The weekend of Summer Set Music Festival was there and gone in a flash, much like summer itself. One minute, you’re jumping and dancing along to ‘Real Life’ with Claptone, and the next you’re back in day to day life, sitting in front of a computer monitor wondering what the hell just happened. That’s the way it goes with festivals, though. Your time at a festival is partitioned into hours and days by the schedules, but it would be more appropriate to measure your time in minutes. You may have a full day of activities and performances and interactions, but each festival will come to be defined by a handful of minutes containing the moments that you’ll hold onto and conjure up every time you think back on it.
A caveat: I missed all of Friday, intentionally, attending a personal event and then driving out to Eau Claire to see Jon Hopkins. Sometimes, you just have to follow your heart, and that night my heart was drawn to the beat of Open Eye Signal and his breathtaking Magnets remix. As a result, I missed a lot of good music and a full third of Summer Set.
We had a rather harsh entry into Summer Set, which is par for the course with the festival’s previous years. We had a camp spot and parking in the north campground, but we were ushered into a lot behind the main stage on the south side of the festival grounds. This was a little weird, because last year we parked across the street, right next to the campground. We asked the lowly parking attendant, sweaty, dirty, skin bright red from the sun, about how to get our camping stuff to the camping place. “Oh, well, you’ll have to drive back out the way you came in and drive up to north camping. But you can’t park there. It turned out we were in an overflow lot, which was as far as you could get from our campsite without leaving the grounds. Granted, we showed up a day late, so maybe that shouldn’t have come as such a surprise.
In their change bundling a camping pass in with a festival pass, they increased the number of campers but reduced the capacity of facilities. With each change the organizers make to fix one part of the festival, they wind up hobbling another. The festival must feel like a hydra for them.
When we finally got to the security checkpoint at the entrance, we were greeted with a sadly familiar sight: local police officers with drugs walking along the line of people waiting to get in, performing a constant series of sniff tests for drugs. The local police were all decked out in riot gear with zero interaction with festival attendees outside of demanding they empty their pockets if the dog told them to. This may help them establish an air of authority and control, but that comes at the expense of safety. People are much less likely to seek help from somebody with an upturned nose looking like he’s heading to a drug raid than they are an officer who isn’t afraid to look them in the eyes and acknowledge them as a person. This is out of the festival’s control, but it’s something that needs to change.
On top of that, Flatbush Zombies were playing on our way in, and right as we got through security, they were yelling at the crowd, demanding they get rowdy, start mosh pits, and instigate fights with security. What a bunch of dicks. We’d already skipped out on Hippie Sabotage because they pull the same shit at their shows, inciting violence and threatening the safety of attendees. Summer Set is a festival of electronic music, jam bands, hip-hop, and indie. Some music is harder, but none of them warrant a mosh pit. The people who try to start fights and mosh pits need to be weeded out of festival lineups. I have no tolerance for it, and neither should festival organizers. Maybe that explained part of why the cops were so uptight.
We busted our asses back to the Grove stage for Autograf, and away from the rowdiness, bad vibes and anxiety and into the open, welcoming arms of the three dudes from Chicago. This was my third time seeing them, and they’ve been steadily improving their sound and sets with each show. They’ve been on a kick with their Future Soup release, tying in visual art in paintings and sculpture to an overall composition, rather than a series of songs. In fact, one of the guys popped down to the photo pit to hand out Future Soup prints while the other two hammered away at the song.
We bounced back to Alison Wonderland for a few songs. She always seems to ride on the cusp of really heavy and ragey on one side, and swooning and melodic on the other. She typically dips into the rage side more often, but that seemed fitting for a stage with so many bursts of fire. Like a dragon with a stutter, maybe?
Back at Grove, Cherub took the stage with a full band, which was something I’d never seen before. The first time I saw Cherub was at Summer Set 2012, on a now non-existent ancillary stage. They may have come a long way sonically, and in songwriting, but they still look like the same goofy partying kids that they did back then. It was a little odd seeing such a large crowd.
