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The Tritonics overcame some technical issues with a shrug and an upfull attitude.
The Tritonics overcame some technical issues with a shrug and an upfull attitude.
The Chickadees didn't let a bit of a delay and a thin crowd dampen their fun.
The Chickadees didn't let a bit of a delay and a thin crowd dampen their fun.

Local bands bring talent and spirit to the Big Gig

Tales of ego trips, prima donna performances and hissy fits are legendary among the rock and roll elite of the caliber that play major events like Summerfest.

But standing in stark counterpoint – and playing on the same stages, albeit earlier in the day – are the local musicians who are eager to share their skills for Summerfest patrons basking in the noonday sun or taking a lunch break at the festival.

Today, I was reminded of that twice when I hit the Big Gig at noon to check out two great local bands that include a number of area veterans. Both faced some obstacles and both leaped over them adeptly and with smiles.

First, at noon, The Chickadees, who specialize in intelligent, fun music for kids, were set to take the decidedly un-glitzy stage at the Northwestern Mutual Children’s Theater & Playzone. Another act was scheduled to start a mere 45 minutes later, which ensured a 30-minute set for guitarist and singer Mary Karlzen, singer Carmen Nickerson and fiddler Rachel "Chili Mac" Trapp. Or did it?

In fact, due to issues of some kind or another, the trio actually took the stage at about 12:20 and there were exactly four people there (including me and a photographer from another media outlet) when they started.

But roots rocker Karlzen and her colleagues hit the ground running, breaking into an uptempo tune about a frog, and their enthusiasm drew a few more faces. Realizing their time would be limited, the group played an audience participation tune, "The Hiking Song," and encouraged the small crowd there to get involved.

That led to one young fan leaping up on stage, attempting to grab the mic from Nickerson and rummaging through band members’ bags at the back of the stage. But The Chickadees didn’t miss a beat and never stopped smiling.

Meanwhile, nearby at the Johnson Controls World Sound Stage, The Tritonics – one of the rarest of creatures: a Milwaukee reggae band (and a good one, at that) – was creating the perfect soundtrack to a beautiful, sunny and warm day, playing Jamaican classics and originals rooted in the late ‘60s rock steady era.

Until something went awry with a connection to singer Jeff Stehr’s keyboard, causing his playing to go silent (though he never stopped playing) and a rude buzz to pierce the band’s sinewy sound, that is.

These Tritonics, however, played the song through to the end and took a quick break without leaving the stage to sort out the issue. They used the time to thank the audience for its patience and chatted amiably, announcing upcoming gigs. I didn’t see anyone get up and leave.

Back up and running, the band eased immediately back into its groove and reacted the same way when the problem cropped up one more time. After that, the music continued and the crowd began to grow.

There used to be a time when I only showed up at Summerfest as they sun began to set. Lately I’ve come to realize that some of the best talent onstage at the Maier Festival Grounds is based right here in Milwaukee. Stop down sometime early in the day and see what Milwaukee has to offer and support your local musicians. They’ve earned it.

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