Celebrating its fourth year, Northern Invasion once again took over the Somerset Amphitheater in Somerset, WI for two days full of headbanging, mosh pits, and all sorts of debauchery. With headliners such as Tool, Avenged Sevenfold, Alice In Chains, and A Perfect Circle, it’s an exemplary mixture of metal bands both old and new, and it’s quickly becoming one of the largest annual music festivals of any genre taking place here in the Midwest.
To cover the event, we sent out two of our journalists, Justin Bailey & Scott Bryan, to tag team the weekend and offer their thoughts on each day of the two-day festival.
Justin: Day 1
When I found out that I would be attending this year’s Northern Invasion festival, the 13-year-old rebellious, edgy, and angst-filled kid in me was absolutely thrilled! The thought of hopping into the crowd with my luscious locks, headbanging and throwing up the devil horns while running into men three times my size in a mosh pit; I was stoked!
I am no longer thirteen years old though, I’m a weathered and bitter 23-year-old who likes to take naps on Saturdays and hates large crowds of people. However, I took one for the team and accepted my assignment for this year’s festival, along with Scott, and woke up Saturday morning wide-eyed and hopeful for what the day in Somerset would bring me!
Located about 40-minutes from the Twin Cities metro area, Somerset is a cozy little town in Wisconsin that, for about 360 days out of the year, is quiet and unburdened by large crowds. Those remaining five days, however, the city of about 2,600 residents is essentially taken over by both the Northern Invasion Festival and Summer Set Music & Camping Festival, an EDM festival which takes place in August.
The former, of course, is the event which took over the sleepy town of Somerset this weekend, and the event this article is all about. To make it easier, I’m going to break my section of the review into three sections: the good, the bad, and the “could be improved.”
The Good: Avenged Sevenfold, Black Stone Cherry, The Bronx, Festival Layout, Private Restrooms, Sound Quality
Far and away the best part of any music festival is…. the music, and with over 39 bands performing this weekend, there was certainly no shortage of that! While there were a few that didn’t quite live up to expectations (we’ll get to that later) there were also a few that delivered a bit more than I anticipated.
While many people who may have experienced Avenged Sevenfold & Black Stone Cherry in concert before may not have been blown away by their performances, I had not and was pleasantly surprised by their respective sets. Black Stone Cherry, in particular, played relatively early in the day but did a great job of drawing attention back to the main stage with a pleasant mix of originals & classic covers.
By far the most surprising performance was from a band that I had never heard of before; a band out of L.A. called The Bronx. With an energetic set and lots of crowd interaction, they made quite the impact early in the day and really helped early festival goers get into the spirit of moshing and headbanging. About halfway into their set they also gave a shoutout to their bass player who, instead of attending his graduation ceremony at the University of Louisville, where he was graduating with honors, was in Somerset performing with the band!
On a non-music related note, both the festival layout and the option for media members to use private restrooms were things I noted as good aspects as well. One of those things might be more important than the other to the typical concert-goer, however, they were very much equally important for me!
The Bad: Butcher Babies, A Perfect Circle, Food Selection/Quality, Beer Prices, Weather
The music industry, especially the metal/hard rock scene, has come a long way in the last few years advancing female performers and helping them reach the same heights as their male counterparts, as opposed to dressing them in scantily clad wardrobe and sitting them on a Trans Am for an album cover to sell more copies. Butcher Babies, a five-piece band out of L.A., seems to have gone in the opposite direction, however.
With recycled breakdowns, very typical drumming, and relatively uneventful guitar solos, the only thing this band has going for them is Carla Harvey (an ex-playboy channel reporter) and Heidi Shepherd, their scantily clad lead singers. The pair brought essentially nothing spectacular to the table other than skin-tight leather and bulging cleavage. This band was clearly brought on for nothing other than a 30-minute performance of sex appeal to make men forget they are married with three children.
A Perfect Circle was also disappointing, but for vastly different reasons. If I had to choose only one word to describe their performance, it would be boring. Perhaps I just don’t understand, man… but for me, and a large portion of the people mumbling towards the back of the grounds, we agreed it was a timeslot made for energy, and we got was a visitation for a funeral.
Food selection was also lackluster, and the prices made it even harder to swallow. I paid $12 for a chicken wrap and $8 for 8 oz. of cheese curds, neither of which were particularly enjoyable. $8 per 16 oz. beer in the state known for alcohol consumption was also a bit disappointing, but I’ve been to enough concerts to know that’s fairly typical. Scattered showers and temperatures that many Northern Invasion attendees were most likely not prepared for also complicated the day a bit, but it never became an overwhelming concern for anyone.
Could Be Improved: Lineup, Parking, Food Selection, Vendors
While it certainly wasn’t too hard to one-up last years Northern Invasion lineup (Kid-fucking-Rock headlining? Really?) this year’s lineup still left me wanting more. Nothing against the bands that were booked, they deserved their spots, I think one or two more marquee names would have really put this year’s festival over the top.
