The Big Gig’s music from the viewpoints of two generations
Summerfest brings more than 800 acts to more than a dozen stages.
Now in its 51st year, it’s long been hailed as one of America’s best — and largest — musical festivals.
The event started in 1968 steeped in family entertainment, with comedian Bob Hope as the inaugural headliner and then-Mayor Henry Maier’s “The Summerfest Polka” as the official theme song.
It didn’t take long for organizers to realize the way to Milwaukee’s heart was through the ear: booking contemporary and popular musical acts that would appeal to young people — in those days, baby boomers.
The boomers’ music is still easy to find at Summerfest, but audiences have become more diverse over the decades — and so have the festival’s performers.
This year’s lineup reflects the wide musical tastes Milwaukeeans have developed.
WiG music writers Michael Muckian and Mike Holloway — representing two different generations of festival-goers — look at some of the acts booked to play the Big Gig.
IAN ANDERSON PRESENTS JETHRO TULL 50TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR
June 27, 9:45 p.m. BMO Harris Pavilion with Miller Lite
Rumor has it that Ian Anderson and his fellow English musicians were trying out different names for a rock group that blended English folk music with American blues. The night in 1968 when the group hit its stride — and got noticed by the music press — they were appearing as Jethro Tull, the name of an actual 18th-century English agriculturalist who invented the seed drill and the horse-drawn hoe. The name stuck.
Since then Anderson, guitarist Martin Barre and a revolving door of fellow players parlayed their unique sound into one the most iconic acts of the British Invasion’s second wave.
Visually, Jethro Tull seemed as eccentric as its music. Anderson, then sporting a full head of bushy red hair and red beard, brought into the mix not only a distinctive voice, but also one of rock music’s first flutes. He often performed standing on one leg, the other bent at the knee, making his thin, usually long-coated body resemble the number 4. Barre’s hard blues-rock chords rounded out the sound.
The band also waded into classical music adaptations, including a jazzy arrangement of J.S. Bach’s “Bourrée in E minor BWV996” on Stand Up, the group’s second album.
Anderson’s red hair is long gone, but his meanderings into the classical world are not. As the primary supporter of the Jethro Tull brand, he’s also incorporated world music and in 2003 released a Christmas album that stands with some of the best — thanks to the group’s longstanding English folk music influence.
Fans of the band seem pleased with Jethro Tull’s latest iteration and will want to catch the Summerfest performance just to see what avenues Anderson has been exploring lately.
JAMES TAYLOR/BONNIE RAITT
June 28, 7:30 p.m., American Family Insurance Amphitheater
They seem an unlikely duo to pair onstage, but on second thought…
Boomer crooner James Taylor, born in Boston but raised in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was the first American artist to sign on to the Beatles’ Apple Records after auditioning for Paul McCartney and George Harrison. Taylor departed Apple before his 1970 breakthrough hit, “Fire and Rain,” recorded for Warner Brothers.
Few fans knew the song was about the drug overdose of a close friend and Taylor’s efforts to beat his own addictions. He has since released a string of hits, earned five Grammy Awards and in 2000 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Born in Burbank, California, Bonnie Raitt hailed from a musical family that included her father, Broadway baritone John Raitt, who was known for his roles in Carousel and Oklahoma! Raised a Quaker, Raitt and her family moved east and the fledgling musician learned to play guitar at summer camp in upstate New York.
In 1970, she took a semester off from Radcliffe and immersed herself in the Philadelphia blues scene. After receiving good notices in Newsweek for playing backup for Mississippi Fred McDowell at the Philly Folk Festival, Raitt signed a contract with Warner Brothers, releasing her first album in 1971. She since has scored 10 Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the same year as Taylor.
Both performers tap into American roots music. Their approaches are singular, yet complementary in style and substance, reflecting a bygone musical period with astonishing contemporary relevance. — M.M.
WiG music writers Michael Muckian and Mike Holloway — representing two different generations of festivalgoers — take a look at some of the acts booked to play the Big Gig.
June 30, 10 p.m., Harley-Davidson Roadhouse
When you think of Chicago blues guitarists, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Magic Sam and Buddy Guy all come to mind. Guy is the only one still alive and playing the blues.
He embodies the classic blues story. He played his first licks on a homemade instrument in his native Lettsworth, Louisiana, before going to Chicago at age 21 and falling in with the blues players recording for Chess Records. Muddy Waters mentored the young man, who soon distinguished himself among his fellow bluesmen.
Guy’s style has been described as deeply virtuosic blended with a hammy stage act that makes him a player of extremes. His playing moves suddenly from loud to soft, and from a raw, raspy blues style to one deeply melodic, even sweet in both tone and timbre.
