I’ve been going to Summerfest for 30 years now, although there were a couple years during that span when I didn’t make it down there. It is after all the least hip festival around, with the lowest average likelihood of having your mind blown by music alone. And for my entertainment dollar, a blown mind is always the best value. There was a good stretch too where I would’ve agreed with a lot of my friends that dealing with such huge swaths of smelly humanity was not worth such meager artistic rewards.
Thankfully, landing a gig writing about the Big Gig for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has gradually rescued me from this state of disdain. The festival now produces a unique state of anticipation for me; it can be a most mentally taxing experience yet I find my appreciation for the festival itself grows stronger each year. It forces a ton of reflection, all these compounding memories, going back to these same grounds for days on end year after year.
For instance, I can’t believe they got rid of those root beer barrel stands! When did that happen? What’s next, junk the Sky Glider?? Okay, no, this isn’t going to be one of those pieces. Summerfest has changed a ton over the years and it’s going to keep changing. The pandemic has exposed a lot of what’s great about the event and what could improve. I have opinions.
First of all, the format. Last year, I’m sure I bitched on social media about the new three-weekend format, for one simple primary reason: it eats up three weekends of my summer. Miraculously, none of the weekends conflicted with Phish this time around, but I missed a lot of other stuff around town I wished I could’ve done. I’ll direct you to Milwaukee Record for a more comprehensive debate on this topic (https://milwaukeerecord.com/music/is-summerfests-three-weekend-format-better-or-worse-than-the-old-format/), but I have to say that we still don’t have enough data, because we’re still in a pandemic.
If we weren’t, maybe each Thursday-Saturday would’ve been packed to the gills as I had feared. Instead, the fest overall was somewhat more crowded than last year’s, particularly on the final weekend, but still never too insane. However, unlike any random Tuesday afternoon under the old 11-days-straight format, the grounds weren’t ever a complete ghost town, due to the new-for-’22 strategy of booking lots of the boomer/gen-x has-been acts that Summerfest is already known for, at 3:30 or 4 in the afternoon. This allows for aging locals to arrive early in the day and be exhausted before the nighttime crowd even gets there.
The idea of having more nationally-known acts throughout the day does indeed edge Summerfest closer to being kinda like a real marquee festival. Did it feel that way this year? No, not at all, because still, at almost any time of day or night, you could hear some cover band playing from one of these big stages. They seemed more prevalent than ever before this year. Maybe it was the many random cancellations but it frustrates me to no end how Summerfest keeps squeezing out the fresh original talent this city has to offer, artists who would’ve loved the opportunity to take some of these daytime slots. Isn’t that what they did last year?
Maybe they used last year as an excuse not to do the same thing this year? Deep in a pandemic that a sizable portion of Americans were still at least pretending to care about, Summerfest invited local artists to step up and were disappointed in the turnout? So to hell with it, just book Steve Miller a second consecutive night.
I cut them slack due to the pandemic, seriously, but I think this is the first year in the history of the festival when I wasn’t even tempted to buy an amphitheater ticket. The overall lineup, for my tastes, was one of the worst of all time. That’s what made this one of my favorite Summerfests ever—not caring much about the music.
Another recent Milwaukee Record piece (https://milwaukeerecord.com/music/crossing-off-some-things-on-our-big-gig-bucket-lists/) was about “Big Gig bucket lists”, which when I saw the headline I thought it was going to be about something completely different. My version of this game started in 2011 or so. You know how there are completely intolerable bands that nevertheless have a single legitimate shining moment? As in, REO Speedwagon’s “Keep On Loving You”, for instance? Sometimes if you time it just right you can catch the one song without suffering through the rest, and these are true Summerfest miracles. This bucket list however extends to non-horrible artists as well, like Todd Rundgren, whose set I wasn’t looking forward to but it would be worth it if only he did “Hello It’s Me”, the world champion of sad-headass anthems. Fortunately Mr. Rundgren’s show was the complete opposite of the boring art-pop evening I thought we were in store for. A different kind of Summerfest miracle entirely. No “Bang The Drum All Day” and I didn’t even mind.
Other boxes checked: “Kiss Me Deadly”, “Baby Got Back”, “Drown”, “One Thing Leads To Another”, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” and “I’m Burning For You”, and even that one song by Toad The Wet Sprocket. Even cooler, all of those surrounding sets were at least pretty good! Except Toad The Wet Sprocket which was unbelievably boring. I figured Son Volt would be good and they were. The Fixx has a brand new album out and at least five of the songs on it are great, who knew? I actually know five Blue Öyster Cult songs, who knew??
There’s all kinds of power in just experiencing a beloved song with a bunch of people, no question. As we age these types of moments get more emotional. I felt that during the Anthrax set a couple times I must admit. I felt it during Big Boi’s set too. I felt it a bunch watching the Violent Femmes, a band I used to despise. But it hit most strongly during The Breeders’ set. My mind kept going back to Lollapalooza ’94, watching Jim Macpherson beat the crap out of his tiny drumkit while Kim and Kelly Deal seemed almost indifferent to the fact that there was a paying audience. I didn’t get it back then, it was gonna take some years. Macpherson’s kit’s a little bigger these days but his movements are exactly the same, it was such a trip, and nowadays I know all the songs. I think too much about experiences I didn’t appreciate while they were happening; this was a rare second chance and I don’t know how it could’ve been any better.
