Each and every year, there’s a select few Summerfest bookings that are capable of coaxing even the most jaded among us to shed their “Bummerfest” shirt and their long-held sentiments for enough time to begrudgingly spend a few hours at the Big Gig. Whether a top-tier headliner, an act from yesteryear conjuring nostalgia during a mid-day set on a side stage, or a strange spectacle that’s just too strange to miss, Summerfest does an excellent job lining up at least one thing that can lure almost anyone to the lakefront.
To some, Death From Above 1979 was that act. The raucous Canadian bass-and-drums duo’s headlining set at the Uline Warehouse on Tuesday night marked just the third time the band played Milwaukee in the last 12 years, and the first time back since killing it at a well-attended Turner Hall show just shy of two years ago. Though the Fourth of July show was something of a rarity for Death From Above, not to mention the band’s first performance in more than nine months, the show was hampered by poor attendance, nagging sound issues, and a notable layer of rust that might’ve made some second-guess leaving their holiday barbecues early.
Following a rowdy performance from up-and-comers in PVRIS, the Uline experienced a mass exodus, leaving the bleachers that were once-brimming with youngsters roughly a fifth full by the time Death From Above took the stage. “I think I’m supposed to say ‘What the fuck’s up, Summerfest?!'” singer-drummer Sebastien Grainger said, citing an introduction he’d heard at other stages throughout the day and setting a tone for the 70-some minutes to come.
Starting with “Always On” from the duo’s latest full-length, The Physical World, the early going of the 19-song set consisted of a steady diet of material from that 2014 record and DFA’s breakout pre-hiatus album, You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine. “Turn It Out” was chased by “Virgins” then closely followed by two older songs, and so on. As Jesse Keeler played complex, effect-laden, and immensely-distorted bass lines to album-like perfection, Grainger’s vocals were disproportionately subdued, almost as if he was reserving full-on screams for a larger audience. His withheld melodies surely weren’t the byproduct of being overworked.
“I could’ve got a girl pregnant at the last show and a baby would’ve come out by now,” Grainger said, explaining how long it’s been since the band’s last performance. While away from the stage, Death From Above officially dropped the 1979 from its name and they’ve added a few new songs to their small-but-potent catalog. Grainger brought some rare vocal energy to “Freeze Me,” which the band released last month. After the final bellows and blistering bass riffs subsided, the band revealed that was the first time the song had ever been performed live. Sadly, only a few hundred people were there to witness it.
“I think we could all fit in my car if you want to go somewhere later,” Grainger said as the underattended affair drew to a close. Before he and Keeler left, though, they used the energy stored up during less-than-impassioned renditions of earlier songs to end strong with wild iterations of “Romantic Rights,” “Government Trash,” and “The Physical World” that likely left the majority of the patchwork crowd happy they spent Independence Day with two guys from Canada, even if it wasn’t exactly a fireworks display of the band’s best work.
“Right On, Frankenstein!”
“Turn It Out”
“You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine”
“Black History Month”
“White Is Red”
“Go Home, Get Down”
“The Physical World”