Soundtown Music & Camping Festival launches in Somerset, Wisc.

Tom Pilcher

This summer, the Soundtown Music and Camping Festival launched in Somerset, Wisc., adding Wisconsin to the ever-growing list of states which host these types of massive festivals.

Somerset is around 4.5 hours from Appleton but only 40 minutes from the Twin Cities, where the festival was promoted most heavily this year. Nestled on the banks of the Apple River, the tiny town’s biggest draw is the tubing and camping along the river.

For the fest’s first year, the promoters managed to grab an impressive, somewhat indie-heavy lineup: the Flaming Lips, the New Pornographers, Okkervil River, DeVotchKa, the Delta Spirit and Ghostland Observatory all played main stage slots over the two days. The two smaller stages were no slouches either, drawing heavily from the thriving Twin Cities music scene: Sims, Heiruspecs, Pink Mink and Charlie Parr performed, in addition to a handful of smaller bands.

Though some schedule problems prevented me from camping, I did make it out to the festival for both days. Here’s what I thought:

Friday

The first day of Soundtown felt like the first day of school: everyone arrived all wide-eyed and excited, everything was unfamiliar — and that feeling didn’t really seem to wear off all weekend.

After cycling through two security people who didn’t know where the press parking lot was, we finally found it, conveniently right across a dirt road from the main stage.

Even if you had parked in the normal lot or camped in the adjacent campgrounds, the festival is a million times easier to navigate than the behemoth Lollapalooza in Chicago. But this may also have to do with the ticket sales for this year; it looked like the organizers were hoping to accommodate many, many more people than Friday yielded.

The smaller size during both days of the festival actually ended up being an advantage overall: There was no giant wait for smelly porta potties or jostling to get up front during any of the performances. By Friday night, there was a great communal vibe that settled over the grounds, and it was clear that everyone there was in it for a good time.

The amphitheater’s sprawling main stage looked like it could accommodate at least 5,000 people, and maybe even 10,000, but by the time Appleton resident Cory Chisel kicked off the first set on the big stage Friday night, there were probably 200-300 scattered around to watch him play. Granted, the two smaller Summit and Metromix stages also had bands going at the same time.

This isn’t to say the music wasn’t quality, though. The early afternoon featured Duluth blues/folk mainstay Charlie Parr, who played a short set to kick off the afternoon. Parr’s original music sounds like it was written in 1925, so it was fitting that he ended with one of his best songs, “1922 Blues.”

The Metromix stage was smallest of the three, but it featured a solid, Americana-heavy lineup for the weekend. The larger Summit stage was right next-door, which unfortunately caused some sound bleed problems later in the day during Sims‘ performance.

The Minneapolis MC and Doomtree member worked the crowd into a tizzy in the tent, which lent a great communal vibe to the set. However, the maxed out sound system made it difficult to hear much of Jack Klatt and the Cat Swingers, an acoustic folk outfit which played at the same time on the small Metromix stage.

The Delta Spirit were the first band to really engage the main stage crowd on Friday. Matt Vasquez whipped and whirled around the giant stage as his four bandmates pounded out the quintet’s sorta bluesy, sorta country rock ‘n’ roll. I only knew of Vasquez from his role in Middle Brother, a more low-key country/folk/Americana group that released a record earlier this year with members of Dawes and Deer Tick, but the Delta Spirit’s sheer intensity on stage made me eager to dig further.

Ghostland Observatory started on the main stage as the sun went down, which only added to the effect of the seriously trippy light show. Their electro “pop” sounded pretty tepid and lifeless, but I spoke with a handful of other festivalgoers who really enjoyed the group’s murky synths and effects-laden vocals.

Soundtown’s first night capped off with a headlining set by indie lifers The New Pornographers. At first it was a little sad to see the crew missing fiery-haired singer Neko Case and oddball guitarist Dan Bejar, but the other six put on an entertaining set of bouncy power pop.

