Somerset's event jumped into the festival ring with a giant air bed, hockey-rink ravers and a heavy beat.
SOMERSET, WIS.-- With most of the young Summer Set festivalgoers still rolling out of their tents at 4 p.m. Saturday when Solid Gold hit the stage, singer Zach Coulter rightly gauged what they had in mind for what was left of the day.
"I want to throw some Frisbee, and then I want to jump onto that giant waterbed thing," he said, pointing from the stage to a five-story platform with an air cushion beneath it big enough to catch leaping fans unharmed.
A big leap of faith on several fronts, Summer Set was all about reaching new highs. Yet another new music fest to launch at the refurbished Somerset Amphitheater, it boasted an odd mish-mash of music. The only common thread between its electronic dance, hip-hop and jam-band performers was their heavily rhythmic and vaguely druggy music.
However, as bright as the DayGlo-colored attire worn by many of the happily freaky fans, Summer Set's appeal shone through the mostly gray weather over its three-day run. About 13,000 fans turned up Saturday, when the biggest names were one of the noodlingest jam bands around, Umphrey's McGee, and one of the best rappers of all time, Nas. Sunday's finale was expected to draw an even bigger crowd with dubstep-flavored headliner Pretty Lights.
The names, faces, genres and familiarity of the performers at Summer Set seemed surprisingly irrelevant. Most of Saturday's acts didn't feature vocalists, and even fewer used human drummers. The "show" wasn't on stage, but rather in the crowd's colorful dancing, the kaleidoscope array of lights and the constantly booming bass. A prime example was the set by charisma-challenged Detroit beatmaker Excision, whose music sounded like the soulless equivalent of an old internet dial-up connection, but the crowd nonetheless fully dialed into his set.
The most candescent and deeply pulsating sets on the festival site were actually inside Somerset's hockey rink, which adjoins the amphitheater. With pee-wee hockey championship banners and dental practice and insurance agency booster ads hanging on the walls, the windowless (and iceless) rink was transformed into rave central, with swirling stage lights and sweltering body heat reflected off the ceiling's silver insulation.
Foremost among Saturday's rink stars were New England whiz kid AraabMuzik and Toronto duo MSTRKRFT. The former's 808-attacking arsenal of beats was impressively jarring, while the latter's funky grind sounded like classic Chemical Brothers with a metallic twist.
Amid all the mechanical music, at least one performer's personality made an impression. Nas picked heavily from his strong new album, "Life Is Good," highlights of which included the fatherly ode "Daughters" and the darker jam "Loco-Motive," in which he defiantly yelled, "I wish I had on my black hoodie!" He ended his hourlong, breathlessly paced set with "One Mic," boasting, "I only need one microphone, and they can hear me around the world." At least they heard him around the neighboring farms.
With its guitars and organ blazing from the get-go, Umphree's McGee went a full 25 minutes before singing a single word. It spoke volumes, however, that one of the Chicago sextet's best-received songs was a Jagger-pants-tight cover of the Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knocking." It was only rock 'n' roll, the kind Grandpa enjoys, but Summer Set's young revelers still liked it -- with the right lighting, of course.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • On Twitter: @ChrisRstrib