I mentioned the food selection as a negative, however, that issue could very easily be improved next year. Simply put, give me more options! Large and undercooked turkey legs and cheese curds dripping with grease are good, something a little lighter, possibly even at a cheaper price (ok, now I know I’m dreaming) could easily be implemented.
As for parking and vendor selection, these are probably just up to personal preference. While parking was plentiful and I didn’t have to leave my car in a precarious spot all day, a little more clarity on directions and parking options would have been nice. The same thing goes for vendors. While cheap chewing tobacco and spinning wheels full of prizes from radio stations are cool, there was plenty of unused space on the festival grounds that could have been used by vendors that appeal to a wider range of attendees.
Scott: Day 2
The second day of the festival was a continuous slow build. People filed back into the grounds, either shaking off hangovers in the campgrounds or navigating the highway from neighboring towns. The amphitheater lawns saw a gradual rising of the tide of festival-goers as the sun climbed high and warm in a cloudless sky.
A strong early second-stage performance from California’s The Fever 333 got the momentum going. Lead singer Jason Aalon Butler (formerly of Letlive) climbed the stage and led the growing crowd in familiar but effective chants (“Stand up or die on your knees!”), to great effect.
After that, concert-goers could pick and choose their preferences as half a dozen rising or seasoned hard rock acts brought their best sets to one of three stages. The set times overlapped, so there was always music happening. It was simply a matter of what to watch, how close one wanted to be, and when necessary bathroom, food, and water breaks should be taken.
Most of the mid-day sets were polished and free of distraction or technical difficulties. Acts like I See Stars, Miutiod Man (with accents of crass humor and playfully dirty jokes), Like a Storm, and The Blue Stones started on-time, rocked out, pleased the crowd, played their hits (if they had any), and gratefully acknowledged the opportunity.
This portion of the day was capped off by tight sets from veteran punk rockers Anti-Flag and emo maestros Dance Gavin Dance.
The festival culture may have passed its crescendo in America. The origins of Woodstock are 3 generations ago, the resurgence of Lollapalooza or Ozzfest are but a memory, and the more modern Coachella and Bonnaroo and even SXSW seemed to have passed their prime. Much of the danger and hopes for life-altering experiences these festivals once inspired have been replaced with the corporatization, wristbands, sponsors, and rich buttholes relaxing in all the prime viewing real estate on the grounds.
But that also means these festivals, Northern Invasion included, have ironed out a lot of the more difficult details involved in putting on such a large scale event. These days, entry and exit are relatively painless, food and beverage are readily available (if not affordable), and there is little chance of mudslides, riots, or lightning strikes.
So, the only thing to do is get in there and mix it up. Pick your moment to join the sea of music fans and don’t look back. Become part of the undulating humanity that rises and falls together. Experience life in a rapid, unfiltered verve created by close-quarters interaction.
Watch and cheer as the more fashion conscious fans pump their fists and reapply their makeup as Black Veil Brides plays a sweaty, blistering, riff-laden glam-rock set. Plunge into the front of the crowd as Stone Temple Pilots plays their Greatest Hits (of which there are a surprising amount) without the benefit of their iconic lead vocalist. Forego the safe spot on the hill, attempting to catch bits and pieces of all the headliners. Stay in the fray.
Surprise yourself. Hoist crowd-surfers over your head as Alice in Chains flexes their veteran rock muscles for a surprisingly active and energy-laden locomotive of a show. Ignore the poor souls who partied too hard too early, by the end of the night they will end up crumpled on the grass or in cuffs. There are heroes and villains everywhere, and every dark corner of the human experience is represented.
Then, prepare for war. You know that by staying put, you are missing The Used and Andrew WK. You are sacrificing hydration and calm for complete assimilation into the animal of the crowd. If you leave now, there is no way back in, unless you become one of shitty, overly-intoxicated headbangers who thinks he has the right to push his way to the front, even though he hasn’t earned his spot. But you have. As each frustrated fair-weather fan exits toward the back, unsure of what to make of such an unhinged version of society, you inch forward. As each crowd surfer is hoisted up and away, you reaffirm your position.
Tool takes the stage and lead singer Maynard James Keenan is in full riot gear. The sun is gone, all in attendance are in the bowl in front of the main stage, all drugs and drink have been consumed and overconsumed. There is nothing but lasers overhead, deep bass pumping in your chest, and shifts in the crowd that nearly lift you off your feet.
As you strain against the demands of the ocean of humanity or let yourself become a part of it, you are aware that you are out of control of your own well being.
Are you a contained, sedate music fan, just looking to watch the show? (Then step aside, slim. The animals are here.) Are you a thrashing explosion, controlled only by the rhythm of the mosh pit? Are you a positive, engaged person of value, picking up those around you who may stumble?
Are you afraid? You shouldn’t be, because this is life, only faster, hemmed with lyrics about conformity and anal sex, metered by precision drum strikes and angst. This is the moment where Northern Invasion becomes real. At this moment, like every other moment of your life, you have the choice to decide who you are.