In the crowd, it was a “you can dance if you want to” situation, and it seemed as though many didn’t know the Canadian crew’s music very well, if at all. Lead singer Carl Newman did his best to keep the crowd interested with hard-hitting gems like “Sing Me Spanish Techno” and “All the Old Showstoppers,” but the sextet still felt like a strange choice for a giant outdoor festival headliner; perhaps they would have gone over better in the early evening.

Saturday

By Saturday, friendships had been forged throughout the crowd, and the group of music fans on the Apple River started to feel like a real community. Our small community naturally had a guy wearing a deadmau5 mouse head, people in fruit costumes, Frisbee players, dancers who were always up front, and the DJs from 89.3 The Current. It was easy to make festival friends in the atmosphere, and everyone was there to have a great time.

‘80s rapper Slick Rick was the first act I caught on Saturday. Slick Rick played the mainstage before Okkervil River, and he brought a 10-piece live hip-hop crew from New York to back him, though he only played for 30 minutes. Rick’s show was mildly entertaining, but I got the feeling that he’s one of those performers who everyone recognizes but no one really knows much about. After punching his timecard, Rick’s backing band the Lifted Crew finished out the rest of his timeslot. LC had lots going for them with two rappers, two horn players, two female vocalists and a full rhythm section, and they made the best of a weird booking situation.

As the sun went down, I grabbed some dinner in the VIP area and checked out the Austin, Texas rock ‘n’ roll group Okkvervil River. The VIP area wasn’t a real “band and press and friends” VIP area, but rather a small tented area on a hill by the mainstage for festivalgoers who purchased the slightly pricier VIP tickets. This option was definitely the way to go: For the two days, you got lunch and dinner in the tent, showers and nice bathrooms, as well as unlimited free beer, wine and soda. By Saturday, everyone had found their designated beer runner, a VIP ticket purchaser who would venture into the tent and return bearing as many delicious Summit brews as they could carry. Who knows if that incredible deal will continue in the future, but let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Okkervil River was a great addition to the festival: They play a great mix of rousing folky rock and quieter material, but with a more experimental edge than most folk bands. Their most recent album, — I Am Very Far — isn’t my favorite, but their back catalogue is so strong that it makes the more plodding new material worth the slog. “For Real” felt like a punch in the gut as usual, and “John Allyn Smith Sails” hit home because of the tune’s strong Minneapolis connection.

My mind began to wander at this point during the festival, so I only caught some of DeVotchKa‘s set. The worldly quartet did play a compelling version of the Velvet Underground’s fetish anthem “Venus in Furs,” but their sound isn’t quite as punchy as Okkervil’s in a live setting. Still, the best part of the night was yet to come: The Flaming Lips.

If you’ve heard anything about a Flaming Lips concert, it’s probably true. There were giant balloons, there were confetti cann
ons, there were furries dressed as Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” and naturally there was frontman Wayne Coyne’s giant hamster ball.

A Lips show is a full sensory psychedelic experience, even without the aid of the not-so-subtle pot being smoked in the largest crowd of the weekend. It’s impossible not to have a great time as you help keep Coyne afloat in his hamster ball and listen to the psyched-out pop of the 28-year-old band.

When he wasn’t singing, Coyne was running around the stage grabbing confetti cannons or launching balloons, doing his best to keep the crowd engaged — though it was hard to get bored with the giant light show, the trippy videos and plumes of colored fog emitting from the stage. The Lips knew the festival was far from sold out, but they weren’t half-assing it; like the crowd, they were there to have a great time.

The band’s — specifically Coyne’s – embrace of all things weird, trippy and bizarre is evident in their performance and their music. They’re doing exactly what they want to do, no matter how strange it seems. Remember, this is the group that just released a life-size edible gummy brain, which contains a USB drive in the center with three new songs. I entered a casual fan of their hits — “She Don’t Use Jelly,” “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” etc. — and came out a convert. It’s no wonder people are always raving about them.

There’s no word yet on where the Soundtown Festival will go from here, but with any luck, this first year will just get the ball rolling. Hopefully, the festival and venue in general can bring some much larger stadium acts to the area. Given the choice, I’d much rather drive to Somerset from Appleton to see a giant outdoor concert, rather than brave the Chicago traffic gauntlet.

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