It’s Memorial Day Weekend, and you know what that means, don’t you? You’re right! It means that once again, Madison, Wisconsin is hosting The World’s Largest Brat Fest. Four solid days of local music, carnival rides, and German sausages, often served by local politicians, television personalities, and other such notables, with proceeds going to local charities. The festival began in the 70s as a customer appreciation event held by the Metcalfe Sentry grocery store held in their parking lot. I used to work in a building a block away from the Metcalfe Sentry and used to live for those Friday afternoons before Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend (Yes! Brat Fest is held twice annually!), when the alluring smoke from the grills would call to us office drones and cube farmers like an aromatic pied piper, with its promise of a really cheap, really tasty, and really, really bad-for-you lunch.
Although in recent years, Brat Fest has outgrown the Sentry parking lot and is now held on Willow Island at the Alliant Energy Center just south of downtown Madison, it’s still organized by the Metcalfe brothers, sons of the festival’s founder. Each new Brat Fest aspires to break the world record for bratwurst sold, a record that, inevitably, Brat Fest already holds. There’s always a telethon-style tally board set up to record the number sold for the current Fest. The current record, set last Memorial Day is 208,752 bratwurst – a little more than 40,000 pounds of sausage, topped by about 4,000 pounds of sauerkraut. This year’s Brat Fest got off to a roaring start, with nearly 63,000 brats sold on Friday, and it’s been hot and sunny all weekend which bodes well for a record-shattering brat-stravaganza.
Today’s playlist then, is, like Brat Fest, both a celebration of summer and, well, a “sausage fest”. First up is a song by country singer-songwriter Phil Vassar, which is probably just about the most perfect expression of what today feels like here in Wisconsin.
The music of the Beach Boys has been synonymous with summer for most of the last 50 years now, but listening to oldies stations, you find that they grind out the same old standbys – “California Girls”, “Good Vibrations”, etc. – which, make no mistake, are still amazing songs. But there are so many latter-day Beach Boys songs that never really get much play, and wholly deserve it. One of my favorites is “This Whole World” from their truly awesome 1971 album Sunflower. In terms of the music and the vocal arrangements, it’s not all that different from where they started out in the early 60s, singing about cars and girls and surfing. But lyrically “This Whole World”, for all of 110 wonderful seconds is a simple celebration of, y’know, everything. “And when I go anywhere, I see love. I see love. I see love…”
In 1997, British dance music trio Dario G took a sample from one of the quintessential late autumn songs – The Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town” – set it to a dance beat, with some airy pianos and chirpy synths, and built it into a great summer song they called “Sunchyme”. The song hit #2 in the U.K., and was later used in a television commercial here, although I have no memory of what the commercial was actually for. (It was, like, ten years ago.) Its video features people dressed up as lions and tigers and zebras (oh my?) re-enacting scenes from National Geographic documentaries.
Johnny Rivers‘s 1967 hit “Summer Rain” is, simply, a beautiful, beautiful song. I love how its tensions build, how its emotions heighten over its verses, how the simple descending chord progression is repeated over and over, but with the increasing urgency of strings and horns, from the hint of a drizzle in the opening to a full-on downpour as Johnny sings about a summer love that wants badly to be something more. There’s something about this song that just sounds like the feeling of a rain shower on a hot August afternoon. It’s the audio equivalent of that it-just-rained smell.
Huey Lewis and the News, like the Beach Boys, are a band that just sounds better between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Something about their lack of pretense, the way they recycled sounds from the 60s with the benefit of 80s technology, the way they never seemed to be anything more than a really great bar band, and somehow that was always going to be more than enough. Their songs may not be specifically about hot fun in the summertime, but they sure provide a great soundtrack for it, and I have very specific childhood summer vacation memories inextricably linked to songs like “Do You Believe In Love”. All that said, their 1984 video for the song “If This Is It” from their breakthrough third album Sports is basically a typical 80s summer sex comedy in 4 minutes – only without the sex.
Singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek, as leader of Red House Painters in the 90s, and Sun Kil Moon in the now, has developed a reputation for recording unwieldy and deeply melancholic covers of classic rock songs, including an entire record’s worth of AC/DC songs, and, most infamously, a relentlessly dreary 10-minute plus take on “Silly Love Songs” that sounded a lot more like a Crazy Horse jam from one of Paul McCartney’s nightmares than it did the corny 70s pop hit. As much as I love some of Red House Painters’ longer songs (“Down Colorful Hill” and “Make Like Paper” are both awesome in completely different ways), I think Kozelek’s best at his most succinct, as with his 1995 single “Summer Dress”, a languorous whisper of a song.
Finally, probably the most popular “summer” song of the last century, “Summertime”, from the George Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess, is also one of those songs that has been worked over by so many different artists in so many different styles (and that’s just in nine seasons of American Idol) that it’s hard to be surprised or thrilled by it anymore. But then I saw Stuck On You, a Farrelly Brothers movie about conjoined twins played by Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear. It’s not that great a movie. It’s the kind of movie Comedy Central might show on Sunday mornings, so I’ll have it on the TV while I’m vacuuming the bedroom or folding laundry. But for all its flaws, it culminates in one fantastic musical number in which Greg Kinnear, in a community theater production of his Bonnie & Clyde musical (co-starring Meryl Streep, who plays herself in the movie), channels 60s R&B singer Billy Stewart in a performance of “Summertime”. These three minutes pretty much redeem the rest of the movie.