In a world of constant change in popular music, for a festival to celebrate its 50th year, as Milwaukee’s Summerfest did this year, represents a lifetime. I’d been to the festival certified by Guinness World Records as the world’s biggest four times since 2005, but not in the last five years. However, having celebrated my own half century a couple of months earlier, there could be no more fitting place to mark the occasion.
The format has evolved several times over the half century but remained similar during my time going: a near mile long grounds on the shore of Lake Michigan with no less than 12 stages, nine given over to wall to wall music from noon till nearly midnight for a marathon eleven days!
While the 20,000-plus American Insurance Family Amphitheater within the site plays host to major acts each night with separate ticketing required, admission to the grounds costs next to nothing with a variety of deals. During the day they play host to a variety of regional bands, either playing original material or tribute or covers bands, the latter almost always being more accomplished than their English counterparts, then each stage is headlined by a nationally known act.
Summerfest covers nearly every popular music genre, and rock in its many forms has been somewhat downgraded over the last decade, but fortunately on this occasion there was a classic rock or AOR act worth seeing nearly every night.
Wednesday 28th June- TESLA
My adventure could not have begun in less promising fashion, with stormy rain sweeping in off the Lake Michigan shores. After a fashion, I was able to shelter in the covered BMO Harris Pavilion, the next largest stage on the grounds, where my partner and friends I had reconnected with from previous visits were all awaiting the Moody Blues.
However near to show time I headed out into the downpour, as one of a relatively few number of heavier bands in Tesla were playing one of the other stages, the Harley Davidson Roadhouse. When I arrived the crowd was only a few rows thick but it filled up respectably.
Whether the weather had played havoc with the electrics, the sound was truly awful on opener ‘Into the Now’ and indeed on ‘The Way it is’ and ‘Hang Tough’ they appeared static on stage and lacklustre.
However the gig gradually lifted, primarily due to the guitar solos of Frank Hannon, who has a great seventies-inspired feel to his playing and whipped up a storm with his slide guitar on ‘Heavens Trail’. With traditional crowd pleasers like ‘Signs’ and ‘What You Give’ Fairly early in the set I wondered what might come next.
They made full use of the backdrop throughout the set, and it showed the video for ‘Save Your Goodness’ which had more of a Faces feel to it. Sundry Def Leppard members appeared on it and later they paid tribute to them, playing ‘Song And Emotion’, their tribute to Steve Clark with some riffery and solos from Frank very similar to the great man.
There were more familiar moments in between with a belated debut album classic in ‘Gettin Better’, the big hook of ‘Edison’s Medicine’ and ‘Love Song’, with the twin acoustic guitar intro and Jeff Keith leading everyone in chorus.
My attention was unfortunately distracted as my camera had jammed in the rain, spoiling my enjoyment, but no one else’s, of the closing duo of their great crowd pleasers ‘Little Suzi’ and ‘Modern Day Cowboy’, with the twin guitars of Frank and Dave Rude belatedly to the fore.
Jeff’s Californian surfer dude-meets-hyperactive child persona often grates on me, but the endurance showed by both band and crowd in such awful conditions made his closing sign off ‘Milwaukee, you’ve given us a night we will never forget’ a sincere one.
Thursday 29th June- TOTO, SOUL ASYLUM, FOGHAT
Thankfully the next day was boiling hot, and the one where I arrived at the Summerfest grounds earliest as it had been deemed ‘Throwback Thursday’. This meant that drinks were half price in the afternoon, and various national bands from the seventies and eighties played throughout the day and not only in the late evening slots. I chose to see Foghat at the BMO Harris Pavilion and better still was in the front section, which after 7pm is reserved for the bank customers and America’s equivalents of the prawn sandwich munchers.
They may only have one original member, septuagenarian drummer Roger Earl in his Lennon shades, but the current tine up is tight and true to the original style: Charlie Huhn is a good fit for the wailing vocals of Dave Peverett, but the star of the show throughout was Bryan Bassett with his overload of slide guitar, not least on openers ‘Driving Wheel’ and ‘Stone Blue’. ‘Maybelline’ was a suitable tribute to the late Chuck Berry and heralded a number of short and punchy rock’n’rollers including ‘My Baby’ and ‘Wild Cherry’.
