Sunday, July 07, 2019

Smile Like You Mean It: The Killers Delightfully Blow Away Vast Summerfest Crowd -- Milwaukee Concert Review

Concert Review

The Killers
w/ opening act Death Cab for Cutie
American Family Insurance Amphitheatre
Summerfest, Milwaukee, WI
July 5, 2019

I've gone up to Milwaukee's Summerfest more than 20 times from my suburban Chicago homes over the years, and though I always enjoy the multi-stage musical extravaganza, I can't say I still relish the effort of getting there and back, typically on my own.

Last year, to see Arcade Fire, I took an Amtrak and stayed at a hotel.

And to catch the Killers--whom I perceive as Arcade Fire's only peers as a great live band arising this century--on Friday I took a somewhat meandering driving route through some southern Wisconsin farmland. (To be fair, I also like Coldplay as a live act, an undeservedly under-the-radar British band, Maxïmo Park, and lately the Struts, but the new millennium remains rather "meh" for substantive new rock bands I know.)

Having worked part of the day--I don't get paid if I don't--by the time I reached the Summerfest grounds I had missed some bold name 4:00pm performers: Berlin, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, The Spinners, Jesus Jones.

But my tack is to park at the U.S. Bank building downtown--I got a $2 meter spot on the street--and enter the fest from the north end and work my way south.

After getting a Klement's Sausage, I sat at their comfortable cabaret-style stage to see a bit of a band called Vivo--I think I caught them last year, too--but their sound was overpowered by an act coming from the U.S. Cellular stage.

So I wandered over there, where a really enthusiastic crowd was enjoying Leonid & Friends, who I've learned are a large Russian troupe that plays songs by the band Chicago really, really well.

I only caught them finishing their set with an Earth, Wind and Fire classic, "September," but was impressed enough to "Like" their Facebook page and keep them in mind.

Puerile or not, I can't say it hurt that their lineup included one of the most attractive women I've ever seen.

Before getting to the mainstage at Summerfest, now dubbed the American Family Insurance Amphitheater, the only other act I saw a bit of was called Cerfus Project, who played cover songs. I vaguely think I also saw them last year, or else someone rather similar. 

Opening for the Killers was Death Cab for Cutie, a veteran alt-rock band whose 2003 album Transatlanticism I liked a good bit, but whom I haven't paid much attention to after 2005's Plans.

Still led by the now slimmed down singer/guitarist Ben Gibbard--I had only before seen DCFC in 2004, opening for Pearl Jam on the Vote for Change Tour in Toledo--the band made for a solid warmup act.

But beyond the few tunes I knew--"The New Year," "Crooked Teeth," most prominently--I can't really say they thrilled me.

From note one however, The Killers did.

Actually even before note one, as before coming onstage they shrewdly let the PA blast "American Music" by Milwaukee heroes, The Violent Femmes, on the 4th of July Weekend.

With far more personnel than the original quartet--only two of whom still tours--the Las Vegas band led by dynamic singer Brandon Flowers kicked things off with "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine," from their 2004 debut, Hot Fuss.

From a good seat in the pavilion, it sounded great, as did the subsequent "Somebody Told Me" and "Spaceman."

Flowers joked that the Killers' previous gig, headlining England's massive Glastonbury festival, was simply a rehearsal for Milwaukee, and throughout the night they did nothing to disprove my sense that the outdoor, beer-soaked, festival setting would serve them quite well.

They've often played Lollapalooza and other fests around the world, but although this was my fifth Killers show, it was my first outdoor experience with them.

Far more than Chicago's south suburban Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, I generally like the Milwaukee shed--which was long-known as the Marcus Amphitheater--and have seen many great shows there over the years at Summerfest, dating back to 1987 with Bruce Hornsby & the Range.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Santana, Rush, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Pearl Jam, The Rolling Stones, Rush, KISS, Eagles, Smashing Pumpkins, Steve Winwood, Milwaukee's own BoDeans and last year's fantastic Arcade Fire show.

The Killers delivered a performance that fits well into that pantheon, and made me glad I made the trek.

In part I did so because the last time I saw the band, in January 2018 at Chicago's United Center, I was somewhat disappointed.

This might sound backasswards, but having then sensed that they had hit a rut, marred by the lackluster Wonderful Wonderful album, and with guitarist Dave Keuning and bassist Mark Stoermer opting not to tour, I wanted to see the Killers blow me away again.

Touring bassist Jake Blanton and guitarist Ted Sablay--alongside Flowers and the permanent powerhouse drummer Ronnie Vannucci, two other side musicians and four female backing vocalists--no longer feel like temps at a new job (believe me, I know the feeling) and perhaps realizing that Wonderful Wonderful wasn't, the band played just two tracks from it rather than six soon after its late 2017 release.

Of course, this is something of a double-edged sword, as with the Killers' last two studio albums decidedly being their worst two of five, it's not like they're creating anything new and amazing. (Flowers recently turned 38, but this recent blog post of mine may well be apt.)

Hence, the same staples from the Hot Fuss, Sam's Town and Day & Age fill the setlist--you can see it here--but most are great delights and Flowers remains an excellent singer and frontman.

After welcoming a fan onstage to play bass on "For Reasons Unknown"--"Hannah from Milwaukee," who acquitted herself so well that I couldn't help think she should replace Blanton on future tour dates--I felt Flowers showed a lack of agility in not having her stick around for another song to the crowd's delight

But at least he audibled into "This River Is Wild," a tune from Sam's Town that I love.

Later, noting that touring guitarist Sablay is a Fond du Lac, Wisconsin native whose first concert attended was INXS at the same Marcus Amphitheater, they played a sweet cover of "Never Tear Us Apart," but this cool moment also ended a tad too abruptly.

But other than the lack of great new material, these were the only, rather minor blips.

And the show-closing run through "Read My Mind," "All These Things That I've Done," "When You Were Young," "Human" and "Mr. Brightside" was a truly blissful blast. (A day late, Flowers even paid birthday tribute to Bill Withers by working a bit of "Lean on Me" into "Read My Mind.")

In the same venue a year apart, I can fairly say that though they sold far more tickets, the Killers aren't quite the mind-blowing live act that Arcade Fire is, in part because they don't offer a comparable sonic and visual onslaught. (Not that they didn't have a fine light show, good sound and a palpably kinetic intro to "All the Things That I've Done.")

And though AF's last album, Everything Now is weaker than most before it, the Canadian outfit continues to excite me more with their recorded output.

But with a dearth of contemporary rock bands I really love, I was glad to find some redemption from the Killers after feeling a tad victimized by the last time 'round.

Even with a long and winding drive home--after delightedly catching .38 Special do "Caught Up in You" and "Hold On Loosely" on a side stage--they amply rewarded me opting to give them another shot.

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