We were really just biding our time until Atmosphere started on the main stage. Slug may be older than the average SS performer (certainly so for the attendees), but he can still throw down. Early on, he hit a verse with the word ‘wave,’ and went into this half-hunched pose, blank face staring off across the audience, while he shook his hand back and forth, almost like his wrist was a ball his hand slid around on. Throughout the set he’d yell wave and assume the stance, comically waving. He and Ant played a lot of songs from the album that came out that same day, and even without hearing it before, it felt like I was in his grip taking lessons from somebody who’d been around the block a few times. It wasn’t a terrible place to be. The songs were immediate and accessible.
I thought we were going to be late for Grimes, but it turned out she was running herself, and we had some “sitting on the hill” time before her show at the Grove. I opted to reorganize my camera bag while going back and forth about the performances of the day with my lady.
I’m not sure what it is, but there’s a kind of sensory awareness the human body has for things happening in back of it. I think this must go into hyperdrive for moms when they have kids, but non-parents have a version of it as well. Mine nudged me at that moment and urged me to take a look at my 6 o’clock. I was not disappointed. There was a guy in jean shorts and not much else, half-rolling and half-sliding down the grassy hill towards us. It wasn’t a rapid movement by any means, it was more a slow motion type of movement. He stopped just short of us and slowly sat up, grinning like an idiot, pupils as big as dinner plates. He was dressed like Tobias Funke, but his name was Luis, and he’d lost his friends. This wasn’t a huge surprise in itself, but then he explained that he’d lost one of his contacts, then it seemed like a little more serious situation for poor Luis. He had his phone, but it was long dead, “Too many snaps,” so we plugged him into our battery pack and got his phone to a point where he could coordinate with his friends. Luis stumbled off just as the house lights dimmed.
Grimes was expectedly weird. Lots of smoke, green and pink lights, a deep red laser show, with backup dancers that operated on this continuum between 90’s b-girls and robot performance artists. Grimes herself fluctuated from anime teen to Russian screech rapping to experimental sound art. If she was working on a physical and sonic representation of Attention Deficit Disorder, then I’d say she nailed it. Still, it was pretty, and the parts I knew I loved. She has a couple perfect 90’s moments in her songs and one John Hughes 80’s moment and I was happy that I got to see all of them. You could tell she was getting to the end of her set when the mass exodus began where everybody started making their way back to the main stage for Bassnectar’s closing performance.
Lorin has a lot of good things to say about a lot of festivals. If he wrote Yelp reviews for his festival appearances, he’d hand out a LOT of 4/5 star ratings. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing or a sign of his bad judgment, but it does indicate that the experience has to be something notably better than good, or even awesome. It has to be remarkable, and it seems like that’s been his experience over the past three years at Summer Set. Thankfully, he repays in kind and throws down an epic set every time, and 2016 was no exception.
The bowl of the main stage teemed with attendees, at some points in his set seemingly spilling over the rim as the crowd sloshed back and forth to the bass. As full as it was, and as heavy as the music got, I saw nothing but respect and space given freely, even when Lorin was at his ragiest. (It’s a word)
We stuck around for Illenium’s after party appearance, and I’m glad we did. He working in a more melodic groove rather than a wave after wave of raging whomp as I’d expected. The festival’s use of fire was particularly poignant at night, punctuating the kickdrums in fireballs and the drops in long streams.
I’m not going to lie, I was only interested in two names on Sunday’s schedule: Claptone and Rufus du Sol. Those two names were a little out of place with the rest of the day’s lineup, including Marshmello, Skrillex, and DJ Mustard. But that’s how it goes with festivals, particularly with those that pull in a range of genres.
It turned out that we were well in the minority that day, as evident by the crowd of 300 (at best) under the Big Top for Claptone. I was dumbfounded. What the hell was wrong with the other 18,000 people who bought tickets? Sure, it meant more room for us to dance, and it meant I was able to get as close as I wanted to the bird-masked man of mystery, but it also likely meant we won’t see him again in the area any time soon.
