Despite the foreboding presence of a cloudy sky and a cool breeze off Lake Mendota, the second annual Snake on the Lake Fest drew an excited and Tortoise-devoted crowd to the Memorial Union Saturday.
The WSUM-sponsored event, formally known as Party in the Park, graced the Memorial Union Terrace for the second time after the loss of a sponsor in 2006. This year’s incarnation of the WSUM namesake built anticipation among Madison students and locals alike with the booking of two notable national acts — folk rocker Damien Jurado and headliner Tortoise.
Saturday’s festivities made for the best kind of in-and-out spectator event, providing live music spanning multiple genres free of charge. The six shows were supplemented by a mix of dance-friendly tunes in between sets courtesy of WSUM’s DJs.
The first sounds of amp feedback and a guitar tuning cut through the cool afternoon air a few minutes before 5 p.m., and emcee Jenny Underwood took the stage soon after. After a few preliminary words of thanks, Underwood introduced opener Pistols at Dawn, a local Midwest surf-rock quartet.
Pistols at Dawn played a fast-paced instrumental set that paralleled Tortoise’s sans-vocal post-rock that closed Saturday night. The excitable group mixed ’60s-styled keyboard and furious shredding to the delight of the few onlookers who made it out for the first show. As of the band’s last song there were many empty tables gracing the Terrace, but certainly not for a lack of effort from the grinning Chicagoans.
Madison newcomers El Valiente hit the stage next with a sorrowful and sparse opener recalling both Band of Horses’ “The Funeral” and the math-rock noise of Health.
But as the sun disappeared and Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson (otherwise known as The Family Robinson) took the stage while only a brief sprinkle put a damper on the growing crowd’s anticipation.
“Everyone’s been coming up and asking, ‘When is Tortoise coming on?'” WSUM event coordinator Cole Mitchell said. “Tortoise is definitely the draw.”
And Mitchell, station manager Y Mae Sussman and various WSUM staff greeted these excited guests with bright green station paraphernalia and traversed the Terrace all night in their matching blue T-shirts to make sure the whole festival — not just Tortoise’s crowd-pleasing closer — was a success.
Despite the anticipation, Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson’s cover of a Bob Seger classic managed to fill the last few tables in front of the bustling stage, and the edgy Awesome Color even drew a few headbangers to their feet. In fact, Awesome Color proved to be the noisy exception to a musically low-key night, and their performance demanded stage crowding that they sadly didn’t attract despite a few humorous appeals to Madison’s party aficionados.
The Terrace filled up with energetic and beer-loving guests by 8 p.m., and Damien Jurado’s simple folk-rock performance that began shortly after may have been the best of the night. Despite sitting through much of the show and favoring softer rock and alt-country constructions, Jurado and co-writer bandmate Jenna Conrad put on a strong and consistent performance that drew audiences to the stage. Jurado stuck to material from his new album, Caught in the Trees, and closed with the bluesy highlight “Best Dress,” which left audiences swaying contently.
Tortoise finally made their triumphant and well-received appearance at 10:30 p.m. With the layered melodies and sonically spacious style the veteran troop is known for, Tortoise plowed through a series of songs that easily met the high expectations of the crowd. Tortoise’s complicated songwriting and jazz-oriented musicality attracted many guests to Snake on the Lake, and it shone brightly in a live format. Disjointed grooves and slinking rhythms moved the dense pack that surrounded the stage, and a mid-set symphony of guided audience-clapping involved the seated fans as well.
And when Tortoise played their last song, a roar of approval suggested the cool weather and a few drops of rain couldn’t have prevented Saturday from being a complete success.
Snake on the Lake has come into its own as a festival with bigger and better acts that make for an excellent night of entertainment. WSUM and Madison concertgoers alike can hope the Snake on the Lake only continues to have success in the future, attracting other groups that garner as much attention as Tortoise did Saturday.