Four days, four venues, more than 50 acts, and nary a hitch. Based on those stats alone, the second annual Riverwest FemFest would be considered a success. But with more than $10,000 (!) raised for Date Rape Awareness Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Women’s Center, the homegrown celebration of women in music was a huge success. Milwaukee Record checked out the majority of the festival and came away with plenty of favorite moments.
THURSDAY – RIVERWEST PUBLIC HOUSE
• “Girls to the front!” cries Johanna Rose, thus officially kicking off Riverwest FemFest 2016. Rose and her fellow co-organizers, Olivia Doyle and Mary Joy, soon give the stage over to the fest’s first act, Sugar Ransom. Playing with her Secret Pistols backing band, Ransom eases the growing crowd into the weekend of music that lies ahead with a set of woozy, dark-hued Americana. Opener “The Name Of A River,” from 2014’s Mercy Hunt, sounds wonderful, full of weeping slide guitar and Ransom’s sad-but-scathing vocals. By set’s end, the singer-songwriter will have the crowd chanting “Fem-fucking-Fest!”
• Ugly Brothers are easy to take for granted. They play out often, they fit into the city’s well-stocked bluegrass-y folk scene, and they never (to quote Huey Lewis in Back To The Future) play too darn loud. But they’re also really darn good: Singer Alex Shah leads his kitchen-sink band through a set of upbeat, folk-y, and fun numbers, highlighted by the impossible-not-to-love “Rabbit.” The place is suddenly packed.
• Okay, so our first night gets unceremoniously cut short due to a sudden feeling of death brought on by an ill-advised trip to—sigh—McDonald’s. (Don’t get the #6!) We therefore miss out on Chakara Blu, Sista Strings, and the mighty Tigernite. Grr. Happily, on our way out, we catch a snippet of Rose and friends performing some impromptu a cappella songs on the Public House sidewalk. There’s an energy coursing through this thing already, and we can’t wait to get back to it. [Matt Wild]
FRIDAY – JAZZ GALLERY
• We arrive a bit late to Jazz Gallery on night two—our apologies to both Sara And Kenny and Rocket Paloma—but just in time to settle in and hear Olivia Gillingham reduce the packed gallery to a hush with poetry. Following a few moments of delicate prose, Riverwest stalwart singer-songwriter Caley Conway takes the stage on her lonesome. After one song, she hands her guitar to John Larkin (of YLLA and Calliope and ex Temple), who joins her—now strumming a ukulele. She continues adding pieces as the show progresses, with Ugly Brothers bassist Alex Heaton and Dupont Dupont’s singer Corinne Wiesner stepping in, and Larkin taking over on trumpet.
• The Candliers follow with a reunion set. The collective—which we quickly dub the “Bradford Beach Boys”—put the gallery’s baby grand to good use, along with alternating vocals and instruments such as flute, drums, tambourine, and guitar that channels a stripped-down Polyphonic Spree. Dupont Dupont keeps tickling the ivories. The breezy three-piece continue the upbeat trend with light drums, piano, violin, warm harmonies, and between-song banter.
• Dahkma, one of the few non-local FemFest participants, is a less-than-subtle hint of heavier things to come. Before the Michigan-based melodic hardcore band starts a short-but-memorable set, the singer explains the personal importance of FemFest’s cause and references being a victim of date rape and sexual assault. By set’s end, everyone who was seated on the gallery’s floor during Dupont Dupont is on their feet. Plague Walker keeps the screams coming, as the hardcore outfit doles out harshness while the band’s singer screeches into a teal telephone receiver she has turned into a microphone.
• Since adding new bassist Lindsay DeGroot to the mix, the new-look Static Eyes have been playing a steady diet of local shows since October. Though this marks our fifth or sixth time hearing the same eight or so songs in that span, we don’t mind in the slightest. A loose semi-circle forms around oddball frontman Lee Olson while he—in his ever-present shades—licks his palms and duckwalks between Hives-like howls of lyrics for great new songs like “The Thaw,” “I Have No Idea,” and our new favorite, “Blood Moon.”
