Summerfest '24 Wrap-up

Mon Jul 08 2024

With each passing year, the Summerfest lineup announcement produces more groans and fewer yips of excitement, and maybe that’s how it should be. As it turned out, the organizers had a much better grasp of what would bring people to the grounds than, well, I did. In between the hip young acts I’d never heard of and the extreme has-beens, I didn’t see a lot to get fired up about on the schedule.

However, what I experienced at the fest was perhaps a more diverse field than ever before in every sense, and now that it’s all over I suspect there were way more hidden gems on that schedule than I managed to find. The array of headliners was indeed weak, but I think that about almost all the major American festivals nowadays. In the grand scheme of things, how is REO Speedwagon worse than, say, Blink-182?

REO still boasts some original members y’know! I didn’t see them this year, primarily because I can’t stand their music, except for the song “Keep On Loving You”, which I miraculously walked up just in time for back in 2011, crossing that tune off my shrinking Summerfest songbucketlist. It’s always a great feeling, knowing you never have to feel any desire at all to see a shitty band that managed to produce one good song.

Every year there are candidates (and NO, I’m not insinuating they’re all shitty!); 2024 got going the first day with The Little River Band. Their song “Cool Change” was a stupidly meaningful song for me in the days following my first night in jail. (I have never even been on a sailboat, for the record.) Surely they were going to play this song, I’d sing along, and that would be that. However I didn’t realize that absolutely no one who was in Little River Band while they were making hits remains in the band. I’m not sure anyone currently in the lineup is even from Australia. Frontman Wayne Nelson joined on bass in 1980 and his voice…sounds nothing like Glenn Shorrock’s. Everyone else in the band joined within the past 20 years.

I’m afraid this experience did not qualify for the songbucketlist. Perhaps Shorrock will play Summerfest some day, but that collection of stooges on the Uline Stage, playing to a huge daytime crowd, sounded almost nothing like Little River Band.

After this I wandered into the Aurora Pavilion aka party central, where Sen Morimoto was playing, and I went ‘ohhhh…yeah, I saw this guy at Pitchfork last year!’ ( And let me tell you this Summerfest set was wayyyy better than what I saw in Chicago. Full-band dynamics with all kinds of experimental sounds woven throughout and less reliance on Morimoto’s ‘creative’ approach to rapping. Quite a sonic tapestry and positively bizarre for a festival with such a wonderbread reputation.

Summerfest’s husband-and-wife-duo game was solid this year, highlighted by The War & Treaty that first night, who opened for Brittany Howard, who with her incredible band put on a live concert that outclassed almost everything else at this festival. Hardly anybody showed up for it; they were too busy rolling their eyes about the IDEA of Summerfest, apparently. Yes I’m still angry at the whole city of Milwaukee for leaving Howard hanging like that. You could’ve scrounged up a free ticket and hopped on a scooter and had a life-altering communal experience. I wouldn’t blame Howard if she never came back to this city.

After Howard had finished up I made my way to the Briggs stage to catch the end of Gin Blossoms’ set. Not unlike my history with They Might Be Giants, something always gets in my way when Gin Blossoms come to Milwaukee. Now, if this had been a songbucketlist situation I’d be golden, because I walked up just as they were ripping into “Hey Jealousy”. This band has too many good songs, though. I’d just missed “Found Out About You” and “Allison Road”, arghhhh. So NEXT TIME, dammit. “Til I Hear It From You” was fun to sing along to too but the “Folsom Prison Blues” encore was a surprisingly great sendoff.

I was at Alpine Valley that first Friday (, then Saturday was the massive storm that evacuated Alpine but only paused Summerfest for about an hour and a half. This was well after mutant horror-funk outfit Here Come The Mummies and Milwaukee power trio Diet Lite both tore up their respective stages during daylight hours. I also caught a little bit of husband-and-wife duo Shovels & Rope, who were good except the system was so cranked and distorted at the Briggs stage, you could barely make out the words—even when it was nothing but acoustic guitar and vocals. Inexcusable, really.

