While Summerfest manages to pull of the annual miracle of booking at least a few things to suit all tastes in its lineup of 800 acts playing the grounds’ 12 stages, the festival isn’t exactly known for helping bands break out. The Big Gig is much more likely to host time-tested bands, festival favorites, and world-renowned performers who are between album cycles than it is to book “the next big thing.” Though Summerfest could get by—and routinely has gotten by—with bringing a mixture of the huge names, established dynasty acts, beloved local bands, and a ton of tribute outfits to round out the lineup for “The World’s Largest Music Festival,” it appears organizers have made a concerted effort of late to at least try to put its finger on the pulse of up-and-coming talent with its “Emerging Artists Series.”
It’s the 12th year of the series, but it seemed to really hit its stride in 2018. Each day of Summerfest, the Johnson Controls World Sound Stage hosted a quartet of promising local or national talent who is potentially on the cusp of bigger things. Familiar (to us, but probably not the average fest attendee) names in Wisconsin music like LUXI, Dusk, Faux Fiction, and Telethon were joined on the lineup by budding visitors like Lucille Furs, VIISI, Ratboys, and M A L O. Only time will tell which of these young and hungry performers will break out, but at least one of this year’s Emerging Artists has already, well, emerged.
Since Summerfest announced Soccer Mommy would be playing this year’s event, the Nashville-based project of 21-year-old phenom Sophie Allison garnered oodles of critical acclaim for its just-released Fat Possum Records debut, Clean. Rolling Stone recently anointed Allison “Indie Rock’s New ‘Chill But Kinda Sad’ Hero,” and the bedroom project was suddenly tabbed as opening support for the likes of Liz Phair, Jay Som, Paramore, Foster The People, and Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks. Since Soccer Mommy’s name was printed in Summerfest pamphlets the spring, the building buzz and now-familiar material from the project’s excellent new album made the 4:15 p.m. set on the fest’s final day a can’t-miss affair.
The Johnson Controls World Sound Stage was already packed at 3 p.m., when Milwaukee’s own Paper Holland was playing set chock full of material from their recent Galápagos that was perfectly suited for the sunny and warm July day. After Paper Holland departed, most of the crowd remained. Newcomers filled in every unoccupied segment of bleacher and stood in all three entrances and in aisles in anticipation for the mid-afternoon “headliner.” As Allison and company came out, the crowd erupted with a level energy usually reserved for 10 p.m. acts. After cheers subsided and introductions were made, Soccer Mommy started off with “Henry,” the airy opening track of 2016’s For Young Hearts. That was followed by “Try,” another breezy number, this time from last year’s Collection.
After two of three “old” (relatively speaking) songs in the set were played, Soccer Mommy started a run of material from its breakout record. “Last Girl” broke the two-song trance and got people singing along. “Your Dog” followed, finding Allison sending a few beautifully-sung expletives out into the midday humidity before chasing the Clean standout single with the somber “Flaw.” Remarkably, Allison’s somber and emotionally exposed turns in the set managed to captivate the thousands of onlookers at the typically-rowdy festival. After playing the summer-suited “Cool,” Allison sent her backing band away and returned to sad territory with solo renditions of “Allison” and “Still Clean” that hushed the now-brimming stage and found everyone in Johnson Controls following each and every turn her incredible voice took along the way.
After thanking everyone for watching her “third or fourth time” in Milwaukee, Allison summoned her band back to the stage for a set-ending rendition of the slow and sweet Clean number, “Scorpio Rising.” As Soccer Mommy departed, some in attendance likely made their way to watch one of the cover bands that could be heard in the distance. Others probably left to enjoy a beer or some festival foods. Though it was only 5 p.m., a faction of people let Soccer Mommy end their Summerfest this year with a solid showing that was supposed to be a glimpse into the future, but was more timely and wonderful than anyone could’ve predicted.
Still Clean (solo)