There was then the first surprise of the festival as Charlie said it was 40 years since ‘Foghat Live and that they were going to play the album in its entirety. While it began with a familiar number in ‘Fool for the City’- with a great solo from Bryan and almost his only one without slide- the delight was hearing some relatively lesser heard numbers like ‘Road Fever’, with more brilliant slide work from Bryan, and ‘Honey Hush’, where he and Charlie’s guitars combined in a fashion that wrote the blues rock textbook.
However the two usual long songs of ‘I Just Wanna Make Love to You’ and ‘Slow Ride’ drawn out with guitar jams and audience participation, were saved to the end, either side of ‘Chateau Laffitte 59’ boogie.
I beat a swift retreat to grab a final IPA before the prices reverted to normal, and to visit another stage see Soul Asylum, a band I’ve never yet d to see, 25 years after ‘Runaway Train’ catapulted them to fame.
Many of the songs were unfamiliar and only ‘Misery’ made much of an impact with its ‘frustrated incorporated’ chorus, but the said hit came fairly early on in the middle of a trio of ‘Grave Dancers Union’ classics, sandwiched by the rather more aggressive ‘Somebody to Shove’ and ‘Black Gold’.
The atmosphere was disappointing though as, incongruously, however they seemed to be playing to an audience of utterly uninterested teenagers, with backs to the stage and only interacting via their phones, presumably laying down towels for one of their favourite acts later in the evening.
Long-haired singer and guitarist Dave Pirner is the only remaining member from their classic days, but he and his band colleagues lacked stage presence. With the exception of the odd highlight like ‘Just Like Anyone’ and ‘April Fool’ being a grungy distraction, the songs came over as increasingly samey nineties garage rock.
For the encore ‘Homesick’ gave way to a couple of punkier numbers from their earliest days with the bassist Winston Roye sharing vocals. Though this was not an ideal environment to see them, they were very disappointing ultimately.
It was back to the Pavilion later in the evening for the night’s headliners Toto, who could not have begun in more AOR fashion with ‘Only The Children’ with its stabbing keyboard intro and big chorus where Joseph Williams, whose voice had the right tone and melody but at times lacked power, was well backed up by bassist Shem Von Schroeck and sax player Warren Ham, the latest additions to Toto’s ever changing line up.
Very surprisingly ‘Hold The Line’, keeping close to the studio original followed, rather than be saved to late set, and more melodic gems followed in ‘Afraid Of Love’, with vocals shared and David Paich’s piano and Steve Porcaro’s synthesisers making for a rich combination and David singing lead on ‘Lovers In The Night’, then Joseph back on lead vocals for ‘Pamela’ with almost funky verses but a great chorus. Steve Lukather then got people to wave lighters as he sung his hit ballad ‘I’ll Be Over You’ in smoky fashion.
However Toto have always liked to imply that their musicianship sets them apart from the acts they are typically lumped in with, and this was proved by a couple of cuts from recent album Toto XIV in ‘Chinatown’, an almost jazzy jam, and the Yes-like ’Great Expectations’. The band introductions were also a touch self-indulgent and boastful of previous works they had been involved with.
The low point for me was when Steve Lukather, after dedicating a song to departed Toto members said ‘oh and Jimi’ and a lengthy cover of ‘Red House’ was beyond tedious even if the crowd reaction at the end of his solo suggested I was in a minority in finding that his guitar hero histrionics broke up the show.
Either side of a rather dull ‘99’, both ‘Stop Loving You’ and ‘Home Of The Brave’, one of the classics in their repertoire, saw the band strike a better balance between melodic hooks, and showing their musical chops, but they seemed to acknowledge that a festival crowd was craving the hits and got them with ‘Rosanna’ though I found their rendition a touch lacklustre and it was one of the few songs where Bobby Kimball was missed.
There was a surprise in ‘I’ll Supply The Love’ which went down really well with the crowd picking up on the chorus spontaneously, before a lengthy ‘Africa’, complete with percussion solo, crowd participation, and the band relaxing and having fun on stage, closed a curate’s egg of an hour 50 minute set, where the high points were very high indeed.
