The other side of Summerfest: Interesting acts that might get lost beneath the headliners

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Taj Mahal Trio. — Photo: Courtesy

As a Summerfest-goer since 1968, I have seen my share of legendary acts and a sizable slice of contemporary music history on Milwaukee’s lakefront. 

I was there for The Doors, the Mahavisnu Orchestra, B.B. King and a new band called Chicago. I remember when Milwaukee Police arrested George Carlin onstage for uttering his “seven dirty words,” when the Miller Lite Oasis was still the Miller Jazz Oasis and when main stage seating was a blanket in the dirt and a cooler full of wine that you brought in yourself. 

I’ve been told, repeatedly, that this year is Summerfest’s best musical lineup in years, now that the festival has finally gotten beyond its baby boomer obligations. OK, if you say so. I think that minimizing the oldsters’ influence makes good box office sense, but time will tell if Bruno Mars, Arctic Monkeys and The Fatty Acids are legend-worthy. I hope so, for their sakes. This is not a screed about whose music is, or was, better.

One thing Summerfest has always done, besides providing the opportunity to get hammered in public with 35,000 of your closest friends, is to introduce a variety of music to the masses. That wasn’t necessarily the festival’s stated purpose, but it’s a happy byproduct for those seeking to expand their musical horizons.

You have to look a little harder this year to uncover acts that aren’t appearing at Summerfest as part of their Bonnaroo/Coachella/Lollapalooza summer tour. But there are some interesting choices and, at the risk of betraying my age, I’d like to recommend some of the more obscure acts that are worthy of note.

The Buddy Rich Big Band featuring Cathy Rich and Gregg Potter, June 26, Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard

Before big band drummer Buddy Rich died in 1987 at age 70, he cut a wide swath as one of the premiere drummers of multiple jazz eras. Bringing back his big-band sound fronted by daughter Cathy Rich is a bit of inspired lunacy on the part of Summerfest organizers. It’s lunacy because who would go to see a dead jazz drummer’s cover band in lieu of Lady Gaga or Kenny Wayne Shepherd, who are performing at the same time. But it’s inspired because those who wander into Briggs & Stratton’s Big Backyard will be blown away by the sound, energy and finesse of the 17-piece ensemble. This group succeeds at making old things new again.

Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite, June 25, Harley Davidson Roadhouse

Award-winning blues artist Ben Harper will have no trouble drawing a crowd, but the big surprise for the next generation of emerging blues fans will be Charlie Musselwhite, the Mississippi-born master of the blues harp and one of the few white blues artists who came to prominence in the 1960s. Dan Ackroyd claims to have based his Elwood Blues character on Musselwhite, but the 70-year-old artist is long past any quickstepping onstage. His 2012 album Get Up!, which won the Grammy Award for best blues album, was recorded with Harper. Need we say more?

Taj Mahal Trio, June 27, Johnson Controls World Sound Stage

Few musicians have the pedigree of Taj Mahal, an early proponent of black folk and roots music at a time when the Carolina Chocolate Drops were, as the saying goes, mere twinkles in their fathers’ eyes. Mahal has combined his folk and blues roots with an insatiable appetite for world music, creating a blend that is as much a history and geography lesson as an evening of musical pleasure. With Kester Smith on drums and Bill Rich on bass, the Taj Mahal trio will take its audience to places they’ve never been and leave them wondering why it took them so long to get there.

The Yardbirds, June 28, BMO Harris Pavilion

There are a few boomer acts on Summerfest’s calendar, but the most puzzling is The Yardbirds — not just because some of them are still alive, but because they’re still performing under the band’s brand.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the band has been a who’s who of musical talent. Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page all strummed some of their first licks with the band, alongside English blues stalwarts Keith Relf and Paul Samwell-Smith. Don’t expect any of the more famous members to make an appearance, but drummer Jim McCarty and rhythm guitarist Anthony “Top” Topham — both founding Yardbird members — will perform. The chance to hear “For Your Love” and “Heart Full of Soul” live may be worth the price of Summerfest admission.

And, out of deference for its key demographic, The Yardbirds are scheduled to perform at 5 p.m., followed by REO Speedwagon at 8 p.m. Now that’s an evening of rock ‘n’ roll.

Naima Adedapo, July 5,
Harley Davidson Roadhouse

With rare exceptions, it’s tough to care about American Idol finalists unless they have local roots. Danny Gokey was one such finalist and so is Naima Adedapo. The Chicago native graduated from UWM’s Peck School of the Arts with a degree in dance and has since added singing to her repertoire. She has appeared onstage and taught African and hip-hop dance in Milwaukee. She has even served as celebrity ambassador for Camp Hometown Heroes, a summer camp for kids of fallen service personnel. With a solid sound rooted in the blues and rock, this lady has it going on!