Summerfest 2018 hit Milwaukee full blast this year, boasting big names like Imagine Dragons, Bonnie Raitt, Logic, Halsey, Journey, and yes, even the band that everyone seems to love to hate, Dave Matthews Band. I was lucky enough to attend 2 days of Summerfest in July and headlining act J. Cole did not disappoint.
Despite the temperatures stretching deep into the upper 90’s, Summerfest provided a haven where folks could cool off by running through the sprinklers, downing a ice cold root beer float, or luxuriating inside the well covered American Family Insurance Amphitheater. Before J. Cole’s set however, I grabbed a frosty beverage and planted myself at the emerging artist stage to check out 2 acts that have been on my radar for quite a while now – Half-Alive and Liza Anne.
Half•Alive, having just formed in 2016 delivered a polished and powerful performance that wowed the crowd and cemented their Emerging Artist win of the day. Early comparisons of the band likened them to Twenty One Pilots, but to my ears, their sound swings further to the pop side than TOP usually reaches. This band is literally one viral hit away from dominating the next Apple commercial so keep an eye out for them and remember this article when they do blow up.
No stranger to Liza Anne’s magnificent songwriting and emerging rockstar persona as I’ve caught her performance several times in NYC, she delivered in full. Briefly talking about her battles with anxiety disorder, she spoke of how songwriting helps her deal with her thoughts and stay more in the present. Out of all the times I’ve seen her perform, solo or with band, this was one of her strongest performances to date.
Walking around the festival, there was music to take in everywhere you looked. Aside from the multiple stages, there were bucket drummers, complete with dancers, and a lone guy on keyboards. After an excellent rendition of Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” from him, I made the long walk to the AFI Amphitheater to check out the J. Cole performance and this being my first time seeing him perform, let me assure you it won’t be my last.
Opening act Trippie Redd made full use of his time on stage, engaging with the crowd early by jumping into the aisle, and giving high fives before climbing over chairs to get deep into the crowd. Everyone abandoned their assigned seats to get even closer to the action. Bass heavy beats dominated the majority of his set, and his requests for everyone to “turn up” were quickly obeyed as each song transitioned into the next. Loud cheers and applause rang out when Trippie mentioned his album would drop sometime in July.
J. Cole, celebrating a successful career thus far and fresh off his newest album release with KOD, the Grammy-nominated Cole put on a performance that seamlessly spanned the entirety of the 5 albums he’s released since his beginnings. Grown men, and young ladies alike rapped along with Cole, word for word, and squealed with delight as their faces shone up on the large LED screens along the stage. As I watched Cole perform I couldn’t help be won over – his stage presence was on point from start to finish. No hype men, no dancers. Just him, delivering tight lyrics over catchy, well-crafted beats, and a well timed fireworks display to send us out into the night feeling happy and energized.
My second day at Summerfest sent me back to my angsty 90’s years with sets from the likes Gavin DeGraw and The Fray. To my ears, both acts sounded incredible and drew large crowds of spectators standing on benches and seats to get better views of the action onstage. If you closed your eyes you could have thought you were listening to them on CD (yes, I still have a CD collection).
On the emerging artist stage, the big winner of the evening was Alex Guthrie, who won me over with his soulful voice. You most likely have already heard his clever rework of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” and hearing it live, it was just as fantastic as the first time I heard it in the commercial. Guthrie and his band benefitted greatly from a thunderstorm that rolled in right at the start of his set, sending drenched crowd-goers scrambling under his tented stage to find cover. No doubt he earned a healthy amount of fans that evening.
After Guthrie’s set, the highs got even higher with Bluegrass ensemble Chicken Wire Empire, and wow, what a performance. I’ve seen a healthy amount of bluegrass bands in my travels, but this was one of the best, hands down. The ease in which bassist and lead singer Jordan Kroeger heaved his upright bass around on stage made me winded just looking at him, and banjoist Jon Peik made my head spin with his fingerpicking. Also on mandolin, Ryan Ogburn’s skills could not be denied. Together their sound was cohesive and made everyone within earshot slap a knee or two.
Later, I watched the crowd for Kesha grow and grow until it overflowed up to the concession stand directly behind it and spilled out toward the other stages surrounding it. Kesha’s song “Woman” came early in the setlist and set the crowd ablaze.
From my short time at Summerfest, overall the crowd was a nice mix of young and old who want to come out, enjoy the food, the atmosphere and hear a wide variety of music. The overall feel to me was more like an amusement park with music, which means that Summerfest would be the place for anyone looking to have an overall great day out with family and friends.
*This post is sponsored by Travel Wisconsin.
Article: Lesley Keller