Friday 30th June – PAUL SIMON
There were few GRTR! worthy acts on the third day, but I treated my partner to Paul Simon’s show at the Amphitheatre. We are talking rock royalty here with a man whose musical legacy is unquestioned, both as chief songwriter in Simon and Garfunkel and in the eighties bringing world music to the masses.
He was supported by a younger, impressive west coast singer songwriter in Brandi Carlile, reminding me a little of a young Melissa Etheridge with a folky, slightly country style. Lasting impressions were an earworm and autobiographical ‘Mother’, and a spirited cover of ‘Going To California’.
Looking youthful, almost boyish at 75, Paul Simon opened with ‘Boy In the Bubble’ which to these ears successfully merged South African and Americana sounds, and in a varied set older solo material like ‘Mother And Child Reunion’ and the Latino-flavoured ‘Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard’ were warmly received by a generally older crowd, and there was the occasional Simon and Garfunkel number such as ‘America’ as well as some interesting newer ones like ’Stranger To Stranger’.
The one downside was that, with the back of the Amphitheatre open to the rest of the grounds, his gentler moments were totally drowned out by thudding beats coming from a neighbouring stage where House Of Pain were doing their ‘Jump Around’ thing.
‘Graceland’ favourites ‘Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes’ and in particular ‘You Can Call Me Al’ finally got the crowd consistently to their feet, though the latter reminded me just how irritating I still find it after over 30 years after it was a favourite among my fellow university students.
The encores included a newer song ‘Questions For The Angels’ which showed off his enduring songwriting talent, alongside more familiar material such as ‘Graceland’ and ‘The Boxer’ with the highlight surely left to last, a breathtaking solo acoustic ‘Sound Of Silence’.
His band of American and African musicians were excellent, his voice undimmed, and his ego generally held in check, so despite not being a fan this was still an enjoyable experience, unlike another musical legend I was to see later in the week!
Saturday 1st July- SHINEDOWN, JOHN WAITE
Back on the grounds, Saturday was a rare opportunity to see a name act on the afternoon in my fellow ‘limey’ John Waite, who I’d seen on my very first trip here in 2005. Looking trim and dapper for a man about to reach pensionable age he and the band – restored to a pair of lead guitarists- were all in sharp dark suits over their t-shirts, and after his usual opener in ‘Change’ there were a couple of Babys classics in ‘Back On My Feet Again’ and ‘Everytime I Think Of You’, in between ‘When I See You Smile’, which he initially sang acapella before the Bad English US No I power ballad kicked in.
While these have all been live staples over the years, a revelation was a simply beautiful ‘If You Ever Get Lonely’ which he mentioned had some success in the country charts and ranks with his finest ballads, of which there are many, including of course ‘Missing You’ which he sang at the front rows, my partner and I included.
With one of the most impressive of his ever-changing band line ups I have seen, ‘Best Of What I Got’ rocked, ‘Midnight Rendezvous’ had some great riffing and a galloping ‘Head First’ was even better, but after only 45 minutes or so the set was over, other than his usual unnecessary Led Zeppelin cover – on this occasion, ‘Whole Lotta Love’ – leaving us a touch unfulfilled.
Across the festival grounds a huge crowd was gathering for Shinedown, and in reality the Harley Davidson Roadhouse stage was insufficient for a band that headline festivals and arena shows in the USA. Not a single spare bench seat was to be had, even before the arrival of support act Greta Van Fleet, who despite their name are a band with three brothers, with singer Josh Kiszka having a remarkably similar vocal intonation to Robert Plant, peddling the same retro blues rock furrow of Rival Sons among others. Their musicianship was impressive in small doses but became monotonous after a while.
As people stood upon the benches I could not see Shinedown and on openers ’Devour’ and debut favourite ‘Fly From The Inside’ the muddy sound was awful. Luckily not only did it improve, but in a stroke of luck I was able to squeeze onto the back row, when a family suddenly realised their seven year old girl liking songs on YouTube was one thing, but taking her to her first show faced by such crowds and noise was another.
