With Summerfest trying to brand itself a “national” music festival, allow us to point out a few differences that separate the Big Gig from all of its ostensible counterparts:

  • relatively clean, plentiful restroom facilities with functional plumbing
  • cops everywhere
  • literally no one is on a drug stronger than alcohol
  • no free drinking water
  • you can get in free every day if you apply yourself
  • you have to pay extra big bucks to see the headliners

Sometimes—Paul Simon this year, for example—a show at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater doesn’t sell very well, and Summerfest will grudgingly hand out free wristbands in order to lure more people onto the lawn. This might’ve been a solid strategy to pull in more fans for Sunday’s fest-within-a-fest finale, the Outlaw Music Festival, which was nowhere near sold out; instead, a virtually empty amphitheater greeted the early acts on the bill.

We arrived just in time to miss Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real, but as it turned out, we didn’t miss them entirely. The whole event came off as something of a coming-out party for Nelson—son of Willie, who would of course close out these proceedings. Lukas and some of his band were back onstage soon after their official set, joining Margo Price for a beautiful rendition of Neil Young’s “Human Highway.” Her set was a terrific afternoon warmup thanks to her powerful voice, some memorable turns of phrase (“Sometimes my weakness is stronger than me”—what country singer wouldn’t kill to dream up that line?), and the occasional spacey keyboard solo.

Nathaniel Rateliff didn’t give a shit that it was four in the afternoon—he was going to get people on their feet. Within minutes of his set with The Night Sweats beginning, this began to look and feel a little bit like a festival after all. Rousing folk-rock, copious tie-dye, clouds of herbal smoke, longhaired dudes everywhere; the omnipresent stench of Milorganite was the only thing preventing us from being magically transported to Woodstock. The sheer gusto of Rateliff’s ensemble was going to be tough to top. The horn section blared in perfect sync with the guitar swells and vocal harmonies of “Out On The Weekend” and set closer “S.O.B.,” which had the growing crowd howling along as well.

Fan reaction was perhaps a bit more subdued during Sheryl Crow‘s performance, as she played quite a bit of new material in addition to most of the requisite hits. Her band was solid, injecting “Everyday Is A Winding Road” with a revved-up honky-tonk coda and pulling off a solid little jam (led by Crow on harmonica) during “Best Of Times.” Perhaps the most damning evidence of all that Summerfest is not quite a world-class event: Crow singing “Okay, I still get stoned” (“If It Makes You Happy”) got a crowd response somewhere between nap time and just plain old.

“There are only two things that can save the music industry,” Crow declared in the middle of “Can’t Cry Anymore.” “Vinyl and weed.” She is perhaps an unlikely crusader for the industry and its emerging young stars, encouraging us all to purchase actual albums and whatnot, and inviting—who else—Lukas Nelson onstage for a well-received tribute to the late Gregg Allman, “Midnight Rider.” Crow is probably well past the need to nurture any outlaw image, so she simply played the energetic rock singer, and she sounded great doing it.

If anyone was bound to do an Allman tribute, it was Jason Isbell, the former Drive-By Trucker and leading light of the still-kicking Southern rock scene. He closed with a blistering take on “Whipping Post” that was by far the highlight of his set. Songs like “Anxiety” and “Molotov” weren’t exactly barnburners, and lines like “When you said we had the same three wishes / I hope you weren’t being facetious” made us wonder at his vaunted songwriter status. This wasn’t one of our favorite portions of the evening.

Neither was Bob Dylan‘s set. The funny thing about the legend’s latter-day career is that he was once defined by his chameleonic nature, but he hasn’t changed his approach to live performance in the slightest in the past 20 years or so. In all that time, his band has usually sounded like a bunch of sloppy Grateful Dead wannabes with almost no sense of rhythm, and his “singing,” as everyone knows, is a ghoulish croak devoid of melody, and mostly unintelligible unless you already know the words. “Songs are unlike literature,” reads Dylan’s Nobel lecture. “They’re meant to be sung, not read.” That’s great, Bob, but couldn’t you present your fans with something to sing along with?

There were bright spots, however: the rollicking, snarling “Things Have Changed” opener; a very abbreviated but lyrically adventurous “Tangled Up In Blue;” and his finale, “Ballad Of A Thin Man.” It was as if the band suddenly gelled, in admittedly Dead-like fashion, and Dylan threw us a bone, playing a recognizable arrangement of one of his most beloved tunes. The song hasn’t lost a bit of its bite, and the powerful performance served at least in part as a reminder that he can sing and play coherently—he just prefers to confound. Who are we to second-guess the genius?

If there had been any question as to why Willie was billed over Bob, it was answered quickly as Nelson took the stage, and not simply due to his quintessential outlaw status. When the highwayman had swung through in 2009, his Family band played an old-timey country revue-style performance, and his own egregious cordiality had seemed forced and oblivious. Frankly, he’d seemed out of it, if not downright washed up.

Taking the stage Sunday night with no fanfare, Nelson broke immediately into “Whiskey River,” all business, no smiles, focused and earnest. He charged through song after song with little banter except to pay tribute to fallen comrades and shout out his band, which included his sister Bobbie on piano as well as Lukas on electric guitar and vocals. Lukas mostly took a respectful back seat to Willie, whose trademark rhythm-be-damned acoustic guitar stylings were remarkably spry for age 84. For “Texas Flood,” however, Lukas took center stage and stunned the crowd with his soulful blues soloing and incredible singing voice. It’s safe to say the younger Nelson has a ton of potential, and in a style not remotely similar to his dad’s.

For the final few tunes, Crow, Price, and fiddle player Amanda Shires emerged to sing backing vocals on Willie’s most recent gem “Still Not Dead,” as well as crowd favorites “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die” and “I’ll Fly Away,” a joyous hootenanny of an ending. Nelson may not bring much cred to Summerfest’s bid for widespread popularity, but he proved he’s still a serious performer who’s got no reason to pack it in just yet.

About The Author

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