• After Static Eyes departs, DeGroot stays on stage and exchanges her bass for a guitar. Drummer Lydia Washechek steps away from the kit and picks up a guitar, too, and is joined by the other two members of Fox Face. The punk quartet, which features co-organizer Mary Joy on bass and shared vocals, dots their short-but-sweet catalog during the headlining set. They start off with “Girl Hater” and “Chemicals” before unveiling new song “Teen Wiccan” and playing a trio of other songs (the tongue-in-cheek “Batin'” among them) before ending night two at midnight on the dot. [Tyler Maas]
SATURDAY – COMPANY BREWING
• We enjoy our first (of four!) Flying V Tropical Porters—a delectable FemFest-exclusive beer brewed in partnership between Company Brewing and Barley’s Angels—as we find a good spot to catch an early afternoon Grasping At Straws performance. The lineup looks different, but we’re happy to see Anna Zaleski (Ugly Brothers) on violin and Rob Weiss (Cherryball) playing guitar in the new iteration, which adds new layers to songs like “Ridin’ A Train” and “I Was Raised By Wolves” from the band’s debut full-length. Milwaukee Record contributor Maggie Iken shines on “Maggie’s Song” in her triumphant return to the place she had that green bloody mary a few months ago.
• After Krystal And Kat keep the drum-free, upright bass jams going for 30 or so more minutes, Mary Hacker reads some poetry from her Drunk Writers group. We—on our second daytime beer by this point—resist scribbling impromptu prose in our notebook and, instead, keep out attention fixed to the stage as Hello Death goes on. [TM]
• With the last rays of sun peeking through the windows, Hello Death plays a relaxed, confident set, showcasing more of a focus on electric guitar than fans have been accustomed to. The return of an old classic, “Settlers,” to the setlist is an unexpected treat, and the newer material crackles with a dark aggression somewhat reminiscent of mid-’90s Radiohead. The band has never been as experimental as the members’ other ensemble, Group Of The Altos, but this set suggests that they’re not content to stick with the proven folk formula they’re known for. [Cal Roach]
• With a pre-show warning to take the kids up to the FemFest gallery upstairs, Heavy Hand takes the stage and plays “David Bowie Wants To Steal Your Baby” as a means of eulogizing the song’s namesake. That brief number is the only old song Heavy Hand plays, but the new material—with song names like “Kids In A Bar” and “Fuck The Police”—is a welcomed continuation of the abrasive, short-form, and funny Heavy Hand we’ve come to know and love. The building crowd gives them a mixed reception until Anthony Weber says “We’re going to play a song about how much we hate Scott Walker,” which garners the largest cheer of their set. [TM]
• “This feels important. Right now feels important,” gushes Johanna Rose before her band’s final tune. “I think we’re doing something!” No one in the room can disagree with the FemFest co-organizer; New Boyz Club has played a set powerful enough to headline any festival, and it’s only dinner time. Perhaps more importantly, though, Rose is basking in a grand showing of community support, as the diverse and enthusiastic Riverwest throngs are out in force, contributing not only funds for Date Rape Awareness Milwaukee and Milwaukee Women’s Center, but a palpable outpouring of positivity and solidarity.
• Following a bombastic blast of punk rock by Minneapolis’ Mary Allen And The Percolators, the crowd is far too amped to properly take in the solo banjo folk of Lady Cannon, which is a shame. The staff even tries to actively quiet the crowd to little avail, but the dozen or so folks who aren’t talking through the entire set enjoy a powerful performance.
• Anyone who attended the recent Prince Uncovered event at Alverno had to suspect that Cree Myles and B-Free were liable to be a highlight of the night based on vocal skills alone. What we hadn’t counted upon: local jazz/soul supergroup Foreign Goods backing the ladies up. Foreign Goods member Abby Jeanne Rebel Love, who had to deal with a microphone cutting out at points of her solo set, adds her own distinctive vocals to the mix, and Dailen Harris guests for a reprise of Prince’s “Adore” that causes saxophonist/unofficial FemFest mascot Jay Anderson to topple over in appreciation. The band is in absolute top form, inciting a nonstop dance party while keeping the focus on the singers. Everyone on stage makes it look easy. On a night of many highlights, this is probably the best overall set of music.
