Machine Gun Kelly embraces superstardom (sort of) at Summerfest, but Avril Lavigne nearly steals the show

·6 min read

Machine Gun Kelly still thinks of himself as an underdog.

But at this year's Summerfest, America's largest music festival, he's the Big Dog.

Shortly into his hour-and-45-minute set at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater Friday night, Kelly informed the packed house that this show was Summerfest's top-seller this year, with about 18,000 in attendance.

That's a stratospheric leap from just nine months ago, when Kelly played the 3,500-person-capacity Eagles Ballroom at the Rave. (However, that was an instant sellout, and was one of the smallest venues on his fall tour.)

But it's not surprising. Kelly's popularity continues to skyrocket thanks to this spring's "Mainstream Sellout," his second album to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and his second album since transitioning from a rapper to a punk rocker.

Now firmly in the big leagues, Kelly went all out with the stage spectacle at Summerfest Friday.

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He dangled from the rope of a pink helicopter over the stage for set opener "Born With Horns," the chopper firing rockets during "WWIII" and "WW4" later in the night at clusters of TVs that depicted animated spiders with logos from Fox News, CNN, Facebook, Twitter and other media and social media companies.

The five-piece band backing him was ferocious — especially Kelly's two guitarists, who wilded out with solos for "Maybe," all the more impressive considering they were standing on a slanted stage.

There was plenty of pyro, of course, crisscrossing along the back of the stage, and during the set's climactic "My Ex's Best Friend," confetti shaped like red tomatoes rained down over the lower bowl.

And while the highly produced show had no room for the kind of death-defying surprises like his balcony stroll at the Eagles Ballroom last fall, Kelly still found ways to inject Friday's set with spontaneity.

During "Drug Dealer," Kelly raced down into an aisle by Section 102 to briefly jump around with fans, giving a little girl on her father's shoulders a hug on the way back up to the stage.

Halsey, headlining Summerfest's amphitheater Saturday, didn't show up for their collaboration “Forget Me Too” Friday. Nor did Kelly's partner, actress Megan Fox, appear on stage — although he said she was there Friday, and he serenaded an offstage Fox for show closer "Twin Flame."

But opener Iann Dior showed up for their collaboration "Fake Love Don't Last," with Dior exhibiting the ultimate trust fall dropping back first into the pit to crowd surf.

And Kelly's other opener, Avril Lavigne, joined his set, too, the pair teaming up for their recent collaboration "Bois Lie."

Machine Gun Kelly headlines the American Family Insurance Amphitheater for Summerfest on Friday, July 1, 2022.
Machine Gun Kelly headlines the American Family Insurance Amphitheater for Summerfest on Friday, July 1, 2022.

The show was such a success — Kelly, too, demonstrated his flow hasn't lost its snap, during "Floor 13" and "El Diablo" — that it's puzzling why even during this concert he still puts himself down.

Kelly's gotten plenty of backlash for going rock, prompting cries of inauthenticity. A trailer for a new Hulu documentary, "Machine Gun Kelly's Life in Pink," which aired in the amphitheater before the show, proclaimed him "This Generation's Most Polarizing Rock Star."

And Kelly has fully embraced that narrative — perhaps out of insecurity, or maybe to amplify buzz — to the point that his show Friday featured a 30-foot-tall creature with a screen for a head. It doubled as a metaphor for the internet, yelling insults at Kelly throughout the show, calling him a poseur, questioning his ability to play guitar (he did Friday, although he wasn't flashy), and so on.

But the running gimmick Friday was largely a sour distraction, almost robbing Kelly of the ability to defy the doubters on his own terms.

The show flowed much better after the internet demon was "slayed," like during "Lonely," which even amplified by a flashy band on a flashy stage remains a touching, vulnerable tribute to Kelly's late father.

At the end of the show, Kelly said he would make it back to Milwaukee next year. He said the same thing at the Rave's Eagles Ballroom in October, and sure enough it happened, so we'll take him at his word.

But hopefully next time, he can leave the chip on his shoulder at home.

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Avril Lavigne opens for Machine Gun Kelly at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater for Summerfest on Friday, July 1, 2022.
Avril Lavigne opens for Machine Gun Kelly at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater for Summerfest on Friday, July 1, 2022.

Avril Lavigne

Machine Gun Kelly’s “authenticity” will continue to be up for debate, but there’s no denying the pop-punk bona fides of opener Avril Lavigne.

With a packed amphitheater and stage tricks like exploding streamers and black and orange balloons bouncing over the crowd, Friday’s performance felt like a triumphant headlining set smashed into a too-brief-but-explosive 40-minutes.

Snarky new pop-punk anthems “Bite Me” and “Love It When You Hate Me” fit perfectly alongside singalong staples “Complicated” and “I’m With You” (both songs 20 years old this year).

Lavigne’s pining voice and attitude haven’t aged in the slightest — her personal and stage aesthetic included orange tips in her hair, and a shimmering mic stand covered in spikes — and the five-piece band matched their leader’s intensity. During “Sk8er Boi,” one of her guitarists was playing so hard his strap snapped, sending his guitar soaring across the stage, where it shattered against the floor.

Iann Dior

Iann Dior opens for Machine Gun Kelly at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater for Summerfest on Friday, July 1, 2022.
Iann Dior opens for Machine Gun Kelly at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater for Summerfest on Friday, July 1, 2022.

Iann Dior did something brazen during his 25-minute opening set: He skipped “Mood,” his Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper with 24KGoldn and by far his biggest hit.

But it was the right call. The poppy “Mood” didn't fit with the intense punk vibe the rapper-rocker was going for — backed by an aggressive guitarist and drummer — for setlist standouts “Sick and Tired” and “Gone Girl.”

It all boiled over when Dior came out into the pit for “Live Fast Die Numb,” and, evidently, Dior couldn’t get enough of the crowd. In between Lavigne and Kelly’s sets, he strolled through the amphitheater aisles and posed for dozens of selfies.

Machine Gun Kelly's setlist

1. "Born With Horns"

2. "God Save Me"

3. "Maybe"

4. "Mainstream Sellout"

5. "Drunk Face"

6. "Drug Dealer"

7. "Ay!"

8. "Fake Love Don't Last" (with Iann Dior)

9. "Why Are You Here"/"Jawbreaker"/"Sid & Nancy"

10. "More Than Life"

11. "Die in California"

12. "Floor 13"

13. "Papercuts"

14. "Title Track"

15. "Bloody Valentine"

16. "Roll the Windows Up"

17. "El Diablo"

18. "WWIII"

19. "WW4"

20. "Emo Girl"

21. "Bois Lie" (with Avril Lavigne)

22. "Lonely"

23. "I Think I'm Okay"

24. "Forget Me Too"

25. "Make Up Sex"

26. "My Ex's Best Friend"

27. "Twin Flame"

Contact Piet at (414) 223-5162 or plevy@journalsentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter at @pietlevy or Facebook at facebook.com/PietLevyMJS.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Machine Gun Kelly embraces superstardom (sort of) at Summerfest