He also was known for playing a loud and aggressive Fender Stratocaster and pioneering distortion and feedback techniques, sounds later mastered by Jimi Hendrix, over whom Guy had a profound influence.
Guy’s playing is frequently cited by younger musicians, and Milwaukee fans may know him best for opening the Rolling Stones’ last few Cream City performances. He has won countless awards, including seven Grammy Awards and a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama, whom he coaxed into performing “Sweet Home Chicago” with him during the Washington, D.C., presentation ceremony.
Guy is a legend who, at age 81, doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
THE EDGAR WINTER GROUP
July 1, 6 p.m. HarleyDavidson Roadhouse
If there is a true find in this year’s Summerfest lineup, someone who rarely if ever shows up in the area, it may be Edgar Winter.
As the late blues guitarist Johnny Winter’s younger brother, multiinstrumentalist Edgar set out to follow in his brother’s footsteps. The pair grew up in Beaumont, Texas.
Edgar Winter, along with his band White Trash, met with a modicum of success early on, recoding hits like “Free Ride” and the instrumental “Frankenstein,” both of which relied on the musician’s capabilities with keyboards as well as electronics. Winter is said to have invented the keyboard strap, which allowed him to strut across the stage, his electric keyboard strapped to his body.
Although he often flies under the radar, Winter has kept a busy schedule plying his unique brand of R&B. His last studio album,
Rebel Road, was released in 2008, and he has performed in multiple iterations of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band.
In 2017, he toured with Deep Purple and Alice Cooper in one of last summer’s leading rock legacy shows. Maybe his taste of Summerfest will inspire him to come back to the area a little more often.
July 1, 10 p.m. Johnson Controls World Stage
On Black Violin’s 2015 appropriately titled album Stereotypes, the classicalinfused, hip-hop duo set out to disprove misconceptions about black men in music. Kevin Sylvester — one-half of Black Violin — can recall multiple instances where people couldn’t believe that he played classical music.
Sylvester and his bandmate, violist Wilner Baptiste, met as high school students in Florida, where they attended the same orchestra class. Fast forward 20 years and they’re still performing together, opening up conversations about the intersectionality of hip hop and classical music and the positive effect they can have on our communities.
There are no vocals that accompany most of Black Violin’s music, although they’ve performed with rappers and feature artists such as DMX on some studio tracks. The act’s sound is that of a hip-hop beat with classical solos layered over the top. The songs are reminiscent of a backing track that the Wu Tang Clan or Jedi Mind Tricks might rap over. But they stand on their own as beautiful neo-classical pieces.
The name Black Violin is derived from the last album of the late jazz violinist Stuff Smith, who was a huge inspiration to the duo. Black Violin won the Showtime at the Apollo 2005 Legend title, solidifying the duo’s reputation. They performed with Alicia Keys at the 2004 Billboard Awards.
Coming from a music-education background, Sylvester and Baptiste have performed for thousands of students in North America and Europe. They’ve partnered with the National Association for Music Merchants, advocating for accessible music education.
Black Violin offers a unique Summerfest performance that’s likely to draw festivalgoers from all sorts of backgrounds — whether they prefer hip hop, classical or something in between. Check out their performance and be a part of something truly diverse.
REVEREND PEYTON’S BIG DAMN BAND
July 5, 6 p.m. Harley-Davidson Roadhouse
History claims that Pete Townshend was the first rock and roll musician to smash a guitar onstage.
Witnesses to Milwaukee’s 2010 Warped Tour appearance had the chance to be a part of what very well could have been the first washboard to ever be smashed onstage. Breezy Peyton — washboard player in Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band — hyped up a crowd of mostly teenagers who were at Warped Tour to see other bands by destroying her washboard and throwing the pieces into the crowd. The audience scrambled to catch them as if they were drumsticks or guitar picks.
The fact that a country-blues band was part of a national traveling festival known for its punk roots is a testament to the originality of Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band. It’s all country-blues at heart, with a heavy emphasis on blues guitar. Josh “The Reverend” Peyton’s furious finger-picking ability — which he attributes to hand surgery he had in his early years — provides rhythm and lead guitar parts, complete with squealing slides. The Reverend has a powerful, Southern-accented voice, and he’s accompanied by backup vocals from Breezy. Lyrically, their songs explore everything from home cooking to party anthems.
The Big Damn Band shines in live shows. The Reverend is known for his arsenal of DIY-crafted guitars, such as one made from a cigar box and another made from a shotgun. The latter went viral in a video in which The Reverend performed a song with it, then proceeded to fire it, hitting a target.