This was a similar but slightly extended show to the one I had seen Shinedown support Iron Maiden with a month earlier, with exactly the same well-worn but effective audience participation routines from singer Brent Smith, whose hair is growing back. He led the ‘boom-lay-boom’ chant to ‘Diamond Eyes’, went deep into the crowd during ‘Enemies’ and orchestrated a mass raising of hands in the air during ‘Unity’ while there were mass sinagalongs to the likes of ‘If Only You Knew’.
He got people to wave their cellphone lighters in the air on ‘State Of My Head’, one of the examples of how their newer songs – ‘How Do You Love’ being another – incorporate elements of almost electronic dance music complete with samples coming from off stage.
From the first moment Zach Myers – beginning to resemble an American Ed Sheeran- struck an acoustic power chord, there could not have been a person not singing word perfect to their hit ballad ‘Second Chance’, but there were also heavier, more brutal numbers to finish the main set in ‘Bully’ and ‘Cut The Cord’.
The one surprise at the start of the encores was when Brent and Zach came out alone and played the intro to debut album favourite ‘45’ before their now trademark cover of ‘Simple Man’, which they have made their own. It is a tribute both to the enduring greatness of the Skynyrd song, but also their own charisma, that they can draw it out in acoustic fashion on such a big stage and yet hold people’s attention.
They then finished in completely different style with the angry heaviness, driven on by dreadlocked drummer Barry Kerch, of ‘Sound of Madness’ with people’s fists pumping. Their eclectic musical approach may not be to everyone’s tastes but the raucous response suggested that no rock band at the moment is better at capturing the hearts of Middle America.
Sunday 2nd July- PETER FRAMPTON
With the main national acts usually playing simultaneously at the end of the day choices have to be made. Two acts who dominated American radio in the mid seventies, the Steve Miller Band and Peter Frampton, had been touring the States together but this time they were competing for attention on different stages.
I’ve always found the former’s songs very irritating so I left my partner and friends to him and headed to the far end of the grounds to catch my fellow South Londoner on the Uline Warehouse Stage, though not before seeing a Milwaukee institution, Bad Boy, with Steve Grimm and original Cheap Trick singer Xeno sharing guitars and vocals and a very solid set of classic but melodic rockers. Unfortunately with the front seats empty it was hard for them to recreate the atmosphere I’ve seen at their Summerfest shows in the past.
Peter Frampton had no such problems in front of an audience of long-time fans and opened in lively manner with ‘Something’s Happening’ and a trip into his neglected eighties phase with ‘Lying’. The hair may be thinner and silver and the walk rather stooping but the guitar solos especially on the latter were spectacularly fluid, and the casual observer might have been surprised how hard they rocked – indeed they also enlivened otherwise laid back, dreamier material like ‘Lines On My Face’.
He has a droll sense of humour, occasionally changing words mid song, though the mood was more sombre when his unusual instrumental take on ‘Black Hole Sun’ became even more emotional in the wake of Chris Cornell’s passing.
The ‘Comes Alive’ hits were all present and correct with big singlaongs to ‘Show Me The Way’, which saw the first appearance of the inevitable talkbox, and ‘Baby I Love Your Way’ with ladies of a certain age dancing. ‘I Wanna Go To The Sun’ was lively, and my highlight was ‘I’ll Give You Money’ with its stately opening riff then taken right down, before a lengthy exchange between Peter and his second guitarist Chris Arthur which gradually built to a crescendo.
The song tipped in at 13 minutes but that was a full six minutes shorter than the usual marathon of ‘Do You Feel Like We Do’ extended by audience participation, Peter messing around with the talkbox and solos from him and Rob Arthur on his Fender Rhodes piano.
In a solitary encore Peter delved even further back into his past with a storming ‘I Don’t Need No Doctor’, with Rob helping out with the vocals. It might have been the first Humble Pie song played by one of its creators since a riot at their early seventies show here became notorious in Summerfest history and led to rock bands being banned for several years. It was a suitably upbeat end to a predictable set but an enjoyable one from a much underrated artist.