Unfortunately the rain delayed the Goo Goo Dolls set by about 40 minutes, which meant I had to miss the first couple songs of Umphrey’s McGee’s set trying to figure out what to write about Goo Goo Dolls (shout-out to my editor Chris Foran for untying the knots I’d written myself into with that one). Not that it was a huge deal; this was somehow the thirty-seventh time I’d be seeing Umphrey’s, way too many times really, but the thing is there used to be WEBSITES that paid me ridiculous sums of money to write about this band, and then suddenly they all said ‘whoops! money’s gone!’ so I couldn’t tell you the names of any songs this band has introduced to its repertoire in the past 15 years or so but…hold on, I can’t let that sentence go on any longer. I walked up just as they were finishing up “Wife Soup”, after which they brought out members of the TWO preceding Miller Oasis acts (Little Stranger and Doom Flamingo, the latter of which features UM bassist Ryan Stasik as a member) to help them perform…”Fu-Gee-La”?? Yes, this sounds like a cringe moment. In the hands of most jambands you can bet it would be—hell, had Umphrey’s tried it 20 years ago, it would’ve been a joke. However these guys are so seasoned and versatile now, and Doom Flaming’s Kanika Moore did such a terrific job on vocals, it was an absolute thrill. Afterwards they played two songs, “Attachments” and “Bad Friday”, which combined for a good half-hour stretch of mostly jamming, and this is why I actually keep seeing this band: even though there are probably dozens of jambands that people have heard of by now that tour the country regularly, very few of them actually take their music into territory where nobody in the audience or band knows what’s going to happen next—and even PHISH don’t do such things at FESTIVALS (except the ones they host themselves of course). This was one of the best segments of UM improv I’d heard in ages, and they followed it up with my favorite of their songs, the prog-thrash epic “Wizard Burial Ground”. If only they could’ve squeezed in some country and a contemporary christian song, UM would’ve covered the entire Summerfest genre spectrum in what for them was about half of a usual show. Goo notwithstanding, this was a terrific first weekend.

The following Thursday was ‘90s alt-rock day, and I think that was also when Lakefront’s firkin of the day was a blackberry IPA or something and it was absolutely delicious and also they have a happy hour? I read today in this great Matt Wild piece ( that Miller Lites were $9 this year, comparable to Miller Park pricing. However, a Lakefront beer—featuring actual beer flavor—was only $1.50 more than a Miller Lite, whereas at the ballpark I think they’re like $18 or something! So, just fer yr FYI.

A mixed-bag day for the songbucketlist; I started with Letters To Cleo for “Here And Now”, which was easily my favorite song on Earth for about nine days 30 years ago. But I didn’t get my Tracy Bonham “Mother Mother” fix (same deal about two years later) ‘cause I had to be in the amphitheater during her set—particularly a bummer because she…doesn’t seem to really tour? And this is one of the things about Summerfest that amazes me year after year: people drop everything to play here, from the absolute hottest acts going (SZA? Hello?) to aging legends. I really hope Bonham returns some day; based on this Blaine Schultz piece ( it would’ve been more than just a one-hit-wonder show.

As instructed by Cleo vocalist Kay Hanley (who put on a highly enjoyable nostalgia-trip show overall), I scurried over to catch the end of Eve 6’s set once she was offstage. I didn’t recognize any of the songs they played and wandered off after a handful of them. I’m sure the set ended with a song or two I would’ve known, but the truth is I can’t for the life of me think of one. I’m pretty sure I didn’t like them whenever it was that they were popular. I opted for MyaaP and AyooLii a few stages away instead, and although they may not have made up the most celebrated local rap showcase of the year, it’s great to be able to say that. There were several, including a stacked one in the amphitheater opening for Lil Uzi Vert the final night, and this is the part I have to try to remind myself about next spring when they drop the headliners: shove your ‘this lineup sucks’ commentary up your ass, because when the event actually arrives, it’s always chock full of major local talent. It’s almost impossible to lament the loss of the local-dedicated WMSE-sponsored stage any more. Sure, THAT stage was more skewed towards artists I was particularly into at the time, but that’s…not…a legitimate gripe. From what I saw this year, Summerfest was catering primarily to people much younger than me (WHO APPARENTLY AREN’T FAMILIAR WITH BRITTANY HOWARD AND NEED TO GET ON THAT), and somewhat older than me. That’s fine.

