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Field Report: The 2nd Annual Milwaukee Psych Fest

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This past weekend, as you all hopefully know, was the 2nd Annual Milwaukee Psych Fest at Cactus Club. I'd be lying if I said that I was there for the entirety of it; as much as we'd all like to think (myself included) that 23 year old journalists can sustain themselves with canned beers and the occasional saltine cracker, the truth remains that four consecutive nights in a bar is exhausting. That said I was 3 for 4 which, by my account was better than all but one women dressed entirely in J. Crew. Seriously this woman transcended hardcore to the point that she deserves her own write-up. Maybe one day. But I digress, so without further rambling I present a relatively un-edited field report from this year's Milwaukee Psych Fest.


I arrived late (in a cool high school prom way) as Dead Gurus finished their set, which I was informed of by an esteemed colleague who proclaimed it “Seriously good!” He's an expert, so I feel comfortable quoting him. Next up were Milwaukee's Moss Folk, who also happen to be the brain child of Psych Fest curator Andrew Shelp. Their set was brief yet memorable; scuzzy, drawn out riffs bled reverb until they congealed to form a dense pool of sonic swamp, that eventually evaporated, leaving a fog that isolated me within myself. As their set continued this fog would thicken, thaw and then thicken again in pleasingly unpredictable cycles that had the majority of the crowd swaying both mentally and physically. To my right was a male senior citizen sitting in lotus position on the, already, hop-smelling floor; he was seemingly falling in and out of a drug induced plane, not sure if it was higher or lower but he was definitely on some different stuff. Unfortunately much of the crowd thought it comedic, in a let's laugh at him type of way, that eventually interfered with his buzz. As their set wound down Shelp floated over to a tiny mediation bell and dinged it once as if to let us know that our hypnotic trance had concluded, personally I was ready to stay in that trance. I feel compelled as this point to mention that I wasn't on drugs for any portion of the weekend. Also I would learn a few days after Moss Folk's set that the bassists had never played live with them before; no one including myself noticed.

As the old man and an enthusiastic gentleman, who I later found out to be a recovering heroin addict, exited the room at Moss Folk's conclusion they were replaced by a wave of male 40-somethings who paraded in with their draft beers and vintage leather/denim jackets for Loop. Although previously warned by Andrew that Loop's sound check had been the “loudest thing” he'd ever heard, nothing could prepare me for the ear shattering force of their set. Loop's experience was apparent immediately, they methodically built soundscapes that sounded like, well a loop, of that noise bugs make when they are zapped by that hanging electric bug trap. I felt as if I was paddling through a spooky bayou, unsure of exactly where the ghostly howls of Robert Hampson were guiding me. Their sound ping-ponged back and forth between the left and right speaker, which gave me the feeling that they were gradually rocking me to nausea, in both the existential and vomiting sense. I never literally puked, but by the end of it all I did have that sense of relief that comes post vomit.


Did some laundry and worked on a paper that employed feminist theory and the U.S Constitution to discuss if pornography should be banned. I didn't make it to Psych Fest.


Milwaukee's Space Raft, who's debut on Dusty Medical Records comes out this month, kicked off the third day with their pastiche of 90's rock, pop and punk. Billed as somewhat of a Milwaukee supergroup they surely played as such. I'll wait until their album release to make my full evaluation but as of now they are a Milwaukee band worthy of keeping tabs on and seeing live.

After clinging to a Space Raft there was another Milwaukee band (by way of Austin), Dirty Dancing. At first I couldn't quite make out their aesthetic, which for the sake of classification was a strange blend of 80's new wave, punk and indie-rock somewhat akin to the Hives (frontman Eric Schoen seemingly being the lost member). As their strange, energetic showcase began to unfold, Schoen revealed himself to be some sort of disciple of David Lynch with his creepy, paralyzing gaze and unrelenting marching. During highlight “Atlantis” he marched in place while moving his arms like clock arms, while semi-chanting “there's water in the streets and it's coming up the stairs.” now what that means I couldn't say, but it was the most cryptically psychedelic moment of my weekend.