Watching The Reverend play his instruments, his large fingers dancing up and down the fretboard, is a visual treat. Breezy enters a trance-like state as she provides the backbone of the rhythm section with her washboard and drummer Senteney uses a 5-gallon plastic bucket as part of his kit.
Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band has eight full-length releases under its belt, with a few of the later releases debuting at No. 1 on the iTunes Blues Chart and various Billboard charts. The latest album, The
Front Porch Sessions, was released in 2017 and was entirely self-produced. The band took a quieter approach with that record, attempting to replicate the atmosphere of a front-porch jam session.
On some of the tracks, Senteney performed using a suitcase rather than a drum kit. The music video for the album’s “We Deserve a Happy Ending” shows The Reverend and company performing on their front porch as a cast of characters stumble in and out of the house.
If you’re looking for unique entertainment, look to Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band’s performance at Summerfest. You’ll witness a colorful cast of characters perform great country-blues. And, at a festival as large as Summerfest, it’s likely The Reverend will have a few special surprises in store.
July 6, 6:45 p.m. Johnson Controls World Stage
Keeping track of genres and the bands within them can be an unnecessarily complicated task, especially considering the
sub-genres that stem from the larger categories. Julia Steiner — singer/songwriter for the Chicago-based band Ratboys — half-jokingly took a jab at sub-genres like post-punk and posthardcore, creating one of her own to describe Ratboys’ music: post-country. Ratboys isn’t a country band — most of the time, it embodies more of an indie-rock sound. But the band draws heavily from the traditional country sounds and storytelling of the ’70s, creating a unique, modern spin on the genre. The Southern influences emerge from the twangy guitar riffs and Steiner’s sweet, restrained voice. But what separates Ratboys from other country acts is the way the band transitions into a pounding, indie-rock chorus or break.
With each new song Ratboys releases comes a new story. In “Elvis is in the Freezer,” Steiner writes about a time she came home from college, only to be warned by her mother that the family cat was dead in the freezer. In other less personal songs, Steiner contextualizes her own experiences through the perspectives of fictional and non-fictional characters, such as the Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson in the song “Crying.”
Ratboys got its start when Steiner met guitarist Dave Sagan in college. Steiner had been writing music since she was 14, but she’d not yet been a part of a band. The two hit it off after sharing some of their musical influences, and Ratboy — originally devoid of the “s” — was born. After releasing the RATBOY EP in 2011 and playing some shows, they were contacted by another artist with the name Ratboy from New York, prompting Steiner and Sagan to pluralize the band’s name. The RATBOY EP set the groundwork for Ratboys, showing a very DIY and early version of the band’s sound, the most noticeable aspect being Steiner’s sole use of the acoustic guitar rather than the electric, which she would come to play live full-time in the later years of the band.
Ratboys’ first full-length album AOID was released via Topshelf Records in 2015, introducing more of a full-band sound with new members. The band kept up with touring nationally, building a repertoire as it toured alongside such acts as Sorority Noise and the Island of Misfit Toys.
In 2017, the band released its second full-length album titled GN, followed by an EP in 2018 titled GL. Written over five years and arguably the band’s most honest and heartfelt release yet, GN is a road map of all of the personal relationships Steiner’s had.
GL presents four new songs from the band, each remarkably different from the previous, yet all dealing with the overarching theme of heartbreak.
Ratboys played a free show at High Dive in Riverwest in 2015. Those who were able to watch Ratboys perform in such an intimate environment should consider themselves lucky. For the rest of us, we’ll just have to settle for seeing the band shine at the Big Gig.
July 8, 4:15 p.m. Johnson Controls World Stage
Sophie Allison is quickly making a name for herself at 20 years old. After generating buzz with her DIY recordings on Bandcamp as Soccer Mommy, Allison took the plunge and dropped out of a music business program in college to begin performing full-time. Soccer Mommy built a reputation and toured with Phoebe Bridgers as a supporting act, performing at multiple sold-out shows. The New York Times mentions Allison in an article headlined “Rock’s Not Dead, It’s Ruled by Girls” — and now she has a spot performing at this year’s Summerfest.
Soccer Mommy’s sound is that of slowburning lo-fi — dreamy-emo pop melodies at a mellow tempo. Allison’s voice manages to drone on while still maintaining a cool, calm and collected melody, with lyrics dealing with vulnerability as well as strength. The band’s Bandcamp page sums it all up: “Chill, but kind of sad.”
