Brief reflections on one of the first nights of Madison’s outdoor music season.
When World’s Largest Brat Fest announced earlier this year that Smash Mouth would headline its Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison Grand Stage on Friday, May 24, visions of fans hauling hard rolls and aerodynamic meat at the band flooded my consciousness. These fears weren’t unfounded. Shrek Mobs were quickly planned, and the members of Smash Mouth can certainly tell you that free events can escalate quickly.
I asked myself, is Madison ready? We’d only just been deserving of a new mayor. And now everyone’s favorite, multi-platinum, contemporary lounge rock outfit would crown one of the first festivals of a long summer season. The incalculable surplus of Madison festivals reaches classical Roman levels of public decadence and harvest-ritual jubilation, and this was only the beginning.
Madison’s civic relationship with taste is a slippery topic. There are many taxpayers who see no contradiction in pitching Wisconsin’s capital as a regional cultural center and littering the streets with anthropomorphic sports icons. Booking Smash Mouth for a meat festival fits into this complicated dialectic.
My plan: witness Smash Mouth and break my pescetarianism by scarfing two brats. I miss brats and was raised on eclectic, award-winning meats, so for me, this was a kind of return to a primal, formative culture.
On Friday night, I biked across the field at Madison’s Alliant Energy Center, the mechanical sounds of quasi-rap-rock floating in the muggy air. I don’t think I was supposed to have my bike, but I’d entered a kind of extra-legal carnival zone. Public drunkenness and some miscreantism are implicitly encouraged.
The crowd stretched back to the runoff ponds, packed loose, so it was easy to worm up towards the front where the audience thickened to support crowd surfers, and mosh pits opened for brief, glorious moments until people remembered there were a ton of babies around. I was present for 30 minutes of Smash Mouth’s set, which is the perfect amount of time to see Smash Mouth. The back half of the hour-long set was packed with the band’s (multiple!) hits anyway.
At some point in the late ’90s, Smash Mouth discovered how to give each of their songs the aura of one-hit-wonders, over and over again. They’re right to insist on their status as a pop-culture force, as pillars (relics?) of a different music industry era, when genres could be stitched together with the seams stretched as irrationally as possible.
The band played energetically, dressed in tight fitting t-shirts and collared jackets. The actually-pretty-good-cover of the Monkees “I’m A Believer” came slightly before lead singer Steve Harwell asked the crowd, “Who here is walking on the sun?” We all were walking on the sun. Then, at the peak, “Who here is an All Star?” The crowd swooned. We were all All Stars.
After a half-hearted and unsuccessful encore chant, the crowd filtered into the beautiful spring night, and I bought my reasonably priced $3 brats. “There’s nothing else like it in the world,” the post-show announcer said.
He might be right.