Despite the minimal size of the crowd, Claptone charged on, playing the tight, cohesive brand of House he’s come to cultivate and ultimately perfect. The set was one undulating wave of intensity after another, mainly composed of material on his album, ‘Charmer,’ and it felt just right. Just so. And just like that, it was over. The few of us left dispersed quickly, most heading down the hill for Rufus.
What a beautiful thing it is to round the corner to a stage just as the band starts up, especially when that band is Rufus du Sol. It was my fifth Rufus show in 2016, and it was easily the least attended appearance. The population of the hills at the Grove may have rivaled their DJ set at Electric Forest, but not by much. Much like Claptone, they were unphased by the size of the crowd, and played with the same energy and affection as they did for much, much larger crowds.
It was a solid performance, featuring a pleasant blend of new and old material, including the six minutes of bliss that is their gut-wrenchingly beautiful single, “Innerbloom.” It was also shorter than scheduled after a late start. The guys were all smiles throughout, at one point diverging into a mini-jam session. They announced the next song would be their last, that this was their last stop on their tour, then added they’d be back “somewhere in the area” in November. Promising! At least we’d have the chance to prove to Rufus what we couldn’t for Claptone. We love you, seriously.
Just then, I noticed the crowd starting to fill in around us. Were people naturally drawn to the Gospel of Rufus? Could they not withstand the pull of the beautiful music? Upon closer examination, I found I was surrounded by Marshmello fans. So definitely not drawn to the beautiful music. It must be something else…yup, they just showed up early for Gramatik. Rufus thanked everybody for showing up, walked off.
Another harder look at the schedule and the rest of Sunday had no appeal for me. I figured I’d stick around for Skrillex to get some pictures for the blog. So we split our time between Gramatik, who I burnt myself out on in 2013/14 (as well as Big G, Cherub, Pretty Lights, Griz, etc) and found his music still doesn’t do much for me. We walked back to the main stage and sampled the food which is much improved over previous years, while we stalled for Sonny. Imagine my disappointment when I was told nobody but official photographers were allowed up front for the show. Despite what I would call a solid case for my being as official as they come, I was ultimately not allowed in the photo pit. We watched just enough (two songs) to realize I still don’t like most of Skrillex’s music (though I do respect him as a musician), and we began our walk out of the festival and back to our car to drive back to Minneapolis.
Summer Set is that cousin you’re not a huge fan of, but that always brings some kind of baller food to family picnics. There’s a lot about him you could do without, but the good winds up outweighing the bad, so you keep inviting him. Sum positive.
Summer Set is a festival of convenience. It’s less than an hour’s drive from my house, meaning I don’t have to deal with camping if I’m willing to offer up my sobriety. If it was any further than that, I’d have trouble talking myself into going. When I hear of people traveling long distances to get there, I’m baffled.
Summer Set is hosted in a small Wisconsin town, incidentally, also called Somerset. The town has a long and storied history as one of the Twin Cities’ preferred festival sites, and is currently the only remaining viable site in the area with the capacity and blessing of the community for hosting a festival. However, that last part, the blessing of the town, is no longer a given. 2016 was the final year of the agreement between the trio of festival organizers and the town of Somerset. It’ll be interesting to see what comes in the year ahead and how the negotiations shape Summer Set 2017.
I’m not going to lie, I missed day one of the festival and with it, over half the music I wanted to see. Strip that big half away spread the remainder across two days, and the festival loses a certain luster. Then not committing to the two days and going home in-between removes you from that community and breaks any sense of belonging or hive mind. It’s not a recipe for failure, but it makes it a lot harder for a festival to be successful when you’ve got one foot out the door. If you’re going to do it, do it well and do it right. It seems both of us could stand to heed that advice.
Our Summer Set Album on Flickr:
I work, live and play in Minneapolis.
I try to tell the story of the people that create music and experiences through pictures as well as through words.