Steve Aoki, Jason Isbell, Modest Mouse and the best and the worst of opening day of Summerfest 2022 in Milwaukee

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The opening day of Summerfest 2022 boasted picture-perfect weather and a lineup as musically diverse as anything the Milwaukee music festival can muster.

Here are some of the best (and worst) of what the Big Gig's grounds stages had to offer Thursday.

RELATED: Jason Aldean gives the fans, country and otherwise, what they want in near-capacity Summerfest show

Steve Aoki

Steve Aoki headlines the Miller Lite Oasis on Summerfest's opening night on Thursday, June 23, 2022.
Steve Aoki headlines the Miller Lite Oasis on Summerfest's opening night on Thursday, June 23, 2022.

Over the last few years, there’s been more discussion than ever about nepotism in the entertainment industry. Miley Cyrus, Zoe Kravitz and Maya Hawke are among the best-known “nepotism babies” — but there are plenty of well-connected entertainers with more discreet family connections.

Enter Steve Aoki. The DJ and record producer is the heir to the Benihana restaurant empire. Instead of following in his foodie father’s footsteps, Aoki has found fame and fortune pumping up crowds all over the world with his distinct DJing style.

Nepotism claims might bother some people, but they definitely didn’t bother the massive crowd Aoki drew to the Miller Lite Oasis Thursday night. Countless times during his set, the long-haired DJ commanded the audience to “Put your (expletive) hands up!” as they eagerly waited for the beat to drop. The crowd quickly turned into a sea of fist-bumping millennials with fresh summer tans. At some points, it felt like watching an episode of "Jersey Shore."

"Jersey Shore" and Aoki’s music have something in common: Neither is known for their intellect. But that’s OK. After what we’ve gone through the last two years, some of us just want to party — and Aoki’s energetic set proves he knows how to do that.

— Lauren Keene, Special to the Journal Sentinel

RELATED: Here's the Summerfest 2022 lineup by date, time and stage for the Milwaukee music festival

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Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit headlines Summerfest's BMO Harris Pavilion on Thursday, June 23, 2022.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit headlines Summerfest's BMO Harris Pavilion on Thursday, June 23, 2022.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit played the highest-profile “free” stage at Summerfest Thursday night — but if you counted the number of people in the crowd at the BMO Harris , you wouldn’t believe it. As the show started, the reserved-seating sections weren’t even half full, and the back bleachers remained mostly empty throughout the band’s blistering set.

But fans who made the trek to Summerfest were treated to a robust setlist complete with tracks from the Alabama-born rocker’s solo career and his tenure with Drive-By Truckers.

Isbell’s anthemic guitar riffs and confessional lyrics might remind some rock ‘n’ roll devotees of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, but his aching Southern drawl sets him apart from his ‘70s predecessors. For that reason alone, it’s likely Isbell gained a few new fans Thursday night. Let’s hope those new fans fill some seats next time Isbell plays the Big Gig.

— Lauren Keene

Modest Mouse

After Summerfest's spectacular opening-night fireworks, cult favorites Modest Mouse stepped into the deafening applause of a brimming Uline Warehouse audience.

“How are all the living members of your family?” That was the call and response from frontman Isaac Brock before he told the audience he’d been here for Irish Fest. Between obscure rock/alternative songs, he would stop and connect with the overjoyed crowd.

While their music is a bit on the darker side, Modest Mouse managed to keep the crowd amped with fan favorites. Their biggest hit, “Float On,” got less response than the underground hits; this was definitely a “deep cuts” crowd. Next time Modest Mouse comes, they are definitely going to need a bigger stage for said crowd.

— Damon Joy, Special to the Journal Sentinel

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Barenaked Ladies

Barenaked Ladies headline the UScellular Connection Stage at Summerfest on Thursday, June 23, 2022.
Barenaked Ladies headline the UScellular Connection Stage at Summerfest on Thursday, June 23, 2022.

Fans of the alt-rock band Barenaked Ladies piled into the UScellular Connection Stage at least an hour before the band hit the stage. Clearly, the sweet scent of '90s nostalgia was in the air.

The expectation was aging hipsters rambling through a 30-year-plus catalog. That was far from the truth. BNL played with the energy of their former selves. The seasoned vets made hits “Brian Wilson,” “One Week” and “If I Had $1000000" sound refreshingly modern with a few musical variations. Frontman Ed Robinson still has the chops, but there is still a slight aching for the voice of his former, Steven Page. Overall, both the band and the all-ages audience seemed to enjoy themselves.

— Damon Joy

Big Boi

Big Boi headlines the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard at Summerfest on Thursday, June 23, 2022.
Big Boi headlines the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard at Summerfest on Thursday, June 23, 2022.