Wednesday 5th July – TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS
I then had a couple of days off for more conventional sightseeing- Summerfest now closes on the middle Monday of the festival, and for the 4th July they assembled a bill specially aimed at ‘millennials’ and none of the bands held any appeal.
However the following day was the first show I had bought tickets for when I committed to the trip in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, whose status as American icons was epitomised by the fact they were headlining two nights at the Amphitheatre. Ironically my vacation here coincided with their rare UK visit to headline Hyde Park a few days later.
They were supported by Chris Stapleton, one of the current darlings of the country scene. A big bear like man with a bushy beard, he fronted a power trio with his wife Morgane on backing vocals. His songs covered a variety of bases, and the opening duo of ‘Might As Well Get Stoned’ and ‘Nobody to Blame ‘were a cross between blues and the darker outlaw country end of the genre.
‘Midnight Train To Memphis’ was lively, ‘Death Row’ slow and menacing, while on ‘Broken Halos’ he even sounded like John Fogerty. ‘Traveller’ and ‘Fire Away’ seemed to get the best reception, while after breaking his near silence to introduce the band in song in amusing fashion, he finished with ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ sounding like the old staple ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’. I was pleasantly surprised and interested in checking out more.
Tom Petty did not need any gimmicks or routines, just his natural charisma and a southern gentleman’s laid back charm. This was billed as the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour, yet as their debut appeared in 1976 I concluded that he must have skipped his math (sic) classes growing up in Gainesville, Florida.
However fittingly they opened with the very first song off the debut, ‘Rockin Around with You’, with its combination of Byrds-like harmonies and twangy guitars. I wondered whether they might play the album in full but instead moved onto ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance, a perfect showcase for the Heartbreakers subtle, intuitive interplay including a harmonica solo from Scott Thurston, and ‘You Don’t Know How It Feels’.
The set covered all phases of their career with a punchy ‘Forgotten Man’ from last album ‘Hypnotic Eye, and a number from the period where the Jeff Lynne/Wilburys connection revived a flagging career – after ‘Into The Great Wide Open’, complete with video backdrop, ‘Free Fallin’ and ‘I Won’t Back Down’ had people singing along while there was some tasteful slide guitar work from Mike Campbell. ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ built into something of an epic and one of many examples of the great interplay on guitar between Tom’s chords and Mike’s lighter-fingered soloing.
1994’s ‘Wildflowers’ album got the showcase treatment with three in a row- ‘Good To Be King’ which built from low key beginnings to a rocky jam extending to well over 10 minutes, ‘Crawling Back To You’ with a great solo from Mike, and Tom playing acoustic on the folksier title track.
An acoustically driven ‘Learning To Fly’ and ‘Yer So Bad’ were further confirmation this set was leaning towards the post – rather than pre-Lynne era Petty, but one of the features of a Heartbreakers live show is that they are noticeably heavier than on record, improvising songs beyond their concise length, and this became the dominant tendency in the closing part of the set.
‘I Should Have Known It’ saw Tom spit out the ‘that’s the last time you’re ever gonna hurt me’ lyric and Mike play a huge Page-like riff with poses to match, before Benmont Tench’s unmistakable organ intro heralded the biggest cheer yet for ‘Refugee’, with he and Mike trading instrumental lines at length, before the band rocked out to ‘Running Down A Dream’ with Mike again left off the leash.
The first encore was yet another trip to the ‘Wildflowers’ album with the punchy three chords of ‘You Wrecked Me’, before one of the iconic songs in ‘American Girl’ had the whole of a very varied, all-age audience dancing, again with a closing solo from Mike that seemed a fitting end to a 2 hour show of the finest in American heartland rock.
Thursday 6th July – REO SPEEDWAGON
REO Speedwagon are Summerfest regulars and while my last experience of them was vainly trying to rouse interest from an utterly uninterested O2 Arena full of Status Quo fans, the BMO Harris Pavilion hosted them in their natural Mid-West habitat just up the road from their native Illinois.
