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Monday, June 25, 2012

Summer Soulstice Music Festival

June 23, 2012

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While they're certainly not the biggest of the bunch, street festivals go a long way toward rounding out Milwaukee's prized image as the “City of Festivals.” But they're not all created equal. There are certainly reliable, ever-present common denominators—where would street fests be if all the people peddling incense and homemade jewelry suddenly packed up their tents and their crystals and called it quits?—but each festival succeeds to varying degrees in capturing what makes their particular neighborhood special. Thus, if you wanted to get a good idea of what Riverwest is all about, you could do no better than checking out the boisterous, beautiful freak show that is Locust Street Day. And the Bay View Bash compels visitors to get to know the eclectic area by occupying five entire blocks worth of Kinnickinnic, one of its busiest thoroughfares. I'm not sure what Summer Soulstice, basically an unofficial North Avenue Day, says about its little slice of the city, but it was fun nonetheless.

Of course, there's plenty of music at any festival (I think it's a law), but in these circumstances, it's a little peripheral. There might be one or two bands you're intent on seeing in full, but since the entire point of these celebrations seems to be walking from one end to the other in a continuous circuit, you end up doing a lot of sampling between gawking at the many distractions, which here included BMX bikers doing death-defying tricks, former Green Bay Packer Gilbert Brown, several freshly sodded bocce ball lanes, and a guy hanging around with an iguana. Even if you wanted to be comprehensive, you couldn't. After alt-country outfit Shoot Down the Moon's 1 p.m. performance, all the acts on either of the two main stages overlapped somewhat, and the later addition of a third stage, tucked away on Murray, which during the day had played host to jugglers and magicians for the kids, just made for more to see. That variety and activity is a big part of the fun, but it keeps you pinging from one stage to the next, continually making decisions about what to watch.

So it was that I spent a bit more time with the likeably fluffy teenage guitar pop of Vic and Gab than the similarly likeably fluffy adult-contemporary piano pop of the Jeanna Salzer Trio and hung around a little longer for The Cure-inflected indie rock of Boy Blue than for the cosmic hippie meanderings of Undercover Organism. The matchup of John the Savage's swaying pirate-rock and the classic rap of The Rusty Ps, The Hollowz and MC Oneself presented a bit of a tough choice—but hey, they were only two blocks apart, even if the myriad bars in between made those blocks seem a lot longer.

As the day began to turn into night and the bike ramps and bocce ball lanes got disassembled to make way for thirsty late-comers, the music carried on. The Celebrated Workingman, whose take on indie makes room for a dusting of lighthearted psychedelia, played opposite the clean-cut pop-rock outfit Trapper Schoepp & the Shades, and the plaintive classical-meets-indie of I'm Not a Pilot was pit against the stomping, boom-times country of Hugh Bob and the Hustle. In the home stretch, as the clock inched toward 11 p.m., Maritime's regular-Joe emo and Herman Astro's lively fusion of Latin, soul and blues were on the main stages, but I found myself wandering toward the side stage for the Richie Havens-esque solo acoustic stylings of Jazz Estate staple Evan Christian.

As with any broad community event like this, the musical selections tended toward the middle of the road, but they covered that ground well, packing in a lot of diversity and displaying a level of quality that should make Milwaukee proud. Whatever you chose to see, you couldn't really go too wrong. In the 12 years Summer Soulstice has been active, the area around North Avenue has undergone countless changes, and maybe that's why it's rather difficult to pin down an overall vibe for the festival: It's hard to encapsulate a neighborhood in flux. Perhaps the next few years will see its identity take a more substantial shape, but until then it's still a welcome excuse to grab a few friends and a few beers and check out some music made in your own backyard.