At Summerfest, there’s sometimes that uneasy tension between a band with one real hit to its name and the majority of the crowd there to see it. The large chunk of the audience just desperately wants to hear the lone song they actually know and came to see, while the upstart little music group tries to postpone the inevitable, playing some other tunes while desperately hoping you’ll find some new tracks to enjoy.
At first glance, Kongos – the Phoenix (by way of South Africa and London) based band of brothers – seemed to be a strong candidate to recreate this experience. After all, the group only has the one true hit – "Come With Me Now" – so far, and the younger Summerfest crowds haven’t exactly been the most active so far four days into the festival, even for artists with enough successful tunes to put together a solid greatest hits album.
Yet, as the band charged into its first bunch of numbers at the U.S. Cellular Stage, the crowd didn’t seem to mind waiting for "Come With Me Now" at all, thanks mainly to an energetic, stomping locomotive of a rock show put on by the quartet.
The four brothers – Johnny, Jesse, Dylan and Daniel – opened the night off with "Hey I Don’t Know (Why Don’t You Tell Me?)," a good driving start slightly marred by a hollow, echoing mix on drummer/singer Jesse’s vocals. The early kinks were quickly straightened out, however, on the next song, "Sex on the Radio," where the band’s unique rock sound was on full display. And by "unique rock sound," I mean, "Johnny Kongos pulled out his accordion and played the first of several solos with it." The boys certainly don’t hide the sometimes maligned instrument, hanging it solos and making it an integral part of their sound.
Accordion or no, it’s a fun, diverse sound at that, one with a kind of tribal stomp that manages to sound heavy and hard while at the same time playfully springy and bouncy, driving rock songs with the occasional soaring grace. Take for instance the early combination of "Take Me Back" and "Kids These Days," the former with cutting vocal harmonies while the latter is a ferocious, satisfying straightforward rock song.
After winning the audience over with the first four rocking numbers, each one complete with an accordion or guitar solo or two, Kongos made what at first seemed like a dangerous decision.
The band chose to slow things down with the mellow, quieter "Escape" – a tune about the southern tip of South Africa, supposedly the best place to be during the end of days according to Nostradamus said Jesse and Dylan in one of their many amusingly matter-of-fact between-song interactions – just when it seemed like new fans were getting into their rocking, stomping groove. However, the pick paid off, with the lush harmonies still captivating the crowd.
It wouldn’t be the first oddly successful risk of the night for Kongos either. The next three songs continued to get the fans moving, including the rebel yell-fueled "I Don’t Mind," the clacking and rollicking "I’m Only Joking" (the band’s next single) and the pulled-from-the-pub "This Time I Won’t Forget." It was another solid stretch for the band, suddenly cut off by … a rap break?
Yes, the boys brought their friend Moe’z Art onto the stage to do a couple of verses on the next song. Those already familiar with the band knew it was a tradition of sorts, but newcomers, like myself, were mildly shocked by the quick rap detour. Yet, once again, the risk worked out.
The song ended up being "Come Together," a fairly usual cover choice given a very unusual fresh coat of paint by the combination of Moe’z Art and Kongos. The rendition had a surprisingly rocking yet mellow funky groove with a touch of (I kid you not) Dr. Dre’s "Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang" gliding on top of it. It could’ve been a disaster; instead, it was kind of sneakily awesome.
Kongos wrapped up the show with the wailing guitar solos of "I Want to Know," "Take It From Me" and the easy going rock tune "It’s a Good Life" before finally ending the show with, yes, the hit "Come With Me Now," complete with its earwormy combination of rebel yells and vigorous stomp-happy beat. The only negative: lead singer Dylan clearly wanted the crowd to jump, a mostly impossible feat considering the bleachers (maybe more standing pit space and less bleachers in the future, Summerfest?).
Still, the song – and the whole set – was a hit, certain to satisfy devoted fans and newcomers in equal measure. When they came out for a two-song encore of covers – one charmingly of their ’70s pop star dad John Kongos’ "Tokoloshe Man" and the other a voice modified, chugging version of yet another Beatles tune, "Get Back" – the band recalled the last time they were in Milwaukee, playing in a basement for about 10 fans.
There were certainly more than ten Saturday night, and judging by the way the Kongos played, there will probably be even more next time around.
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