled in at the Lakefront Brewery Stage to see what the deal was with rock outfit Signal Daddy. I showed up for their name (which I’d misread as Single Daddy and thought was funny), but their music was what made me stay. Signal Daddy’s blues-influenced originals rocked hard; I was surprised they didn’t pull a larger crowd. “Here Again,” a song about the cycles of life, highlighted their set and its lyrics stuck with me even later. “No time should be idly spent / Remember the places and the names” their frontman sagely belted.

                                                                                                                   Brewtown Beat
Over at the Riverwest Public House Stage, rapper Vincent VanGREAT had the biggest audience I’d seen yet so early in the day. At first I thought it could just be the tented stage’s shade alluring people, but when VanGREAT’s set wound down and the music disappeared, so did the crowd. This happened over and over at the Public House Stage throughout the day, each act bringing in new waves of listeners. This was definitely the “in” stage, strewn at all times with trendy youth and cans of LaCroix sparkling water. The tent became a makeshift dance club between sets after 4 p.m., and the day’s heat seemed to take no toll on anyone’s energy levels.

Since I was unfamiliar with most of the bands playing, I mostly just walked back and forth up the street in the interest of taking it all in. Back at the Vets Stage around 5 p.m., Copper Box were delivering crowd-pleasing Americana. Harmonies and whistling complemented their frontwoman’s gritty, rich vocals. They played a wonderful rendition of Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” which felt particularly relevant every time the chorus came around: “I want to rock your gypsy soul / Just like way back in the days of old,” they sang, and did just that. When they took a break from playing to share “a little prose to happiness and friendship and community and love,” there were good vibes all around.
                                                                                                               Copper Box
My favorite act of the day was alternative rapper Zed Kenzo. She absolutely crushed the Riverwest Public Stage with the gravity of her performance. “I say a lot of words ’cause I have a lot to say,” she rapped on “Evanescence,” and we made it our job to listen. Her audience was with her each moment of her set, moving with her to the beat and frequently chanting “Zed Kenzo” as they watched, enraptured by her stage presence. Rapper WebsterX was in the crowd, too, enjoying Kenzo’s set. “Locust Street’s like one of my favorite festivals, pretty much my favorite festival in Milwaukee during the summer,” he told me afterward. “It’s just mad like, people are just free-flowing and shit and that’s cool.”
                                                                                                       Antler House
Popular Milwaukee acts Soul Low, Foreign Goods and Antler House were solid as usual, but it was particularly fun to see the city’s lesser-known talent. Because every stage at the festival was tiny (some even non-existent, with artists playing curbside or on sidewalks), the event had an intimacy about it that completely bridged the gap between performers and their audiences. Even the day’s necessary evils—porta potties and the sweltering heat—didn’t stop artists and fans alike from hanging out all day. To cope with the heat, Soul Low’s bassist Sam Gehrke just went home, cut his jeans into shorts and came back, he told me after their set. (To underline the intimacy and family wholesomeness of Locust Street Festival, I want to add that I not only met Gehrke but his father as well).

So, I have to agree with WebsterX; Locust Street Festival is underrated treasure. The larger-scale Milwaukee festivals I’m used to, like Summerfest, are so filled with national acts that it’s easy for local artists to fall into the background. At Locust Street Festival, however, local talent is the main attraction, and I can’t believe how much of it Milwaukee has to offer. 

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