They opened in usual fashion with ‘Don’t Let Him Go’ and ‘Keep Pushing’, a silver haired and bespectacled Kevin Cronin still fairly skipping his way around the stage, but after Neal Doughty switched from organ to play the piano intro to a memorable version of ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’ only three songs in, it was clear the set might be slightly different.
After the return of ‘Tough Guys’ to the set, there was even a decent new song in ‘Whipping Boy’, over 10 years after their last new studio product. ‘That Ain’t Love’ was given a bluesier makeover while there were trips back to their earliest days in ‘Son of a Poor Man’ – dedicated to late guitarist Gary Richrath – where Dave Amato and Neal were trading guitar and Hammond organ solos and ‘Golden Country’ with some heavy and almost psychedelic guitar work from Dave.
The latter song was prefaced by a speech from Kevin which steered away from party politics but asked Americans to talk less and listen more. It seemed as if he had taken his own advice to heart as his usual garrulous monologues seemed somewhat stripped back this time!
Having been worried when it failed to appear in its usual place early in the set, I was relieved to hear ‘Take It On The Run’, the crowd invited to take over singing and with a great solo from Dave, and ‘Time For Me To Fly’ was outstanding and showing how Kevin’s folk background gives an added dimension to their better songs (as was a surprise rendition of ‘Building The Bridge’).
The usual introduction of their ‘secret weapon from Champaign, Illinois’ meant hirsute bassist Bruce Hall taking over ‘Back On The Road Again’ with his more rough and ready vocals before ‘Riding The Storm Out’ continued the hard rocking mood, Dave again letting it rip.
In contrast, for the first encore Kevin took to piano to introduce ‘Keep On Lovin’ You’, which remains one of the great power ballads, then in a final twist ‘Roll With The Changes’ saw his wife and children join on piano, acoustic guitar and backing vocals which, allied to the usual charging around the stage from Kevin, Dave and Bruce only added to the party atmosphere.
REO remain one of my favourite live acts, never failing to leave with a smile as five guys in their sixties give everything on stage and that enjoyment transits itself to the crowd. Indeed with a few changes to the normal set this was one of my most enjoyable shows of theirs.
Friday 7th July – HUEY LEWIS AND THE NEWS
Huey Lewis and the News have a place in Summerfest legend – apparently it was overcrowding at a show of theirs at their commercial peak that led to the Amphitheatre being constructed as a purpose built concert venue.
While their eighties hit making days are long behind them, their return this time to the BMO Harris Pavilion saw dancing in the aisles to nearly every song, from the moment Huey sauntered casually on stage in a lilac shirt to sing the ‘Heart Of Rock n Roll’ and ‘If This Is It’.
He joked with the crowd about the balance between old songs and new, though slipped in at least three of more recent vintage that had a slightly jazzier swing to them and less of the eighties sheen bur retained all the band’s trademarks. Many also seemed to be about ageing with ‘While We’re Still Young’ the best.
A three and sometimes four man horn section was prominent in the mix, but ‘I Wanna New Drug’ was a rare chance for his tidy but understated lead guitarist to shine, but I couldn’t get ‘Ghostbusters’ out of my head! After ‘Doing It All For My Baby’ and ‘Hip To Be Square’, there was then a near acapella section with band members perched on stools, before more danceable hits including ‘Back In Time’ and ‘Heart And Soul’.
Huey introduced the first encore, saying they never realised when they wrote it that they would need to play ‘The Power Of Love’ every night for the rest of their career, but after this and ‘Stuck With You’ there was a final reminder that the News are a tight R and B band first, and pop act second with ‘Working For A Living’ – Huey playing some demon harmonica.
Never having been fashionable in the first place, there was something timeless about their performance. I would never have counted myself a huge fan but it was a thoroughly enjoyable night’s entertainment.
Saturday 8th July – DENNIS DE YOUNG
Perhaps the act I was looking forward to most was Dennis De Young playing the music of his former band Styx, as not only had he given a memorable show at my last Summerfest five years ago, but never visits the UK.
