Like most Milwaukeeans, we have a love-hate relationship with Summerfest. We love the immense assemblage of national and local talent the Big Gig brings, the exponential rise in our PizzaCone consumption, the free samples of Mountain Dew Kickstart and Xtreme portable applesauce readily available, and the boost it gives our local economy. We hate…pretty much everything else. Now in its 47th year, the gargantuan festival has shown no signs of slowing. In addition to the lines, the people, the WorldStarHipHop-caliber brawls on shuttle row, the people, the lines, and the people (not to mention the lines!), we’re also not thrilled with the impact it has on the amount of shows happening elsewhere in town.
Between June 25 and July 6, the usually bustling schedules at most Milwaukee venues will slow to a near halt. Linneman’s and Pabst/Riverside/Turner are taking a two-week breather during Summerfest. However, a handful of local bars, clubs, cafés, and weekly outdoor concert series are butting heads with the 700-act, 11-day occurrence to give Fest-snubs and haters some live music alternatives. From legion bands and free metal shows, to buzzed-about national and international touring acts, here are 11 shows—plus mentions of a few more—Milwaukee Record recommends, should you need a break from (or want to outright avoid) Summerfest this year.
June 25: Bad History Month with Dust From 1000 Years, Gauss, and Eaten By Trees at Quarters Rock ’n’ Roll Palace
Do we know anything about Bad History Month? No. Does that mean we already like Bad History month more than Bruno Mars, Rick Springfield, Ben Harper, Neon Trees, Clay Walker, and Element 13? Yep! The Boston act is preceded by Dust From 1000 Years (Bloomington, IN), Gauss, and Eaten By Trees—about whom we also know nothing, but also prefer to the aforementioned acts making people “Smile On” near the lakefront.
June 26: Animals In Human Attire at Bremen Café
Animals In Human Attire have two non-Summerfest shows to precede—what else—a Summerfest show. This free weeknight Bremen appearance is the first in the trio of Milwaukee shows before the band heads out on tour. AIHA will also headline a Cactus Club show on the 28th before brightening up the Fest’s shit-tastic K-Nation stage the following afternoon.
June 26: Paul Spencer Band at Jazz In The Park
Traditional year-round music venues might be able to punt a dozen-day portion of every summer. However, a summer music series has limited weeks of warm weather with which to work. Thus, Jazz In The Park will dare to defy The Big Gig on two consecutive Wednesdays that happen to fall when the majority of the town is painted red (or whatever the slogan is this year). First comes veteran Milwaukee Jazz ensemble Paul Spencer Band on June 26. Then, King Solomon put a reggae spin on the Cathedral Square concert series July 3.
June 27: Tilts with Haymarket Riot and Hot Coffin at Cactus Club
True-blue classic rockers Tilts—featuring ex members of Riddle Of Steel and current members of Torche—and veteran Chicago post-hardcore outfit Haymarket Riot coming to town is worth mentioning, during Summerfest or not. But the local appeal makes the already appealing show a must-attend, as this marks the first Hot Coffin show with ex-Disguised As Birds frontman Chris Chuzles at the helm. Expect some new songs and redressed versions of songs from Coffin v1.0.
June 28: Pabst Street Party
Going on seven years, Burnhearts has brazenly thrown a festival with music during an event (perhaps accurately) called “The World’s Largest Music Festival.” Burnhearts/Pabst Street Party honors a truly average beer that has a tremendous marketing team. Though the Bay View brew Mecca temporarily lowers its booze standards to sling a small ocean worth of PBR and Schlitz, the bands are always top-shelf. Beyond headliner/album of the year candidate Sylvan Esso, the likes of GGOOLLDD, Head On Electric, Collections Of Colonies Of Bees, and a reunion of ’60s soul act Brothers By Choice makes that Saturday a doubtful day of Summerfest attendance. Sorry, Michael McDonald. Wait, no we’re not.
And, yeah, we know King Buzzo is playing at Shank Hall that night! That’s old news.
June 28: Blueprint with Count Bass D, Dj Rare Groove, Rusty Ps, Dana Coppa & SPEAK Easy, and mammyth at Mad Planet
In 2012, Ohio-based rapper Blueprint came to town to contribute to Alverno Presents program “Beautiful Dreamer: The Foster Project.” Last summer, he returned with label mates Atmosphere, P.O.S, Brother Ali, and The Uncluded for the now-annual Rhymesayers Entertainment day at a select grounds stage during Summerfest. Though a variety of Rhymesayers are back at the Big Gig on June 27, Blueprint will take the stage the following night to headline an off-grounds bill at Mad Planet for one of the last shows during his first tour supporting his new album, Respect The Architect, which he put out on his Weightless Recordings label in April. The crowded bill is bolstered by local favorites Rusty Ps, Dana Coppa & SPEAK Easy, and mammyth.
June 30*: Versklaven with Population Control at Frank’s Power Plant
Today (June 23) marks the beginning of Metal Monday at Frank’s Power Plant. Instead of taking the usual “Metal Monday” mantra so many alliteration-obsessed watering holes have and just play metal records, the under-appreciated Bay View bar is going the extra mile and putting on FREE metal shows every Monday. This time around, Versklaven (Texas-based purveyors of “dark metallic crust”) join Milwaukee’s own Population Control.
*By the way, this is the mid-Summerfest day off, so between that and no cover, you have no excuses.
July 1: American Legion Band at Chill On The Hill
Like Jazz In The Park, Tuesday night Bay View series Chill On The Hill doesn’t stop just because Summerfest starts. Keeping in Independence Day-adjacent tradition, the American Legion Band will play the Humboldt Park Amphitheater. We can’t thank our forefathers enough for fighting for our freedom to get shitfaced with booze we brought from home whilst laying on a hill on a weeknight (and, you know, a few other things too).
July 2: Thistledown Thunders with Jesse Walker Band at Bremen Café
Imagine members of Calamity Janes, Lousy Trouts, and Animal In Human Attire got together and had a baby. Wait…no, that’s too graphic. Just imagine members of those bands got together and formed another band. That band would be Thistledown Thunders. The new-ish bluegrass band plays Bremen Café each Wednesday (June 25 included). Jesse Walker Band joins them this particular hump day.
July 5: Red Mass with Space Raft, and Towers at Riverwest Public House
Montreal-based music and arts collective Red Mass is quickly catapulting to prominence with well-deserved attention from outlets like Pitchfork, Brooklyn Vegan, Noisey, and (insert the name of your favorite popular indie music blog here), as well as by way of its recent nationwide tour with King Khan. Moreover, Red Mass are joined by local hotshots Space Raft and new Milwaukee band Towers (Ex-Goodnight Loving). As temping as seeing Pat McCurdy, LoveMonkeys, and Chasin’ Mason at Summerfest that day might be, if the Red Mass hype is even half true, everybody needs to go to this.
July 5: Atomic Silhouettes with Head On Electric and Night Hearts at Bremen Café
By now, Bremen Café has shown it truly doesn’t give a fuck about Summerfest. With a show EVERY day of the Big Gig, it’s business as usual at the Riverwest establishment, with Head On Electric playing its return show after a SIX-day hiatus.