As for the amphitheater show, Al Pacino voice IF I WERE TWENTY. YEARS. YOUNGER. and not, y’know, WORKING, I would’ve had me a mighty fine time at a concert like this. Even working, it was a delightful sensory overload, and that Illenium fella is a good disc jockey as far as I can tell. Unbeknownst to me he did a cover last year of The Cranberries’ “Zombie” featuring Valerie Broussard on vocals so when that popped up and all of these kids around me were singing every word, that was a chilling experience in a good way. You should see what they can do with videos and lasers and drones and animation these days, holy crap. And it was over in time for me to catch the last few songs of Sleater-Kinney’s set, never a bad idea.

Friday was all about Mrs. Fun, and another shout-out to Summerfest organizers for staggering nearby sets so that you could ACTUALLY HEAR bands playing on the Johnsonville stage! Two fantastic sets including a cover of Violent Femmes’ “Blister In The Sun” as wild as Diet Lite’s “Add It Up” the weekend before but in a completely different way. Can you believe I used to hate the Violent Femmes? That was so dumb of me.

Otherwise, I really dislike Hippo Campus’s music but it started to pour right when they started playing and I’ll be damned if they didn’t put everything they had into that set. It was packed; I swear nobody left and it poured almost the whole time they played. And it was a similar situation nextdoor for Charles Wesley Godwin’s set, except I don’t dislike his music at all, and the crowd was a little sparse to start and kept growing and growing. It was the kind of set you could imagine an Allman Brothers cover slipping into perfectly, which it did. No long jams but major dynamic swings and all kinds of countryish inflections sprinkled throughout, and when he was almost done, the Tyler Childers show at the amphitheater got out and ALL those people showed up to sing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in the still-pouring rain. Both these sets were life-changing experiences for people, of that much I can assure you.

I doubt I can say the same for the Keith Urban show the following night, except for the two people in the front row who were getting engaged and got their request played, but that was so clearly staged I think the life-changing probably already happened. This guy sucks and he couldn’t even sell enough tickets to open the lawn. (The latter part was also true of Illenium FWIW.) Send his ass to the Uline Stage in place of Little River Band next time. And thanks to pointlessly LONG breaks between acts, this asshole didn’t get offstage until 11:45, robbing me of any chance at seeing The Church do “Under The Milky Way”. NEXT TIME.

I was thinking “Wizard Burial Ground” would be the heaviest shit I’d hear at Summerfest this year but I couldn’t help gravitating towards Deadlands on the final Thursday. Could this band be my gateway into metalcore? Like screamo, the genre probably evolved and blossomed during the years after I’d dismissed it. This was much more interesting and caustic and not-stupid than the other metalcore I’ve accidentally heard. Cool.

From then on it was hours of not thinking about the local acts I had to MISS—it was all too good. Ellie Jackson played the Aurora Pavilion with a full band and included some new unreleased stuff, including a song she released the next day called “China Lights” and a song that I can’t WAIT for her to record and release called “Skin” because when you hear these lyrics you might have a similarly powerful experience to what I had. Also a cover of Sheryl Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy” never hurts! I dashed over to catch like two minutes of Wave Chapelle’s set but when did REYNA get added to the lineup anyway?? (About four days prior to the show, it appears!) I was thinking they’d moved to California; whether or not they’ve officially returned, they’ve never been shy about their Milwaukee roots, and what a grab for Summerfest; I’m sure they benefitted somewhat from the roof over the dancefloor, but the place was packed before the rain even started to fall and REYNA delivered. They play polished pop music but the performance was loose and laid-back; sisters Vic and Gab Banuelos were conversational and lively and had the place jumpin’. I loved this tidbit from their facebook page:

“Summerfest has always been a magical time for us. Back in 2008…our dad took us on an epic trip from El Paso, Texas, just to see Rush. We roamed the grounds in awe of the up-and-coming bands and the legendary acts that shaped our dreams. Gab and I said to ourselves, “One day, we’re going to play here.” (I was at that Rush show, it ruled! Coolest dad ever!) I’m pretty sure this was the sisters’ eighth Summerfest performance now and not one anyone in attendance is likely to forget.