He came on stage, silver-haired and in a frock coat, looking like a cross between Liberace and a historical tour guide in period costume, and ‘The Grand Illusion’ was a suitably pompous vehicle for his still crystal clear voice, and great solos and stage moves from the guitar duo of Jimmy Leahy and August Zadra. ‘Lorelei’ had some brilliant multi-part vocal harmonies and ‘Lady’ was the first example of his way with a ballad.
He is a theatrical showman with a unique, sardonic wit, used on subjects ranging from the current political situation (‘do you ever think- now what!’) to sporting and other rivalries between Milwaukee and his native Chicago. However as the show wore on I realised his shtick (‘how many of you have never seen me? I’m 70 years old. Where the hell you been my life’) was almost word for word the same as in 2012.
His band had a full time keyboard player, allowing Dennis to switch between being out front or playing keyboards, so his organ solo led into ‘Blue Collar Man’, the first of many in which August had a more than passable physical and vocal resemblance to Tommy Shaw.
Indeed no effort had been spared trying to replicate the sounds and sights of the classic Styx line up, right down to Jimmy singing and producing some meaty riffs and solos on the ‘Miss America’ which has always been James Young’s trademark song, to August singing a line ‘as long as Dennis is buying’ during ‘Too Much Time On My Hands’.
There were other grandiose favourites like ‘Fooling Yourself’ and ‘Suite Madame Blue’ with Jimmy on acoustic and August on 12 string, but there were also songs that you would never hear at a contemporary Styx show, including his lush solo hit ‘Desert Moon’ with a sweet, languid extended solo from Jimmy, and ‘Mr Roboto’. Dennis caused much amusement with his robot like jerking at the outset then bringing on a skull to interrogate and claim he was a Green Bay Packers fan.
The biggest difference though was getting to hear his sugary ballads which gave Styx their biggest sellers, notably ‘Babe’ where he told the story about it was never intended to be a No 1 but a song for his wife, who he then brought forward from her role singing backing vocals.
‘The Best of Times’ closed the set in melodramatic fashion, as he sat at one stage at the foot of the drum riser, before they saw out the song in the ‘AD1958’ fashion of the end of the ‘Paradise Theater’ album, with a guitar solo from Jimmy and a final refrain of the vocal melody.
After dropping the pretence of going off for an encore, to no-one’s surprise the final songs were ‘Renegade’ with August leading the rocking out and the song that perhaps best sums up Dennis’ theatrical contribution to Styx, in ‘Come Sail Away’ with mass audience participation. It could never match the impact of the first time I had seen him but it was still a memorable show, blending a great back catalogue with entertaining, eccentric showmanship.
Sunday 9thJuly - OUTLAW MUSIC FESTIVAL (Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, Jason Isbell), BLACKBERRY SMOKE
On the final day, the Amphitheatre which normally only hosts a big evening show was the venue for a full day Outlaw Music Festival, which is travelling the USA with a rotating line-up, but always headlined by Willie Nelson, who over the pond is a cultural icon far beyond the world of country. After an afternoon spent on the lawn listening to the supporting cast, the first act of any significance was Sheryl Crow, who controversially came on a full hour earlier than billed.
I hope none of her fans were still in the grounds nursing a beer, as she began with hits such as ‘Everyday Is A Winding Road’ and ‘My Favourite Mistake’, enhanced by the subtle organ playing, and had the confidence and experience to own a large venue such as this.
Moreover, as well as the fuzz guitar tones of ‘There Goes The Neighbourhood’, some newer songs- notably ‘Be Myself’, ‘Long Way Back ’ and ‘Best Of Times’, the latter with Sheryl playing harmonica, were pleasantly rocky. So when she introduced her band and it included Audley Freed and Robert Kearns, both alumni of Cry of Love and a host of other southern rock acts, perhaps I should not have been surprised. However a stripped back ‘Strong Enough’ showed the other side of her.
Her set moved back into hit territory with the likes of ‘If It Makes You Happy’ and ‘Soak Up The Sun’. Surprisingly there was no ‘All I Wanna Do’, but she did encore with a cover of ‘Midnight Rider’, dedicated to Gregg Allman and with Willie’s long-haired son Lukas Nelson – whose band had appeared earlier – helping out on vocals and guitar.
