Rock the Green Sustainability Festival is not your everyday music gala. From the free, reusable Canned Water for Kids aluminum cans handed out at the door, to the wide variety of eco-friendly activities (including learning about honey from the Beevangelist and about river clean up efforts from Milwaukee Riverkeeper), to even being able to purchase all natural, Earth friendly dog treats from high school entrepreneurs from Teens Grow Greens, Rock the Green is so much more than a showcase of bands. Rock The Green’s mission to educate the community through interactive one-to-one experiences that spotlight sustainability organizations and innovators, and entertain by presenting a world- class festival that showcases zero waste efforts on a large scale, was met and then some on a gorgeous early fall Saturday.
“We are in a time of urban renewal,” stated first time festival attendee, Henry Wend of Milwaukee. “Ten or fifteen years ago, we wouldn’t have ever even been in this beautiful part of town (referring to the Reed Street Yards). Now look at it, we have made efforts to clean up the Milwaukee River, and people are using it for recreation, biking has become hugely popular, and more and more people are choosing to be more Earth conscientious at home-- recycling, composting, using less fuel and creating less waste. This day is a celebration of all that and more.”
“This festival has a sustainable picnic kind of vibe,” stated Baio, one of the artists performing on the main stage when chatting about Rock the Green Sustainability Festival. “It’s an honor to play a completely sustainable festival. It is something truly special. All festivals should be like this.”
With blue skies beaming and the sun shining brightly across the Reed Street Yards, the 2017 Rock the Green Sustainability Festival got off to a great start. For entertainment, Rock the Green had two stages- a main stage, and their world famous Pedal Power stage that is fueled by the kinesthetic energy produced by volunteer bike groups who ride while the musicians play. Two bands from the Girls’ Rock Milwaukee camp, Negative/Positive and Gas Station Sushi, provided fans with a high octane set packed with raw emotion and energy. The bands were both incredibly tight, especially given the young age of the musicians.
Renya then lead off the afternoon on the main stage. Sisters Vic and Gab, who are from Milwaukee via Texas, have evolved into a polished indie pop act as Reyna. Their lush sound, warm melodies, and ear grubbing hooks were a hit with the fans who came out early Hits like “Ink on My Skin” and “Matinee” were especially well-done.
Milwaukee guitar sensation, and Gibraltar proprietor, Evan Christian was up next on the Pedal Power stage. Christian offered a brief acoustic set to open the festival and set the tone for the day, but was back with a vengeance during his power blues set with a full band. In many ways, Christian's shredding guitar work and powerful bass thumping was foreshadowing to some of the music that we’d hear later in the night by Ben Harper.
“You can be with anyone, anywhere, doing anything, but you’re here with us, and we don’t take that lightly,” proclaimed Chris Baio at the start of his set on the main stage. The Vampire Weekend bass player and vocalist’s latest solo album, Man of the World released earlier this summer, features lush soundscapes and danceable groovy numbers. Backed by only a guitarist, and some tracks, Baio’s well-choreographed show featured great interplay and some outstanding dancing by Baio who engaged a mid-afternoon crowd with his contemporary take on retro new wave sounding grooves from an earlier era. Head bopping cuts like “Sensitive Guy,” and his addictingly catchy single, “Sister of Pearl,” had the afternoon crowd on their feet and dancing along.
Milwaukee’s Devil Met Contention, was the sharpest dressed band of the festival, with each of the members donning a matching dark suit. They brought their southwestern tinged tunes to the Pedal Power Stage, riding into their set with a unique sound and soulful energy. Lead singer/songwriter Ehson Rad’s deep vocals and storytelling helped lead almost the entire crowd at the festival at the time over to the Pedal Power Stage for their late afternoon set. Equal parts musically rocking and lyrically poignant, Devil Met Contention are a band on the rise who held the audience in the palms of their hands during their forty-five minute set.