• Nothing could’ve properly prepared us for the spoken word stylings of Pussy. The troupe trots out in veiled pink blobs, eventually to reveal what appears to be a paper vulva sculpture strapped to some human props. The duo of Jeff Edenberg and Julia Blair then proceed to shout/sing several anthems of empowerment that, naturally, include dozens of utterances of the word “pussy.” It isn’t merely titillating: it’s infectious, hilarious, and pulled off with complete conviction. We have a couple of unprintable slogans stuck in our heads at least until the next band.
• The “surprise band” listed on tonight’s schedule turns out to be none other than a reunion of Appleseeds—and there is much rejoicing, even though the cat has been out of the bag for at least a couple days. The impossibly guttural playing of the rhythm section sounds like a punkier Lightning Bolt, while singer Fly Steffens switches from melody to screams like nothing. It’s a unique style combination in the noise-rock realm. Her banter about her own experiences with sexual violence is as moving as the song she has written about it, and the band sounds fresh and well-rehearsed, not at all like a rusty act that hasn’t played a show since last May. We couldn’t be happier to have this band back in action.
• One of the night’s most anticipated acts is undoubtedly Zed Kenzo; the crowd is chanting her name even before she utters a word, and she does not disappoint by any means. She’s got just one EP of recorded material so far, 2014’s Violently Ill, and it doesn’t come close to capturing the vocal dexterity and manic energy of her FemFest performance. Milwaukee still has issues acknowledging its women of hip-hop, but if this incredible showing is any indication, Kenzo could be on the road to changing all that.
• Headliner Siren has built up a strong following despite releasing a total of one song so far, “Queen Medusa.” She’s a fixture at many New Age Narcissism events, but tonight she proves that she can hold her own with minimal DJ help from Mic Kellogg, who also joins in on vocals for a couple of collaborations. Despite the late hour (it’s after 2 when Siren wraps up her set), the crowd hasn’t dissipated much, and Siren’s emotional and impressive singing keeps everyone enraptured. It has been a long day and night, but the FemFest crowd dances on even after Siren finishes up. It’s the very definition of a triumphant night. [CR]
SUNDAY – COMPANY BREWING
• Company Brewing is cutting its food service off before today’s afternoon festivities, which is great for show-goers looking for extra leg room, but tough for show-goers looking to get something to eat beforehand. No matter—we jog over to Fuel for a quick bite, and overhear at least half a dozen people raving about FemFest.
• Shelly Schauer is soothing the hearts and stomachs of the post-lunch crowd with a set of lovely acoustic folk. Closer “High And Dry” is an undeniable highlight, starting softly before launching into a lively double-time toe-tapper.
• “This song is called ‘Anxiety.’ It’s our hit,” deadpans SIN BAD singer-bassist Audrey Pennings. She may be kidding, but every song the noisy pop-punk band cranks out during its fast and pummeling set could be considered a hit. Things have suddenly been kicked up approximately 20 notches (and decibels).
• Chicago’s delightfully named Swimsuit Addition keeps the energy (and noise) going with some thrash-y surf-punk that threatens to peel the paint off of one of its Day-Glo guitars. A rock-solid cover of Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” and a “You asking me to smile? Fuck you!” attitude win over the small but growing crowd. “We don’t bite, but our records do,” says frontwoman Jen Larson.
• We duck out for an hour or so, only to return to poet Beth Emilie mooning the crowd in a body-positive display of ass-tastic solidarity. Fun!
• The smooth, dreamy, and jazzy R&B of Fivy is going over big with the growing crowd. A cover of Amy Winehouse’s “In My Bed” is a nice touch, and a set-closing duet with rapper Dad adds some levity to the otherwise mellow situation. Singer Fivy also manages to get in a great FemFest-appropriate mic drop as she leaves the stage: “Power to the pussy! I’m out!”
• Is there a better band in town these days than NO/NO? No. The gauzed-up electro-pop project is even better live than on record, which is saying a lot—2014’s Drag and X.O. EPs are some of our favorite Milwaukee records of the past few years. NO/NO plays plenty of songs from those releases, but also bowls us over with a new tune. Goddamn these guys are good.
• It’s getting late and The X-Files are on at 9 p.m., so we start to head out. Happily, we hear a great onstage joke before we leave, courtesy of NO/NO singer-keyboardist Cat Ries: “What’s the difference between a lentil and a chickpea? I’ve never had a chickpea on my face. Wait…I screwed that up.” Until next year, FemFest. [MW]