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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014

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In Music Reviews

Gavin DeGraw kept the energy high at the BMO Harris Pavilion on June 3

In Music Reviews

Gavin DeGraw: more entertaining than fireworks (thanks to Donald Driver)


Gavin DeGraw knows how to get a Wisconsin audience on his side: have Donald Driver on speed dial.

"Say hello to my friend Donald Driver," he told the crowd at the BMO Harris Pavilion tonight, holding up his cell phone. The crowd roared its approval, chanting "Go Pack Go" as DeGraw put the phone against the microphone.

DeGraw and Driver were co-stars on Season 14 of ABC's Dancing With the Stars. "He's one of the best dudes I know," DeGraw told the audience. "He has done so much good for this city."

Driver (according to DeGraw) told the crowd to "rock the house." And rock it they did.

A week ago, I would not have expected Gavin DeGraw's to be the performance I found most impressive at this year's Summerfest. But so far it was, and I'll be surprised if I see anyone top it.

He's been criticized for being too mainstream, too poser, for having songs that all sound alike. Say what you will, but tonight the man put on a show that was more impressive than the U.S. Bank Lakefront Fireworks. No easy feat. And it wasn't just because of Donald Driver.

I've been a fan of DeGraw's hit singles from way back in the day (and by "way back in the day" I mean 2003). I love "I Don't Want To Be" and "Chariot;" both composed by DeGraw, the songs are melodically strong and feature great piano parts. But I never warmed up to his 2011 hit "Not Over You" and I didn't know how much I would like his other music. Basically, when I think of Gavin DeGraw, I think of the dude with the hat and the mellow, sunny tunes.

Well, the hat was there tonight, but the tunes were anything but mellow. The pavilion was almost filled, and the non-ticket-holding section was full of twenty-somethings and high-schoolers (mostly girls) clamoring for a closer look. The energy was palpable and infectious, and it was mostly due to DeGraw himself.

He's a dynamic performer who is able not only to deliver artistically but also to engage effectively with the audience. Of course, the audience was pretty eager to engage with him (again: mostly girls). But the guy had to compete with fireworks, and he did a pretty good job of it. All eyes were on him, every hand in the air, every seat left empty because its occupant was too busy dancing.

He started the night off with the upbeat "Sweeter" and moved onto "Crush," pausing to wax poetic on the meaning of love before performing the bluesy piano ballad "Soldier." After that came the 2003 hit "I Don't Want to Be" infused with a techno intro in what DeGraw said was a deliberate nod to Tiesto, playing tonight at the Marcus Amphitheater.

"Radiation" was one of the most stirring performances of the evening. The song – featuring a brazen, funky refrain brimming with attitude - really encapsulates DeGraw's potential as an artist. He has a darker, more melancholic side as a songwriter, and those who know him only for his jaunty piano hits are missing out.

The setting didn't hurt either, of course. The BMO Harris Pavilion was built for shows like this. The structure is the perfect marriage of the Marcus Amphitheater's physical space and the perceived intimacy of the grounds' smaller stages. For an act like DeGraw, whose fame merits lots of seats but whose show works better when he can connect with his audience, it's a match made in Heaven.

A phone call from Donald Driver may have put him over the top, but Milwaukee was already on DeGraw's side.

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