The Breeders played on the default “’90s alt-rock” stage of their particular day, although Meat Puppets’ cancellation took some of the punch out of the lineup. On the north end, it was hair metal day. The BMO Harris Pavilion tended to be the boomer stage, except a few nights when it was the hip-hop/R&B stage. There were even a couple of days featuring an ‘80s synthpop stage, but no trace of a hippie contingency this year except one Black Crowes show and Michael Franti a different night. For fans of, like, good new music, there was only one day that felt like a real-ass festival, and that was the final one. Mine went like this: Illuminati Hotties>Bob Mould>Dry Cleaning>Zola Jesus>Gego Y Nony>Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and it was nonstop greatness.
Even on this night, though, there were no knockout closeout sets from my point of view. My other personal highlights of the fest—Femi Kuti, Dirty Dozen Brass, Noga Erez, Adi Amour, Deep Sea Diver, Geese (not to be confused with Goose mind you)—were completely random. The lone jam-packed day reminded me of Summerfests past, though. Because being a fan of local music, there used to be lots of jam-packed days. There used to be the Cascio Stage, an actual sanctioned, sponsored local music spot. There used to be the Rebel Stage and the Renegade Stage down by the lakefront, where you could catch some truly wild and noisy music. At least something for an adventurous listener was usually happening. Nowadays, absolutely nothing.
I don’t think it’s the pandemic or the new format, I think adventurousness is most likely gone from Summerfest forever. That’s not what the festival was ever about for hardly anyone, anyway. It’s about shitty beer and insufficient condiments, and socializing. Even I can’t get mad at anyone for talking during a Summerfest set, and running into people day after day…was what I started to look forward to the most when I was getting on my bike to head down there. I could maybe get used to this again, this running into people. Conversing. Goofing around. Smiles.
There was also the overhearing of mundane conversations en route on the trail or moseying through the crowds. Not music talk or anything, just people out in the world having normal-ass talks was the most comforting thing on Earth to me. I still feel super isolated most of the time, an isolation that makes me feel like isolation is a good thing, because it really ain’t so bad compared to, say, every piece of news to hit the world for almost as long as my feeble mind can recall any more. Only what also ain’t so bad, is being outside, amongst the only true melting pot of humanity you’ll find at a music festival. And also there is music. (And not all the beers are shitty.)
I understand that I enjoy perks that make the whole thing much more worthwhile. I can hop on the Oak Leaf Trail a mile from my home and it takes me right smack to the grounds. My press pass gets me in for free any time I want. However I have to clear something up, because a lot of people say things to me like ‘it sucks you don’t get to pick what you write about’. The truth is it hardly matters. During those sets I’m working. Any enjoyment of the music is incidental. I’d almost rather be assigned artists I’ve never heard of just to have a reason to hear something new. It’s significantly more work than covering something I know and it rarely results in a “find”, but this year I found myself won over by the simple, no-frills pop songs of Alessia Cara, for instance, which will have little impact on my life except a lingering gratitude that kids are listening to at least something that feels genuine. Of course there was also what my editor termed the “cultural whiplash” of writing about French Montana (sample lyric: “Bitch! Stop talkin’ that shit/And suck a n* dick for some Trukfit/Okay I fuck a bitch and I’m gone”) and for KING & COUNTRY (sample lyric: “The things of Earth are dimming/In the light of Your glory and grace/I’ll set my sights upon Heaven”) back to back; these are two realities so foreign to me that I could barely see the one in the middle for a while.
This also illustrates the insane diversity of Summerfest, though, and that’s the one thing that mustn’t be lost, no matter what other changes might come. This wasn’t even a particularly strong year on the diversity score but I do chalk that up to covid one niner. I have to believe that some day we’ll see Summerfest at full strength again, and then we’ll have a better understanding of what their philosophy is. Attract more national attention and/or respect? Because cover bands and John Fogerty and Disturbed aren’t going to cut it. Waukesha County? Yes, that will always be a priority, I get it. What about Milwaukee, though?
This is where I’ll point out how great it was to have local acts like Twan Mack, Brett Newski, Gego Y Nony, Mrs. Fun, Xposed 4heads, Vincent Van Great, Adi Amour and others given primetime slots on ground stages. Even though some of these are very usual suspects, I hope we continue to see MKE in the spotlight in coming years. I still miss the old Cascio stage but I don’t know where you could even put it these days. This is why I still want a pirate stage down by the goth rocks (sorry but the tiki hut doesn’t count). I fear those have gone the way of root beer barrels and wine coolers, though.
I don’t suppose any of my demands will be met. I still remember my shock and dismay the year they stopped giving out free lawn handstamps for the amphitheater. If that wasn’t the last straw, I don’t know what could be. There was a stretch of several years of my life that practically revolved around big outdoor music festivals; these days they never seem very enticing. Summerfest used to feel like a consolation prize; yeah, it’s a festival, I guess. But for plenty of folks, it’s the only music festival. I quoted a Noga Erez line in my Journal Sentinel review of her set and it bears repeating: “Come out, play with your enemies”. I walked past a guy one day wearing a shirt that said “YOU’RE DAMN RIGHT I VOTED FOR TRUMP and I’ll do it again!” That guy is my enemy. And I’m going to have to learn to live with him. Summerfest is a start.