Swapping places with her on the bill was Jason Isbell and his band 400 Unit, including his wife Amanda Shires on fiddle. I was curious to see the former Drive By Trucker who is starting to get rave reviews in classic rock circles, and impressed with his strong voice and the way he veered between personal acoustically driven material like ‘Last Of My Kind’, and rock outs like ‘Cumberland Gap’.
However the abiding material was how lyrically dark his material was- from opener ‘Anxiety’ with its ‘I’m Wide Awake and I’m In Pain’ refrain, and on ‘Super 8’ saying he did not want to die in said motel chain. Once again he closed with an Allmans cover in tribute to Gregg, this time a suitably pained choice as Lukas Nelson again joined him for a lengthy jam of ‘Whipping Post’.
Such is the kudos in which Willie Nelson is held that his main support act was a true legend, not to mention Nobel Literature prize winner, in Bob Dylan. I have never had a burning desire to see him, but the opportunity to cross him off the proverbial bucket list at no extra cost was something I couldn’t turn down, despite all the dire warnings about his eccentric live performances.
He was at least facing the crowd when seated singing behind a piano, but the stage was dimly lit like a Victorian photographic studio and combined with the video screens being turned off this made for poor viewing at the back of a 20,000 seater venue. Moreover, during a set in which I only recognised ‘Highway 61’ and ‘Tangled Up In Blue’, he said not one word to the crowd, even of thank you or to acknowledge his well-drilled band.
As for his singing, I had feared he would be mumbling but he certainly made himself heard loud and clear: trouble was, he was comedic-ally erratic and the effect was like a parody of a bad cabaret singer in a programme such as ‘Phoenix Nights’. As the temperature fell on the hill, and my camera finally gave up the ghost, this was a miserable listen and a long hour of my life I would not get back.
While my American partner stayed for Willie, I escaped into the main festival grounds to see Blackberry Smoke, one of my favourite current contemporary bands but one who would not have been out of place at the festival, and indeed are appearing at various other dates. There was a loyal but surprisingly small crowd at the Briggs and Stratton Big Backyard stage.
After a tentative opening in ‘Fire In The Hole’, they played some trump cards early with ‘Six Ways To Sunday’ supported by rolling Hammond organ, and ‘Good One Coming On’ which had people singing along. On ‘Pretty Little Lie’, Paul Jackson added harmony vocals to his usual role supporting lead guitarist and singer Charlie Starr, which added to the countrified feel.
They fairly whizzed through a series of numbers including ‘Living In The Song’, some impressive new ones in ‘Working For A Working Man’, and ‘Waiting For The Thunder’ and even a funky diversion in ‘Believe You Me’ until the usual laid back, lengthy jamming to ‘Let Sleeping Dogs Lie’, which diverted into ‘Come Together’.
‘The Whippoorwill’ was perhaps better than any with its dreamy harmony guitars. However as the set wore on my old doubts about their live act started to resurface. Out and out rockers like ‘Shaking Hands With The Holy Ghost’ appeared increasingly rare, and with songs like ‘One Horse Town’ their rock/country crossover was tipping too far into the latter column.
More seriously they show, especially for a southern act, an utter lack of movement and charisma onstage which gave them (with the exception of Paul’s gentle smile) a rather aloof air. Both impressions were enhanced when Charlie chided someone who must have asked for ‘Freebird’ to go and see Skynyrd instead .
They closed with another tribute to Gregg Allman (spot a pattern here?) and the title track of most recent album ‘Like An Arrow’ which was a slight departure with an almost grungey feel.
First encore ‘What Comes Naturally’ was whimsical and countryish, before they ended with ‘Ain’t Much Left Of Me’, again a lengthy jam with several detours and even a snatch of Bob Marley’s overplayed ‘Three Little Birds’.
While Sunday had perhaps been one of my less enjoyable days at Summerfest I left having made a shed load of new memories to add to existing ones. Many of the acts I saw won’t be there in ten years time, let alone 50, but this remains a magical festival which is something of a Mecca for all music lovers which I would thoroughly recommend as an experience. Here’s to their next 50!
Review and Photos by Andy Nathan
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