Nathaniel Rateliff and Fruit Bats both played before dinner time on Day 1 of Summerfest. In about 30 years of Big Gig action, I cannot recall a better start to the 11-day festival.
Perhaps best of all, the shows were in the afternoon, which meant plenty of great seats and no battling a throng to get up close. The downside for the bands was that the stage's seating area was only about a third full.
Rateliff has been a pretty frequent visitor to Milwaukee in the past few years. His most recent performance, in the wake of the release of his stunning "In Memory of Loss," was at the super intimate Club Garibaldi in March 2011. And that was his fourth Milwaukee gig.
If fans came hoping to hear Rateliff run through the 13 tunes on "In Memory of Loss," they may have left disappointed.
He only played a couple tunes from the record, including "Boil and Fight" and "You Should've Seen the Other Guy," the latter of which segued into a powerful version of "Shroud," released as a single and added to later versions of the album.
Rateliff and his backing quartet got into the summer spirit decked out in white jeans and, in the case of bassist Julie Davis, a red and white striped dress.
The set started with a simmer and exploded open with "I Am" – for which Rateliff traded his acoustic for a gritty electric guitar – and its bombastic triple-bass drum percussive blasts.
And that's how most of the all-too-brief 40-minute performance went. From quiet lows to booming highs, Rateliff is a master of dynamics. Whether or not that translates to a sprawling Summerfest stage is open to debate. I was happy to see Rateliff again, regardless of the venue.
Fruit Bats, which got started in Chicago, played a number of Milwaukee gigs in the early days, according to frontman Eric Johnson, a Kenosha native, mostly at the Cactus Club. On Wednesday, it put on a slightly longer, higher-energy performance that was perfectly suited to the Big Gig.
Playing for 45 minutes in advance of a gig by Milwaukee's own great The Fatty Acids, Fruit Bats – who were much chattier onstage than Rateliff, who uttered almost nothing between songs – mixed in material from a decade -long career but paid extra attention to its latest disc, "Tripper."
Among the tunes it featured from the new Sub Pop Records disc were "Heart Like An Orange," "Tony the Tripper," "You're Too Weird" and "Dolly."
Johnson and company are chameleon-like in that while some songs are pure guitar-driven garage pop, others, like "You're Too Weird," have a retro R&B feel and still others ramble into country and folk melodies.
And they pull it all off.
Surely, it's a matter of taste but I can't remember a better opening day at Summerfest.
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