Then with a few minutes to spare I caught a few songs of LØLØ’s set. Here it was, finally, something random on a ground stage that was truly godawful. I’d walked by…SOMETHING the first weekend on the Miller stage that was so atrocious I couldn’t even bring myself to stick around for the sake of journalism, but there was no way whoever that was sounded like that for every song. That’s what I’m telling myself. LØLØ however was just bad cloying grunge worship with zero imagination. I just had to tell someone.

Then there was Mt. Joy, a band on the same spectrum of cheeky indie pop as Hippo Campus, only with more of a reputation as a Great Live Band. This is due to bands like The National and others allowing hipsters to enjoy The Grateful Dead and poke their noses into the jamband world and discover how EASY it is to blow hippies’ minds and go ‘hey, WE could do that’. And it’s true, anybody CAN do the bare-minimum jamband 101 tricks Mt. Joy did; SPOILER ALERT mostly it’s just getting quiet and then getting gradually louder, usually with a guitar or keyboard solo of some kind in there. This is the extent of what 95% of jambands do, and now the indie pop bands are starting to do it too apparently. Yay.

My night finished up with Mariah The Scientist, which I was looking forward to because I enjoyed her last album. And it was an enjoyable set and definitely brought people out but all she did was stroll around a little and sing the songs; the stage was empty otherwise and there was nothing remarkable about the video backdrop or lighting. She was cool as a cucumber with an American flag hanging out the back of her jean skirt, and the fans were very into the whole thing, so again, bravo Summerfest; I thought the 4th of July was going to be dead down there, and it was not by any means.

The 5th of July had all the makings of the worst possible day for me, but I made sure to get there early enough to take in a Vincent Van Great set. When he lands a Summerfest slot he always takes full advantage and this time was no different; Blizz McFly from the old SAFS Crew popped in for the occasion, and naturally, Amanda Huff came out for three songs, and let me tell you the Ninja Sauce band keeps getting better and better. Now I could steel myself for the Maroon 5 show.

Adam Levine has such a terrible reputation already that it would’ve taken a lot for me to be remotely let down by this experience; that’s one way to look at it. The best way, though, is this: prior to Summerfest, I met up with my old boss for a beer at Amorphic (the best brewery in the city/possibly the world), whom I hadn’t seen in years, and then at Summerfest I ran into another former coworker from the same job that I hadn’t seen in years! (Talking about a five-person company!) It was great to see those guys! And the show was almost exactly what I expected: essentially a Keith Urban show, only with the band even MORE deliberately marginalized.

On the plus side, Levine was done pretty early, so I hustled all the way to the other end of the grounds to see if I could catch The Wallflowers doing “One Headlight”. This band is worthy of more than a songbucketlist but unfortunately they act like their first album never happened, and that’s the one with most of Jakob Dylan’s best songs on it. Or I assume so, because I’ve never listened to any post-BRINGING DOWN THE HORSE Wallflowers.

However there’s another thing Summerfest usually provides that I’ll always be coming back for even if they fire me from the newspaper: Tom Petty songs. Lacking Petty himself, the world will always need opportunities to SING Tom Petty songs along with lots of other people. I’d missed The Dirty Knobs like a moron; they played four of ‘em I heard. I had my hopes up for NEEDTOBREATHE, who usually do “You Wreck Me” but apparently they’re clueless about Summerfest and so cut that from their set when they opened for Urban the other night. So I thought I was screwed this year, forced to bike home the following night feeling somewhat incomplete. But then The Wallflowers did “Refugee”.

