Summertime musical entertainment in Milwaukee typically finds a home at the city’s 8,000 street fests, or, you know, that whole Summerfest thing. But look beyond the temporary street stages and the sea of danceable picnic tables and you’ll find plenty of solid shows to keep you busy all summer long. Here are 15 of them.
The Pretenders @ Riverside Theater
The Pretenders loom large in Milwaukee’s legacy, having “discovered” the city’s own Violent Femmes way back in 1981. The Femmes were playing outside the Oriental Theatre, and The Pretenders (who were playing inside the Oriental Theatre) were instantly smitten. Thanks, Pretenders! Who knows who the band will discover this time around, in a show that, due to overwhelming demand, was quickly moved from the Pabst to the Riverside.
David Cross @ Pabst Theater
“I am beyond aroused to get back out on the road and bring my very special, artisanal small batch hand crafted, 100% organic jokes & jibberings to a venue near you,” David Cross says in a press release for his new “Oh Come On” tour. “These jokes are kid tested and mother approved so bring the whole family!” Heed his advice or not, it’s always a treat to see the Mr. Show/Arrested Development star joking and jibbering in person.
Ice Cube @ The Rave
N.W.A. was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2016, which feels approximately 8,000 years removed from when the group released their caustic debut album Straight Outta Compton. Ice Cube circa 2018, meanwhile, feels approximately 8,000 years removed from when he released his caustic solo album The Predator. But whatever: Ice Cube still rules, The Predator still rules, Friday still rules, and, um, Ride Along.
The Handsome Family @ Shank Hall
Known best for the moody theme song for the first season of True Detective, The Handsome Family have a lot more to offer than just peak-TV nostalgia. Husband-and-wife duo Brett and Rennie Sparks have been penning dusty, gothic murder ballads since the early ’90 (the True Detective track, “Far From Any Road,” was released 11 years before the show first aired). Live, the Sparks’ are just as off-kilter and tongue-in-cheek as their music; a 2016 show at Shank Hall was highlighted by Brett grousing about the sound and “threatening” to walk out.
Sylvan Esso @ Pabst Theater
Can Milwaukee claim Sylvan Esso? Yes, Sylvan Esso is from Durham, North Carolina, and does not call Milwaukee home. But! Nick Sanborn—a.k.a. one half of the electro-pop superstar duo—is a former Milwaukeean and a former member of beloved Milwaukee band Decibully. What’s more, Sanborn and his future Sylvan Esso collaborator Amelia Meath met at a Cactus Club show in 2010. Neat! So how much does Milwaukee love Sylvan Esso (and 2017’s excellent What Now)? Both of the group’s Pabst Theater shows are long sold-out.
The War On Drugs @ Riverside Theater
Philadelphia band The War On Drugs has been a critical favorite since 2011 when its Slave Ambient album landed on oodles of year-end best-of lists. It’s been uphill from there: Last year’s terrific A Deeper Understanding took home a Grammy for Best Rock Album and won widespread acclaim from critics and listeners alike. Like its immediate predecessors (2014’s excellent Lost In The Dream among them), the record is gorgeously hazy and agreeably mature, and some of the songs still kind of sound like Don Henley’s “Boys Of Summer.”
The Baseball Project @ Anodyne Coffee – Walker’s Point Roastery
In 2007, not long after R.E.M. was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, former R.E.M.-ers Peter Buck and Mike Mills hooked up with members of The Minus 5 and The Dream Syndicate to form The Baseball Project. “We don’t have any rules about what constitutes a baseball song,” Scott McCaughey explains. “It can be anything from a character study of an obscure guy from the 1920s, to something that just happened, to something completely ridiculous like ‘Extra Inning Of Love,’ which takes the baseball-as-love metaphor and tries to stretch it as far as it will go. They can be fictional songs or non-fictional songs. The great thing with baseball is, we’ll never run out of things to write about!”
Boy George & Culture Club @ Riverside Theater
Culture Club set numerous records and broke plenty of barriers back in their ’80s heyday. A multi-racial group with an openly gay frontman (Boy George, natch), Culture Club scored big with ubiquitous hits like “Karma Chameleon,” “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me,” “Church Of The Poison Mind,” and more. Hell, they were the first band since The Beatles to have three Top Ten hits in America from a debut album. For their Milwaukee show, expect George and company to happily play those stone-cold classics (yay!) as well as preview their first new music in 20 years (yay?).
Har Mar Superstar Sings Sam Cooke @ The Back Room @ Colectivo
File under: Thing No One Saw Coming. Let’s just allow the soulful singer-songwriter-Taco-John’s-enthusiast to explain it himself: “Sam Cooke has been a guiding force in my artistic development for my entire life. Even before I knew he was the man behind songs like ‘Cupid’ and ‘(What A) Wonderful World’ I was singing along to every word as a child listening to oldies radio. Throughout my younger years I got more and more obsessed with his ability to write melodically easy-going pop songs that gave way to a less obvious, darker lyrical pain. His songs were onions I wanted to peel.”
The Avett Brothers @ Riverside Theater
Milwaukee just can’t enough of The Avett Brothers. From sold-out shows to plum amphitheater slots at Summerfest, the North Carolina folk-rock band may as well call the Brew City its second home. In news that will shock absolutely no one, both of the group’s Riverside shows are sold-out.
Weezer @ The Rave
Is it okay to like Weezer again? Yeah, Rivers Cuomo and company were in the weeds for a while (everything from Make Believe to Hurley, let’s say), but their last few albums (Everything Will Be Alright In The End, “The White Album,” Pacific Daydreams) have been pretty good! Then there’s that 1994 debut album (the so-called “Blue Album”) and its mythic follow-up, Pinkerton. C’mon, those are undisputed classics! “Buddy Holly”! “Say It Ain’t So”! All the semi-creepy Pinkerton songs Cuomo wrote at Harvard! What’s not to love?
Cake + Ben Folds @ BMO Harris Pavilion
Cake did/does those instantly recognizable songs like “The Distance” and “Satan Is My Motor.” Ben Folds did/does those instantly recognizable songs like “Brick” and “Underground.” Good lord, has it really been 20-some years since all those songs were floating around in the turn-of-the-century alternative ether? Prolonging the magic, indeed. Anyway, this co-headlining show should be fun. Maybe Shatner will show up.
Neko Case @ Pabst Theater
Oh, hell. Is there anyone better than Neko Case—solo or with The New Pornographers? No.
Ringo Starr & His All Starr Band @ BMO Harris Pavilion
Let’s just come out and say it: Ringo Starr is great. He’s a living legend, a comforting presence in a world gone mad, and a genius drummer (arguments over that last point in the comments below, please). So who’s in Ringo’s ever-changing All Starr Band this time around? How about Colin Hay (“Who Can It Be Now”), Steve Lukather (“Africa”), Gregg Rolie (“Black Magic Woman”), and more. So yeah: THE DUDE FROM TOTO WILL TOTALLY PLAY “AFRICA.” Also, Ringo will play “Matchbox” and “With A Little Help From My Friends,” obviously.