Kesha's Summerfest set was a dirty free-for-all - and it was glorious
The storm clouds cleared up by the time pop star Kesha took the stage at the Miller Lite Oasis on Wednesday night, but the real downpour was just about to start.
It rained f*cks, sh*ts and middle fingers throughout the night. It rained clothes – from T-shrts to bras and even pants. ("They're so wet," Kesha discovered. "F*ck yeah!") It rained beer, spit and spitty beer. It rained confetti and, of course, glitter. (Two new friends hit me with a glitter bomb before the show, turning me into a disco ball on two legs. I'm sure to be finding glitter still two years from now. Glitter: It never goes away. It's the herpes of the arts and crafts world.)
And, as Mother Nature driving this tempest, Kesha reigned. She reigned totally triumphant over her sweaty, sloppy, steamy and increasingly less-clothed audience – and it seemed like she wouldn't want her kingdom any other way.
When she was 15 years old, as the story goes, Kesha came to a show at The Rave, a night that would feature a fellow concert-goer relieving herself in the future pop star's shoe, thinking it was a toilet. And from that moment on, a love affair between Milwaukee and Kesha was born – one that clearly continued Wednesday night on the Summerfest grounds.
Taking hefty swigs from a can of beer ("Make sure you stay hydrated … with lots of beer," she cautioned, clearly following her own advice) and occasionally "baby bird-ing" it into the crowd, aka spitting it out all over the place, she preached the beauty of Milwaukee and the Summerfest crowd throughout the night, truly enamored with the smushed and steamy gathering that had come to see her.
And she made sure to hold up her end of the deal, chatting with the crowd in her charmingly unfiltered, uncouth and undoubtedly earnest way and regularly tossing her towels into the crowd – complete with an extra dab of boob sweat.
Most importantly, however, she showed her love to the audience by throwing one hell of a musical party, starting as soon as she emerged from her massive grey blow-up UFO in a tight white sparkly leotard and matching fringe-rific coat. Joined by her band and two bouncy backup dancers – all also dressed in white – Kesha opened up with the fabulously righteous fury of "Woman," snarling out the song's triumphant chorus of "I'm a mother*cking woman!" complete with a whole dance routine of flipping the bird. I didn't know there was such a thing as middle finger choreography, but here we are.
After slinking around the stage for a dance hit with "Boogie Feet," she launched into a rocking rendition of "We R Who We R," dedicating the song to her LGBTQ fans in the crowd and noting that, for her, "every month is Pride Month." It should be noted: A solid every other word was either f*ck or sh*t, which – according to her Twitter account – scored her a $5,000 fine just the night before. So much for a deterrent.
After skipping backstage for a costume change – trading out her white leotard for a pink sequined body suit, as footage of men in suits and pig heads throwing big bills into a blaze like deleted scenes from "The Purge" played on the stage's screens – Kesha slowed it down just a bit with "Learn to Let Go," singing about practicing what she's preached about moving on from the past.
She kept that tempo for the acoustic, unplugged and almost country-fried ballad "Bastards," a song she wrote after unpleasant interactions with folks on the internet (Negativity? On the internet?! Never!) – though it's impossible to hear either song and not hear the ring of prickly, righteous retaliation directed at her alleged rapist, producer Dr. Luke, and encouragement for herself and others fighting through such mistreatment.
Next came perhaps the set's lone misstep: a slow cover of "Jolene" from Dolly Parton, a massive inspiration for the pop singer-songwriter. The slower jam lost some of the crowd for a little bit – even before she began, Kesha noted that the song was an indulgence for her – but it still gave the pop star a chance to showcase her impressive pipes. Plus, a little Dolly is never a bad thing.
She quickly, however, shifted course back to her hits, hopping into a rollicking and thumping rendition of Pitbull's "Timber" before another costume change – this time into some kind of patriotic Evil Knievel-looking jumpsuit – for "Die Young." After a search for someone in the audience to baby bird – in a sweet twist, however, we're ALL her baby birds; aww! – Kesha got a whiff of some weed.
Not to judge, of course, but to use as a perfect transition to her next song, "Your Love Is My Drug," during which she battled some pesky costuming that kept getting a little too attached to her guitar. But she battled through and rocked the whole thing out without a hitch – fringe, wires and hair weave be damned!
Up next was the teasing, playfully taunting "Take It Off," but before the song, the crowd would need to follow the song title's lead. Kesha demanded a donation before the tune, and the audience was more than willing to oblige, summoning a hail storm of items pelting the stage – featuring everything from shirts to pants to underpants to a "sacrificial bra" and lastly a poncho, which seemed like the thing to throw first before unleashing a cyclone of clothes.
Still, most of the clothes found their way onto the stage and lovingly draped over microphone stands and instruments by Kesha – and supposedly kept on the tour bus from here on out – who deemed the garment tax paid enough to take on "Take It Off."
For the band's final song, or actually pretend last song – points for the honesty – Kesha launched into "Blow," a gloriously sloppy (almost) finale featuring the pop star forgetting the words to the song and taking a brief tumble thanks to a mischievous confetti cannon. As if anybody in the crowd would hold any of that against Kesha, though, who's electric energy and personable interactions created one of the most dynamic Summerfest stages of the festival this year.
And she wasn't even done. As promised, "Blow" was just the fake final song, leaving but quickly returning for the mesmerizing emotional fury of "Praying." The song must've dropped the muggy lakefront temperature down a solid 40 degrees because you could feel chills run down the entire crowd's spines – especially as the song reached its soaring, searing, drum-smacking climax. She admitted afterwards that the song is never easy to sing – for obvious reasons, harkening back to the darkest chapter of her life and career.
But like in real life, she refused to be slowed down, making one last costume change into a rainbow wrapping paper top for her original hit, "Tik Tok" – which afterward unfortunately did mean that the party would stop (even if you looked like Mick Jagger).
But what a party it was.
Going into Kesha's concert, there was a bit of uncertainty about what kind of Kesha would come out and perform. Would the days of KeDollarSignHa be left in the past for the introspective, deservedly righteous rage of her most popular recent material? Would the party girl attitude audiences expected still arrive? No one would blame her for leaving it behind; after all, it was an easy, misogynistic scapegoat for those who wanted to turn a blind eye.
Hell, no one would blame her for leaving the whole industry behind after suffering through such a heinous and horrific experience, held creatively and financially captive by the whims of one's alleged rapist as the music world stayed silent (but then happily applauded itself for at this year's past Grammy performance). Who wouldn't change after enduring all of that?
Kesha didn't – at least Wednesday night showed no sign of it. She's still unapologetic and brash and honest and personable and a spark plug of a performer, from the opening monsoon of middle fingers in "Woman" to the frostbite of "Praying" and the final flurry of confetti. She hasn't changed one bit – and the world's a better place for it.
"We R Who We R"
"Learn To Let Go"
"Jolene" (Dolly Parton cover)
"Timber" (Pitbull cover)
"Your Love Is My Drug"
"Take It Off"
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