Like most pop culture terminology, the meaning of “psychedelic” has changed over the years. As a description of music, it entered the lexicon a half-century ago as a drug reference. Nowadays, it might have no concrete definition at all, and that’s not a bad thing. Since the advent of Austin Psych Fest in 2008, similar events have been popping up all over the country, but if there are any stylistic requirements for playing a psych-rock festival, we’re not sure what they would be. The music sounds better on acid? Put that in your press kit!

Don’t ask Milwaukee Psych Fest founder/mastermind Andrew Shelp to get caught up in the genre game, though. “Honestly, I don’t know of any local psych scene,” he says. “There’s Vocokesh. That’s about it.”

That doesn’t stop local bands from tagging themselves “psych” on Bandcamp, of course, and over the past three years, Shelp has brought many of the best in town and around the world to play at Cactus Club. “I guess it’s not really about a psychedelic scene per se, but rather finding the psychedelic moments in all of the music that’s out there, and we have tons of it. Drugs Dragons play some killer acid punk and have some psychedelic moments. There are some shoegaze type bands that are sonically lush and transcendental. Apollo Vermouth, Brief Candles, Blue Unit, Geena, Genau. Some no-wave, darkwave and goth-y kind of stuff like Dirty Dancing, Stacian and Luxvid. There are definitely some psychedelic happenings going on locally, you just have to look for them.”

Shelp’s own band, Moss Folk, will be the only Psych Fest act to three-peat, but this year’s festival (which runs this Thursday through Sunday) sees the return of local heroes Space Raft and the aforementioned Vocokesh from last year, as well as Chicago’s Verma and Plastic Crimewave Syndicate, and Madison-based one-man project Golden Donna. The most prominent returning artist, though, is Holydrug Couple, who closed out the event’s first year with an epic 20-minute jam. The band’s new album, Moonlust, comes out Tuesday on Sacred Bones Records, and it’s arguably the most anticipated release from the celebrated psych-centric label in quite some time.

The rest of this year’s lineup consists of acts that have never played the fest before. “I’m just trying to keep it more diverse and change the lineup up a bit,” Shelp says. “This year I made way more of an effort to bring more national bands in than regional. Instead of spending $3,000 on one ‘large’ band, I figured I’d rather spend $250-300 on ten super awesome ‘medium’ bands. Every band on this year’s lineup can run with the best.” Indeed, Friday’s headliner, Retribution Gospel Choir, has built a reputation as a formidable live act through several Milwaukee appearances over the past few years, and Austin-based Holy Wave has been a festival mainstay. They also played Last Call With Carson Daly last month.

The event is still largely Milwaukee-centric, though, as it has been from the beginning. “It actually all started because Eric Uecke at Cactus Club asked me to put together a show for 4/20, the national stoner holiday, back in 2012,” Shelp explains. “I had always wanted to put together an outsider-type music festival and that was the catalyst for me doing so. There was a decent response in this city from that show so I decided to do it again the following year, and that’s when I called it the Milwaukee Psych Fest. Ultimately the whole reason I started doing the festival was because the bands that I loved just weren’t getting booked here in town, and if they were, they weren’t getting treated properly.”

Local talent for this year includes scuzz-punk veterans Drugs Dragons, noisy shoegaze newcomers Geena, and classic rock revivalists Calliope. But the big surprise came with the announcement of Thursday’s headliner: Feck, who have reunited for the occasion. “I was just kicking it with Dan [DuChaine, Feck’s drummer] at Rushmor one day and was like, ‘Would Feck want to reunite and play Milwaukee Psych Fest this year?’” Shelp says. “He got ahold of me about a week or two later and said that they were in.”

Though some of the band’s material lives on thanks to the tireless efforts of MKE Punk, the local noise legends played their last show nearly 20 years ago. Guitarist James Potter and bassist Matt Grassberger have been busy of late with the reunion of seminal late-’80s metal band Dr. Shrinker, and DuChaine has been active in Burning Sons (as well as numerous other projects). Vocalist/guitarist Nick Reynolds, meanwhile, has relocated to California. DuChaine says the time apart made little difference when they all got back into the same room together. “There was no doubt,” he says. “We enjoy each other’s company, we missed being creative together, and it was literally a quick rehearsal and we were calling Andrew, maybe even that evening, to confirm that we would play. I feel like we’re essentially picking up, strangely, right where we left off.”

For the time being, though, Psych Fest is the only Feck show on the horizon. “Immediately, there were more show offers, and that’s very flattering and exciting, but it was Andrew who brought us the opportunity to get back together, and that’s where the one-and-done comes in. This is for this event.”

While the psych tag may be tough to nail down in musical terms, there is one aspect of the fest that will be unabashedly psychedelic: the visual accompaniment. Local visual artists Bread Mothers were the surprise heroes of last year’s event, putting classic oil-and-water-on-overhead-projectors acts to shame. “It was easy to overlook the music at times because you get caught up in the ambience,” DuChaine recalls. “I’d hone in on something, and be like, ‘Wow, these people are playing music, too!’”

So, what is the thread running through this event? “This is going to be about bringing people together,” DuChaine says. “Some people are like, ‘Well, this band isn’t this, and this band isn’t that,” but I think it’s a consciousness that Andrew has created. We’re playing with two very versatile bands that I personally champion, Space Raft and Drugs Dragons. Not only are they friends of ours, but I think it’s going to cause new friends to be created, to share this bill and be a part of the fest.”

Milwaukee Psych Fest runs Thursday, May 14 through Sunday, May 17 at Cactus Club. Saturday features both an early and late show. Click here for the full lineup and ticket information.

About The Author

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Cal Roach is a writer (here, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and radio DJ (WMSE 91.7 FM) who has lived in Riverwest for most of the past two decades.