Mondo Cozmo might be a new band, but bandleader Josh Ostrander is no rookie to music, as he’s been performing in bands since the early 2000’s. Mondo Cozmo in many ways embodies the modern California sound, with upbeat timbres and lush textures in his music. You can’t ask for a more diverse set sonically than the one delivered by Mondo Cozmo. Tracks like “Hold On To Me,” “Plastic Soul” and “Shine,” all from his recently released Plastic Soul LP, are incredibly diverse sonically, but equally engaging and fun. When asked about the wide range of his sound, Ostrander smiled widely and said, “I hope people don’t think I’m manic depressive… I just write what comes to mind.” And write it well you do, Josh!
Milwaukee’s Klassik was a one-band show on the Pedal Power stage next. When 88.9 Radio Milwaukee offers their tag-line, “diverse music of a diverse city,” they may as well be referring to Klassik’s unique blend of R&B, jazz, hip hop and soul. Just check out Klassik’s single, “Forever/Whatever,” and you’ll experience this special blend of music from a true virtuoso musician. As the sun was setting on the Reed Street Yards, Klassik had fans’ hands in the air and grooving along to his slick jams, upbeat rhymes and energetic performance.
“Last time I was in town I was so excited that I jumped off the stage over VIP area and into the crowd and broke my foot in several places,” London, England’s Barns Courtney quipped part way though his main stage set. “Tonight is the first time in eight weeks that I’ve been able to perform without support,” he slyly smiled. Minus the boot on his foot, it would be hard to tell there was anything ailing Barns Courtney. Courtney is a rare performer whose gusto, zest and sincere enthusiasm and gratitude for his fans comes out in each and every song of his set. Foot boot and all, Courtney paraded around the stage, singing, dancing, playing the guitar, engaging in audience banter, and getting everyone clapping and swaying. With a set drawing heavily from his forthcoming record The Attractions of Youth, Barns Courtney put on a show that epitomized the spirit of rock ‘n roll. From foot stomping anthems like “Glitter and Gold,” to the Strokes’ influenced “Golden Dandelions,” Courtney delivered a high energy set. The highlight of which saw Courtney, clad in the foot boot, going out into the crowd and singing his hit “Fire” with the Rock the Green fans. Barns Courtney was about as engaging a performer as one is going to find, and delivered a memorable performance attendees at Rock the Green will be talking about for years in the future!
Milwaukee’s D’Amato and his twelve piece band only show up for two reasons: to make Music and to make Love. With cornrowed hair, a dapper outfit, and a record number of musicians gracing the Pedal Power stage, D’Amato brought the Funk and got his large crowd moving, grooving, and enjoying life. D’Amato’s show is a sight to behold with the sheer number of musicians performing on stage as well as the stellar horn arrangements provided by D'Amato's dynamic, funky and innovative brass section. The jazzed up, soul shaking version of D’Amato’s single, “BPA Free” was a set highlight as was the visual quality of watching D’Amato and his crew work their magic on stage.
Ben Harper’s headlining set at Rock the Green showcased a world-class performer delivering a stellar set. Harper has done it all in terms his career. The three-time Grammy award winner has collaborated with the likes of Dave Matthews, Widespread Panic, the Blind Boys of Alabama along with a plethora of top musical talent. His music ranges from folk, to soul, to blues, to rock, to Americana inspired jams. Yet, given all of his rich accolades, Harper remains a truly sincere and earnest artist who is quick to pass along gratitude towards others. Towards the end of his set, Harper made a personal shout-out to Rock the Green’s talent procurement and artist liaison, Brian Norman, for his hospitality. Joined by the Innocent Criminals, Harper’s soulful music resonated as he delivered a career retrospective set. Classic feel-good tracks like “Steal my Kisses,” and “Burn to Shine,” off of 1999’s album by the same name, were early set show highlights, along with “Diamonds on the Inside” an upbeat and reflective track off of his 2003 Diamond on the Inside release. As the set progressed, Harper established himself as a lap steel guru and cut through an array of rocking bluesy tunes. Harper’s dexterity on guitar coupled by the Innocent Criminals funky and lush arrangements made him a stalwart headliner of the festival. Harper closed his set with “Amen Omen,” a lovely, sing-a-long song from 2003’s Diamonds on the Inside, sending the crowd home happy and reflective after a spectacular day celebrating the glory of community and the power of music to bring people together to promotes sustainability. After all, isn’t that what Rock the Green is all about?!?.