Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Live's Ed Kowalczyk Seemed Grateful to Be Playing Summerfest at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday

By Evan Rytlewski
ed kowalczyk live summerfest 2014
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If you combed Summerfest’s schedule with anything less than an eagle eye, you likely missed a familiar name hidden in Tuesday’s lineup: former Live frontman Ed Kowalczyk. You could be forgiven for overlooking him. Kowalczyk’s set at the Miller Lite Oasis was slotted in Summerfest's official schedule at the ignominiously early hour of 3 p.m., between a TBA booking at noon and another TBA booking at 6 p.m.—hardly a position of honor for a man who fronted one of the most successful grunge bands of the ’90s. That time slot alone probably tells you everything you need to know about how Kowalczyk has been faring on his own since splitting from Live in 2009 over financial disagreements.

If the indignity registered with Kowalczyk, though, he certainly didn’t show it on stage. The singer never seemed anything less than grateful to be performing for the modest crowd. When a group of just five or six of his most vocal fans began loudly chanting “Ed!” between songs, he responded appreciatively, likening the cheers to the World Cup, and he wasn’t being sarcastic. That’s what separated Kowalczyk from alt-rock's other leading men of the ’90s: He never hid behind irony or bitterness. He was, and remains, earnest to a fault.

Backed by a trio of rockers dressed in requisite black, Kowalczyk made no effort to distance himself from his former band. He played all the hits from Live’s 1994 blockbuster Throwing Copper—“All Over You,” “Selling the Drama,” “I Alone,” “Lightning Crashes”—between Live-esque numbers from his recent solo albums. His new songs are even more explicitly Christian than his work with Live, the bluntest of them overstuffed with point-blank creeds about faith, salvation, heaven and messiahs. For all their lyrical clumsiness, though, musically they’re more tasteful than many of the snarling post-grunge bands that Live helped inspire, and the highlights from Kowalczyk’s 2013 album The Floor and the Mercy are as immediate as many from Live's heyday. “Hey, Peter Buck of R.E.M. played on nine of the songs,” Kowalczyk noted while introducing a new one from the album. “We got any R.E.M. fans? I’m on the record, too.”

Buck’s chiming guitarwork on that album is welcome and unmistakable, but at this point it’s going to take more than an R.E.M. connection for Kowalczyk to draw the ears of anybody but his most faithful fans. He’s too synonymous with the greasy excesses of post-grunge, and too boxed in by the intrinsic uncoolness of Christian rock. Fairly or not, he'll be remembered as more Creed than R.E.M.

And while it was easy to find schadenfreude in Kowalczyk's unceremonious time slot Tuesday, it's worth noting that his afternoon performance was actually the kind of booking Summerfest could use more of: a widely known performer with big hits to his name who was somehow scheduled before the festival's usual 10 p.m. logjam. Really, you could do a lot worse at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday.
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