I figured THAT would be the highlight of the night easily. But once they’d finished, you could still hear the bass and see the reflections of a crazy light show going on at the Aurora Pavilion. You could hear people from all directions pointing and going ‘what is THAT…?’ It was Non-Pop! and it was the party of the year as far as I could tell. This is what I’m saying, having a local DJ crew closing out this Friday night, BRAVO, and the turnout was incredible; you could barely move in there for a minute, and the music was fantastic and there were synchronized dancers onstage and giant beach balls and confetti and lasers and Grand Master O surfing the crowd keeping everyone riled up, it was just pure joy. Give this crew the type of technology that Illenium has and they’ll blow just as many minds. Yes I was the oldest person there by like 20 years. I wish Summerfest had shit like this happening when I was their age!

Day nine is when I finally have to say, come ON, Summerfest, you seriously dropped the ball on this one. Closing out your festival you’ve got…Amy Grant? BoDeans? Extreme? Cold War Kids, they’re still a band? The amphitheater show, sure, great, and from what I understand the Ivan Cornejo set was a big draw, but otherwise this was pathetic. Give people some actually great live acts to headline the last day for pete’s sake.

However I got to see Klan 414 for the first time and they were amazing. Curse my slacker ass for not learning Spanish yet but it didn’t matter, these guys are outstanding musicians and my colleague Jessica Rodriguez already did a much better job describing them than I could:

I also saw Cracker for the first time, and they were pretty great! They played mostly songs I knew, and that didn’t even include “Get Off This” and probably a handful of other songs I haven’t heard in years. Why? Because they had to get offstage to make way for Michael Glabicki’s Uprooted. Remember Rusted Root? Believe it or not, I did have a mildly transcendent experience at one of their Summerfest sets once upon a time. This Uprooted project, which I heard bits and pieces of whilst hemming and hawing and finally choosing and eating a meal, was easily the worst garbage I heard at the entire festival. I’m not sure what’s transpired in Glabicki’s life since ending Rusted Root and then forming Uprooted with former members of Rusted Root, but dude, barf.

I did however catch the end of Living Colour’s set thanks to Glabicki and it was fantastic. They are a band that’s so good I couldn’t care less if they ever release any more music because nobody else sounds like them at all and they’ve barely lost a step in any sense.

Then, killing time in anticipation of some hot Amy Grant action later, a sight to behold: a band fronted by a keytarist! This was B Flat & Friends and they had the Tiki Hut crowd going! Kinda funky, kinda proggy, kinda afrobeat-y, I think the guitarist went by “Drulon” and he had some skills. I only caught a little bit but I’ll definitely be on the lookout in the future. I thought I was going to catch a little of C+C Music Factory but they must’ve done a really short set, so I wandered back the other direction—when what did I find but ANOTHER keytar-fronted band! This was at the WAMI stage: Kat And The Hurricane, a band outta Madison I’ll also be hoping to catch again some time. (And technically, the keytarist only played it for a few songs and I don’t think the band has an official frontperson, so.)

Thanks to those two bands I suffered through the snoozefest that was Amy Grant and also Chase Rice, although plenty of us had a lovely full-circle moment when Rice busted out “Take Me Home, Country Roads”; did he know about the Godwin set or is that just incredibly common at country shows? And then on my way out, Extreme was still playing. Shut up, they were pretty great at the Pabst last year! ( As I walked up I believe Nuno Bettencourt was just wrapping up one of his trademark guitar-and-banter solos; he led the group into a cover of Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” which singer Gary Cherone—WHO USED TO BE IN VAN HALEN—proceeded to completely bungle and his bandmates were totally unable to cope. This is what happens when your set is so scripted night after night; you don’t bother listening to each other while you’re playing, it’s all measured out down to the minute other than the guitar solos.

So this was the pathetic conclusion of Summerfest; I didn’t stick around for the very end. This too was fine, especially for someone who has to be there almost every day; I was plenty ready to leave. I just think paying customers deserve better than the options they had Saturday night, among other things. It was a transitional year, of course; Summerfest just welcomed a new CEO who probably has lots of big plans, and with the whole prospect of touring dicey ever since the pandemic, it can’t be easy putting this thing together. I’m looking back now at what seemed like a very successful year. Even though all the food still sucks.

Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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