Next up was another Wisconsin native, Joel Shanahan, a portly groove-monster from Madison who plays under the brilliant and unexplainably appropriate moniker Golden Donna. Shanahan's set up was reminiscent of something you'd find in the basement of a crusty Brooklyn artist co-op; on his left was a folding table with a laptop and in front of him two synths stacked on top of one another. His set unfurled like a DJ set, with Shanahan violently swinging his right arm back and forth like a pendulum, his head uncontrollably swiveling as his pre-mixed drum patterns wobbled the audience about. While his dense-textural grooves thumped, evoking everything from footwork, house, trap rap and horror film scores, he precisely prodded melodies from his two keyboards that reminded me of Oneohtrix Point Never's 80's computer-based aesthetic. (Be on the look-out for an interview with Shanahan)

Last up for the early portion of the day was Brujas del Sol, a group from Columbus, Ohio that sound like a 60's surfer movie had it been scored by a pack of Hell's Angels coming off a insomniac bender of benzedrine and acid. Their set managed a wonderful balance of meandering, spacey rock and powerful displays of, seemingly, never-ending death spirals in which their bassist's fingers transformed into a frenzied tarantula scurrying up and down the fretboard.

Saturday continued after a brief intermission but this guy was headed for terrible Mexican at Mr. Webo's, a friend's art gallery and a nice chat about the art of puppet making with Michael Pettit. Not that you care about my excuses.


Kicking off the final day of Psych Fest were Milwaukee's legendary The Vocokesh. The three men, now somewhere in their late 50's by my estimation, began their set with a driving, 8 minute long, blend of searing guitar solos backed by a classically technical bass line and a locomotive drum rhythm. When their first song finally collapsed into distortion a man in the crowd yelled out in amazed approval “Holy S***! Look at these dinosaurs!” As their set continued the drummer, who wore an orange “Brickyard 400” shirt, flirted with cardiac arrest and shot looks of comedic alarm to their bassist, who was clearly dealing with hand cramps. Despite this neither missed a beat or pluck, the bassist's stance so engrained into his bone-structure that he managed to stay in it for the entirety of multiple 10+ minute jams. Their set list was entirely improvised, the guitarist, who wore nonchalance on his face like a badge of honor, suggested the next song only once he'd played the opening riff of it. Around the midway point of their set the guitarist looked blankly at his band mates and said “Hey Joe” somewhat inquisitively, to which they all snapped into a flawless rendition of the The Leaves classic (of course popularized by Hendrix), something they conceivably had jammed to 40 years ago in one of their parent's basements.

Following the Vocokesh was Virginia Trance, the solo-ish project from former Psychic Ills member Scott Davis, which going into the weekend was a show I was really looking forward to. Maybe because I'm a fringe hipster this one man and his guitar music that the internet-age has allowed for, really panders to my existential cry to be both a post-modern dude and an unaware caveman left to his own devices. Yet despite my biased love for all things Dustin Wong, Mark McGuire (no baseball) and Matthew Mondanile's Ducktails I couldn't get down with Davis as much as I'd intended. That said there were signs of promise, which mostly occurred when Davis was paired with his Roland SP 404 sampler, rather than the inept bassist, who I'll spare for the sake of brevity. No matter what this dude named Cal says (his coverage of the festival was very good though), Davis has a lot of promise and had the best banter of the weekend.

The final act I took in was Running, a devastatingly ferocious trio of maniacs who each burned upward around 10,000 calories during their set. Usually not one to go nuts over groups on the punk-ier end of the spectrum these guys had me dancing as violently as a burnt-out young man on the wrong end of a long weekend could. At no point did they stop playing, they just abrasively forced their way into the next song, shattering my conception of musical asceticism, taking the torch from Swans. Their drummer is also one of the crazy S.O.B.'s I've ever seen behind a set.

To end this whirlwind of a report I'd like to thank all the bands, Bread Mothers who are the most incredible live visual artists I've ever seen in my 9 years covering music; they worked the entire weekend and at no point even flirted with repetition or blandness. And last and most importantly I'd like to thank Andrew Shelp for providing our wonderful city with such a fantastic opportunity to see so many great bands. Thank you again for having me, I'll see all you jerks next year at the 3rd Annual Milwaukee Psych. I intend to pitch a tent out front.