While Soccer Mommy’s earlier releases embody a DIY, bedroom-pop, self-recorded sound, the band has evolved with its debut full-length album Clean, released earlier this year. Although the record was released via Fat Possum and was recorded in a studio rather than a bedroom, it maintains that lo-fi, gritty sound that put Soccer Mommy on the map, while capturing a more mature level of songwriting from Allison.
There’s still much to be seen and heard from Soccer Mommy. To be able to catch a Summerfest performance by the band at such an early stage in its career is something you won’t want to miss. — M.H.
July 8, 7:30 p.m. American Family Insurance Amphitheater
Like many who were teenagers in the early 2000s, the members of Manchester Orchestra had an emo phase. Not the blackeyeliner, swoopy-bangs kind of emo, but rather the emotional, wear-your-heart-onyour-sleeve style of songwriting emo.
It was during this period the band — fronted by singer and songwriter Andy Hull — began to turn heads with the 2006 release of I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child.
Fueled by post-adolescent angst, the debut album of Manchester Orchestra bridged the divides separating emo, mainstream pop and folk music. The songs are at times quiet, subtle numbers, but they often climb to a powerful, emotive climax without ever going over the top. The arrangements are typically layered in heavy guitar riffs accompanied by keyboards, and sing-a-long segments that showcase Hull’s ability to restrain his voice at times and bellow from the heart at others. The band’s songs often use the quiet-loud-quiet format to create a
fluctuating rush of emotions.
After the releasing the sophomore album Mean Everything to Nothing in 2009, the band was on the path to mainstream success. Emo heavyweight band Brand New — which performed at Summerfest in 2014 and in 2015, with Manchester Orchestra opening for the latter — brought the band on tour for multiple runs. Manchester Orchestra’s songs were picked up for movies, television shows and video games. The seed was planted for aspiring musicians who would cite the band’s music as a major influence during the “emo revival” a decade later.
The band’s third album, Simple Math, released in 2011, is a concept album that marked a turn for the group. The record focused on a story told from the perspective of a 23-year-old Hull, who questions various facets of life and philosophy, including all of the anxieties that come with adulthood. If the band’s first two albums were the emo phase of Manchester Orchestra, then Simple Math was the post-college, “figuring-out-life” phase. Concept albums would continue to be a theme for the band as it added more complex layers to its songwriting and storytelling.
With each new release, Manchester Orchestra’s sound became increasingly difficult to label. As Hull matured, so did the music. In 2014, the band released its fourth and relentlessly heavy, full-length album Cope.
In 2016, Hull and bandmate Robert McDowell composed an original score for the independent comedy film Swiss Army
Man, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano. Using layers upon layers of vocals and no instruments, Hull and McDowell crafted the a capella soundtrack, which is hilarious but heart wrenching. The score was nominated for “Best Original Score for a Comedy Film” and “Film Music Composition of the Year” in the 2016 International Film Music Critics Association Awards competition.
After that masterpiece, Manchester Orchestra went for a stripped-down, more minimal approach to its fifth full-length album, A Black Mile to the Surface, released in 2017. Hull, who is in his 30s and has a son, shows his growth as both a musician and as a human as the album explores themes of love, marriage and fatherhood through the context of a South Dakota town that is the subject of the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment.
Although Hull is the only remaining original member of Manchester Orchestra, the band is as impressive as ever as it adapts and grows with new members. As is usually the case with Summerfest performances, fans can expect the band to play some of its heavier back-catalogue work, as well as some of the newer stripped-down songs.
Regardless, expect emotions to run high. — M.H.
July 8, 9:45 p.m. Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard
Although born in Ohio and raised in Plano, Texas, Boz Scaggs can credit some of his earliest musical opportunities to Milwaukee native Steve Miller. They attended St. Mark’s School together in Plano when Miller’s family moved there and played together in their first band.
Scaggs followed Miller back to Wisconsin to attend the University of WisconsinMadison, helping plant the seeds for what eventually became the Steve Miller Band. After a stint in Europe, Scaggs joined Miller in San Francisco, performing on Miller’s first two albums before striking out on his own.
The 1970s belonged to Scaggs the solo artist, with hits like “Lowdown,” “Lido Shuffle” and others. Mixing rock riffs with a style once known as “disco soul,” Scaggs garnered a global following. Although he’s taken some fairly long hiatuses during his almost 40-year career, he remains a strong and consistent performer.
These days Scaggs and wife Dominique grow wine grapes in Napa Valley, California, but he still hits area stages with some regularity. Expect the classics as well as cuts from his 2015 album A Fool to
Care during his Summerfest set.
Chances are he won’t play any numbers
from Children of the Future and Sailor, his two Steve Miller Band recordings, but you can always ask.
Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band
The Edgar Winter Group