Listening to FM radio is the ultimate old-fashioned way to find a new favorite band. It of course has its share of drawbacks, like super annoying ads and not being able to pick what song is next in the queue. Radio has the power to bring unknown bands into the collective consciousness, and in a city the size of Milwaukee, that consciousness is not at all hard to infiltrate.
Milwaukee “alternative” station FM 102/1 has a knack for hyping up certain bands so much that it sometimes feels like the station plays the same songs seemingly every hour. In 2014, alt-pop band Bleachers found themselves a large Milwaukee fanbase when the station got its hands on the band’s debut single “I Wanna Get Better.”
Bleachers played the Big Gig way back in 2014 when they were known as merely a side project of fellow alternative rock band fun. Summerfest bookers took a chance giving the new group their very own headlining slot. “Bleachers played one of our first shows at Summerfest. It was our fifth or sixth show ever,” explained front man Jack Antonoff Saturday night at Summerfest 2017. He was quick to let the crowd know he was overjoyed to be back in Milwaukee. “There are certain shows you see on the calendar and think, fucking A. We’re proud to be here in one of our favorite cities at one of our favorite festivals in the world.”
Antonoff’s musical acclaim comes primarily from his efforts as a producer, having worked alongside artists like Taylor Swift, St. Vincent, and Lorde. Naturally, Bleachers attracted a group of mostly high school and college-aged fans to the Miller Lite Oasis stage. It was a fairly small crowd for one of Summerfest’s destination stages, but the comfortable size only played in Antonoff’s favor as fans began to groove.
Citing Bruce Springsteen as a major influence, Bleachers’ live performances are renowned for their high energy. Opening with “Shadow,” Antonoff had the entire crowd dancing and clapping along instantly. Hundreds of hands waved in the air simultaneously as he pumped up the crowd for the rest of his set.
Springsteen’s influence on Antonoff was very obvious during “Everybody Lost Somebody.” The song is an anthemic ballad with a raging saxophone riff throughout. It’s clear that Antonoff puts a high premium on his stage presence and hype-man abilities. As any seasoned Summerfest attendee knows, dancing on those damn, uh, bleachers can prove quite difficult depending on one’s level of drunkenness and/or coordination skills. Crowd members were obviously not concerned with tripping as Antonoff continued conducting a massive dance party.
The majority of the setlist was tracks off Bleachers’ most recent release, Gone Now. “Foreign Girls” had almost everyone singing while Antonoff beckoned the crowd to whip out their cell phone lights. When fans obliged, he had a huge, genuine grin on his face. “Using your battery life on us. That means a lot. Truly.”
The band slipped two covers into their set, though the first was hardly a cover as much as a reinterpretation. “May the past be the sound of your feet upon the ground,” sang Antonoff during a mellow rendition of fun.’s “Carry On.” The performance was a heartfelt ode to the band that put Antonoff on the map as a musician, and he still carried the tune with ease.
The second cover was a dance-pop take on Fleetwood Mac’s iconic “Go Your Own Way.” Even though covering songs that many people would argue are untouchable can have its risks, Antonoff seamlessly blended elements of classic rock with modern instrumentation. The performance was unexpected and an extremely refreshing take on the classic track.
Bleachers’ music could easily get lost in the shuffle of modern alt-pop, inching dangerously close to generic, mall food court soundtrack territory. Antonoff’s obvious passion and dedication helps the band stand out from their contemporaries. (Their sick sax riffs don’t hurt, either.) When he tells the crowd to make some noise, they are quick to follow his directions. He shines as a front man with a strong ability to hype up a crowd.
It’s obvious that Milwaukee has a special place in Antonoff’s heart, and for good reason. When the band finally played their biggest hit, “I Wanna Get Better,” the crowd went understandably wild. Bleachers’ performance was a subtle reminder of how some bands can start small at Summerfest and evolve into acts who attract sizable crowds of dedicated fans. Bleachers got their feet off the ground as a newborn band at Summerfest, and successfully made their first triumphant return.