Eight years ago, OutKast’s reunion tour made a stop in Milwaukee, and the show wound up being arguably the highlight of that year's Summerfest.

The tour proved to be OutKast’s final one to date, and while the world is still waiting to see if André 3000 will ever release an album of his own, Big Boi never stopped. All the same, his headlining set Thursday night at the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard felt more like a victory lap than a new-album tour.

In rueful acknowledgement of the current inflationary crunch, Big Boi emerged with an abbreviated “Gasoline Dreams” before a seamless blending of “ATLiens” and “Rosa Parks” had the crowd immersed in the OutKast classics. Rather than the rapid-fire medleys favored by most legacy rappers of his generation, he served up generous helpings of “So Fresh, So Clean” and “Ms. Jackson,” and didn’t skimp on the “B.O.B.” either.

"Recreation,” from Big Boi’s 2021 album "The Big Sleepover," was the rare new song to make an appearance, nestled in the middle of a set that didn’t last an hour. The highs were rousing though predictable; let's call it goodwill over ambition.

— Cal Roach, Special to the Journal Sentinel

Anthrax

Anthrax headlines the Generac Power Stage at Summerfest on Thursday, June 23, 2022.
Anthrax headlines the Generac Power Stage at Summerfest on Thursday, June 23, 2022.

When Anthrax came on the scene in the early 1980s, thrash metal was the heaviest type of music yet invented, and thus not suitable for the likes of a family-friendly event such as Summerfest.

As the metal universe has pushed into darker and more extreme territory, however, even modern thrash bands come off as a bit of nostalgic fun. This especially benefits Anthrax; of all the original legends of their genre, they always had the most fun.

Their set Thursday night at the Generac Power Stage was their Summerfest debut, and it was littered with fan favorites — several of them covers.

“If your friend isn’t singing along, give him a (expletive) elbow,” declared guitarist Scott Ian before a rousing rendition of AC/DC’s “T.N.T.,” which featured guest vocals by a pint-size fan named Brady. Longtime vocalist Joey Belladonna mugged plenty for the cameras — more glam than Satan, to be sure — yet somehow more graceful than most of his aging thrash contemporaries, still posing with their tired grim faces.

— Cal Roach

Pop Evil

Pop Evil performs at the Generac Power Stage at Summerfest Thursday.
Pop Evil performs at the Generac Power Stage at Summerfest Thursday.

Hard-rock/alternative band Pop Evil has been hard at work since 2001, releasing six studio albums, including 2021's "Versatile." Thursday's Summerfest show at the Generac Power Stage was the first stop on the North Muskegon, Michigan-based band's "Vortex" tour.

The band opened strong with its new single, "Eye of the Storm," followed by earlier-career hit "Deal With the Devil" and "Versatile" album track "Let the Chaos Reign." Survivor-themed ballads "Fire Inside" and the tortured "Torn to Pieces" were nice complements to the rest of the fast-paced set.

Pop Evil drew a sizable crowd, despite the show's early start time. Although the band was beset by technical issues, they powered through with thunderous force. Leigh Kakaty's melodic vocals didn't miss a beat, and he even acknowledged the hard work of the sound technicians and backstage crew.

When the singer encouraged the crowd to "get those (devil) horns in the sky, let me (expletive) hear you. I need some Milwaukee noise," the crowd happily obliged.

— Catherine Jozwik, Special to the Journal Sentinel

Femi Kuti & the Positive Force

Femi Kuti and the Positve Force performs at Summerfest's Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard on Thursday, June 23, 2022.
Femi Kuti and the Positve Force performs at Summerfest's Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard on Thursday, June 23, 2022.

Summerfest’s first day was sunny, breezy, impossibly pleasant. By the time Femi Kuti & the Positive Force took the stage at the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard, the sun had descended far enough for the I-794 overpass to cast shade on the first 10 rows of bleachers, which was nearly enough for the show's whole crowd.

First, the eight-piece afrobeat ensemble, then a trio of dancers, then Kuti himself emerged — a constant bright-green blur the entire set and as vigorous in voice as movement. “Infectious” hardly does the man’s energy justice.

The band was comparably relentless, easily overcoming the curse of the afternoon festival booking as the crowd grew larger and more enthusiastic with each song. Although titles like “Politics Na Big Business” and “You Can’t Fight Corruption With Corruption” sound dire, Kuti and his crew got their message across with a smile, and with music potent enough to cloud the mind if necessary.

— Cal Roach

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Steve Aoki, Jason Isbell: Best, worst of Summerfest 2022's opening day